Ex-Erik ten Hag assistant Aron Winter on Man Utd challenge, laughs with Paul Gascoigne and duels with Roy Keane

Ex-Erik ten Hag assistant Aron Winter on Man Utd challenge, laughs with Paul Gascoigne and duels with Roy Keane

ARON WINTER is attempting to pull off a footballing miracle by leading lowly CONCACAF nation Suriname to their first World Cup in 2026.

And yet the Dutch legend’s lofty ambitions are seemingly more achievable than his old pal Erik ten Hag turning around the sinking old ship that is Manchester United.

Aron Winter (right) was assistant to Erik ten Hag at Ajax

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Aron Winter (right) was assistant to Erik ten Hag at AjaxCredit: Alamy

Ten Hag has fallen on hard times in the United hotseat this season

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Ten Hag has fallen on hard times in the United hotseat this seasonCredit: PA

However, Winter – assistant to Ten Hag at Ajax from January 2018 to May 2019 – knows more than most just how tunnel-visioned United’s manager can be in the face of intense scrutiny and hatred.

Winter explained: “When he gets criticism, he doesn’t like it, but he knows what he is doing. If you listen to everything it makes you crazy. He has that quality to close his ears and work.

“He is a very good coach, but also very strict and very structured. He is always thinking how to win, how to damage an opponent.

“He showed that last year. He won a trophy. His problems now are injuries and a start to the season that was not so good.”

Ten Hag spent just over five years as head coach at Ajax from 2018 to 2022, winning three Eredivisie titles and two Dutch cups in that time.

Winter continued: “When Erik arrived at Ajax, he found the first six months very difficult. The fans were not happy with him, but we had a very strong board who helped and supported him a lot.

“I was already working at Ajax and he asked me to join his coaching staff. I used to be at the club as a player and it is very good to have the DNA from the club in your staff.

“At United, Erik should have those voices around him too. He has Steve McLaren as an assistant and Sir Alex Ferguson watching on, but maybe that is not enough.”

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One of Winter’s last games with Ten Hag on the touchline was THAT Champions League semi-final against Tottenham, seconds away from the final before Lucas Moura’s historic hat-trick-clinching late winner.

It was perhaps one of the few times Winter questioned Ten Hag’s judgement: “Winning 2-0 and losing 3-2? We should have been playing Liverpool in the final and won it.

“Why didn’t we bring the substitutes on quicker? It is a question you will always have.”

Winter’s grimace while reminiscing says it all, suggesting it was an “impossible” result through a forced grin.

A painful memory in what has been an otherwise remarkable career.

Born in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America, Winter moved to Holland as a child before breaking into Johan Cruyff’s famed Ajax side of mid-80s.

Winter recalled: “I loved [Cruyff] so much. I was very young but he was very hard on me. His football was so fresh, a bit like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City. Always dominating.”

Winter (bottom row, second right) was part of Holland's Golden Generation

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Winter (bottom row, second right) was part of Holland’s Golden GenerationCredit: EPA

Six years at Ajax ended with a switch to Lazio in the summer of 1992, alongside a certain Paul Gascoigne. In Gazza fashion, he would anger and bemuse his Italian teammates by putting Mr Bean on the team bus monitors on the way to matches.

But Winter laughed: “I had such a beautiful time with him. The Dutch and English have the same humour, and I haven’t seen many better English players than he was.

“He had other problems, and you can see now they have come out, but he doesn’t deserve it.”

The glamour was ramped up in 1996 with a move to Inter Milan. By the start of the 1997/98 campaign, the dressing room included Javier Zanetti, Paul Ince, Diego Simeone and Ronaldo.

Winter gushed: “I played with Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp, but for me, Ronaldo was one of the very best. He was so difficult to play against. One chance, one goal.

“But I also liked his character. Away from the pitch he was always taking care of his teammates. If something needed to be sorted, he would do it.”

Arguably one of Winter’s biggest challenges at Inter was taking on United’s Treble-chasers in the 1999 Champions League quarter finals.

He described the contest – one they would lose 3-1 on aggregate – as “beautiful”, but his midfield battle with Roy Keane less so.

Winter said: “At that time, the duels were really physical. With VAR now, it is impossible. There were players making a tackle not to get the ball but to hurt a player. I don’t like that.”

Across a 13-year spell representing Holland, Winter made 84 caps, but ultimately admits his country’s own Golden Generation of Van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard should have won more than just the 1988 Euros.

Holland have lost on penalties at SIX major tournaments since, four of them in semi-finals.

Winter added: “Our biggest problem in Holland is we play to win but always in a nice way. We are not killers, scoring goals with one opportunity. I hope it changes. We need a different mentality if we want to win.”

After spells coaching with Toronto FC, Ajax, Holland’s U19s and the Greek national team, focus turns to Suriname, Winter’s birthplace. A nation he desperately wants to give back to.

Winter now wants to lead Suriname to their first World Cup in 2026

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Winter now wants to lead Suriname to their first World Cup in 2026Credit: Alamy

With hosts United States, Canada and Mexico not needing to qualify, and an extra 16 teams at an all-new World Cup in 2026, CONCACAF nations like Suriname – despite not yet forming a professional league – have a unique chance.

Winter is also in the process of finding Dutch gems with Suriname heritage to switch allegiances, but even then, the task is a mammoth one.

He said: “It is a beautiful process. If we can bring in the players we have analysed, it is possible. We believe we can achieve it.

“Holland is my mother country but Suriname, where I was born, is my father country. Other federations have lots of money. We don’t, but we have to deal with it.

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“Maybe in the future I will not be the guy who finishes the project but at least I would have built something.

“Who knows what will happen in the meantime? To coach a club in the Premier League is on my bucket list…”

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