Home » ‘Erik was like a little brother’: The tragic story of Ten Hag’s close friend, Andy Scharmin

‘Erik was like a little brother’: The tragic story of Ten Hag’s close friend, Andy Scharmin

Erik ten Hag was at home when a team-mate knocked on the door.

It was June 1989. Ten Hag was 19 and on the verge of breaking into FC Twente’s first team. He had formed a close bond with his team-mates, one of whom was a defender called Andy Scharmin.

He was two years older than Ten Hag and had already played for the senior team by this point. They met while playing in the youth teams, and were both from the small town of Haaksbergen, a few miles outside Enschede, FC Twente’s home.

Scharmin was a hugely promising player. He had not only already played for the FC Twente first team, but had captained Netherlands Under-21s, playing alongside Ed de Goey, Richard Witschge, Artur Numan and Frank de Boer.

Scharmin (background) in action (picture courtesy of FC Twente)

He was born in Germany, to a German father and Surinamese mother, but moved to the Netherlands as a very young boy, which is where he met and became close friends with the man who is now Manchester United manager.

“Andy Scharmin was an unimaginable athlete and my friend,” said Ten Hag, a few years ago. “I will never forget my team-mate Edwin Hilgerink standing on my doorstep to tell me that a plane had crashed with Andy and his mother on board.”

“Andy was a cheerful, sometimes slightly shy guy. He was always up for a joke. He didn’t always have the dream to be a professional footballer. When he was little he wanted to be a fireman, a doctor, a pilot, like every boy. It just happened he was good at football.”

Patrick Scharmin talks about his older brother with a sad fondness, exactly what you would expect of a man remembering a loved one gone long ago.

He tells of the time when Andy was playing for the Dutch under-21s against Germany in Augsburg and, pretending to be a steward, he stopped a local dignitary from entering the stadium because he couldn’t produce a ticket. The dignitary was Franz Beckenbauer. “That was typical Andy,” says Patrick.

Patrick and Andy’s mother, Renette, was from Suriname, and their father, Helmut, was German. They met in the Netherlands, but moved to Dortmund, where Helmut’s family was from. That was where Andy was born in 1968, but Renette never liked it and they moved back to the Netherlands. Helmut got a job in Enschede, and they settled in nearby Haaksbergen, not too far from the German border. Patrick was born there a couple of years later.

The two boys grew up playing whatever sports they could. Football, but also tennis, swimming, sailing, windsurfing. “Anything that was even slightly sporty, we would do it together,” says Patrick.

Andy was also one of those incredibly irritating people who was good at all of those sports. “If a ball was involved, he was good at it,” says Patrick, with a smile. “I wasn’t bad, but he was always better than me. It was very frustrating. But sometimes he let me win.”

Patrick was a talented player too, on the books of Heracles and Twente. “I was a right-winger, so it was our dream to play together — him on the left, me on the right. But unfortunately it never happened.”

Renette made their house welcoming for all. “I always said she was not only my mother, but the mother of all the boys in the neighbourhood. At our house, people were always coming or going. People would come to my mother for food, for advice.

“We didn’t have a lot of money, but she never gave us the feeling that something could not be done. She always encouraged us to do things, rather than forcing us to do things.”

The Kleurrijk Elftal — the “Colourful Eleven”, as they were called back then — were a team of Dutch-Surinamese players formed in the mid-1980s, the initiative of an Amsterdam social worker called Sonny Hasnoe.

Hasnoe brought together a fairly disparate group of players whose Surinamese heritage was the thing that bound them. Some had been born in Suriname, which had been controlled by the Dutch from the 17th century right up until 1975. Others were second-generation immigrants, their parents having moved over from the small nation at the north tip of South America.

The Surinamese diaspora has had a heavy influence on Dutch football since the 1980s. Ruud Gullit’s father was Surinamese. So was Frank Rijkaard’s. Aron Winter was born in Paramaribo, the country’s capital. It continues to this day: players like Virgil van Dijk and Denzel Dumfries have Surinamese roots.

Hasnoe saw this team as a way of recognising the contribution that Suriname had made to Dutch society, and also to bring the diaspora together. Exhibition games were staged in the Netherlands, which were actually more mini-festivals with music and food, but by 1989 he wanted to do something bigger, and that was to take the team ‘home’.

Ten Hag in the Twente squad in 1992, three years after the tragedy (Photo: VI Images via Getty Images)

A mini-tournament was set up in Paramaribo, with the hope that some really big names could be attracted. After all, the Dutch team that had won the European Championships in 1988 featured Gullit, Rijkaard, Winter and Gerald Vanenburg.

The problem was that all those players were at some pretty big clubs (AC Milan and Ajax) who weren’t thrilled with the idea of them travelling halfway around the world for what was essentially viewed as a charity game. So they, as well as the Ajax trio Bryan Roy, Henny Meijer and Stanley Menzo, were banned from playing. Meijer and Menzo went anyway, travelling “on holiday” a few days before the rest were scheduled to fly.

One of the players who did travel was Scharmin. A defender who was primarily a left-back but could also play in the middle, he was one of the most promising young players in the country at that time.

“Oh, he was definitely going to be a big player,” says Sigi Lens, one of Scharmin’s team-mates in the Kleurrijk Elftal. “Teams in Germany, the top teams in Holland wanted him. He had a lot of pace, very strong, good defending, good with headers. The total package, as a defender.”

“He was very fast,” says Patrick. “He was two-footed. You had to outplay him twice to get past him. He never gave up.”

Scharmin had two options that summer: he could have gone to the Toulon tournament to represent the Netherlands, as he had already done at youth level a few times, or he could go to Suriname with the Kleurrijk Elftal.

He opted for the latter. “He just did it for my mum,” says Patrick. “My mother had not been back since she left Suriname, so it seemed like a great opportunity to go there. My aunt, Ilse, went too — they had come to the Netherlands together.”

“My brother and Erik ten Hag grew up together at Twente,” says Patrick. “Erik is younger than Andy. He is my age. So Andy took care of Erik like a little brother.”

The two would travel from Haaksbergen to training and games, sometimes on the bus, sometimes one of them would drive, sometimes they would cycle. He lived on the other side of town to the Scharmins, but soon he became part of the family.

“Erik came to our house regularly. He became friends with the rest of the family. We also played together for a few years, so we became friends.

“They were very close. I believe he was one of the guys who carried Andy’s coffin to the grave.”

Ten Hag left FC Twente for the first time in 1990, but would have two more spells there in his relatively modest playing career, before embarking on his more-than-modest coaching career very soon after he hung up his boots.

He started as a coach at Twente, eventually becoming their assistant manager, before leaving to be Go Ahead Eagles head coach, winning promotion to the Eredivisie in his only season there. Then he went to coach Bayern Munich reserves, returned to the Netherlands with FC Utrecht, then won the Eredivisie three times in four seasons with Ajax.



The education of Erik ten Hag

“We occasionally speak,” says Patrick. “The last time I saw him was a few years ago, when he was manager in Utrecht. I had to go to Utrecht so I thought I would go and see him. He was taking training, he saw me and ran up to me. It was great to catch up with him.

“He’s a good guy. He keeps good people around him. He has a good heart.”

The day of the Kleurrijk Elftal’s flight from Amsterdam Schipol to Paramaribo Zanderij airport began in the most banal of fashions.

“There was a delay,” says Lens. “First it was two hours, then four hours, then we went in the middle of the night. We flew around midnight. It was a long day, everyone was tired, but everyone was happy because they were going back to Suriname.”

When the passengers did board, there were already signs that something was amiss. The plane, a Suriname Airways Douglas DC-8, was old and visibly in poor shape, cosmetically at least. Things in the cabin were held together with tape, upholstery was shabby.

Lens wasn’t happy. “I didn’t have a good feeling about the flight, so I told some of the players, ‘Let’s go back.’” He was known to be a bit of a worrier, so his team-mates took no heed. “In the end, I said, ‘OK, it’s just my feeling.’ And we got on the plane.”

The mood on the flight was upbeat. Many of those aboard slept, others spoke of their excitement about going back to Suriname. A band called the Draver Boys played music. “This was the first time I’d been back to Suriname since leaving,” Edu Nandlal, a midfielder from Utrecht, told the Guardian in 2017. “All my friends were saying they were going to sleep, but I wanted to stay awake to see the landing.”

But as the plane approached Zanderij airport, there were more signs something was wrong. The pilot, an American called Will Rogers (who it later emerged was six years older than the upper age limit the airline usually allowed) came out of the cockpit to look through the side windows.

There was fog, which reduced visibility to around 900 metres. There was a disagreement between the cockpit and airport control tower over the use of a landing system which should have theoretically guided them to the runway.

The plane descended, flying over a forest just outside Paramaribo. But they were coming in too low. So low, in fact, that the plane hit the top of a tree. They tried to pull up, but then it hit another tree. The plane flipped over and crashed, upside down, in the forest.

There were 187 people on board — nine crew, 178 passengers, 18 of which were the Kleurrijk Elftal party. Only 11 people survived, three from the team — Lens, Nandlal and Radjin de Haan, a striker for FC Telstar who, at 18, was the youngest player in the team.

Renette and Ilse were among the dead. So was Andy. He was 21.

Nandlal and Lens never played football again. De Haan did for a while, but he retired early and became a coach. But the physical injuries were only part of the damage.

“My right hip was broken, that was the main thing,” says Lens, before discussing the psychological damage. “A lot of people advised me, ‘Talk to a shrink, talk to this person, talk about the experience.’ I didn’t do that. I could talk to someone, but that person wouldn’t have been on the plane. I had to put it together, piece by piece, to understand what happened.

“It has nothing to do with being lucky, or unlucky. Luck is when you go to a casino and put your money on red or black. But in this situation… it was not my time. I’m not finished here.”

Nandlal was a scout for a while, but later set up a cleaning company that employed people who might otherwise struggle to find work: immigrants, people with mental illnesses, people who had been to prison. Lens, the uncle of former PSV and Sunderland winger Jeremain, became an agent with an impressive roster of Dutch talent.

“I remember not only the players,” Lens says, “but all the people on the plane. Everybody talks about the players, but there were many others. We have to remember them also. There were mothers, aunts, uncles, fathers, nieces, nephews, grandfathers, grandmothers. All of those people were on the plane.”

Ten Hag became assistant coach to Steve McClaren at Twente (Photo: Martin Rickett – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

The disaster was one of the things that contributed to Dennis Bergkamp’s fear of flying, as Lloyd Doesburg, one of his Ajax team-mates at the time, was among the dead.

It wasn’t the only tragedy that marked Ten Hag’s life, either. Another team-mate and friend at Twente, Gino Weber, who Ten Hag called an “unparalleled” player tipped for the top, died in 2003 aged just 33 after suffering from borderline personality disorder, depression and issues with addiction.

He had drifted away from Ten Hag, and much of his family, by the time he was found dead from an overdose of alcohol and prescription drugs. His death is sometimes referred to as a suicide, but his family believe the overdose was accidental.

The two tragedies have contributed to a sense of perspective for Ten Hag. “I certainly think about how things can go in life,” said Ten Hag a few years ago.

“The solidarity of that generation of FC Twente professionals is there to this day. Close friendships have arisen and we still meet regularly.

“At his funeral, I carried Andy’s coffin with other team-mates. It happened on June 7, 1989 — and every year on that date I have a day of mourning.”

“It feels like yesterday,” says Patrick with a sigh, painfully casting his mind back 34 years. “I came home from school, and I could hear the phone ringing from outside. I had to get my things off my bike, open the door, and the phone kept on ringing, which was unusual. At the time there was no voicemail or mobile phones. Obviously, someone had to speak with me.

(Picture courtesy of FC Twente)

“On the other end of the line was my cousin. She told me that the plane with Andy and my mother had an emergency landing. She said there had been a number of injuries, and perhaps deaths. That was what we heard. She told me to look at Teletext. It said there had been an emergency landing, but there was no more information.

“Over the course of the day, the news started to come through. Of course, we knew it was not good.

“It took a few more days before it was finally clear that they hadn’t survived the crash. It was a very hard time. You hear so many stories. In the beginning, they told us Andy had survived, then that he had died on the way to the hospital. They said the same about my mother. But eventually, we found out none of that was true. It was difficult to get correct information about what happened.”

It was two weeks before Andy, Renette and Ilse were identified, by a combination of a relative in Suriname who hadn’t seen them for some time, and dental records. All of which led to some confusion: Andy was apparently identified in part by a gold tooth, the problem being that he didn’t have a gold tooth.

For a while, Patrick wondered whether the people in the grave in Haaksbergen were actually his family but, a few years ago, some DNA tests were done on the remains of some unidentified victims. None of them were Andy, Renette or Ilse. Patrick is now satisfied that the right bodies were returned to the Netherlands.

“When I think about them,” he says, “it’s about the wonderful years we spent together, and how they cared for me. Andy was always a big brother, and protected me wherever I could. We still talk about them almost every day, even with my family who unfortunately never knew them. My daughter looks a lot like Andy. That’s also a nice feeling. I smile when I think of them.”

(Top image — design: John Bradford, Photos: Getty Images, FC Twente, Patrick Scharmin)