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03rd Apr 2018

Nigel De Jong: The mechanics of the lawnmower

Melissa Reddy

As you arrive at the street, which was named after Martin Luther King three weeks after his assassination in 1968, then pass through a small parking lot and move beyond portacabins that serve as offices for the press department and digital media team at the scanty Bruchwegstadion, the question lingers.

How did an Eredivisie, FA Cup and Premier League champion, who has captained AC Milan, possesses a silver and a bronze World Cup medal with Netherlands and is a moneyed entrepreneur in the business of selling luxury cars, navigate his way to Mainz? Just what is Nigel de Jong doing here?

The query, as it transpires, is not a rare one. When the club, operating on one of the smallest budgets in the Bundesliga, recruited the defensive midfielder as a free agent in January, an academy graduate sought out manager Sandro Schwarz to check on the etiquette required to converse with the new signing.

Surely, there had to be special treatment or separate rules, the youngster figured, as he searched for the strings attached to the deal.
He was laughed out of the coaching room, and having spent three months working with De Jong – described by several of the backroom team as “a strong example” – he quickly realised the ridiculousness of his assumption.

On a quiet, windy morning in the quaint city located on the west bank of the Rhine river, the 33-year-old stands out during training due to his application and authority, not through nepotism.

The queue of supporters waiting on an autograph and a selfie is the longest for him, too, and he meets every request despite being on a tight schedule before the afternoon session is underway.

“When the others see how he behaves – giving 100% in training, not complaining about interviews, embracing the fans – they understand they should be doing that as well,” a club official points out.

“We are in a difficult place and we need character and strength to come through it. We need more players to be like him.”

It all makes sense. Mainz, third from bottom in the Bundesliga and desperate to lift themselves away from the threat of relegation, is the ideal club for De Jong right now – his impact is not solely measured in minutes.

“When you’re a professional player, it’s not about where you live and how big the club is, it should be about what happens on the pitch and being where you are valued and can contribute,” he explains to JOE from a sky box at the impressive Opel Arena, an eight-minute drive from the training base.

“Mainz were interested in me as a person, my character and what I could bring as a football player. It’s something I thought to myself: ‘okay, you’re financially independent, you don’t have to go and search for the big money anymore’.

“For me, it’s just the joy of football that helped me make this decision. It’s my first love. This is what I knew from when I was a small kid, from the time I could walk. Even when I retire, that love for the game won’t change.

“When I’m 60, it will still be there. It is part of who I am. I think the love of football remains inside every player, especially if you’ve played at a high level for a long time.”

Mainz are the seventh side the Dutchman has represented in a sixth different country following spells at Ajax, Hamburg, Manchester City, Milan, LA Galaxy and Galatasaray.

He has shared dressing rooms with the magnetic likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Steven Gerrard, but at the Carnival Club, De Jong is the reference point.

“The young guys give me a lot of respect, and I give them a lot of respect,” he says. “You can’t just always demand it if you don’t give it – no matter what age you are.

“There is such a long road for these guys to still go through. I mean most of them are around 20-21 and to stay at the top for the next 15 years is going to be very difficult and will require many sacrifices, especially with the way football is developing in terms of financially and social media-wise.

“Everyone is looking for that one big hit – too many are thinking about the next three to four years. If you want to be a top player, you have to think about the long run, you have to be prepared to go all out.

“It’s not just about going to training, playing games and doing the minimum – that won’t take you anywhere.

“We’ve got a very big youth focus here and I try to share that message as much as possible. I’m not overly fatherly though, saying ‘you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that’ because I know how much I hated it when people would do that when I was coming through.

“I know every player has their own personality, a way that they like to be approached, and I engage with my team-mates in that way.

“We have to stay optimistic especially given the current situation the team are in, and we all have to give the best of ourselves to help Mainz stay in the Bundesliga. There is still a goal to work towards – ok, it’s not fighting for a trophy – but there is still the objective to avoid relegation and you have to put everything into achieving that.”

The label of ‘leader’ is of no surprise given De Jong’s challenging childhood in Amsterdam-West’s Neighbourhood 9.

The Dutch-Surinamese kid had to grow up swiftly as his footballer father, Jerry – whose most successful stint came at PSV Eindhoven and who won three caps for Holland – was an absent parent, while his mother Marja suffered with a kidney disease that required dialysis at home and regular hospital visits.

As the eldest of five children, De Jong “felt responsibility for the family” and juggled his football commitments at Ajax’s academy with his education and role of chief carer in the household.

He realised he could not bank solely on football to secure the future of his relatives, pouring as much as he did on the pitch into his studies, plotting the creation of Continental Cars – now a successful enterprise based in Hamburg.

“I already had that mindset from a young age to be honest,” De Jong, an ambassador for the Dutch Kidney Foundation together with his mum, notes.

“I have a degree in Economics. My mother always said ‘football is only part of your life, you have to develop yourself beyond that’ and I felt it was vital for me to do something for myself that wasn’t related to it. Besides being a professional player, I had the dream of owning a company and when I had the money and the expertise, I made it happen.

“My grandfather was one of the CEOs of Ford in Holland and I saw closely how he developed himself as a businessman. He was always on time, making sure payments were never late, paying attention to service and giving customers extra, always making sure the company and his family was stable.

“I looked up to him, and off the pitch, I wanted to be like him. I also think his professionalism is something I carried with me as a footballer too.

“God gave me the talent and the strength to become a football player, which gave me the financial resources and empowerment to improve in other areas. I think it’s so important for football players to be smart with what they do with their salaries, because it can become an investment or be gone before you know it.

“It is very tempting in our industry to live for now – to buy the expensive cars and live a flashy lifestyle – but you have to plan so you’re able to do that in future too.

“This is an education players should get from a very early age to help them deal with the money they’ll make.

“I like to see footballers develop themselves instead of only being a player. Let’s use the case of Cristiano Ronaldo – he has been one of the greatest players of the last decade and as a whole, but still is very aware of his brand and the ways he could secure his future when his career is over.

“He has established himself away from the game, and yes, he is in the very top bracket, but if you put in the work required to be a top player, you can also progress and give yourself the opportunity to invest in your future.

“As a footballer, if you’re lucky, you get 10-plus years in your career but you have to consider the rest of your life and that of your family as well – you have to make sure that is taken care of if you have the means to do so.”

De Jong understands that social media is a vehicle for footballers to present themselves independently from their profession, but he is grateful there was no need to choose a filter and caption for every aspect of his development.

“I’m relieved that when I came through, it wasn’t a thing, because it is a big distraction,” the destroyer admits. “For me, the main focus was always football and school and studying everything about what it takes to be a professional player.

“It was all about absorbing – and especially when you’re young – it’s so important that you absorb things: advice from older players, experiences, lessons, going for dinners with your friends and family, enjoying your time with people… Now, there’s no absorbing of life actions anymore because the first thing you see guys doing is reaching for their phone.

“The thought is ‘what do I have to post now?’ That focuses on the individual rather than being in tune with everything around you. How you present yourself on Instagram becomes more important sometimes rather than how you do it on the pitch and that’s dangerous.

“Of course, I understand that social media can be a form of income, a way to interact and to show your personality away from the game. I use social media as well – especially when it comes to my businesses – but you just have to be aware that it shouldn’t be the biggest thing.

“There’s a time and a place for it and you have to balance it out against the main priorities.”

De Jong is intelligent, grounded and disciplined. He is revered by most of his former managers and team-mates with Louis van Gaal, Mark Hughes, Robin van Persie, Vincent Kompany and such extolling him as a “winner and fighter.”

He is also, given the chest-kick on Xabi Alonso, the late challenge on Stuart Holden which resulted in a fractured leg for the American, the challenge that saw Hatem Ben Arfa suffer cracking in his left tibia and fibula, as well as a few more negligent collisions in the MLS, “the most violent footballer in the world” according to L’ Équipe.

For a majority, the mention of De Jong’s name only jolts imagery of the above, especially in the case of his studs piercing Alonso during the 2010 World Cup final.

He admitted he should have walked for that infringement, which Roberto Mancini and Bruce Arena both stated has clouded the way any incident involving the midfielder has been judged.

Does it bother De Jong, often the lone screen for the defence who started off as a striker or playmaker, that his reputation precedes him?

Or that 16 years of his career gets distilled down to these unpleasant moments? That a mistimed tackle is remembered with more clarity than his involvement in Sergio Aguero’s historic hit against QPR to gift City their first league title since 1968?

“I don’t really mind, to be honest. I’ve always said that I’ve got to stick to my personality, my game, be who I am, and who the team needs me to be,” he offers.

“What was annoying for me was that my family had to go against the critics because they felt hurt by some of the things that were said. So they got roped in and I would always tell them to chill, not to say anything and not to worry. I am who I am, I have a small circle, and they know who I am. That’s enough for me.

“I know that I’ve never had the intention to seriously injure an opponent, it’s not nice to see a player leaving the field hurt. In football, it all comes down to moments: people will focus on one or two incidents instead of taking into consideration your whole career.

“They will always judge you by that moment, and anything that happens after, they link back to that – it’s not viewed with clean eyes. People don’t have the patience or maybe they just don’t want to understand beyond the version of you that’s been presented.

“They don’t realise that I’m human too and just like everyone else, everything about me is not just in four or five moments – I’m 33 years old!

“How many coaches do we have in the world these days? More than 250 million – I mean, everyone knows better than the actual managers and players about what they’re supposed to be doing. In this kind of scenario, you always have to stay true to yourself.”

Those who pledge allegiance to City have a greater appreciation of the man that helped cement the platform for their crowning moment in 2012.

De Jong could have extended his stay at Hamburg to become their highest earner in 2009, but opted to buy into a hugely ambitious vision from the Manchester club, sealing a £18 million switch in January of that year.

The move allowed City to shift Kompany into defence, and granted Yaya Toure the freedom to support a stellar attacking cast. De Jong was core to the 2011 FA Cup triumph and crucial during the title run-in the following season as Mancini regularly opted for three strikers and he had to provide the balance.

He was the protector. In fact, when the clock struck 93:20 against Queen Park Rangers and Aguero changed the course of history – a piece of play started by de Jong carrying the ball upfield then supplying the Argentine, who passed to Mario Balotelli and continued his run to shoot and spark bedlam – forwards Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko were also on the pitch.

Having made 137 appearances for City, Rasenmaher – the Lawnmower – is not surprised by what a juggernaut they are under the guidance of Pep Guardiola.

“When I look at Manchester City now, what I see is the vision the club have been striving towards in work,” he reveals.

“The message was always to be most dominant club in the Premier League and the world. They knew it would take time, investment and getting big decisions right, but it was always the ambition.

“City have obvious spending power, they have an excellent manager in Pep, who has brought a version of his Barcelona blueprint with him and they are fantastic to watch.

“You get enjoyment from seeing how brave they are on the ball and how hard the team works even with all that talent in it.

“I’m not surprised that they are as strong as they have been this season in the league and in Europe because this is always what the club would talk about, this was always the direction they planned to go in.

“They’ve got a massive place in my heart. I’ll always stay a Blue, the four years I spent there means so much to me, it was an amazing time in my career with many trophies and moments we can look back proudly on. When I go back to Manchester, I still feel the love from fans and that lives with you as a player.”

City are a colossal 16 points clear at the Premier League summit and can clinch the title against United at the Etihad this Saturday.

Before and after that encounter, their ultimate objective of European glory can be curtailed by Liverpool in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

“I can’t wait for kick off,” De Jong says with animation ahead of Wednesday’s fixture on Merseyside, with the reverse meeting next Tuesday.

“Both teams are so offensive and aggressive, but I hope City will have the edge over the two legs. It’s going to be such a tough, but exciting contest. It’s going to be hell for City when Liverpool are at home in the first leg because Anfield has this special electric feeling.

“I would say no other ground in Europe has the kind of atmosphere their fans can create so Liverpool and their supporters will go hard in the opening game.

“But I think City have the confidence in the way they’ve been playing this season and in their experience of winning trophies in recent years to get through this tie.”

One Liverpool player in particular commands his attention, and it isn’t a member of their pulverising front free.

On his countryman, Virgil van Dijk, De Jong states: “He’s an absolute rock. He’s very calm – that’s in his personality and also how he goes about his game. He is very intelligent, he reads situations well, is good on the ball and so strong in the air.

“He’s serious about being a professional and he is one of the players that went under the radar for a long time. Van Dijk was never considered the biggest talent as he was coming up, but he forced himself to where he is now – to being the world’s most expensive defender – through his perseverance and work ethic.

“It’s not about just talent because a lot of players have that but it takes them nowhere. You have to take it and mix it with effort and sacrifices and I really appreciate that about him – he has wanted to become the best in his position and has worked hard towards it.

“I hope that he will be Netherlands captain for a long time and go on to be a legend at Liverpool, because he is the kind of player that deserves this type of success.”

On the subject of the future of Holland, De Jong has been enthused by their recent managerial change. “With the appointment of Ronald Koeman, who is so experienced, knows Dutch football inside out and can play an offensive style with balance, I think the national team is in good hands again,” he says.

“It is a pity and heartbreaking for Dutch football that we’ve missed out on two big tournaments in a row. The goal has to now be to create something bright and new that we can be proud of. Every big country goes through the process of breaking and building again – Germany, Spain, France – they always had a period when things hit bottom and then they came out stronger after it.

“The same with Netherlands as well. We were the last generation, the ’83-84 group that were so successful around tournaments and the amount of talent that we had has slowly got less, so we have to think about promoting the future stars and getting everyone to connect again under a clear identity.

“The players coming up right now, they need to understand what a great honour it is to represent your country and they have to make sure they leave everything on the pitch whenever the pull on the shirt. It’s hard for a new generation to pick up from what people call the ‘golden generation.’

“We had big personalities, we could put players in their place and bring them back down to earth. We weren’t short of character, but it also took time for us to all click, understand each other, and for things to come together.

We have a good coach, we have to start from scratch, we have to accept that we’re not one of the best nations in the world right now – and this is important, we have to be honest with ourselves before we can move forward and go again.”

Feeling “fit and fresh,” retirement has not yet crossed De Jong’s mind, but he will not be short of options once he calls time on his playing career.

“I don’t think I can really get out of the game,” he says. “I’ve had so many requests already to do TV work and all sorts of things. I just need some time to reflect after I retire and figure out what is the best next step.

“My initial intention was never to stay in football once I signed off as a player because I’ve got so many business ideas and I want to continue growing as a person. But I realised never say never.

“Football is in my blood, it’s like a drug, it’s been such a massive part of my life since I was a kid. I regularly speak to the previous generation – Jaap Stam, Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, the De Boer brothers – they used to say ‘nah, we don’t see it happening, we don’t think we’ll stay in the game’ and they still get sucked back in.

“It’s so hard to say goodbye to the game, so I’m not discounting being involved once I hang up by boots. If there’s a good opportunity, I’d like to consider it.

“I really enjoy working with youngsters – to develop them as people as much as players – and I’ve opened six football schools with my agent in Spain so that’s something I’m passionate about.

“To be a coach, that’s something else, that’s too nerve-racking! I’ve seen a lot of players become coaches and they age so much in a year or two – the grey hairs get them quick!”

The staff at Mainz believe De Jong should consider management, given his natural inclination to offer tactical advice to his team-mates.
Danny Latza, competing with him for the No.6 spot at the club, has been a notable beneficiary. When there are breaks in play, the former Holland international can be seen helping him with positioning and bettering his orientation.

“Maybe I have the mindset to help and advise and offer tactical insight, but coaching is a completely different world from being a player,” De Jong insists.

“I notice that now since I’m at an age where I’m so much more aware of everything else that’s happening around me, instead of just my own game.

“It’s a hard job that often is not appreciated in the way it should be. We think that as players we have it tough – no way! We can switch off but a manager is at it 24/7.

“He will prepare for a game, when that is done, his mind has to immediately switch to the next one. He has to think of every single individual in the squad, about the injuries, the opposition, the formation, the strengths, the weaknesses… It doesn’t stop and you can plan everything right, but things can still go wrong.

“I had a conversation with Steven Gerrard about that. He was doing his badges when he was in LA and I was always teasing him saying, ‘why are you bothering with coaching, Stevie?’

“He would tell me, ‘I’m just drawn to it, I’m driven by it.’ He would say he’d rather do his badges while he’s playing and have it rather than going through the whole process after he retires and it was a very intelligent move from him.

“I saw he has said his perspective on the game has completely changed now that he is a manager and he’s right, you appreciate the other side of football as a coach because you don’t see it as a player.

“When you’re playing, the main focus is on your game and what your role is in that particular match, not the full picture.”

Whatever comes next, De Jong will go at it full tilt. He knows no other way beyond staying true to himself.