Nigel De Jong said goodbye to Manchester on the final day of the summer transfer window, much to the regret of many City fans. De Jong was a firm favourite during his three-and-a-half year stint at the club and he will always be respected by the City supporters for the total commitment he showed in a blue shirt.
The disappointment over his sale was palpable but his new adventure at AC Milan has begun. Here, we look back over his life and assess his impact on the footballing world.
De Jong was raised in Amsterdam-West, an area of Holland home to many immigrant families, particularly those like the De Jong family who are of Surinamese descent. Nigel’s father, Jerry, was a player at PSV Eindhoven, representing Holland on three occasions, however, he had little involvement in the De Jong household where young Nigel was considered the man of the house. With his father absent from home, and his mother suffering from a kidney complaint that frequently saw her in hospital, he assumed responsibility for his four other siblings, an experience he feels made him the man he is today.
“I had to grow up quickly. My childhood wasn’t easy. We didn’t have a lot and we had to fight for everything we got. There was no time to play around and not a lot of spare cash. When you grow up in that kind of area you can go one of two ways, and one is on the streets. I don’t want to make it too dramatic but there were other kids from my neighbourhood who got into a bad way of life. I’ve seen friends die from being on the streets.”
De Jong started his career as a forward; a number 10 seeking to influence the game high up the pitch. In 2003, he went to Highbury as an 18 year old with Ajax in a Champions League match, scoring his first senior goal with a brilliant lob into the top corner. The difference between the young player at Ajax and the De Jong operating in today’s game is staggering. It was a move masterminded by Huub Stevens, his coach at Hamburg, who, after signing De Jong in January 2006 for a fee of less than £1 million, moved him to the role we now associate him with.
“I was always a striker, or a No10. Even in my last year at Ajax I was on the right side of attack. But then I moved to Germany and the Hamburg coach, Huub Stevens, said: ‘Listen, this might be a surprise but I’m going to turn you into a defensive midfielder so trust me.’
“It was a shock because I’d always played in a more glamorous position but I’d always admired that kind of player. I looked at it like this: Zinedine Zidane couldn’t have done his job without Claude Makélélé. Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke couldn’t have scored those goals without Roy Keane. Fernando Redondo, Patrick Vieira, Fernando Hierro; a team cannot operate without these players. It’s about discipline and doing a job for the team. So let the other players fight it out to be the main man. My job is to defend then give the ball to the players who have the creativity.”
It was a positional shift that paid off handsomely as De Jong gradually forged a reputation as one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe, with his nickname Rasenmäher (the Lawnmower) given as a reference to his style of play that mows down all before him.
It was January 2009, with City struggling for form under the guidance of Mark Hughes, that the club payed £18 million for a player with only 6 months left on his contract. Such was the importance of the acquisition, City paid over-the-odds to ensure he wasn’t snapped up by the other big clubs who were circling. He joined a side far from the finished article, with huge disparity between home and away form meaning City were struggling in the league. They had also been knocked out of both cup competitions by lower league sides, on penalties to Brighton in the League Cup, and smashed 3-0 at home by Nottingham Forest. Expectations were high but performances were far from impressive.
He made his debut in a home win against Newcastle but City’s patchy form continued soon after, picking up only 4 points from the remaining 9 away matches. For a player used to success with Ajax and Hamburg it was probably a shock to the system, having habitually finished in the top 3 at his previous clubs. But De Jong wanted to be part of the long-term future of the club.
“The results have been mixed, especially the difference between the home form and the away form. We need to improve on that but it’s a beautiful club and it’s been good for me to see the club in a, quotes, ‘bad season’ and experience the downside, knowing there are successful years to come. The success was never going to come straightaway. I knew that from the start. But I met the chairman [Khaldoon Al Mubarak] and he told me his plans.
“He told me about the expectations of the club and the way some people expected them to take the club to the top in the first six months. It doesn’t work like that, of course. It takes time. Everyone seems to think the new owners are pumping in all this money without using their minds but I talked to the board and Khaldoon and they are trying to build something with a mind behind it. You just have to have patience and work your bollocks off to get it right.”
No one could deny that De Jong was true to his word.
Living in Bowden, the palatial Cheshire suburb home to many of Manchester’s footballers, he quickly settled in a city he felt was overwhelmingly blue.
“There are so many more Blues than Reds. If I take a cab, the driver is a City fan. If I go to the shopping centre, all I see are City shirts. I was astonished when I first arrived because everyone was a Blue and I was asking everyone: ‘How does that work? Manchester United are the biggest club in the world, aren’t they?’
“People would explain to me: ‘That’s just a global thing, the real workers’ club is Manchester City.’ And it’s true, it’s a working club, and the people in Manchester can relate to this club because they are working people. They are very proud of it. That’s why Manchester City is so big locally – not worldwide maybe, but definitely locally.”
The following season, things started in a similar fashion for City, with Mark Hughes’ sacking coming immediately after the 4-3 home win over Sunderland with City sixth in the table. “A return of two wins in 11 Premier League games is clearly not in line with the targets that were agreed and set,” read the City statement and few can argue it was the right decision. Roberto Mancini was quickly appointed and De Jong remained a key player in the side under the Italian as City finished fifth in the table. The improvement in the team was obvious, with City looking far more professional and well-organised than under Hughes. They lost only four games that season and had a chance to qualify for the Champions League. However, Tottenham’s victory at The Etihad (or the City of Manchester Stadium was it was then called) courtesy of a Peter Crouch goal meant it was Spurs, not City, who landed a place in the biggest knock-out competition on the planet. City were improving all the time and De Jong was a vital component.
That summer, De Jong travelled with the Dutch national side to the World Cup in South Africa where he was a key member of the team which went all the way to the final. Playing with two holding midfielders, De Jong and Mark van Bommel, who were vital to Holland’s progress, they played a more defensive style than we had come to associate with the Dutch but results were good. In the final, which they lost 1-0 after extra time to Spain, De Jong was lucky not to be sent off after a terrible challenge on Xabi Alonso in which he planted his studs into the Real Madrid player’s chest. It was an incident which saw his reputation as a dirty player grow; an underserved reputation in the eyes of City fans who knew him as a fair but firm tackler. Upon arrival back in Manchester, De Jong was unrepentant about the challenge.
“I don’t regret anything. I never intended to hurt him. And after such a great World Cup I came back in the dressing room of Manchester City as a different player.
“I had just played in the final of the World Cup. It gives you a different status. The lads at City said they were impressed with the Dutch team’s performances out there in South Africa. That was really nice.’’
With De Jong’s status in world football on the rise, it was clear he was totally focused on the job of making City a force to be reckoned with. Going in to the 2010/2011 season, De Jong was feeling good.
“What makes it really hard for us, is that every team we play, sees us as the big favourite for the title. We are now a hot item in England only because our club have spent such a lot of money on new players. I am not saying they hate us in every stadium, but I do feel there is a tremendous amount of jealousy.
“I really think we must compete with Chelsea and Manchester United this season. Two years ago a new owner arrived here. Last year we laid the foundation, this year we have to fire from all cylinders. We must go and win trophies.
“We can’t expect it to be a smooth ride. United and Chelsea are established teams. Their players know exactly what it takes to win the league.’’
That summer, as Mancini set about building a team representative of his values, City had spent big, with David Silva, Jerome Boateng, Alexsander Kolarov, Mario Balotelli and James Milner all coming in. Yaya Toure also arrived for a fee of £24 million which saw talk of De Jong’s position being under threat begin to emanate.
“I see Yaya more as a central midfield player than a defensive midfield player. He has an attacking mind. I think together we can form a great partnership in midfield. It will be like a strong block. Besides, I have always been a regular player in the first team and I expect that will stay like that. Vincent Kompany and I are the only two players who have been with this club before the sheik arrived. So I think I am a player with a lot of experience at the club.’’
His place was safe. That season De Jong played 41 times for City and was one of the best performers in a side that qualified for the Champions League for the first time. It was also in May of that season that he finally tasted success in a blue shirt after playing a big role in the club’s FA Cup victory, their first trophy in 35 years. It was what De Jong had come to Manchester for – to help City win silverware and put them back on the footballing map. It was that first success that he claimed was the catalyst for what was to come.
“The FA Cup success gave us the taste for winning things. Manchester City hadn’t won anything with the group of players so, to win the FA Cup as a group last year, only made us hungry for more success because the enjoyment after no-one forgets. Every player in the squad wants that same feeling again. We just have to go for every prize.”
His final full season with the club saw the culmination of everything he had worked hard for during his time at The Etihad as City became champions of England for the first time since 1968. However, it was also the season that his role at City began to diminish as he played only 14 league games for the club, a statistic unthinkable during previous seasons, as Roberto Mancini looked for something different in order to push City to the next level. No one suffered more from Mancini’s switch to a more offensive style of play than De Jong.
Despite this shift in selection policy, he never once made inflammatory comments to forge a transfer. In fact, he often said all the right things.
“The team is the main thing now. Obviously everybody wants to play for themselves individually, but it’s not always going to happen, because we have a big squad. But for the team we just have to go now and try and win as many trophies as we can.”
However, Mancini had other ideas and he left City for AC Milan, a club with glorious tradition and a history of having great Dutch players. The signings of Rodwell and Javi Garcia offer an insight into Mancini thinking. Both are defensive players but both are arguably technically better with the ball. It seems De Jong’s limitations on the ball may have seen him fall victim of Mancini’s evolution. He was what Cantona termed ‘a water-carrier’; a non-flashy midfielder who would sit and break up play before giving the ball to players with more ability, something we may miss in the coming months and years.
His move to Milan is one he is relishing and he made his full debut in the recent 3-1 victory over Bologna.
“When I watched Milan in the 80s and the 90s, I dreamt of coming here to play for them. Finally I’m here at Milan and therefore I must thank Dutchmen like Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard and Seedorf. We have a young squad that needs to be built again, but I’m happy to be a part of this project. I want to contribute to the future success of Milan.”
No one can deny the history of AC Milan and It’s fitting that De Jong should get a move to such an esteemed club. Newspaper talk of a switch to QPR, where he would have been re-united with ex-City boss Mark Hughes, thankfully never materialised. De Jong deserves to wear the shirt of a great club – he is the ultimate professional – and every City fan wishes him well. He will always be remembered here in Manchester.