Wigan's good doctor
Arjan de Zeeuw is smarter than your average Premiership footballer, as Prime Minister Tony Blair might have been aware when he named him as a favourite player a couple of weeks ago.
Wigan’s Dutch centre-half and captain has a degree in medical science and enough political awareness to realise that Blair probably does not spend that much of his time watching Match of the Day. A compliment is a compliment, however, especially to a player who practically arrived in the Premiership by accident, and deserves one in return. “The prime minister must know an awful lot about football,” De Zeeuw says.
At the moment De Zeeuw is sticking to his intention of becoming a doctor when he retires, though he admits he is wavering.
He never expected his football career to be so successful or so long and certainly did not foresee the best being saved until the age of 35. Extra years of medical training are beginning to look daunting.
“I was only supposed to be taking a little break to play football,” he explains. “I’ve had to stop making plans because they keep being interrupted by clubs and moves. I’m going to hang up my boots first, then decide. I’ve got a minimum of two years in houseships to do and anything up to six years if I specialise in orthopaedics.
“I might go into sports medicine instead. That’s a bit more undefined, but it sounds logical. I have to be honest, though. The longer I stay in football, the more I think I might have a go at coaching.”
De Zeeuw has a Dutch wife and three children, who were born in England, and is similarly uncertain about whether to stay on in Britain or move back to Holland. The indecision is not really his fault, it is Wigan’s. Second in the Premiership? How could anyone plan their life around such an unlikely circumstance?
“I didn’t expect this when I signed here, I don’t think Paul Jewell did,” he says. “I thought we would be fighting against relegation with a good chance of staying up. There’s a strong winning mentality at this club. But just in case, the gaffer’s got a chart he can pull out to prove a good start is no guarantee against a losing run.”
De Zeeuw approaches football as merely an interlude in a real career. “My studies delayed my football progress to a certain extent, but I was a bit of a late starter anyway,” he says. “I wasn’t discovered in my teens. When I started it was only as a semi-professional with a very small club and I knocked Telstar back twice before I signed. My dad wasn’t too keen on me throwing away my medical studies for what was only going to be a little bit of glory.”
By his mid-twenties, De Zeeuw had decided that four years in the Dutch first division would just about do for football glory when his perspective suddenly shifted. “One night an agent approached me in the players’ lounge. He said an English first division club had watched me play, on his invitation, and would like to offer me a contract. Out of the blue, just like that. I had bought a house with my girlfriend that week. This wasn’t in my plans at all, but I knew I should take the chance.”
After satisfying himself about the reputation of the agent, De Zeeuw asked the most pertinent question. Which club? “Initially the agent didn’t even tell me,” he says with a laugh. “He guessed, correctly, that I would never have heard of Barnsley. We went there and it was really strange, raining and dark. We drove through moors, over the Pennines at Woodhead. I was thinking, ‘Jesus Christ, where are we going?’ My father got sick in the back because the road was so winding.
“But the next day was nice and bright. I signed on a Thursday and played on the Saturday against Wolves. We loved the people in Barnsley, it just took us a while to work out they spoke English. ‘Alreet, luv?’ We thought our English was OK, but we had never heard an accent like that.”
De Zeeuw went into the Premiership and out again with Barnsley then joined an upwardly mobile Wigan before Harry Redknapp recruited him to Portsmouth’s promotion drive.
“Every footballer wants to play in the Premiership,” De Zeeuw says. ‘Not everyone knows whether he is good enough, you can’t know that until you try, but once you’ve tried it you want more. I was 32 when I went to Portsmouth and I thought it might be my last chance.
“That shows how much I have changed in 10 years. When I went to Barnsley I didn’t have any expectations. I thought I could always hand my contract back if I didn’t like it and say I couldn’t settle. I did like it, though, and once I got to the Premiership I thought to myself, ‘Hang on a minute, I’d better take my football much more seriously. I can make a proper career out of this.’”
De Zeeuw is rated for his professional attitude and quiet application in training, somewhat at odds with his national stereotype. Dutch players are supposed to be lippy and intransigent. After paying up Winston Bogarde and becoming exasperated with Arjen Robben, Jose Mourinho has reportedly said he does not intend to sign any more.
‘I don’t know if he means that,” De Zeeuw says. “You can’t condemn us all. Dutch people are pretty direct generally, our business people get on well all over the world because they are not afraid to voice their opinion. That is not a bad thing, though you can get a culture clash in football.
“In England, for example, the manager makes the decisions. I learnt that early on with [Barnsley manager] Danny Wilson. I went to his office one day to discuss the merits of 3-5-2 and 4-4-2 formations, pointing out that we weren’t playing very well with one and might be better switching to the other.
“I was so young and naive I just thought I’d share my opinion with him, you know. He listened to me very nicely, smiled and nodded a lot, then as he was showing me out he pointed to the sign on the door. ‘What does that say?’ he asked. ‘Manager,’ I said. ‘That’s right,’ he said. ‘I’m the manager. You’re an effing player, now get out there.’ He said it with a big smile on his face, but he was still telling me to shut up and play the way he wanted. I had a strong feeling I now knew where I stood.” — Â