CRUYFF COM­PARED ME TO XAVI

I WAS HAPPY TO READ THAT!

Australian Four Four Two - - FEATURES - Words Chris Flana­gan

Davy Klaassen could never have imag­ined how his Ever­ton de­but would turn out. He had dreamed of mov­ing to a Pre­mier League club ever since the days when he’d sit in front of the tele­vi­sion with his dad, spell­bound by Dennis Bergkamp’s per­for­mances for Arsenal. Yet on the day of his first out­ing for the Tof­fees, he didn’t re­ally want to play at all. Klaassen was in Tan­za­nia. Around 35,000 spec­ta­tors were in Dar es Salaam to see Ever­ton face Kenyan side Gor Mahia: the first time that a Pre­mier League club had played a game in East Africa. It should have been un­for­get­table for all the right rea­sons. How­ever, the 24-year-old had big­ger things on his mind. The mid­fielder had brought 13 years at Ajax to an end just a month ear­lier: in the Dutch gi­ants’ first game since his departure – a friendly against Werder Bre­men in Aus­tria – his friend Ap­pie Nouri col­lapsed. “I was watch­ing the game at Maarten Steke­len­burg’s house be­fore we left to go to Tan­za­nia,” Klaassen re­veals, the emo­tion clear in his voice as he talks to FFT. “When I was at the air­port I got mes­sages on Twit­ter that he’d col­lapsed. Just be­fore we went in the air, I saw that he was sta­ble and he was OK at that mo­ment. But then in Tan­za­nia be­fore the game, I read that he was al­most brain dead. I didn’t want to play foot­ball. I played my first match but I could not en­joy it. It was re­ally sad – a heavy mo­ment. “You want to be there: for him, for his fam­ily and for the guys. He was a very good player and an even bet­ter per­son. I don’t know if you saw, but that’s why all the Ajax sup­port­ers came to­gether out­side his house after­wards. He’s a spe­cial guy.” The 20-year-old was still in a se­ri­ous con­di­tion, with per­ma­nent brain da­m­age, as Klaassen’s Pre­mier League sea­son got un­der­way. Nouri has re­mained firmly in Davy’s thoughts, though, and it’s been far from easy to turn his focus back to foot­ball, but he’s had to do so. The cap­tain of Ajax for the pre­vi­ous two cam­paigns de­spite his own ten­der years, Klaassen was also linked with Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur near the end of last term, and with Arsenal and Manchester United a year ago. But it was Ron­ald Koe­man and Ever­ton who made their move this sum­mer, snap­ping up the Dutch in­ter­na­tional for $40 mil­lion. “Ever­ton was the first club I heard about,” he ad­mits. “Last sea­son I read things in the news­pa­pers but I said to my agent, ‘I only want to hear when a club comes.’ When last sea­son was end­ing, I heard that Ever­ton were in­ter­ested and that the man­ager wanted to talk with me. I said that I just wanted to fin­ish my sea­son with Ajax and then I would start talk­ing. “I met the man­ager in Hol­land. He told me about the plans for the club, the am­bi­tion they have, and then after­wards I went off to play

three games with the Dutch na­tional team. Af­ter that it went quite fast. I started think­ing about it and thought, ‘OK, I want this, I want to go and have a look’. That week I couldn’t get off to sleep be­cause I was think­ing about it so much. I made my de­ci­sion and af­ter a week I came here and signed on the same night.” That Koe­man is renowned as a foot­balling great in the Nether­lands cer­tainly did Ever­ton’s chances of sign­ing Klaassen no harm. “Back in Hol­land he’s a leg­end,” the new ar­rival says. “I wasn’t able to see him play but I’ve seen the videos, of course. He was a great player and he wanted to sign me. It helps that train­ing is sim­i­lar to what I was used to in Hol­land – it’s the Dutch way to train.” For Klaassen, though, be­ing around greats of the game is noth­ing new. “At Ajax I was used to work­ing with leg­endary play­ers – in the youth sys­tem, al­most all of the train­ers are le­gends. In the beginning it was a lit­tle weird and when I was a young boy I didn’t re­ally think about it – it was my fa­ther who would tell me, ‘He was a great player.’ I worked with Arnold Muhren and Ron­ald de Boer, then Frank de Boer and Dennis Bergkamp, too. They could all teach you every­thing from their own ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing their ca­reers.” And Klaassen was also able to spend time with the late, great Jo­han Cruyff. He’ll never for­get the help Cruyff gave him dur­ing the 2012-13 sea­son, when in­jury threat­ened to de­rail his progress. “I had an in­jury for one sea­son and he told me, ‘Come to Barcelona and see a guy that I know,’” Klaassen says of the man who’d been Ajax tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor at the time of his first-team de­but. “I went there and he came to visit me in the clinic. That was a spe­cial mo­ment.” In 2014, with Klaassen now fully re­cov­ered from in­jury and by then a main­stay of the first team, Cruyff would be­stow high praise on him – com­par­ing the ris­ing star to both Xavi and Toni Kroos when as­sess­ing what it took to suc­ceed in cen­tral mid­field. “You must have strong po­si­tion­ing, the abil­ity to con­trol the ball at speed and the tech­nique to deal with the speed of it,” Cruyff said. “Xavi, Toni Kroos and Davy Klaassen can do it. All three have per­fect an­tic­i­pa­tion and they can play it left and right ex­cel­lently. You watch: when Klaassen plays from that po­si­tion for Ajax, the tempo in­creases im­me­di­ately. He rarely loses pos­ses­sion.” From Cruyff, that’s quite some praise. “You can­not com­pare any­one to those kinds of play­ers,” Klaassen mod­estly in­sists about the ref­er­ence to Xavi and Kroos. “But I liked that he said some good things about me. He’s the big­gest leg­end in Hol­land and I was happy to read that.” Com­par­isons have also been made be­tween Klaassen and Dennis Bergkamp, the player he watched so avidly as a young­ster and his as­sis­tant man­ager with Ajax. Klaassen’s crisp pass­ing and fin­ish­ing abil­ity – he scored a highly im­pres­sive 55 goals in 181 matches for Ajax – owes much to the work he did on the train­ing ground with the ex-Arsenal man and Dutch mae­stro. “I trained with him for the last five or six sea­sons and you can see how good he is, and was,” Klaassen re­veals. “He told me about the lit­tle things: we did a lot of shoot­ing and work­ing on my first touch. That helped a lot – the first touch is the most im­por­tant in foot­ball.” Like Bergkamp, Klaassen’s game is un­doubt­edly sup­ported by his in­tel­li­gence and vi­sion. “It’s about fast think­ing,” he ex­plains. Their ap­pear­ances are not en­tirely dis­sim­i­lar ei­ther: many point out that Klaassen looks a lot older than his 24 years. “They do!” he chuck­les. But as much as he ad­mires his former coach, he soon backs away from talk of be­com­ing ‘the new Bergkamp’, a la­bel be­stowed on him by some mem­bers of the English press. “That’s im­pos­si­ble, you can’t com­pare any­body with him,” he says with a smile. “Plus, Dennis was more like an at­tack­ing player and I’m a bit more of a mid­fielder. For me, he is one of the best play­ers ever. My first mem­o­ries of the Pre­mier League were Bergkamp. It was on TV in Hol­land on Satur­days and I used to watch it with my dad. I’d re­mem­ber some of the things that he did and think, ‘This is spe­cial’.” Like with Bergkamp, it’s the sub­tle things Klaassen does that help to make the big­gest dif­fer­ence – his part in Wayne Rooney’s win­ner against Stoke on the open­ing week­end, for in­stance. See­ing Rooney charg­ing to­wards the penalty area, Davy darted to the near post,

tak­ing two de­fend­ers with him and open­ing up the space for his new team-mate to head home. With the me­dia’s focus firmly on Rooney, few even no­ticed Klaassen’s con­tri­bu­tion, but the goal could not have hap­pened with­out it. Davy be­lieves that his link-up with England’s all-time lead­ing scorer can prove fruit­ful this sea­son. “I think so, al­though of course it has to grow and get bet­ter,” he says. “When I signed I didn’t know that he’d be sign­ing too – they said they were go­ing to sign a few other play­ers, but not that Wayne was com­ing. I was back in Hol­land when I heard. I thought, ‘OK, this is a big player’. He’s a cool guy, easy to be around. It’s good that he has come back to try to get prizes with his old club.” Tro­phies are some­thing both play­ers de­sire, hav­ing coin­ci­den­tally made their fi­nal out­ings for their pre­vi­ous clubs in the same match: Klaassen for Ajax, Rooney for Manchester United in the Europa League fi­nal last May. That ended in de­feat for Klaassen, al­though he did win three Ere­di­visie ti­tles in his home­land and hopes his winning men­tal­ity can help him at Ever­ton, who have not won any sil­ver­ware since 1995. When FFT points out Klaassen was only a two-year-old at that time, he smiles and ad­mits the thought had al­ready oc­curred to him. “Yes, I saw a pic­ture of it and thought, ‘OK, so I was two’,” he says. “That’s strange but it’s a big club with big his­tory. Of course, it would be re­ally spe­cial to win a tro­phy here. It’s the best feel­ing ever to lift a tro­phy. “At Ajax the cham­pi­onships and the Europa League cam­paign were the high­lights. It was 22 years since Ajax last reached a Euro­pean fi­nal and peo­ple in Hol­land said it was im­pos­si­ble for a Dutch club to reach a fi­nal, but we did it, and with good foot­ball. Be­fore the fi­nal, I stood on the pitch an hour and a half be­fore kick-off and the sta­dium was full of Ajax fans singing. I thought, ‘This is some­thing spe­cial’. Sure, we wanted to win and un­for­tu­nately we didn’t, but I was proud to be cap­tain of that team.” Klaassen does not ex­pect to be wear­ing the arm­band at Ever­ton any time soon, though. Phil Jagielka has re­tained the cap­taincy at Good­i­son Park in re­cent times, with Leighton Baines sec­ond in line. Then there is Rooney – who has skip­pered Manchester United and England – plus Ash­ley Wil­liams, the cap­tain of Wales, and Sea­mus Cole­man, still on his way back from in­jury but of­fi­cially the cap­tain of the Repub­lic of Ire­land. The Tof­fees cer­tainly aren’t short of strong char­ac­ters, and even though Klaassen is not the skip­per, he wants to show that he can be a leader at Good­i­son, too. “That’s what I was at Ajax and in the end I want to do the same here, but I’ve got to set­tle in first. At Ajax it was a huge hon­our to be­come the cap­tain. It was my third or fourth year in the first team and I was al­ready one of the most ex­pe­ri­enced mem­bers, be­cause when you’re 23 or 24 you nor­mally leave Ajax to play abroad. The av­er­age age is much higher here and there are many more lead­ers in the team. This side doesn’t have the same need as Ajax – here you have got a lot of dif­fer­ent cap­tains.” His early games saw him take on the sort of at­tack­ing mid­field re­spon­si­bil­i­ties that Ross Barkley was per­form­ing last sea­son. If that might have added pres­sure, Davy did not see it that way – par­tic­u­larly as he has been in sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions in the past, hav­ing slot­ted into the Ajax team af­ter Chris­tian Erik­sen’s 2013 move to Tot­ten­ham. “They didn’t re­ally com­pare me and Chris­tian in Ajax’s first team be­cause we were dif­fer­ent play­ers, but in the youth some­times they did,” ad­mits the 2016 Dutch Foot­baller of the Year. “I think ev­ery ex­pe­ri­ence helps you, but I haven’t felt it as a pres­sure here. I know that I have to per­form, but it was the same with Ajax – I have been used to it since I was 11.” The pres­sure’s been on in Klaassen’s early ap­pear­ances for the na­tional team, too: at­tempt­ing to help sal­vage a far-from-vin­tage Oranje side. His first two com­pet­i­tive starts came to­wards the end of their tur­bu­lent and ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful Euro 2016 qual­i­fy­ing cam­paign. “We didn’t play well,” he says. “In the cam­paign for the World Cup we’ve had a game in Swe­den where we had to win and we drew. Then there was a game against Bul­garia and we f**ked it up and played s**t, and we lost 2-0. But of course play­ing for your coun­try is al­ways a big hon­our. It’s the high­est thing you can reach.” Klaassen has had lit­tle trou­ble adapt­ing to England, set­tling down in Manchester with his girl­friend. “Life here is sim­i­lar to Hol­land so that’s been no prob­lem for me,” he says. “The weather is the same, so I’m used to the rain! The peo­ple have got the same mind­set, too.” Has he mas­tered Scouse yet? “It’s some­times dif­fi­cult for me to un­der­stand peo­ple when they are talk­ing to each other, but when they talk to me I think they try to talk in proper lan­guage!” he jokes. As for his aims this sea­son, Klaassen hopes to con­tinue the form he showed with Ajax, most notably when he net­ted 20 times from mid­field last term, of­ten ar­riv­ing late in the penalty area like a Paul Sc­holes or Frank Lam­pard. “I just want to con­trib­ute to the team and I al­ways scored a lot of goals at Ajax ev­ery sea­son, so that’s what I want to do here,” he says. “I don’t know how many goals - just as many as pos­si­ble.” Help­ing Ever­ton reach the Cham­pi­ons League – he ap­peared in the com­pe­ti­tion in three sep­a­rate sea­sons for Ajax – is a long-term am­bi­tion. For now, the task is to fin­ish higher than sev­enth, where the Tof­fees came last sea­son, and where many have tipped them to end up again this term. “I think we can reach the Cham­pi­ons League but it needs time,” he says. “You can’t ex­pect us to win 38 games this sea­son but we want to fin­ish higher up than last year. In Hol­land, maybe Ever­ton are not that big – peo­ple think they are sixth or sev­enth and they com­pare that to sixth or sev­enth in the Dutch league. But it’s a big dif­fer­ence. When you come here, you see just how big Ever­ton are.” His men­tor agrees. When Klaassen signed for Ever­ton, he re­ceived a text from Bergkamp. “Good choice,” it said. Now he’s de­ter­mined to prove those words cor­rect. With Bergkamp, Koe­man and Cruyff among those to have shown faith in him to date, there can be lit­tle doubt about Davy’s abil­ity.

“I K NOW I HAVE TO PER­FORM HERE AT EVER­TON, BUT IT WAS THE SAME AT AJAX – I HAVE BEE N USED TO THAT SI NCE I WAS 11”

Praised by Cruyff, coached by Bergkamp and signed by Koe­man – Ever­ton new boy Davy Klaassen is no stranger to Dutch icons. If he can help the Tof­fees end their tro­phy drought, he might be­come one too

Be­low Up and run­ning: Klaassen played a key role in Rooney’s win­ner on his Pre­mier League bow Right Cel­e­brat­ing one of the 20 goals he scored as Ajax skip­per from mid­field last term

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