CRUYFF COMPARED ME TO XAVI
I WAS HAPPY TO READ THAT!
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