One-on-one: Nigel de Jong cov­ers ev­ery blade of grass to mow down your ques­tions

WOULD HE GET THE BET­TER OF ROY KEANE? DOES ‘THE LAWN­MOWER’ MOW HIS OWN LAWN? HAS HE EVER SPO­KEN TO ALONSO ABOUT THAT TACKLE?

FourFourTwo - - CONTENTS - In­ter­view Alec Fenn Pho­tog­ra­phy Ste­fan Grey

It’s a roast­ing hot day in Mainz, the small Ger­man city sat co­zily on the banks of the Rhine that’s home to around 200,000 peo­ple, and FFT has just asked Nigel de Jong to clam­ber aboard a gi­ant lawn­mower and look moody for the cam­eras. “I can do that,” he says with a smirk, be­fore jump­ing on top of an orange mower and grip­ping the steer­ing wheel.

The choice of gar­den ma­chin­ery is de­lib­er­ate – it’s a nod to the nick­name he was given by Manch­ester City fans dur­ing his three-year stay at the Eti­had Sta­dium, in trib­ute to the Dutch­man’s chop­ping tack­les and the all-ac­tion style that has been his trade­mark at seven clubs in six dif­fer­ent coun­tries.

He turned 33 last year, and it seems De Jong may have mel­lowed with age. He’s will­ing to lark about with the toy mower our snap­per has brought along for the pho­to­shoot, and has only just re­turned from a three-day trip to Ibiza with his Mainz team-mates, af­ter the Bun­desliga side avoided the drop with a sur­prise win over Borus­sia Dort­mund.

De­spite touch­ing down in Ger­many a few hours ear­lier, Nigel is fresh-faced af­ter a light train­ing ses­sion and ready to talk to us about sub­jects in­clud­ing his ad­mi­ra­tion for Roy Keane, learn­ing his trade along­side Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic, mak­ing Pep Guardi­ola an­gry, flog­ging cars to Robin van Per­sie and, yes, that chal­lenge on Xabi Alonso... There aren’t many foot­ballers called Nigel, let alone Dutch ones – where did the name come from? Nigel Robin­son, via Face­book It was ac­tu­ally my mum’s choice. There was a well-known vi­o­lin­ist called Nigel Kennedy back in the day, and the rac­ing driver Nigel Mansell was pretty fa­mous when I was born, so she de­cided to call me that. It’s an English name, so maybe that was prophetic.

Your fa­ther, Jerry, won three caps for the Nether­lands – can you re­mem­ber watch­ing him play? Tony Barnes, Lon­don As a lit­tle kid I’d dreamed of be­com­ing a foot­baller, and that was my dad’s job so I loved watch­ing him play. My mum and dad sep­a­rated when I was young, but I watched a lot of him on TV when I could. Watch­ing him gave me an urge to play in front of 50,000 fans one day. His crit­i­cism about my game was al­ways very con­struc­tive. It was my mum who was a bit harsher on me!

Was it a tough child­hood grow­ing up in west Am­s­ter­dam? Andy van Ruijn, Utrecht It was, but I was for­tu­nate that I had a mother who pushed me to do well at school. I would al­ways be out­side with my boys play­ing foot­ball. You have to re­mem­ber, this was pre-so­cial me­dia, so there wasn’t a great deal to do but kick your ball and try to im­prove your skills in the streets. We would hop from neigh­bour­hood to neigh­bour­hood and just chill with the other boys. I did have other friends who tried to make money in dif­fer­ent ways, but luck­ily I steered away from that – my mum was strict!

Which play­ers did you love watch­ing when you were grow­ing up? Se­bas­tian Price, Sur­rey I loved Fernando Re­dondo. He’s one of my favourite play­ers of all time. Ro­mario is an­other favourite be­cause he played with my dad at PSV. I got to watch him at train­ing and also in­side the dress­ing room. I saw him as a player but also as a per­son­al­ity and that rubbed off on me. I loved how he cre­ated chances out of ab­so­lutely noth­ing. Pa­trick Vieira, who is now a good friend of mine, was also a role model, and I was a mas­sive fan of Roy Keane, too. I loved Keane’s heart, he was fear­less. Even though he wasn’t a big guy like Dun­can Fer­gu­son, he was the man. I used to watch the Premier League when I was a kid and he al­ways had that look in his eyes that told you he meant busi­ness. It was like he was say­ing, ‘It isn’t hap­pen­ing to­day mate, this is my ter­ri­tory’. Peo­ple for­get that he was a great foot­baller – he scored bang­ing goals, was a box-to-box player and good passer. If I’d played against him, he would have come out on top!

I once read that you have a de­gree in eco­nomics. Is that true? Doug Cooper, Dundee Yes, I grad­u­ated in 2001 in Am­s­ter­dam. It was re­ally im­por­tant for me to learn about fi­nance. You see a lot of ath­letes now who sim­ply don’t un­der­stand their own money. It should be im­pos­si­ble for

“I WAS AL­WAYS COV­ER­ING EV­ERY BLADE OF GRASS, SO CITY’S FANS CALLED ME THE LAWN­MOWER”

a top-level pro­fes­sional to go broke, but I’ve seen it hap­pen on many oc­ca­sions. I wanted to earn my de­gree to pro­tect my­self fi­nan­cially, so that I knew how to in­vest sen­si­bly and keep earn­ing a liv­ing af­ter foot­ball. You need peo­ple around you with good fi­nan­cial knowl­edge, but you need to have a base of knowl­edge your­self, too. You can have £10 mil­lion in the bank, but if you don’t un­der­stand where it goes and how you’re spend­ing it, you could end up broke.

As a young­ster, I had the plea­sure of see­ing you and Mark van Bom­mel run the mid­field in the same Dutch team. Do you think the mid­field de­stroyer is now be­com­ing ex­tinct? Ed­ward Machin, via Face­book They are def­i­nitely dy­ing out. I think it’s be­cause foot­ball is be­com­ing more and more con­trolled. At ev­ery match we’ve got around 300 cam­eras, a ref­eree and a video as­sis­tant ref­eree. To be a tough guy, some­times you have to do things that peo­ple don’t see, and you can’t get away with that sort of thing now. There’s a big­ger em­pha­sis on tech­ni­cal foot­ball and of­fen­sive play­ers, so there are fewer hard­man mid­field­ers. It’s a pity be­cause I loved those bat­tles be­tween Ar­se­nal and Manch­ester United back in the day, plus Atletico Madrid against Real Madrid. You just don’t see those bat­tles be­tween Diego Sime­one and Re­dondo or Keane and Vieira now. I wish I could’ve played in them. It was more ex­cit­ing for me to watch those du­els than [Dwight] Yorke and [Andy] Cole scor­ing loads of goals, but it’s dy­ing out now.

Your nick­name is ‘The Lawn­mower’ – where did it come from and do you do your own mow­ing? Ryan Walsh, War­ring­ton It started off when I was at Manch­ester City. I’d end up all over the pitch, al­ways mak­ing chal­lenges and cov­er­ing ev­ery blade of grass, so the fans were call­ing me that. I loved it though; the City fans are some of the best I’ve ever played for. I’ve mowed my gar­den a few times in the past. Most of the time I’ll just let some­one else do it, but if it’s re­ally long and des­per­ately needs it, I’ll get the mower out and do it my­self. You played in a team with Rafael van der Vaart, Wes­ley Snei­jder and Zla­tan Ibrahi­movic at Ajax – that must have been a spe­cial time? Arnold Wis­chum, Am­s­ter­dam It was an in­cred­i­ble time. There was the per­fect bal­ance of tal­ent and ex­pe­ri­ence in that line-up, and Ajax were still re­ally com­pet­i­tive in the Cham­pi­ons League at that time – we would al­ways qual­ify and of­ten reached the knock­out stages. That at­tracted lots of young tal­ent from dif­fer­ent coun­tries, which then cre­ated the group we had. About 80 per cent of the team I played with went on to play for top Euro­pean clubs.

What was it like train­ing with Zla­tan ev­ery day at Ajax? Was he re­ally full of him­self? Danni Cook, via Twit­ter He’s an amaz­ing guy. He loves to joke around. He isn’t cocky or ar­ro­gant – he’s con­fi­dent, he loves him­self. I was re­ally good friends with him at Ajax. I’d go to his house for some din­ner and so on. He’s a re­ally good dude and he’s still the same per­son. I haven’t seen him for a lit­tle while, but it’s been great to see him go on to have a long, suc­cess­ful ca­reer.

You were once la­belled a ‘right-footed Edgar Davids’ by a Dutch jour­nal­ist. Did you see sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween the two of you? Jo­han der Vij, via Face­book Davids was one of my idols, but he was more of a box-to-box player. I can see the sim­i­lar­i­ties in terms of our gen­eral men­tal­ity, po­si­tion and the fact that we were both schooled at Ajax, but he was more at­tack­ing and tech­ni­cal com­pared to me. I don’t want to dis­credit him; he was more than a de­fen­sive mid­fielder. He could score goals and cre­ate plenty of chances as well.

Did you have any other op­tions when Man City bought you from Hamburg in 2009? How did you find play­ing for Mark Hughes? Ryan Rhodes, via Face­book I’m so grate­ful for the op­por­tu­nity that Mark Hughes gave me. I had a bril­liant re­la­tion­ship with him and still do to this day. He had a very strong char­ac­ter and he was a win­ner, and that re­flected in the type of train­ing ses­sions he put on. They were al­ways very in­tense and com­pet­i­tive. I signed for City

"I DONT MISS ALL THE RAIN IN MANCH­ESTER, BUT I DO MISS GO­ING DOWN THE PUB TO HAVE A SUN­DAY ROAST"

when they were around 11th or 12th in the Premier League and I had offers to go to other big teams, but they painted a great pic­ture for me. They told me I’d be the first of many ma­jor sign­ings and I just needed to be pa­tient. They said if I stayed at the club long enough I’d see the re­sults. I be­lieved them, and it was an op­por­tu­nity to play in the league I’d watched since I was a kid. I liked be­ing the un­der­dog. Peo­ple only knew about Manch­ester United but now we wanted to change that.

What do you think of Manch­ester as a city? Did you en­joy liv­ing there? Mark Waugh, Dids­bury It rains for about 11 months a year in Manch­ester, so I’d say it’s never go­ing to be one of my top hol­i­day desti­na­tions. But apart from that, the at­mos­phere in Manch­ester was al­ways great. I en­joyed some of the best times of my ca­reer in the city. It’s not quite as big as Lon­don but there’s still so much to do. The city was usu­ally buzzing dur­ing the sum­mer and I loved go­ing to a pub to have a Sun­day roast. I’d rate Manch­ester highly, but I won’t live there af­ter my ca­reer be­cause of the bad weather!

How big a cul­tural shift was it when Roberto Mancini re­placed Hughes as Man City man­ager? Ralph Wil­liams, via Twit­ter Well, Mancini is Ital­ian, so it came as no sur­prise that he was tac­ti­cally ex­cel­lent. He had a dif­fer­ent mind­set to Hughes; he placed lots of em­pha­sis on de­fen­sive po­si­tion­ing. First of all, he wanted you to be de­fen­sively sta­ble and then think about the sec­ond step. As a team and in­di­vid­u­als we un­der­went a pretty big tran­si­tion un­der him. Both Mancini and Hughes turned the club around. We won nearly ev­ery tro­phy un­der Mancini, so it was an in­cred­i­ble time and he de­serves a huge amount of credit. Did you re­ally be­lieve City could turn things around on the fi­nal day against QPR and win the ti­tle? Jimmy Tru­man, via Face­book We were 1-0 up, we were play­ing a side bat­tling against rel­e­ga­tion, and then out of nowhere they came from be­hind and were win­ning 2-1. At that point, we all started to look at each other and think, ‘It’s not go­ing to hap­pen, is it?’ You have this neg­a­tive thought process ini­tially, but we re­fused to give up and Mancini then made some of­fen­sive changes by bring­ing Edin Dzeko and Mario Balotelli on, so we had three strik­ers on the pitch. Thank God it all worked out. The way it ended was just crazy, and it’s some­thing you’ll never see again. That mo­ment as Ser­gio Aguero scored, in terms of hap­pi­ness and relief, was eas­ily the best mo­ment of my ca­reer. It’s what foot­ball is all about: pas­sion, emo­tion, win­ning. I can re­mem­ber sprint­ing to­wards the cor­ner flag where Ser­gio was cel­e­brat­ing with his shirt off. There were grown men in the stands in tears! Every­one was bam­boo­zled by what had just hap­pened. I’m so happy that I was part of it.

Peo­ple al­ways go on about how tough you are – do you think your tech­ni­cal abil­ity is un­der­rated? Roger Brucht, via Face­book Yeah, but that’s pretty nor­mal if you’re a de­fen­sive mid­fielder. I love play­ing in that po­si­tion be­cause I un­der­stand the im­pact I can have on the team. Peo­ple never talk about Roy Keane’s tech­ni­cal abil­ity; they just talk about his phys­i­cal at­tributes. Peo­ple for­get, to play in my po­si­tion you’ve got to have tech­ni­cal abil­ity to guide the team. You’re in front of the de­fence and also have to feed the at­tack­ing third, so you’re in the mid­dle, you’re key. My pass­ing rate at ev­ery club has al­ways been good be­cause I love to play foot­ball – I was taught to play with proper tech­nique at Ajax.

CLUBS 2002-2006 Ajax 2006-2009 Hamburg 2009-2012 Manch­ester City 2012-2016 Mi­lan 2016 LA Gal­axy 2016-18 Galatasaray 2018- MainzCOUN­TRY 2004-15 Nether­lands

Top to bot­tom De Jong ‘was taught to play with proper tech­nique’ when he started out at Ajax; “Gaffer, there’s no way Bel­lamy’s been booked more times than me!”; see­ing the funny side as tem­pers flare dur­ing the Dutch’s Euro 2008 date with France; ex­e­cut­ing a trade­mark tackle for Mi­lan against An­der­lecht

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