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?
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