I’VE seen a lot of top players coming through the ranks, writes ERIC SCHIPPER.
Some up close, others personally. While I was too young to see the golden generation of 1988 grow up, I watched them win it all. But I did see the likes of Clarence Seedorf, Dennis Bergkamp, the de Boers, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart, Arjen Robben, and other big names from abroad like a young Ronaldo (the real one), Jari Litmanen (the glass one), and Luis Suarez (the possessed one). And our new number five (the friendly one).
I remember fondly watching as Georginio Wijnaldum was handed his debut. I remember a pretty sturdy, well-built lad, not too tall, far from small, sporting dreadlocks. What most impressed me, though, was his ability to read the game and his aerial presence.
There was something slightly odd about him. While he appeared rather quiet, well-mannered and eloquent, he celebrated his goals like a lad from the streets. You can’t judge a book by its cover, though. So to understand the player, you need to understand the journey he’s been on.
Rotterdam is a big city. It boasts the largest port in Europe, as it has for decades. That makes for an incredible melting pot of cultures. The Far East, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America; many migrants come to work in the docks, find their luck or just find happiness. There’s a pretty big community of Cape Verdean people. For that reason, the best thing about the African Cup of Nations is when Cape Verde do well. Lots of Rotterdam-born players play for the team and the town will know when they’ve won.
Schiemond, the area in which Gini grew up, is a district of Rotterdam. It’s filled with people of foreign descent, mostly of African and Antillean descent. It isn’t the most glamorous of areas. A few years ago a mate of his was gunned down in a gang-related incident. Gini’s celebrations were a reflection of the environment he grew up in — the streets.
Schiemond is home to some good football genes, though. His brother, Giliano, plays for Philadelphia Union in the MLS. His half-brother, Rajiv van La Parra, plies his trade in the Championship for David Wagner’s Huddersfield Town. And then there’s his cousin, former Blue Royston Drenthe. I could write so many stories about Royston. Mostly taking the piss, though, so I won’t. Let’s just say he made an absolute fool of himself throughout the years. But everything Royston is — or was, as his real footballing days are over — Gini isn’t.
Rotterdam has three professional football sides. Excelsior is the smallest one. It’s a great club to visit, with a lower league feel to it — where you can have a bevvie and watch terrible lads doing terrible things to a round leather thing. Excelsior’s stadium and training ground isn’t far off Feyenoord. In fact, it’s often referred to as the little brother of Feyenoord.
And then there’s Sparta. Sparta is the club from the north and they like to think they’re the posh side, the classy side. All three clubs, much like most Dutch sides, have heavily relied on their academies. But of all three sides, Sparta arguably had the best academy for a good decade. It’s only in recent times Feyenoord have surpassed them.
There’s obviously a rivalry between the three sides and Sparta-Feyenoord is one of the few derbies that can compare to the Merseyside derby. It goes through families, religions, ethnicities. Back in the day, when the district you were from dictated which club you supported, the rivalry was more fierce. These days it’s less intense.
Why is all of this important? Because the inner city rivalry is something Wijnaldum is very accustomed to. More than others. He went from the youth set-up of Sparta to Feyenoord. On top of that, Feyenoord and Ajax’s intense competitive rivalry helps him understand what winning against Manchester United means to a Scouser. He gets it.
Erwin Koeman, brother of Blues boss Ronald, was the man who handed Gini his professional debut. As the youngest ever Feyenoord player, at just 16 years and 148 days, he got his debut against FC Groningen. His side lost 0-4 and were booed off the field, but Gini’s professional career had started.
Koeman was eventually sacked and replaced by Bert van Marwijk who managed to get the best out of the players. They won the cup with Wijnaldum playing a bit part role, mostly used on the right hand side. After the cup win, van Marwijk was appointed as manager of the Dutch national team. Feyenoord appointed Gertjan Verbeek as his replacement.
Wijnaldum remains in contact with Verbeek to this day. Verbeek taught him the passing game. Before Verbeek he was a dribbler, always on the run. Every time he had the ball he would run, take on players and try to make something happen. Verbeek trained with him, taught him to make better decisions. Pass more, run less with the ball, position himself better. The young lad made huge strides.
Feyenoord went, in that period, from bad to worse. They reached a stage where they had to sell their most precious assets. At the same time Wijnaldum and Leroy Fer decided their time at the club was up. Both realised they had to move on to keep their career going. A clear-out followed. Chelsea came for Nathan Aké, Manchester City came for Karim Rekik, FC Twente came for Fer and Wijnaldum left for PSV.
Though there were suitors across the world after Wijnaldum, it was the most important woman in his life, his nan, that made him decide to stay in Holland. He was only 20 at the time and wasn’t ready for a move abroad. That was a defining moment for the player.
Having started his career mainly as a right winger for Feyenoord he would gradually move into the number 10 role at PSV. Facing the goal, room to roam, the attacking hub. Verbeek had put him there deliberately as he needed to act quicker, pass it on faster and move more without the ball. From a player who made sprints down the wing he quickly turned into a player that oversaw the entirety of the football; rotating the play quickly from side to side, threading through balls and making runs into the box. But his best attribute was his aerial ability.
He would play in a deeper central midfield role a couple of times during his first season, but no matter where they played him he scored double figures. Before joining Liverpool he’d been in double figures for seven years straight, apart from one injury-plagued season. For a midfielder that’s no small feat, especially given he isn’t a set-piece taker.
If you’re wondering how he performs on the big stage, you’d only have to look at how he fared at the 2014 World Cup. At the start of the tournament in Brazil Gini wasn’t a starting player for the Dutch National team, but after a few games he fought his way into the fold. He got better and better as the tournament went on and he was arguably Holland’s best player in the third place place play-off, as the Dutch beat the hosts 3-0. The goal scoring threat of Gini there for the world to see.
If ‘Schteve’ McClaren hadn’t already planned to buy him from his time in the Eredivisie, that game surely made up his mind. Newcastle paid a cool £14.5 million but basically got a bargain for the captain of a title-winning PSV side, who had scored 20 goals from midfield.
Moving to Newcastle he found himself among many familiar faces. In Tim Krul, Siem de Jong, Daryl Janmaat and Vurnon Anita he had a couple of fellow countrymen and in Cheikh Tioté, Alessandro Schoenmaker and the ‘Wally with a Brolly’ himself, some former Eredivisie names.
As a proper Dutch midfielder, Wijnaldum is a versatile player. From the youngest of ages you’re taught how to play football, how to work with the ball, how to act on the pitch. You’re never taught how to behave in a certain role. Players are always moved around the team.
Newcastle had a terrible season, but Wijnaldum had a vital season in his progression as a footballer. Despite some difficult seasons at Feyenoord, he’d never been in a relegation battle, so to find himself in that position would have been a steep learning curve. While it didn’t work out for the Magpies, he made it to double figures once more. From there he would get his big move.
When you analyse the journey, you analyse the player and the person. The humble lad from humble beginnings. Who knew he would thrive in a port city?