Interviews

The big interview: Nigel de Jong – "I liked being the underdog at Man City. People only knew United, but we wanted to change that"

Nigel de Jong interview

Why is he called ‘The Lawnmower’? What was it like to be part of Manchester City's transformation? And has he spoken to Xabi Alonso since the 2010 World Cup Final? Your questions answered in July 2018...

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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!

CLUBS

  • 2002-06 Ajax
  • 2006-09 Hamburg
  • 2009-12 Manchester City
  • 2012-16 Milan
  • 2016 LA Galaxy
  • 2016-18 Galatasaray
  • 2018 Mainz
  • 2018- Al Ahli

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 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 £10m 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’re 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.

NEXT: Mark Hughes vs Bobby Mancini