by Daisy Cutter
I’ve never really been one to idolise alpha males. I usually leave that to the wannabe gangsters who regard Danny Dyer as a ‘geezer’ and SkyPlus anything featuring Ross Kemp to watch alone with a takeaway after a hard day making sales calls.
Muhammad Ali aside – who was besides the most effeminate and pretty of boxers – my heroes have always been the type who wear sandals and espouse peace and love or blow their floppy indie fringes from doleful eyes.
Then one day in January 2009 Nigel De Jong came sliding into my life. A tribal tatted, tribe twatting warrior. A fucking beast. Finally I had an idol who could beat me in an arm wrestle. Beat me? He’d snap it off by the elbow and keep it as a shoe horn. The man is so hard he walks into Burger King, orders a Big Mac…and gets one. He doesn’t mow the lawn, he stares at the grass and dares it to grow. He slams revolving doors and wins staring contests with his own reflection.
For three years Manchester City’s midfield was patrolled by a man who was rumoured to have visited the Virgin Islands for a single day. When he left they had to rename them The Islands. Even now people still talk of his birthday when he ate the entire cake before his friends could tell him there was a stripper inside.
NDJ took to English football like a starved bull shark to water. He devoured the fancydan flotsam who had the temerity to keep the ball beyond a single touch and he did so with that old-fashioned trait that used to be the lifeblood of the game – tackling. Remember that fizzing thrill you used to get when you witnessed a good, fair, perfectly-timed clatter that put the opponent on his arse with the ball reclaimed? City fans used to feel that vicarious surge of testosterone on numerous occasions each game. And for that we loved him. I mean truly loved him. We wanted to be in that number when De Jong went sliding in.
We never tired of seeing the expertly executed party trick but better yet was the reaction that invariably followed. The baying of the away support that rose to outright outrage when the ref waved play on. And as we sang his songs we’d delight in seeing the fog of confusion settle on the opposite end of the ground, a collective puzzlement that became a temporary epiphany of the brainwashed as they remembered that despite all the rule changes and player histrionics from the slightest of taps a crunching tackle is still perfectly permitted even in the modern game.
But he was far more than a one-dimensional destructive force. Amongst the salubrious flair De Jong was our silent protection racket endlessly doing the thankless tasks of mopping up, doubling up, tracking, harrying and scurrying. With a bit more positional awareness – for he would occasionally lose his man at costly moments, presumably thinking of the raw meat after-match platter – the Dutchman could be considered the world’s best defensive midfielder.
In 2010/11 he completed more passes than anyone else in the top flight – more than Modric, more than his fellow countryman Van der Vaart – and though this can largely be attributed to his preference for playing a safe square ball his ability to start attacks from deep was all-too-often under-appreciated. Nige’s schooling at Ajax meant that if a through ball was available he possessed the nous and technique to pick it and lest we forget that virtually his last contribution for City – his knock to Aguero v QPR – will go down as the most famous forward pass in the club’s history.
All of this and infinitely more – from his long-awaited first goal (it slid in, naturally) and the beaming smile that accompanied it to the fact that he never, ever gave less than his all – inevitably made him a cult hero on the terraces but what really took him into the realms of legend was his character off the pitch. Entirely contradicting his playing style De Jong was approachable, always up for a laugh, related to fans as equals, and, according to numerous folk within the club, was the most popular guy in the dressing room.
And now this peerless, fearless enforcer has gone. To Milan for peanuts to the utter bemusement of most. Where once the rossoneri had Gattuso the pitball for just 3.5m euros they now have a one-man pack of hounds. But we’ll always have the memories and the songs will still be sung.
And of course the legends that still live on. Only yesterday I heard that an American television network had been successfully sued for using the names of De Jong’s right and left legs without permission. In the event the makers of Law and Order decided to settle out of court. Well you would, wouldn’t you.