After becoming fed up with watching Arsenal on a regular basis, James Rowe (@jamesrowenl) upped sticks to take on a new life in football and sample everything that the Oranje could offer in the Netherlands.
Whilst part of that might not be true, there’s no denying that with over a decade of experience watching Dutch football, not to mention over four years professionally interviewing players and managers, among other professional footballers with World Football Index, as well as appearing on talkSPORT Radio numerous times, James is most certainly an expert when it comes to all things Eredivisie.
I had the pleasure of chatting with him on a number of topics including the Vitesse-Chelsea partnership, Hakim Ziyech and why Mason Mount succeeded where Lewis Baker failed in getting into the Chelsea first team squad.
Rob: Good evening James and thanks for agreeing to talk to me. I wanted to start by discussing the relationship between Chelsea and Vitesse Arnhem. How would you describe it?
James: I would say it’s a functional, business-like relationship. Both clubs get something out of it. Chelsea’s players get exposure and a taste of another league and Vitesse get players of a suitable quality for the Eredivisie. The Eredivisie is an acquired taste. It’s maligned by some, but they forget two important things. Firstly, there are only eighteen teams and there is a huge gap between the traditional top three clubs and the lower league and midtable teams. Secondly, and this is unique to the Netherlands, every club is split into financial categories and has to submit their accounts to the Dutch Football Association at the end of the season.
Rob: So, like Financial Fair Play, but managed purely in-house by the FA?
James: It’s much stricter. If a club spends beyond their means, they receive sanctions. These start off as fines, then points deductions, and then most seriously, a team can have their license revoked and they are sent back to amateur football. This happened most recently in 2006. The difference in money means a difference in terms of operational decisions. Clubs need to make them accordingly.
Rob: Chelsea’s Dutch loan policy overall: a success or a failure?
James: I’d say it’s been relatively successful. It’s business-like, as I said earlier. The Netherlands are exposed to new players and Chelsea get players open to new ideas, ways of playing and ways of life in a positive sense. There is an interesting point from an operational perspective though. Vitesse Arnhem have benefitted from it, but other factors off the pitch have overshadowed it at times. For a while, the capacity inside Vitesse’s stadium, the GelreDome, was reduced. Considering the stadium also holds things like air shows and pop concerts, this wasn’t great for Vitesse.
The geography of the club is a factor at this point too. With the area that Vitesse are situated in, they have a strong rivalry with NEC Nimijgen and even they are now in the Eerste Divisie, that used to be one of the Derbies of the season.
Rob: Interesting. Does any other Dutch club have a relationship like Chelsea and Vitesse?
James: No other clubs in Holland have international agreements like this. There are domestic agreements, like Vitesse with some of their local clubs, but no other team, not even Ajax, has an international partner in the same way. As an interesting aside, behind the scenes things seem to be in a cycle for Vitesse, with manager Edward Sturing returning for his third spell as manager, after Airborne Football Club ousted old Roman Abramovich favourite Leonid Slutsky.
Rob: As their spells are only intended to be temporary, is there a danger that loan players can become complacent and lose motivation?
James: Lewis Baker and Mason Mount came into Vitesse’s hearts. Across the whole Eredivisie, youth is still a huge part. For Ajax, it is the bloodline of the club. A recent example: Denzel Dumfries was promoted with Sparta Rotterdam, then moved to SC Herenveen, did well and joined PSV, and now in recent weeks he’s been linked to Arsenal. Even when the managers change, such as Alan Pardew leaving his post at ADO Den Haag (presumably to much celebration from their fanbase), the mentality remains the same. It’s all about a balance between promoting from youth teams and the relative buying power of clubs.
Rob: There are three players that to me define the last decade of Chelsea-Vitesse and they are Lewis Baker, Mason Mount and Marco Van Ginkel. Starting off with Lewis Baker, whose fortunes have already been covered in great detail recently, it still seems stunning that his sensational loan spell in Holland was not enough for him to make the grade. Why?
James: Lewis Baker is a tremendously popular figure in Arnhem. He was part of the Vitesse team that won their first ever trophy in the club’s history; he scored the goals against Sparta Rotterdam in the semi-final. It was a full-fledge trophy and the pride of Arnhem. Baker adapted into Henk Fraser’s system, who himself now ironically manages Sparta Rotterdam. As a compatriot of Ruud Gullit during his playing days, Fraser could certainly spot midfield talent. Baker is an example of player that adapted really well to the Eredivisie, he knew he was going to be important, he put in good performances in the league and just generally, it was a good fit for player and for club.
Rob: So, the importance of KNVB Beker Cup success can’t be understated in regards to how you review Baker’s time in Holland?
James: Lewis Baker can look back with pride on his time at Vitesse Arnhem. He made many appearances [over the two years on loan]; he was part of the team that won the first ever trophy in the club’s history, which is never going to be forgotten. Sometimes players go through their career with one club and never win a thing. The cup is still a big thing in the Netherlands, it still has a great deal of prestige. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Urecht and Feyenoord had reached the final. Now with Dutch football suspended until September due to Coronavirus, the former have an unlikely proposition. Utrecht want to play the final to have a chance for the cup. The suggestion here is that they will scrap the Dutch Supercup to play the final, possibly on 10th September.
Rob: There have been suggestions Lewis Baker has fallen out of love with the game, trapped in the endless cycle of loan deals away from Chelsea and James echoes those views. A loan or a permanent move seems to be the best way to get the player’s mojo back. Could he return to Holland?
James: Players tell me timing is everything in football. Dutch players are exceptionally honest when you interview them in their mother tongue. That said, Vitesse move on very quickly. The player turnover is very high. We’ll chalk a return to FC Hollywood for the former England U21 starlet as unlikely.
Rob: Ironically, Lewis Baker was displaced a crown jewel of Chelsea’s English youth by Mason Mount, who also had a spell in the Netherlands. Where did Mason succeed where Lewis failed?
James: In my honest assessment, it’s because Baker was in a better squad with better players! The dip wasn’t huge, but Mount had more of a chance to shine. Let’s not forget that during Mount’s loan, Vitesse were knocked out of the cup by an amateur team. They had good players, but not the same quality as cup winners. The level had dipped slightly by the time Mason Mount arrived in Holland. Timing is everything.
Rob: Do you think then, the natural progression was managed better for Mount?
James: Mount won Vitesse Arnhem’s Player of the Year award [following in the footsteps of Chelsea loan legends Christian Atsu and Slobodan Rajković] and generally played very well. The important difference between Mount and Baker is also the route of progression. Mount benefitted from the loan spell in Holland and then had the loan to Derby County, with the carrot of the tutelage of Frank Lampard; he did well there and when Lampard returned to Chelsea, he moved into the first team. It’s the same as before: there are so many careers and different journeys, so timing is everything.
Rob: Moving on to final piece of the Chelsea-Vitesse puzzle, and for me, the man that brought Chelsea and Vitesse’s relationship into the public eye is Marco Van Ginkel. Since then, MvG’s career can be summed up with a series of loan spells: Stoke City, AC Milan and PSV Eindhoven, intermingled with crushing injury blows one after the other.
With his contract up in the summer, and approaching what should be his peak, is it time for Van Ginkel to return to Vitesse to rebuild his career?
James: Van Ginkel had a chance to go to Ajax for €8 million, but he chose Chelsea due to Mourinho. However, they say ‘never go back’ and I’d agree. Vitesse is not the right club now for Van Ginkel. A return to the Netherlands in general wouldn’t be the last resort for the player, but I think he’s more likely to go to Germany, look for another English club or maybe try his hand again in Italy. I think a new league would do him the world of good.
Rob: Moving from departures to arrivals, I wanted to discuss two notable players from Ajax – Andre Onana and (the already signed) Hakim Ziyech. Let’s start with Onana first.
James: Andre Onana’s very good, but can have lapses. When he turned down Marseille, eyebrows were raised because they are arguably the biggest club in France. People look towards the money at PSG, but you have to look past it: Marseille are still a huge club.
There was the mistake in the semi-final defeat to Spurs too, he was trying to waste time and – not to pinpoint one person – the fans were not too enamoured. Wherever Onana goes, he won’t be happy with a No. 2 spot warming the bench. He has very high ambitions. A return to Barcelona is always mooted.
Any chance of him ending up in London? James says on the grapevine there have been no definitive links to any clubs yet, besides rumour and hearsay.
Rob: One player that will most certainly be wearing blue next season is Hakim Ziyech. A sentence to describe him?
James: An inventive wizard.
Rob: Can you elaborate?
James: Ziyech is another player that has benefitted from the Dutch approach to promoting young talent. He started out at Herenveen under Marco Van Basten. Joey Van Der Berg [who would later play for Reading FC in the Championship] mentioned Ziyech even then and said how good he could be, and what he’d achieve in the game.
Ziyech moved to FC Twente and turned down Sampdoria. People were surprised by his decision – he said it didn’t feel right. He moved to Ajax and then came to the fore. I’m somewhat surprised he’s only moving now, but this Ajax side are not just a big fish in a small pond – they have consistently competed for titles, cups and nearly reached a Champions League final.
Ziyech is thorough. For instance, he received criticism in the Netherlands when he chose to play for Morocco over Holland. To silence critics, he made a deliberate point – his father was buried in Morocco, so playing for the Atlas Lions meant he was not only representing his country, but also his father and family. It goes both ways. People forget Guus Hiddink also called Ziyech into national squads but never capped him. It needs to be commended that Ziyech chose to play for the national team of his heart.
Rob: A strong character then, but as a player, a bargain for Chelsea?
James: He’s an absolute steal at his age considering the player and the quality. You do wonder a little bit with the youth aspect of Frank Lampard how often Ziyech will play, but he’ll definitely do well.
People don’t need to make comparisons to Hazard though. It doesn’t work like that. The only similarity is that Ziyech and Hazard are both very creative.
Rob: Finally, 3 Eredivisie players that will do well in the Premier League if given the chance. Hard mode: Only one player allowed from Ajax, Alkmaar and PSV combined.
James (after several moments of thinking): From AZ Alkmaar I’d suggest Calvin Stengs. He has came back from an awful knee injury, he was firing on all cylinders. Offering fantastic width and attitude to the game, he was a very important part of AZ finishing joint-top. They could have pipped Ajax to the title.
Next, Bryan Linssen. I remember watching him at VV Venlo against Ajax when he outshone Christian Eriksen. I rate him very highly. He’s not good enough for the traditional ‘top four’ in England, but good enough for a mid-table team fighting for Europe. He’d be fantastic for someone like Wolves or Sheffield United. One thing Linssen won’t do is sit on the bench though – he’s already had the gumption and intelligence to reject Feyenoord as they only want to offer him a squad role, despite the fact manager Dick Advocaat is very keen on the Vitesse captain.
As a final wildcard, I’d say Willem Janssen of Utrecht. I can understand why some people might say ‘too old’, but he is Mr. Dependable. He has great leadership skills, aerial ability and just a season ago, Ajax were linked with him.
Rob: Thanks very much for your time James, all the best.
It was great to discuss Dutch football with James, who himself interviews a number of players and managers from around the globe for World Football Index.
In particular, his interview with Kelvin Leerdam & Ricky Van Wolfswinkel explains more about Vitesse Arnhem’s KNVB Beker success and his upcoming interview with Kevin Wright deals with the highs and lows of being involved in Chelsea’s youth system.