This is a guest post by Howard Hockin, part of the award-nominated BlueMoon podcast and author of This Is How It Felt To Be City, now available on Kindle.
Football fans are peculiar beasts. We see everything our team does through a pair of coloured blinkers, seeing what we want to see, ignoring what we don’t, cherry-picking facts and statistics to suit our arguments. We are also all magnificent managers (if only someone would give us a chance to prove it), blessed with an almost mystical levels of hindsight, tactical prowess and man-management skills. You try leading Bury to the Premiership in Football Manager 12. I bet Neil Warnock couldn’t.
But more than all of that, no one can rewrite history like a football fan. Players who choose to leave were always rubbish, players that are forcibly sold, against fans’ wishes, are always better than the record books suggest. And no one fits that second category of player more than Nigel De Jong.
If City’s sloppy and indifferent start to the season had continued for much longer, history would eventually have remembered De Jong as a mix between Beckenbauer, Bobby Moore and Duncan Edwards (or to put it another way, a Dutch Phil Jones). With every passing game that didn’t meet up to City’s now sky-high expectations, De Jong ‘s career at Manchester City, and his influence and level of performances during that time, got better and better. History was altering before our very eyes.
Don’t get me wrong, like most fans, I love(d) Nigel De Jong. He is just the sort of player that fans take to, never moaning in the press, always giving his all, seemingly hugely popular with team mates, a tough tackler who takes no prisoners. He was great at marshalling the defence, patrolling the area in front of the back four (or three, or five), mopping up, and distributing to more “skilful” team mates. I was sad to see him go – I’d rather he had stayed.
He also had to deal with the usual press hatchet jobs during his time at City, notably after his infamous tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa that broke the Newcastle player’s leg in the process. For a tackle that no one on the pitch had a problem with at the time, for a tackle that received no caution nor any retrospective action, for a tackle that clearly won the ball. Even Match of The Day barely mentioned it. Stan Collymore opined that De Jong should be “drummed out of the game”. De Jong’s national manager decided to take matters into his own hands and remove De Jong from the Dutch squad. He was considered a thug and an “anti-footballer” for much of his time in English football. Yet my opinion of him grew after Ben Arfa’s unfortunate injury.
Why? Because he refused to play the game. He refused to pander to the press onslaught, the calls for him to apologise, the criticisms for not visiting the player in hospital, the outcry over his seeming lack of contrition. And why should he? He’d done nothing wrong, and wasn’t a hypocrite. He stuck to his guns and continued on with his football, as he should – not that anyone knows what De Jong did, who he saw, or how contrite he was. I felt sad for Ben Arfa, for losing the rest of the season, just as he began to flourish, but the injury was an accident, nothing more.
And the stats back up the view that De Jong wasn’t a dirty player. Last season’s eleven league appearances, with ten substitute appearances, saw him make twelve fouls in total. The season before, he averaged 1.3 fouls per league game. He was never sent off for City.
Nevertheless, his importance to City has been hugely exaggerated over the past few weeks. It’s a wonder that Manchester City won the Premier League last season, with an impressive 89 point haul, without De Jong’s constant help. After all, De Jong started only eleven league games all season, including damaging defeats at Sunderland and Swansea, and a 3-3 home draw with Sunderland. He might have been magnificent in those three games of course, we can’t really associate him with failure in what is a team game. But what is clear is that he was not a major contributor to City’s title-winning season. He featured much more in European games, which were also of course a considerable failure for City (though again, that doesn’t mean he was culpable). He also started in City’s FA Cup defeat to Manchester United, and then in both legs of the Carling Cup semi-final defeat to Liverpool (though the goal in the second leg justified selection that time around).
His departure from City was a shame, but it was not the end of the world. It was not Silva leaving, or Yaya Toure, or Hart, Kompany, Aguero, or Mancini. This was a squad player leaving. A very good one, but still a squad player. City have not fallen apart because of his departure. He has not caused the sluggish start to the season. Yes, he would have been useful in certain games this season, but I doubt results would have differed much – after all, City are still unbeaten in the league.
Javi Garcia was probably his closest replacement, or maybe Rodwell, and with the rise in De Jong’s stature with every passing game, has come the inevitable criticism of a new City signing for not setting the world on fire. Some have already decided Garcia is no better than De Jong, despite the fact that apart from being different types of players, huge swathes of City fans thought De Jong was a waste of space in his first year at City. Garcia needs time, as most foreign signings do, and shouldn’t be dismissed just yet, nor Rodwell, who can improve with age. Players leaving and being replaced can unsettle teams, but that’s life, and will always happen. De Jong’s hardly having a ball at his new club, as AC Milan languish in the bottom half of Serie A.
The fact is, his influence in the first team was waning, Mancini perhaps not satisfied with him slowing down play, or the quality of his distribution (above basic sideways passes). The general consensus from City fans seems to be that he wouldn’t sign a new contract, or that he wanted silly money. Thus, he would have gone for free next summer, and whilst you could argue it might have been worth letting him run his contract down and utilise him for one more season, it is equally sensible to cash in and get some money back for him, plus save a year’s wages. City can no longer splash the cash as they want, and have to make ends meet. Financial Fair Play rules made the exit of De Jong all the more inevitable once that new contract wasn’t signed.
You can attribute City’s less than perfect start to the new season to many factors. New personnel, a hangover from the title win, tinkering with new formations, swapping around the defence. Nigel De Jong leaving wasn’t a major factor. Football has new stories to tell, and with a good run of form for City, De Jong will soon no longer be one of those stories. It was a pleasure to have him at the club, but the club has moved on, and it’s time for some fans to do so too.