Football: Interview - Jaap Stam: Stam's stamp of authority

United's Dutch defender is a late developer. Now, after early doubts, class is telling. By Andrew Longmore

The showroom that is the car park of The Cliff, Manchester United's training ground, now boasts a fourth Ferrari, a blue model owned by Andy Cole. Only the manager's Merc and a gleaming dark blue BMW 5-series uphold the more sober virtues of the saloon car drivers. Jaap Stam is not a Ferrari sort of guy. He snorts at the suggestion. A gentle cruise across the countryside would be his idea of burning rubber.

True enough, the garage of his new home in the plusher suburbs of the city houses a roadster Porsche, but the main interest there was just how Stam would curl his 6ft 3in frame into the driving seat. He has, he says, just mastered the technique. But the left-hand drive BMW, a luxurious Dutch import, is a more accurate reflection of the man.

For the first time since his much publicised arrival last summer, Stam has felt settled enough to schedule an interview or two. This one took three weeks to set up, but through no fault of the club, his agent or Stam himself. Even before he arrived, absolutely on the dot of the appointed hour, in blue jeans and casual top, clutching the obligatory mobile phone, the impression was of a serious and considerate professional, someone who will not say "yes" one minute and "no" the next. If Stam says he will do something, his commitment is total, as United have already found to their benefit.

He is punctual, courteous, articulate, softly spoken. Stam is from good tradesman's stock and has inherited the values of Kampen, the small country town where his father earns his living as a carpenter and where Jaap was brought up, the youngest of four children and the only boy. "Four mothers," he laughs. Was he spoilt? "Some would say that." Pause. "I think it's true."

There are no lingering signs of young Jaap's brattish tendencies, just the overwhelming sense of a man awestruck by the enormity of his good fortune. Though only 50 miles or so east of Amsterdam, Kampen is light years away from Holland's hedonistic capital in temperament and culture. There are 30 churches for a congregation of 25,000 in Kampen. Stam says his town's reputation for being a religious centre is false, that neither he nor his family are particularly religious, which in this spiritually explosive week is fortunate. Kampen, says Stam, is a place where everyone knows each other, a good, tight community, one he returns to when- ever the demands of United's three-pronged attack on the main trophies allows.

He has kept his house on the edge of the town, with a garden which backs on to the river so that he can indulge his love of fishing. The only drawback is the passing pleasureboats. "The home of Jaap Stam, the world's most expensive defender and Kampen's most famous citizen" has now become one of the main attractions on the river ride. But a boatload of Instamatics, poised for any twitch of the curtain, is not quite what the quiet Dutchman had in mind for his rural retreat.

It is against this home background that Stam's early season uncertainty has to be etched. A boy from small-town Holland arriving at the gates of the Old Trafford pleasuredome, at the time the most costly purchase in the club's illustrious history. The confusion in Stam's mind was not so much understandable as inevitable. He does not try to dismiss it now.

"In the beginning, when they pay a lot of money and you're over in Holland, you try not to think about it. But everyone is talking about it, everyone is watching you and if you make a little mistake about whether you're worth the money or not. My agent came to my house and said he'd seen a shopping centre built for a little less than what they'd paid for me: pounds 10m. Of course it's absurd, it's too much money for a footballer."

His critics said it was too much for Stam - notably through Holland's World Cup campaign - and the Dutchman felt their every barb. "You start reading about it and I started thinking about it, which made my game harder. You can only do bad things in a game. But I talked to Alex and Brian Kidd and they just said, `We know what you can do, just play your own game as you did in Holland and everything will be OK'. When people at the club have confidence in you that really helps."

Other factors made the transition from PSV uncomfortable. Stam was a latecomer to the ranks of professional football. Until he was persuaded by the former Dutch international Theo de Jong to sign professional for FC Zwolle, the nearest league club to Kampen, Stam was happily enjoying his youth and playing left-back for Kampen in the amateur leagues. De Jong wanted Stam to come a year earlier, but Jaap's father said his son had to finish his schooling first. De Jong took Stam on a whistlestop tour through Dutch football: from Zwolle to Cambuur Leeuwarden and on to Willem II; where De Jong went, Stam followed. De Jong, now a freelance technical consultant who runs his own scouting business, switched Stam from full-back to centre-half at Willem, but he never had any doubts about his protege's ability.

"He had so much power in his legs, even then, and he had a fantastic mentality for the game," he recalled last week. "He enjoyed playing and he worked very hard and listened to what coaches told him. I took him with me everywhere I went because I knew his quality, but when PSV came in for him I couldn't stop him, he had to take that step further. He was ready." In a mere four seasons, Stam progressed from his local club to PSV where Dick Advocaat was blending the experience of Wim Jonk and Jan Wouters with the explosive talent of a young Brazilian called Ronaldo. Stam has packed a lifetime into the last five of his 26 years.

"I was actually quite small when I was young. No one believes me now, but I have pictures at home. It wasn't until I was about 16 that I began to grow and develop as a player. I always watched professional football and my father played at an amateur level, but I didn't think I wanted to become a pro. It was only later when I went to Zwolle that I began to think about it. For me, a late start was a good thing. A lot of kids who start too early get bored. I'd done all the things I wanted to do, I'd enjoyed myself, having fun and playing as an amateur and that was important."

Manchester United are just beginning to find out the dimensions of their pounds 10m import, once labelled "the defender of the future" by Advocaat. If they thought their purchase would be a new Steve Bruce, they were wrong. Stam is far quicker and much more reserved. De Jong used to goad Stam on purpose, giving him the same instruction over and over until he found breaking point. "He would just shout, `Get out of my head' and his next tackle would hurt. But he's not an angry, shouting sort of guy. Laziness, fooling around, that will make him angry, but on the pitch he will do his job and expect everyone else to do theirs."

Stam has copped his share of Schmeichel's earfuls. "Not a problem; it keeps you awake," he says. The dressing-room tirades of the manager have surprised him a little more. "I met Alex at pre-season and everything was relaxed, but when the season started if you did something wrong he came in at half-time and was very angry. He was expressing himself in his way and I was a bit surprised because he was a different man. I was used to it. Advocaat was a bit the same, shouting, that's just the way they are. He [Ferguson] is a hard man, but he's straight. If you do something wrong, he'll tell you and that's the way it should be."

After that hesitant start, the fortunes of United and their new centre-half have improved in tandem. United are starting to run into some mean form in time for the contrasting visits of Fulham in the FA Cup next Sunday and Arsenal three days later. Victories over Charlton and Derby, both 1-0 (Dwight Yorke), brought United rare breathing space at the top of the Premier League last week and revived memories of similarly grafted results, courtesy of Eric Cantona, in United's last championship season. Ronaldo and Internazionale wait around the corner, an unspoken threat as yet.

Stam's last head-to-head with his old team-mate ended in defeat for Holland after a penalty shoot-out. The Dutch had videoed the Brazilians taking penalties at a training session. On tape, the penalties all went low; in Marseille, each one rocketed into the top corner. Ronaldo's goal was a bigger blow to Stam's morale. "My first international for Holland was against Brazil and Ronaldo and having played with him, I know him well," Stam says. "He is quick with the ball and without the ball and has good technical skills, but I like playing against a strong striker, you know what you're up against."

If Ronaldo's menace is subdued and United march on to the final, Jaap Stam's transition will surely be complete. That pounds 10m will seem cheap at the price.

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