As a student of infectious diseases - London School of Tropical Medicine, post-graduate studies - Arjan de Zeeuw is ideally placed to discuss today's south coast derby between Portsmouth and Southampton. After all, little in football rages more intensely, or more contagiously, than this most heated of derbies. Especially when Premiership survival is at stake.
But then the Portsmouth captain has always had a cool head. Aggressive, passionate, hard-tackling. but also, yes, "relatively calm", De Zeeuw admits. Even when he misses his lift home to conduct this interview, and invokes the ire of the kit man because he "talks too much" instead of getting changed out of his training gear, the 35-year-old Dutch central defender remains supremely, engagingly, unflappable.
"And the team that does that," De Zeeuw contends, "will end up winning." Calmness is, nevertheless, in short supply right now, and not just because of the return of Southampton's manager, Harry Redknapp, to Fratton Park for the first time since he walked out - forced out, he argues - last November. Four hundred policemen will be on duty this lunchtime, security guards have been employed and the mercury is soaring. But this fixture was always ringed in the calendar of both sets of fans no matter what the circumstances - which were given added spice yesterday when Southampton went to the bottom of the Premiership table thanks to Norwich City's defeat of Charlton.
"I know they were saying, at the start of the season, 'Oh, it's a great time to play them'," recalls De Zeeuw. "But as it has panned out we both really, really need the points. They need them to get out of the relegation zone and we need them to stay away from it. This is a big game, besides all the emotions and all the stuff about it being a derby."
That emotion is hard to escape. "The problem is people want to drag so many things into it," De Zeeuw says, "but we don't want to lose sight of what the main target is. And that is Premier League survival. We said that at the start of the season, when Harry Redknapp was here, and since Alain Perrin has taken over we still have the one target. To be safe. For a long time it looked like it would happen relatively comfortably, but with all the things that have been going on we've been distracted. But we can now, just about, get that safety by winning on Sunday. We'd all but guarantee it."
The upheavals have been hard to take. "The problem was that we never really knew what was going on," De Zeeuw admits. "No one knew. And there have been sudden changes. It's not been easy, but it's not been easy for the kit man [still lurking, it must be said] and people working in the offices either. You try to focus on the game, but it's not easy when everything around you is changing." As captain, has De Zeeuw has tried to step in when it matters?
"Yes, I do," he says. "I try to encourage my team-mates, say, 'Come on, let's play the game, let's forget this'. During the transfer window we had a lot of speculation about players going to various places. And that's not easy either. At the time we were also dealing with a change of manager, and that makes it even harder. But we now have continuity and must forget about all that."
After Redknapp was the Velimir Zajec interregnum. It was a period in which De Zeeuw showed his mettle. He scored the winning goal in the Croat's first game, away to Bolton, in which there was also the infamous spitting incident involving El Hadji Diouf, and the late equaliser to set up a home victory against West Brom.
In both games De Zeeuw was man of the match. "It just happened," he says. "I was determined to try and get everyone focused. We worked like mad as a team. We dug in for each other and I was lucky enough to get two goals. As a team we upped it that little bit because we knew everything around us was in upheaval." The run came to an abrupt halt. "It's just a shame we couldn't carry it on," De Zeeuw says. "It hasn't been easy."
The "meagre" run led to the sudden arrival of the Frenchman Perrin and another spectacular start, with victory over Charlton - a club De Zeeuw admires, for the way they have grown organically, and hopes Portsmouth will eventually emulate. "It's fantastic what they have done," he says, "but the key to it all is simply to stay in the Premiership."
De Zeeuw concedes that it was always going to be more difficult in Portsmouth's second season in the top flight. "In the first year everything goes on adrenalin," he says. "You're so caught up in it and so are the fans. In the second year it's not that there's any less passion."
It is just that visiting teams have acclimatised to the culture shock of Fratton Park and the committed support. "A lot of teams came here and thought, 'Oh, my God, what is this place?" De Zeeuw says. He senses that with the new appointment will come much-needed continuity. "It's not an interim manager. It's not someone who's going at the season's end. It's someone who's going to take the job from now until 2007. So we know what we're going to get and he's trying to improve us as players, as a team, as a club. It's not a quick-fix solution."
De Zeeuw would never deal in such things. The son of a carpenter - his father later worked in a steel plant, before dying of lung cancer - he has always been careful to build. This is his 10th year in English football and it is interesting that he spent four years at Barnsley, including that single, dizzying flirtation with the Premiership, and three at Wigan Athletic before joining Portsmouth. "Three working-class towns," he says. "I've noticed that, too. The thing about them is that the sport is very genuine, very passionate, very enjoyable."
It wasn't always sport for De Zeeuw. "I had to choose between medicine and football," he says, "and I chose football because I had to do it 100 per cent." He collected a masters degree in medical science before moving from Holland, and has recently picked up his studies again. "I'm getting a bit older now," he says, "and thought I'd try and do a little bit - getting into study habits and all that. It's been strange but I've really enjoyed it. It's a nice break from football."
His specialism is infectious diseases, partly because of the "entertaining and enthusiastic professor" he had as a younger student. De Zeeuw is on a distance-learning course, though he will go to London for an exam on 3 June - before which he hopes that Portsmouth's Premiership future is secure.
At the end of his football career, will it be sport or medicine? "I don't know," he says. "Football has pulling power." Maybe he will work in sports medicine. It would be, he says, a shame to waste his studies. "But I love football and it's a great game to be involved in," De Zeeuw adds. Indeed, it's infectious.Reuse content