Exclusive interview: Jan Vertonghen spurred on by Tottenham's fight for fourth

After a fascinating journey Spurs’ new defender is loving life at the Lane, having settled quickly into the team... and he sees no reason why they can’t make a push for a European spot

When it came to selecting the Tottenham players who would hand out Christmas presents to children in the North Middlesex Hospital’s Rainbow ward, Jan Vertonghen was the ideal candidate. If only because the Belgium international was born in the East Flanders town of Sint-Niklaas, which for many years claimed to be home to the biggest Christmas tree in Europe.

Vertonghen, 25, is a small-town boy at heart. He was quite happy living in the village of Tielrode playing football with his brothers Ward and Lode until his talent marked him out as a footballer who deserved a greater stage. First he went to Beerschot, the Antwerp club that  nurtured Thomas Vermaelen, and then, at the age of 16, to the fabled Ajax academy in Amsterdam.

Last season, he was voted the footballer of the year in the Netherlands, some achievement when you look at the past winners – Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Luis Suarez among them – and was signed by Tottenham for £10m. He has come a long way since he was the boy who reluctantly left Tielrode to move to Antwerp, 16 miles away, all those years ago.

Some things have not changed. When Vertonghen arrived at Beerschot he made friends with a kid from Antwerp with remarkable natural ability. Thirteen years on, that same boy, once again a team-mate, was alongside Vertonghen in the hospital ward this week. Mousa Dembélé was, Vertonghen says, always going to be a star. Even when he was 11 years old, Dembélé played a year above his age group. For Vertonghen it did not come as easily.

“Mousa and I have always stayed in contact and we play together in the national team as well,” Vertonghen says. “I had read in the papers he was moving to a bigger club. I spoke to him about Tottenham. Two or three weeks before the end of the transfer window I called him and said: ‘What are you doing? You are still at Fulham! When are you going to move?’ He said, ‘I’m talking with Tottenham’ and next day he was there.”

The pair of them are part of the Spurs side under Andre Villas-Boas which in many respects looks very different from the team that developed under Harry Redknapp. Injuries have limited Dembélé’s involvement so far but Vertonghen is already a regular, albeit in his less-favoured left-back position, a necessity following the injury to Benoît Assou-Ekotto.

Ask Vertonghen if Tottenham, who play Swansea City at home tomorrow, can finish fourth this season again, under Villas-Boas and he is blunt. “Yeah, we can. Still we need to do a lot of work but we can get fourth.” This, however, was a player with a lot of interested suitors in the summer, so why Spurs?

“They showed me they really wanted me. They invited me, they said to me, ‘You are going to play in your favourite position!” He pauses for effect, because he is not playing in his favourite position, centre-back. “I’m joking! They played the same attacking football that I played at Ajax and I think there is a big future at the club. I’m convinced of that so I’m happy with my decisions. I think we can do things.”

He readily compares Villas-Boas with his former manager at Ajax, Frank de Boer. “He [Villas-Boas] loves attacking football. I think we have the ability to do that. I like him as a man, I think he’s a very good man and he is good for the players. He shows the same ambition. He talks with me. I think he is a good manager. We have a normal relationship.

“We play four attacking players at the moment so it is very difficult for the holding midfielders. When everybody plays the way they want to play and everybody works for the team we can be, well, put it this way, when the opposition see our team sheet they will be thinking ‘Oh no’. That’s what we want to achieve.”

All three Vertonghen boys have played football to a decent level with younger brother Lode a regular at Sportkring Sint-Niklaas, a second-tier Belgium side. Their father, Paul, who worked in a bank, and mother, Ria, insisted that Jan finish school as well as continue his football education. That was completed at Ajax’s famous academy De Toekomst – “The Future” – one of football’s most prolific talent factories.

“At first it was a completely new world to leave everything behind at 16 and move in with a family for three years in Amsterdam and go to school in the city,” Vertonghen says. “The people who looked after me were nice and I went to a school in the ‘ghetto’ neighbourhood, Bijlmer. It was the school nearest to De Toekomst.

“In the end the OSB [Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer] was the best school of my life, the best school ever. I learnt a lot of things. How to be social with people. How to talk. How to defend myself, not physically, but with words. I was always a shy little guy and I think it helped me grow up as a person. People in Holland are famous for having big mouths! So in Holland you’ve got to have a big mouth to defend yourself.”

He was picked out by Johan Cruyff, the club’s most influential figure, as a player to watch and eventually made his senior Ajax debut at the age of 19. It took him a while to establish himself, including a loan at Waalwijk, but he ended up playing under the likes of Marco van Basten, Martin Jol and De Boer, winning two Eredivisie medals along the way. The first, in 2011, was the club’s first in seven years.

Yet when he looks back now, it is a surprise that so few of those extravagantly gifted young players with whom he lived and trained made the grade. Yet here is Vertonghen, the current Dutch player of the year, an international in the exciting young Belgium team and a regular at one of the top Premier League teams.

“From my age group at Ajax, it is strange. In the year above me were seven or eight players, who have made it in the Eredivisie and others at Ajax like Kenneth Vermeer, Ryan Babel. Then it was me. Nobody else. Our team wasn’t the best but then I wasn’t the best player in my team. Not at all. I was never the best player in the teams I played for. I always needed time for development. When I played with Mousa as a kid he was the top. He always played one year higher up.”

Vertonghen is also famous in the Netherlands as the man who dropped the Eredivisie trophy not once but twice during end-of-season celebrations. The trophy is described as a shield – it’s basically a silver platter – and Vertonghen readily admits it is a remarkable coincidence he has been so clumsy with it twice.

“First time I was on top of the bus with [former Ajax goalkeeper] Maarten Stekelenburg. It wasn’t an open-top bus because you have a lot of tram cables in Amsterdam. I was so happy and I was looking behind me and I didn’t see the cable. A policeman down below shouted ‘Hey, watch out!’ We turned around. We touched the cable and with the speed of the bus we had to drop the trophy. I just have a little scar on my wrist from the incident. You can watch it all on YouTube.

“The second time I came out the bath, and was told ‘You have to do an interview’. I was thinking ‘Let me go, please’ and then – f***! – all of a sudden I dropped it on my toe. The shield is still broken but they don’t want to fix it because they think it’s a nice story. It’s in a room now at Ajax and you can see it with the broken piece.”

As a member of Belgium’s golden generation it is a natural question to ask how the hell a country of 11 million people with a hitherto modest reputation in football has produced so many good players. Having interviewed, Christian Benteke and Eden Hazard in recent weeks, I point out that every Belgian prodigy, Vertonghen included, seems to have taken a different developmental route.

“Why are there so many good players? I think because we are a little bit lucky,” he says. “Yes, seriously. After this generation in the last two or three years no one has come through. The last one was Hazard and he has already been there for two or three years. Benteke is getting stronger and stronger. I think we just got lucky. Guys like Vincent Kompany, Vermaelen and Marouane Fellaini did so well, everybody felt, ‘I want to be there too. The Premier League, amazing, we have to go.’”

“We have to qualify for the World Cup first but confidence is there to do well. We are getting stronger and stronger. The formation used to be changed every game and now there are seven or eight players who always play. Everyone feels we can do something. But because we haven’t qualified for five tournaments, the first thing is, ‘Please, qualify’. After we see what we can do.”

He is off that evening to meet up with Dembélé and friends for dinner. “I love London. It’s an amazing city and Mousa shows me where to eat. He knows everything about the place.”

Jan Vertonghen was speaking at one of the club’s annual Christmas visits to a children’s ward at North Middlesex Hospital. Gifts for the children are paid for by money from the players’ fines pot and delivered by the players themselves at four local hospitals.

My Other Life

I used to go to a pub quiz every week in Amsterdam. Just to have some food with friends and do a quiz. I love to do it because I can’t really go out. It’s my version of going out. I don’t go to drink beer. My best subject is sport but I think I also know something about the world. I haven’t found a pub in England which does a good quiz yet. At the moment, I think the questions might be too English-based for me.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?