Overmars to provide cutting edge
Glenn Moore talks to the Dutch speedster who prefers to live life in the slow lane
Their main signing, the most enticing of the summer, is Marc Overmars, a pounds 6m recruit from Ajax. His pedigree is impressive - he is a European Cup winner and World Cup quarter-finalist - and his past uncommon.
Overmars, who makes his Arsenal debut at Leeds United today, grew up on a family farm. It was a smallholding which had made little investment in mechanisation. Thus, come time for the potato harvest, Overmars would yoke himself with a rope and haul along a cart while, behind him, other family members pulled out the crop. This, he thinks, may have contributed to his renowned pace.
As muscle-building tales go, it is up there with the claim that Dickie Bird prepared for a season's umpiring by standing for hours with bags of sugar attached to his legs and that Anthony Nesty, Surinam's first Olympic swimming champion, gained his speed in shark-infested waters. This one, however, appears to be at least partially true.
"I grew up on a farm," said Overmars when we met this week. "I used to help my grandfather who had no machines, no tractors. Each year when we harvested potatoes we had to do it with a rope from the front and few men standing on a platform. We would pull them along while they pulled up potatoes. They told me: `This is good for you Marc'. Every year they would phone me and say: `It is harvest time'." His grandfather, incidentally, still lives on the farm. He is, said Overmars with noticeable pride, 94 years old.
Overmars also attributes his pace to his mother - "she was quick but, being a farmer, had no time for sports" - and some weight-training he did as a small, slightly built teenager.
In those days, he was a junior with Go Ahead Eagles. Unlike most Ajax graduates, he did not come through the celebrated system but joined, at 19, from Willem II. No sooner did he arrive than the team took off, winning everything available.
"We were only 22, 23 and we were so confident, every game we would go on the pitch whistling, expecting to win 3-1 or 4-1. And we were so popular, everywhere we went. It was unbelievable." His eyes are full of the happy memories but then his voice drops as he adds "but it is impossible to keep a team at that kind of level."
Ravaged by Bosman, Ajax fell from grace, barely making the Uefa Cup last May as players came and went. Eventually Overmars joined the exodus consummating a move to Arsenal which had been long forecast.
"I spoke to Dennis Bergkamp many times, though his being here was not the reason I came. He said he was much more settled than in Italy and felt good. I think this is a country where I can be successful and enjoy the football. When I see the Italian game it is like chess. I don't like playing against them as there is so much emphasis on defence."
Overmars will start the season on the left flank for Arsenal, who have reverted to a 4-4-2 system. "I do more running but I expect that," he said. "I used to be a midfielder at 15, 16 so I am used to it. I have been told I have three positions, left and right wing or, when Ian [Wright] or Dennis are suspended or injured, I could play in the middle behind the centre-forward." Although two-footed, he expresses a slight preference for the left whence he bewildered Norwich in Arsenal's 6-2 win on Monday night.
He has already noticed a few differences. "The speed of the game is much quicker. Even in training it is very fast. At Ajax we have a few minutes passing, then attack, we wait for the moment. Here it is so quick mistakes are made. There is also more space, with Ajax we were always pushing to get through as other teams defended with 10 against us."
He also believes the refereeing is lenient, though his team-mates, after 83 Premiership bookings and six dismissals last year, may not agree. Overmars, who has had one yellow card in his career, said: "When they kick me around my personality is not such that I get angry. I stand up and walk away. I am not a diver either, I prefer to try and score."
Overmars first came to prominence in England for winning the penalty which earned the Dutch a 2-2 draw in a World Cup qualifier at Wembley. It was won after he demonstrated his pace by skinning Des Walker. That pace is a big component of his game and there were naturally fears that he would lose it when he suffered a serious knee injury early last year.
"I have done tests since and I am just as fast as before. Personally, I was never afraid I would not recover, it was simply a matter of time. I tried to get back for Euro '96 but it was impossible.
"While it was not nice, I learned from the experience. Not playing for six to eight months makes you much hungrier when you start again. You need the bad times to appreciate the good. With Ajax we won so many prizes we did not enjoy it properly. We won the European Cup and a day later we were training as normal and we thought: `We should enjoy this'."
That was not always easy under Louis van Gaal, the then Ajax coach who has joined Barcelona. "He does have a temper," confirmed Overmars. "There were many times we were meeting after the game on a Monday when he got so angry his face went red. But he is so good as a coach. From player No 1 to No 20 he gives everyone the same time, the same feeling that he is important. The quality of him was that he could see what you were doing wrong and get you training on it.
"He was my trainer for five years. He bought me and improved me a lot. He demands a lot but you have to admire his energy. Every day he was sharp. He never missed anything in training.
"But there were times when there were too many orders. After a while you wanted to do some things by instinct not the system."
And so to a Highbury great with expectation. "I don't feel under pressure because I expect things from myself also. When I was 18, Willem bought me for a lot of money, it was not a problem for me. Nor when Ajax bought me.
"I want to win prizes. I am used to doing that every year. I am 24 and young and hungry. For me there are two important prizes, the League and the Cup. There is also the Coca-Cola and, yes, Europe, but it is not the Champions' League."
That last line gives away the standards this small, neat and composed man is used to. Looking through his words he appears arrogant, but that has not come across in person as we have sat in the Hertfordshire hotel where he temporarily lodges. The afternoon is to be spent house-hunting in the local villages. Rumours that he is a playboy appear unfounded as he says: "I come from a small village and prefer to live in the country. I like to see the sights but London is so big, even Amsterdam is big for me."
He leaves with the complaint "the houses are so expensive round here". It is an odd comment for a highly paid star, but not for a farmer's son brought up to seek value for money and also to provide it. Arsenal may have found a diamond.
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