Willems treads the path of football romance

One of the First Division's most exciting imports talks to Phil Shaw about how his expectations have been met since joining Derby County from Grasshopper Zurich

When Vinnie Jones sought to justify his scything challenge on Ruud Gullit by bemoaning the "money-grabbing foreigners" who had "danced and pranced on British soccer", he raised wry smiles at Derby County as well as the bizarre image of a bunch of mincing mercenaries.

Jim Smith, manager of the First Division leaders, has always felt that more dancing and prancing would not go amiss amid the domestic hurly burly. "We need fewer labourers," he says, meaning no disrespect to Jones's previous profession, "and more artistes."

Putting Derby's money where his mouth is, Smith has bought Igor Stimac, Croatia's answer to Franz Beckenbauer, plus two Dutchmen, Robin Van der Laan and Ron Willems, since arriving last summer. Van der Laan, the captain, speaks with a Potteries accent and is easily mistaken for a British midfielder after five years here.

Willems, while the first to admit he is no Johan Cruyff, is a different story. As one who once pushed Marco van Basten for a place in the Netherlands team, and was eventually succeeded by Dennis Bergkamp at Ajax, he brings distinctively Continental qualities to life below the Premiership.

Whisper it to Vinnie, but that world is becoming ever more cosmopolitan. For example, Derby's visitors today, Reading, have a Bulgarian goalkeeper, Bobby Mihailov, and a Polish defender, Dariusz Wdowczyk. Next week the man shadowing Willems may be Canada's most-capped player, Randy Samuel. He is now with Port Vale, against whom Russia's Sergei Yuran and Vasili Kulkov make their Millwall debuts this afternoon.

The Moscow Spartak duo appeared in all six Champions' League matches in the autumn. Willems could have done likewise, having helped Grasshopper of Zurich to the Swiss title last season, only to join Derby for pounds 300,000. What possessed him to do it?

The answer, in part, lies in the very room we are in, the directors' suite in the bowels of the Baseball Ground. Here, where Derby players once barricaded themselves in to demand Brian Clough's reinstatement, Willems gestures in awe at the trophies, mementoes and pictures of bygone Rams. This money-grabbing foreigner is, it transpires, a bit of a football romantic.

Even the location of the stadium, among a labyrinth of red-brick terraced houses near the city centre, influenced his choice. "Football is the people's game and it shouldn't be out of town in the country or the suburbs," he says, "though I know clubs sometimes have to move to make progress. Before games, you see the crowds going along the streets, which is exciting.

"People have said I must be crazy to leave Zurich for this. But we'd just won the championship and hardly anyone in the city seemed to have noticed. I wanted a fresh challenge, somewhere where football really matters. Here the grounds are full, the atmosphere's great and there's more strength in depth than in Europe."

To support his argument, Willems looks back to meetings with Leeds in the two cups and a friendly. Derby lost each one, yet twice they were level entering stoppage time. In the Netherlands, for all the achievements at international level, he perceives a "big difference" not only between the top division and the rest, but between three teams and the others.

While the name of Ajax leaps out of his c.v., Willems made his initial impact with a provincial club, Zwolle. He was associated with them from the age of six - he is now 29 - and appeared in the First Division before his 16th birthday. From there he moved to Twente Enschede, where the former Derby and England winger Gordon Hill was a colleague, and was top scorer for the Dutch Olympic side.

When he landed his big move to Ajax, in 1988, he was a contender for the national team. But first van Basten saw off all rivals by having a brilliant European Championship; then injuries meant Willems' club partnership with the Swede, Stefan Petersen, was stillborn. A useful teenager slipped into the void. "Bergkamp took my place, and to be fair he did it quite well," he recalls, chuckling at the understatement.

As a player bought rather than developed by Ajax, he felt he was not "part of the process". During his fifth year in Amsterdam, he decided he was too old to sit on the bench and began looking for a club. Nottingham Forest, then in their relegation season, invited him over.

"I played in the reserves, scored and thought I'd done well. But I was told Brian Clough didn't even watch the game and I never heard another thing about it. Now I've ended up 15 miles away. It's a small world."

A compatriot, Leo Beenhakker, signed him for Grasshopper, where Willems fulfilled his early potential alongside Ciriaco Sforza and Alain Sutter. The hankering to try "a big football country" remained strong, however. After a glowing reference from Roy Hodgson, who was then Switzerland's manager and now coaches Internazionale of Milan, Smith snapped him up.

Willems' strength and heading ability - he is a six-footer - led Derby to use him as an out-and-out attacker until a chance conversation at a reserve match. Joe Jordan asked whether he was playing behind the front two. When Smith said no, Jordan remembered Willems was "different class" for Ajax in the floating role favoured by the likes of Beardsley, Sheringham, Barmby and of course Bergkamp.

Anyone operating there must be part-midfielder - with good passing skills - and part-striker - able to make runs into scoring positions. In November, when Smith was at last able to play Willems, Marco Gabbiadini and Dean Sturridge together, he decided the former's touch and intelligence made him ideally suited to playing off the front pair.

"The attraction," according to Smith, "is that more often than not, no one picks him up. Huddersfield went man-for-man on Ronnie, but he still got the winner. I used this system successfully at Portsmouth with Alan McLoughlin, and probably only two teams a season man-marked him."

The revised formation, incorporating Stimac as sweeper, swept Derby from 17th to top in seven weeks. Willems has scored eight times in nine games, and is revelling in the freedom the position allows. "There's not much space to play in this division. Against Leeds and in another friendly with Spurs, we found they gave us more room. If we do go up, I think our style would suit the Premiership."

Willems' observations on the game in his adopted country are instructive in this, the year of the European Championship. If training at Derby is "not so different" to Ajax's, there is less time to practise because of the congested fixture lists. He also finds the length of the sessions here, up to two and a half hours, "a bit surprising".

Technically, players in England are better than Willems was led to believe. He sees a greater disparity in tactics, being amazed by the number of managers deploying four defenders against two strikers. "We're more advanced in the Netherlands, but that can make boring football where everyone cancels each other out. You don't get many games like last week, when we were two up on Leeds and lost 4-2."

As for the fabled ferocity of League football, Willems has mixed feelings. "The tempo is very fast, relentless, but I've got no problems with the tackles as long as they're on the ball." Which is where we came in, although Mr Jones and the Premiership can wait until next season.

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