At the turn of 2015, as recruitment teams of Europe’s elite clubs were mining who could be the coveted Next Big Thing, they circled to one common name: Memphis Depay.
Not that he was much of a secret given his decorative, decisive performances for PSV Eindhoven were powering them towards Eredivisie champions status.
His 22 goals in 30 league games ended up being the headline figure, but deeper data suggested a player that excelled in every significant final-third metric.
More still, beyond the numbers, the young Dutchman’s football arrogance and surety marked him out as a prospect that would thrive rather than wilt as a talisman.
Depay’s camp were inundated with discussions over his future, and PSV - smelling a hefty profit - were granting permission for talks at will to the apex predators.
Marcel Brands, their sporting director at the time, would speak about a “sea of interest” but ultimately the only concrete commitment came from Manchester United.
Brendan Rodgers’ insistence that pursing Depay “wasn’t something that was ever one we [Liverpool] were interested in” wasn’t true. The Merseysiders were heavily invested in the process and spoke to the attacker, but it’s at that point that issues arose.
The manager was not convinced over his attitude and whether he’d be able to apply himself in terms of the pressing and defensive demands. The feeling was that football was ‘something Depay did, not what he was fully dedicated to.’
All the hubris about not wanting another wide option because “we already have four wingers at the club: Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe, Adam Lallana and Lazar Markovic” was spin, because there was conviction he could evolve into a central menace.
Rodgers was not alone in this assessment and Louis van Gaal, who called him up for the 2014 World Cup and was his manager during a wasted spell at United, still maintains there will “always be a question mark” around Depay.
The answer to ‘why’ has nothing to do with his on-pitch ability, as his luminary role for Lyon has again demonstrated with Barcelona aiming to recruit him.
And it opens up wider questions on football’s tendency to discriminate against talents that don’t colour inside the lines.
Depay is, erm, eccentric. He has posed with a liger on Instagram, has a penchant for fancy kitchens, raps, already boasts an autobiography, tried to get baptised in the same river as Jesus, is a fashion designer and aspiring actor.
That simply scratches the surface, but should any of that detract from his contributions for club and country? After all, it’s not a stretch to deduce that how the Netherlands fair at the Euros will largely depend on his right foot.
Clearly none of his other interests detract from his football, and if flagging his United stint, it is worth noting he was 21, needed to adjust to the physical load of playing at a supreme intensity twice a week, and was straightjacketed by a numbingly safe approach.
There will also be a chorus of those who suggest Depay could scale heights in the sport if he dedicated more of his time to it, but not everyone wants to be defined by their career 24/7.
Nor should they need to be or is it particularly healthy, especially when retirement comes knocking. Van Gaal underlined that Depay is “not Cristiano Ronaldo nor Lionel Messi” and, actually, so what?
He is… happy. “I now have the freedom to be myself everywhere,” the 27-year-old told Gaffer magazine. “In the past, when I was younger, I used to think maybe people are not going to accept me if I am not really what they like or if I am too loud.
“This is just me. You either rock with it or not. Now, everyday, I’m making sure that I am just going to be me in every room I walk into.”
As a multi-millionaire, the dedication to being himself might have you shrugging your shoulders and rolling your eyes. But it is not easy in in industry that actively rails against in, filtering into everything like recruitment decisions and press coverage.
More significantly, Depay was not born with it all made for him. Instead of forcing footballers to fit whatever mould is perceived to be right, we should try to understand them as individuals.
Memphis was born in the quiet and reserved rural village of Moordrecht, which his Ghanaian father exited when the forward was only three. In his autobiography Heart of a Lion, which offers very deep recollections of his life and vulnerable moments, he details his mother’s remarriage to a neighbour who already had 10 kids.
“Mostly it involved fights with the fists, but I was also threatened with a knife a number of times,” he wrote. “Another time a boy clamped a pair of pliers on my ear and started pulling hard. I was constantly on my guard. I was called ‘monkey’ and ‘s***head’.”
Bullied, he found it difficult to fit in or to trust anyone - including himself. He switched to survival mode and football offered him a gateway to finally learn how to express himself. The creativity and sense of belonging he found on the field would permeate other corners of his life.
Through the strands of his book, it is evident that Depay longed for happiness and a concrete state of identity that did not have to be removed from each other.
Growing up, he found that sense of comfort and acceptance while living with his grandparents, Kees and Jans. Now, he is happy being who he in regardless of all the noise. You either rock with it or you don’t.
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