There are some players who have an inflated sense of their own ability when they are young, talented, play for a decorated club and appear regularly in the newspapers. The media, the spotlight, the fame and the mega bucks surely make it difficult to keep the feet on the ground, not least if they came from poor backgrounds.
Before they realise, later on in life, that maybe they weren’t as good as they were told to be. That’s often when the clock can’t be turned back anymore. That’s when the damage has irreversibly been done. The talent has been wasted, the career has been underwhelming and the limelight has gone for good, the women chasing you for your family name either, not least the colossal pay day. Sooner or later they will wake up and realise that they lived in a bubble and that the profile of the person and the player they thought they were doesn’t match the real one.
For former Ajax Amsterdam player Mitchell Donald however, none of the above-listed reasons had to do with the struggles he has faced to make the grade at the top level. He has always kept a low profile, even when the Dutch media was heralding him as the ‘next superstar’ a decade ago.
The injuries were the primary reason why he went from Ajax to mid-table club Roda Kerkrade in 2011 rather than to Arsenal or Valencia.
He joined the famous Ajax academy ‘De Toekomst’ in 1998 at the age of 10 and left as a 23-year old. But while his friends Wesley Sneijder, Urby Emanuelson and Maarten Stekelenburg made a name for themselves in European football, Mitchell’s dreams have spiralled out of control on the back of a life-changing injury back in 2007. He doesn’t want to dwell on it now, but nor does he want to run from it. It happened, it’s part of his story. It hurt when he saw his boyhood friends leaving for Serie A and the Premier League while he was involved in a relegation battle with Roda Kerkrade, despite being the more talented player in the youth academy. But ‘that’s in the past’ as he said adding that ‘I only regret that I couldn’t have played more for Ajax’s first-team’.
Everything could have been different but ‘you have to accept life as it comes’. And that’s exactly what he did by ‘living it to the fullest’ without looking back.
When I met Mitchell on the eve of Red Star Belgrade’s Europa League tie against Arsenal at the Hotel Landmark in central London, he came off as the typical Dutchman. Tall and strong on the one hand, opinionated, outspoken, humble and self-confident, yet level-headed on the other hand. That’s what I like about them, some might have a ‘belligerent, in-your-face’ attitude, but deep own they are real, they will always speak their mind, they will never say ‘good’ if they mean ‘bad’ or the other way round.
Thus, I took advantage to ask him about the crisis of Dutch football, his Ajax memories and whether or not he sees himself playing in the Serbian league for much longer.
You played for Ajax Amsterdam between 1998 when you joined as a 9-year old kid and played until 2011. What are the best memories from that time ?
I have a lot of sweet memories but if I have to pick one of them or two I would say my debut against Werder Bremen when I was 18 years old. That was definitely one of the sweetest things.
Also my goal against Benfica in the Amsterdam tournament, which was precisely one year after my big injury.
Do you also hold less positive memories ?
Yes, my big injury, which I got against Inter Milan in the 46th minute. I think it happened in August and that was a very bad moment but it makes you tougher.
Do you have any regrets ?
No, I am a person who tries to give a positive swing to everything and I think you need to live life to the fullest and have no regrets.
When you burst onto the scene in 2007, did you envisage something that hasn’t quite happened afterwards ? Maybe playing for Real Madrid or Barcelona as many young Ajax players do ?
No, for me the main thing was always to be value for Ajax’s first-team itself because especially when you are that young that’s the only thing you think about and I was there and I showed that I could handle the level. And as I always said maybe you need luck sometimes and more support but it goes how it needs to go.
But I am not hiding that I wished I could have played more and been more value for the first-team. Definitely.
You played with some incredible players. I can’t mention them all but if I name Suarez, did you expect him to go on and become such a world-class player when he first joined Ajax from Groningen in 2007 ?
You could see that he had some really, really great class.That I could say that he would become this big at Barcelona? Maybe. But you could see that he was extra, different.
As a person, is he the ‘’Chiellini-guy’’ or the good family person ?
He is a family guy that’s for sure, I always saw his family there. But we were young and didn’t really hang out a lot with each other. I was 18 or 19 so I was more focused on getting my place among Ajax’s 18 players. I had my day-one friends with whom I spent time after training but he was definitely one of the greats I played with, he also gave me two assists. But these days, I am no longer in contact with Luis.
If in 10 years your children ask you ‘Daddy, who are the 3 best players you played with in your career’, what are you gonna respond to them ?
That’s so hard. I played with Wesley Sneijder, Jaap Stam, Davids, Vertonghen, Vermaelen, Alderweireld, Emanuelson, Gabri, Oleguer, Stekelenburg, Ryan Babel. A lot, a lot so it’s very hard to choose but if you really want me to name 3 names I will say Sneijder, Suarez and Davids. These three top my list.
What is happening to Dutch football at the moment. The national team failed to qualify for two consecutive major tournaments and the Eredivisie isn’t what it used to be either. What needs to be done to get Dutch football flying again?
Well, I am not a specialist. But if I can give my personal opinion, I think that the team changes too much. You have a lot of talents, guys who are performing well but before it was really hard to get into the national team while sometimes now I see some names that I say to myself ‘ok, they came around the corner, big talents, and they are already in the national team without proving it consistently’. This is something I don’t agree on. But they, the coaches and their staff, are the specialists and know better than me. At the end of the day, you need to be consistent when playing for your club to reach your level. But I think that overall you need a little bit more than talent alone to qualify for the World Cup or Euro.And that’s what Holland lacked, but it isn’t the only thing.
And I think that Dutch football lacks aggressive players, players with a strong personality.
Back in the day, there were Nigel De Jong and Van Bommel, guys with a temper and who could kick somebody, guys who led by example and showed that you have to go for two-hundred per cent and not for 100 whereas now you have too many ‘kind’ guys.
These days, you have many great talents, players who can play fantastically but that’s not sufficient. On hard times like these for football in Holland, you need to rely on something else other than your talent like experience, character and dirty work.
Some pundits say it will be close to impossible to replace Van Persie, Robben and Sneijder in the next 15 years.They also say that the young Dutch players these days aren’t as good as the old ones.
No, I think that they have the potential. Look at Memphis Depay. What I hear about him in the news isn’t very good. He has so much potential to become the next big star but people focus more on what car he has and what does off the pitch rather than giving him credit for what he does on it. And I don’t agree with all of this. He has worked very hard to achieve all that because he wasn’t just standing there with his hands open asking for it. If you score a hattrick every week and buy a Rolls Royce why is it a problem the?
That’s not realistic for me. I think they are just looking for excuses to blame him when he is playing badly. This is not the way I look at football. For me you have to judge someone based on what he does on the pitch, not off it. Find a way to make him better and not to break him down.
Personally, I don’t know Memphis very well but as a footballer I love his style. Another player I like is Quincy Promes, another fantastic player. These guys have the potential to be good, all they need now is to show it on the highest levels…consistently.
So, reading between the lines, if you had been born six or seven years later you’d have played more often for Holland?
No, that’s not what I try to say. What I want to say is that there are a lot of good talents, I was one of them. Not just me, in my position there were other great players who didn’t make it to the first-team like Ruud Vermer. I played with him, he is a fantastic guy who definitely deserved a call-up by the national team, which unfortunately never came his way.
Do you think that there are also managerial problems in Dutch football? Hiddink and Advocaat are ageing while De Boer and Koeman have been sacked.
Football is like a chain reaction. It’s easy to point the finger at the coach, it’s easy to point at the players or at the directors. But at the end of the day, it’s all related to each other. I am not a fan of pointing my finger at people. All I can say, people make mistakes. Players, directors, managers are humans, thus they make mistakes.
But we need to learn from those mistakes, that’s what we need to keep in mind.
Ronald Koeman will be the next coach of Holland. And I think that he will succeed because he is a coach with a lot of experience and knows how the game goes.
He did a great job at both Southampton and Everton. And despite getting sacked, he can always keep his head held up high because he always gave everything and he will do the same in the national team.I am sure of it.
What are the main differences between Dutch and Serbian football and which league is the better one for you ?
The Dutch Eredivisie is better. There is much more money in Dutch football and also a better organization as well. If you have a bigger budget, the pitches and stadiums are also better as a consequence. That’s the main difference between the two leagues. But I can say that there are loads of big talents in Serbian football despite the country being so small.
Who is worth keeping an eye on and who can become really amazing?
Well, if they were really amazing they wouldn’t be here. From my team, we have Racic and Radonjic, we have many talented players who can become really good players but eventually it will all come down to the character and the right choices.
How do you see yourself in 10 years’ time? As a manager, sporting director or do you quit the footballing world forever once you retire?
I will never leave the football world because I love football too much. I have a long way to go with my own career but why not being manager, coach or an agent when I retire. But what’s fore sure is that I will stick around with football.
Do you want to stay at Red Star Belgrade or do you plot a return to Holland or maybe a different league?
The thing is, I am very satisfied here. I want to stay in Red Star, that’s the thing that I want to get out of the system but what I always say is I am an ambitious player, I am 28, soon 29 so if there is a very good opportunity for me, I will consider whether I go or not. But at the moment, I am not busy with any transfers or whatsoever. Behind the scenes, people are talking but don’t believe anything that you hear or read.
Don’t you like journalists ?
I do not have a problem with journalists. At the end of the day we all do our jobs. I do mine, you do your’s. So if you want to use the words that I used, I like you. If you twist my words, that’s ok, if you feel better with it…it doesn’t affect me, I am not young anymore and thus not vulnerable. When you are young you’re a little bit vulnerable. But not at my age, I am not young anymore. Even if journalists twist my words, I am still the same person and in the same position. Nothing will change for me. I will always get the opportunity to speak with the camera again, if it’s not with you, it will be with someone else.
Do you miss Amsterdam ?
Always, it’s my hometown. I will always miss Amsterdam, a special city.
What are the differences with Belgrade ?
In Amsterdam, you can see in one day 50 different cultures. In Serbia not, Belgrade is a very nice city but of course Amsterdam is Amsterdam…I will always miss it.
Can you tell me your favourite Ajax starting eleven of all time ?
Edwin Van der Sar in goal, Reiziger right-back, Maxwell left-back, in the centre of the defence Frank De Boer and Jan Vertonghen, in midfield Davids, Seedorf, Litmanen and Overmars, up-front Suarez and Kluivert.
You have left Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp out.
Of course, those were world-class players, but I don’t want to go that far back nor do I want to leave Kluivert and Overmars out.