Five years on from winning the under-21 edition of the European Championships, the Netherlands’ crop of promising young players, who took that tournament by storm, should be coming towards their peak. Instead, a mere eight have been capped, Ryan Babel, Erik Pieters and Hedwiges Maduro being the only ones to make it into double figures. Furthermore, with Euro 2012 fast approaching, just two of that winning squad have made the cut this time around, former under-21 captain Ron Vlaar travelling as backup centre half and Tim Krul as third choice keeper.
The intention of age group football, and particularly the biennial under-21 European Championships, is to prepare future internationals for the rigours of tournament football. That the step up hasn’t been made by the majority of the Netherlands’ victorious class of 2007 is, in some senses, hardly surprising. The unpredictable nature of adolescent progression and the difficulties in making the transition to senior level mean a select few ever make it to the top. After all, England took Matt Derbyshire and Justin Hoyte amongst others to the same tournament. But the Netherlands’ side that crushed Serbia 4-1 in the final seemed a different proposition altogether.
This team had pace, trickery, and self belief in abundance, dismantling a Serbian side marshalled by captain Branislav Ivanovic at the back. Scorer of the second, Babel was named man of the match but it was the insanely talented Royston Drenthe who left the biggest impression. The stocky 20 year old with the dreadlocks and ability to match his arrogance showcased an array of outrageous skills. Roaming around the pitch from a position ostensibly on the left of midfield, his sheer pace, perceptive passing and assured technique were a constant menace. He seemed set for stardom, and, having been deservedly recognised as the Player of the Tournament, a £14 million transfer from Feyenoord to Real Madrid was wrapped up shortly after.
In the intervening five years Drenthe has failed to give more than an intermittent airing to his undoubted abilities. The decision to capitalise on the post-tournament hype that surrounded this left back-cum-winger and move to Spain was a misguided one. Real Madrid, in the final flush of their Galacticos phase, were hardly the club to provide him with the stability and regular first team opportunities he so desperately needed at this stage in his development. To illustrate this point, Robben, Heinze, Sneijder and Pepe all arrived in the same transfer window. However, regardless of the chaos that enveloped the Bernabeu before Mourinho came to restore order, Drenthe hardly helped himself with his questionable temperament.
Remonstrating with managers when dropped, storming out of training, and being booed by supporters for sub-par performances meant that things went downhill quickly after a decent start at Madrid. A loan spell at underdogs Hercules seemed to reinvigorate him as he linked up well with the experienced David Trezeguet and played a key role in beating Barcelona on their own patch. Thereafter events at Hercules began to unravel, with laughably poor training facilities for a top level side and long withheld wages leading Drenthe to go on strike. This roused the ire of supporters and management once more, his loan ended early and the club were relegated come the end of a tumultuous season.
Some spritely appearances on loan at Everton led to hopes that his career could be resurrected but David Moyes turned against the Dutchman for his lax attitude to training. For the second time in successive years he returned to Real having failed to prove a point other than his penchant for self-destruction. The way Drenthe has stagnated since the highs of that under-21 Championships is a massive shame, but, even if his is the most spectacular fall from grace, his colleagues have hardly fared any better. Many arguably made the move abroad too soon. Before the tournament all but two of the Dutch 23 were domestically based. However, Babel then made an ill-fated move to Liverpool, Maceo Rigters, the tournament’s top scorer, joined Blackburn, and Daniel de Ridder’s contract ran out, seeing him relocate to a newly promoted Birmingham.
It was believed that these three would be right at home in the fast-paced Premier League but they were handled poorly. Babel got the most game time but often out wide when he had thrived as a dynamic centre forward for Ajax and the under-21s. In comparison, his strike partner Rigters never got going at Ewood Park after signing for £500,000. Despite making just two league appearances in four years, and being sent out on loan three times, he remained contracted to Blackburn until he was finally released last summer. He has subsequently left European football to pursue a career in Australia’s A League, a far cry from where he was expected to end up by the age of 28.
Yet the stock of Ajax academy graduate Daniel de Ridder has arguably fallen furthest. He first suffered at the hands of a seismic change in philosophy that accompanied Alex McLeish’s appointment as Birmingham City manager. Along with Gary McSheffrey and the languid Olivier Kapo he had supported Mikael Forssell in an adventurous 4-2-3-1 at times under Steve Bruce, but McLeish seemed to make up his mind that de Ridder was too lightweight to compete in the more robust midfield he favoured. The game that seemed to decide his future irrevocably was a loss away to Huddersfield in the FA Cup. He started for the first time in a month but infuriated McLeish by ducking a number of first half challenges although on the ball he was impressive.
This contribution seemed to further entrench McLeish in his view that strength and skill were mutually exclusive attributes and never the twain should meet. His physical fragility led to a prolonged exile from the first team from January onwards which only ended with his contract being cancelled after relegation. Kapo was similarly sidelined in the last few months. Since following Steve Bruce to Wigan, de Ridder has led a nomadic existence taking in the Israeli and Swiss leagues, dreams of international recognition long quashed after a dispiriting experiment with British football’s prevailing pragmatism.
The paths that the Dutch under-21s have taken from 2007 onwards are varied, but the unifying theme is one of underachievement. While many have carved out decent careers in the Eredivisie they have collectively failed to scale the heights that the tournament win on home soil seemed to herald. Players develop at different rates and football is littered with such stories of descent into relative obscurity after shining so brightly, yet so briefly. With Robben, van Persie and Sneijder set to star in Poland and Ukraine, fans of the Oranje could be forgiven for thinking this lost generation won’t be missed, but those who slipped through the net will certainly be wondering what might have been.