Jan Vertonghen was 19, he had scored a vital goal in a pivotal game and he feared that it had killed his career. On loan at RKC Waalwijk from Ajax, the goal came against his parent club in a 2-2 draw in the fourth-last match of the 2006‑07 Eredivisie season.
It meant that Ajax missed the opportunity to draw level with leaders PSV Eindhoven, and the club’s manager, Henk ten Cate, was livid. In the end, Ajax would lose the title on goal difference to PSV while RKC would be relegated. “I never want to see you again,” Ten Cate screamed at the Belgian after the game. “You do not do this to your club.”
David Endt, then the Ajax general manager, remembers that Vertonghen turned pale and he went to see the player in the RKC dressing room. “I said to him: ‘Jan, don’t worry, you’ve just shown that you have the right stuff to play at Ajax. And when Ten Cate left in October 2007, things went in the right direction for Jan.”
If Vertonghen has one outstanding trait, it is the strength of his character. It drove him to succeed at Ajax, where he won two league titles and one Dutch Cup; it has taken him to two World Cups and one European Championship with Belgium and it has sustained him at Tottenham, where he now has his sights fixed on Champions League success. Blocking the path in the semi-final are Ajax.
“When we saw the draw – Ajax v Juventus, Tottenham v Manchester City in the quarters – maybe you didn’t expect us to play against each other but it’s on,” Vertonghen says. “It will be extremely special.”
Back in 2003, aged 16, Vertonghen did not want to go to Amsterdam. He had already uprooted once, at 13, moving from Tielrode, his idyllic village, to Antwerp – 30km away – to play for Germinal Beerschot. “I had doubts about going to Ajax because I don’t like moving,” he says. “I remember my old [Beerschot] coach told me: ‘Jan, just go. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back here.’ I always remember these words. It’s Ajax. It’s the best academy in the world.”
Vertonghen and his family had a make-or-break stipulation: Ajax had to send him to a top school. The club acquiesced and placed him at Open Schoolgemeenschap Bijlmer (OSB). “Jan was the first player that Ajax gave into over this,” Theo Nobels, one of the coaches at Beerschot, said. “Jan had worried about his schoolwork because he said that after football there is another life. Not many kids of his age say that.”
Vertonghen lived with a family in Amsterdam for three years and he grew up fast. “I learned how to defend myself at the OSB, not physically but with words,” he said in an interview in 2012. “I was always a shy little guy and people in Holland are famous for having big mouths! So you’ve got to have a big mouth to defend yourself.”
In truth, Vertonghen had already toughened up. His time in Antwerp saw to that. At VK Tielrode, where he played from the age of six, he cannot remember hearing a cross word. It was a different story at Beerschot and it took him time to adapt.
At Ajax, he absorbed the club’s principles – the need to be quick, intelligent and two-footed but, above all, to show personality on the ball. There is a particular pressure at Ajax and it goes beyond the basic imperative to win every game. It is about how they win.
“When you start at Ajax and you’re six or seven years old, you’re in the best team in the league – always,” Vertonghen says. “And you have to dominate, at home and away from home. A draw is never enough. A win is never enough. You have to win in a certain way and that’s what we are seeing with Ajax right now.
“They just prepare everyone for the highest level and when the kids come on – and they almost are kids when they are making their debuts at 17, 18, 19 – they are ready, hungry and fearless. They feel the support from the academy and they’ve got confidence in their qualities. Ajax is playing at an unbelievable level. You only expect teams from the big countries to do this but Ajax have shown the way to do it. They are always a step ahead of everyone else.”
Vertonghen made his Ajax debut at 19, as a substitute in a Champions League qualifying round against FC Copenhagen in August 2006. It was a disastrous night for the club. Leading 2-1 from the first leg, they slumped to a 2-0 defeat in front of their own fans. They were condemned by a freakish own goal from Thomas Vermaelen.
Vertonghen made a handful of further appearances before his loan to RKC in January 2007 and, post-Ten Cate, his involvement increased under first Adrie Koster and then Marco van Basten. But Vertonghen would step up a level after Martin Jol, the former Spurs manager, was appointed for the 2009-10 season and moved him from defensive midfield and left-back to centre-half. With Vermaelen sold to Arsenal, Jol partnered Vertonghen with Toby Alderweireld – a successful combination that has been reprised at Spurs.
“The only thing with Jan – and this is why he was not very popular at the start – was that goal against Ajax for RKC,” Jol says. “It meant Ajax were not champions and that was horrible for Jan. People will always remember that. I don’t think they still blame him. But along with Luis Suárez, who scored 49 goals [in 2009-10], Jan was my best player and you couldn’t feel that [from the crowd]. Suárez was a hero but with Jan, I always had the feeling it was a bit under their skin. I think it bothered him in those days.”
Vertonghen would win them over after Ajax replaced Jol with Frank de Boer in December 2010. Ask him to name the best moment of his Ajax career and he does not hesitate. “The big highlight was definitely winning my first league title in 2010‑11,” he says.
It was their first in seven years, ending one of the longest droughts in the club’s history, and it came with a last-day victory over FC Twente, the defending champions. Vertonghen’s final season at Ajax before his move to Spurs would bring another title and the Dutch player of the year award. The reunion promises to be emotional.