Patrick van Aanholt: 'Playing in a cage in Holland made me the player I am'

Jason Burt
The Telegraph

 

Even now, Patrick van Aanholt returns to the ‘The Cage’ near his family home in Den Bosch, Holland, and plays football. One v one, two v two, three v three, depending on who is around. 

The years fall away when Van Aanholt is back with those he grew up with and who remain his closest friends, including Kriston Jongejan, Jeremy De Fretes and Irey Sadal. 

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They have their own WhatsApp group, they all still play football, whether it is Sunday League in Holland or the Premier League in England. Van Aanholt's games for Crystal Palace are required viewing for his friends, who offer tips, encouragement and criticism when they meet up.

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“Those are my best memories, just playing with them,” Van Aanholt says. “We were eight, nine, 10 years old and we would start at maybe 1pm and go on long after dinner time, long after it was dark and until the lights went off. In the summer it was maybe 11.30pm. It was crazy. I would play until my mum called me. I would just stay out playing football, every day.”

It could be unforgiving inside those high-wire fences where the ball always stays within play. The football is relentless – winner stays on – and technique becomes crucial. Technique such as plucking the ball out of the sky and controlling it deftly with one touch, under pressure from Ryan Sessegnon, as Van Aanholt did during last Saturday’s opening 2-0 Premier League victory away to Fulham.

<span>Patrick van Aanholt is now one of the most accomplished defenders in the Premier League</span> <span>Credit: reuters </span>
Patrick van Aanholt is now one of the most accomplished defenders in the Premier League Credit: reuters

“I learnt to control the ball like that (against Fulham) playing in the streets,” he says. “It’s there where you start to learn your technique, in the cage, one v one, and from there you take it onto the pitch. I think every Dutch player started that way and when I go back, even now, I still play on the streets. 

“I like it, I love it, in fact. It’s the way I grew up and if there’s time and they are not working I still play with the same boys I grew up with. It may sound crazy but I love them to bits, I love being around them. They keep me grounded and they put me in my place when that needs to happen which is what I like about them as well. Those are my best memories, just playing with them.”

Palace's Twitter account was quick to leap on the footage of Van Aanholt's dreamy touch at Craven Cottage, creating the hashtag #pvaglue in its honour, although for the player himself, social media is no mere frippery.

“Before I didn’t really care about social media," he said. "As you grow up you realise more how important the fans are and that without the fans we are basically nothing. They cheer for us, they cheer for the club. They pay their money to come and watch us and if we play s--- then that’s not good enough. We have to perform for them and I like to interact with them as well and give something back.”

There is even a hashtag he has coined himself – #doingbits. “I scored a goal last season and made a hashtag of ‘doing bits’ so ever since then I have just carried it on. It’s just me ‘doing bits’ – if I score it’s ‘doing bits’, if I defend well it’s ‘doing bits’. It’s just a thing and people like it so I am going to stick with it.”

Van Aanholt began ‘doing bits’ at FC Den Bosch, his local club in Holland, who were then in the Dutch second division. But he did not give up cage football. “I would train with them (Den Bosch) in the morning and then go back home and join in (in the cage),” he says. “People told me I had potential and if I stayed on the right path I could make it.

“My mum and dad were very strict with me and I am grateful for that because all I wanted to do was play football and I didn’t want to go to school. But they made me go and made me do my homework and they made time to get me to training. I was dreaming but they helped me and sometimes dreams can come true.”

His career took off. Soon he was at PSV Eindhoven and, then, Chelsea came calling. Aged 16, Van Aanholt moved to England but did not want to go into digs. Instead, his father, Jonny, who had his own business, made a big decision. He stopped working and moved to England with his son.

“I was 16 and went straight into the reserves,” Van Aanholt says. “I had to adapt to the language, adapt to a new country, adapt to a style of play, all with new team-mates. All those kind of things were in my head and it was very hard.”

<span>Patrick van Aanholt (left) in action for Coventry</span> <span>Credit: getty images </span>
Patrick van Aanholt (left) in action for Coventry Credit: getty images

There were loan spells – to Newcastle, Leicester, Wigan and Vitesse Arnhem – but it was his first loan, to Coventry, which was the most defining. At the then Championship club Van Aanholt was taken under the wing of former Palace striker Clinton Morrison. “Clinton was like my second dad, really,” Van Aanholt says. “He looked after me and came to my house, took me to training and helped me. He talked to me about how to play, how to defend, what to do and I still speak to Clinton now. I appreciate what he did for me. He saw the potential I had and I am grateful for that.”

With a permanent move to Sunderland in 2014 it was time to leave Chelsea after just two first-team appearances in seven years and a realisation that Van Aanholt had to “drop down to come back”. In January 201, Palace came calling, signing the Dutch international for a fee of up to £14 million. Under Sam Allardyce and then, even more so, under Roy Hodgson, his career has blossomed.

He will be 28 on Monday – when Palace host Liverpool – and is now one of the most accomplished left-backs in the Premier League. He has also firmly embraced the concept of footballers being role models. “Kids look up to us,” he says. “They want to be like us one day, playing football, but if we get in trouble off the field and we are in the newspapers then they see that. So we have to do everything right because of them, to set an example. 

“And I am feeling great. This pre-season is the best I have felt in my career. I’m in great shape, my role is good, everything is right and that stability helps you to perform. We finished strong last season and we have learnt.”

Palace, of course, started the last campaign with seven straight defeats. But it is the reaction of the supporters that stays with Van Aanholt who calls the club his “second home”. 

“I have never, ever come across fans like this in my life,” he says. “The first seven games we had no points, no goals but they still stuck behind us. Every single game it was a full house. Away games, they were all there, singing for us. It helps the team and it makes you want to play for them even more. It has helped me a lot, personally, so everything I do now I do for them as well as my family.” 

And not forgetting those friends back in the cage in Den Bosch.

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