As Marten de Roon stands in the middle of a Teesside shopping mall, cuddling babies and talking teething problems with mothers, his once fearsome reputation as The Wave-Breaker seems under severe threat. Serie A aficionados remember the former Atalanta midfielder as a ruthlessly efficient enforcer, well schooled in the destructive arts, but last summer’s £12m move to Middlesbrough has prompted a more creative role, while also emphasising the Dutchman’s distinctly three-dimensional character.
De Roon is taking time out from preparations for his relegation-threatened side’s next three games – at Swansea on Sunday, Hull (Wednesday) and home to Burnley (Saturday) – to support a charity cycle challenge in aid of disabled footballers in Middlesbrough’s Cleveland Centre. As fundraisers pedal stationary bikes and rattle collection tins, De Roon serves as a magnet, posing for countless pictures with babies as shoppers gravitate towards him.
Spotting a pensioner hovering on the edge of the group, this poised 26-year-old draws him into easy conversation before sharing jokes with the charity workers who comprise part of a joint club and Premier League initiative to help young people not in employment or education find their feet.
“It’s a small gesture,” says De Roon. “But it’s very important to try and help make a difference. You want to see these kids find what they’re searching for, fulfil their ambitions and take the next step in their lives ... And I love holding babies, I’ve got two small girls, one starting school, one just walking, at home so I know what to do.”
The son of a headmaster and a physiotherapist from Zwijndrecht near Rotterdam, his own career trajectory – Feyenoord, Sparta Rotterdam, Heerenveen, Atalanta, Boro, Holland – has been resolutely upward, even catching José Mourinho’s eye along the way.
Perhaps significantly, Mourinho made a point of describing De Roon as phenomenal following Manchester United’s recent 3-1 win at The Riverside. “It’s nice if a manager of José’s stature gives you a compliment like that, so even with a bad result I had a smile on my face,” he says. “But I’ve put it in my bag and I’ll leave it there – now I have to care about my team and our massive game at Swansea. We can’t make excuses anymore, we have to start winning.”
Coming three days after Aitor Karanka’s sacking, United’s visit was Boro’s first under Steve Agnew’s interim charge but the Yorkshireman’s ambitions to ultimately make the job his own have since been highlighted by a backroom overhaul featuring Jonathan Woodgate’s installation as first-team coach.
“You always have to wait and see which way change goes,” says De Roon. “But there are some good people at this club and Steve really knows everything about the players so I think we’re in a good way.
“Change brings a different attitude, players who were out of the squad think: ‘Hey, I’ve got a chance’ so it can bring a bit more life into the group. But change is always strange, too. You work with people all the time, almost every day of the week and then, out of nowhere, they’re not there. It’s sad but clubs can only sack the coach, they can’t sack the players.”
He is talking about Karanka, the man who signed him. “Some players have better bonds with people than others and I had a good bond with Aitor,” he says. “It’s a shame to lose a man I had a good relationship with. We talked a lot and he gave me the opportunity to play in the Premier League. I’ve spoken with Aitor and he knows it’s how football goes. He’s just disappointed because he had a good time here, did really well to get the club promoted and wanted to keep working with the team.”
If Karanka’s intensity ultimately became oppressive, De Roon is blessed with the ability to compartmentalise. “Sometimes you have to let football go a little bit,” he says. “So Viktor Fischer [Boro’s Denmark winger] and I like to philosophise. We talk about everything, beliefs, books – we both read all kinds of books – nature, everything. Viktor and I like to talk about what’s going on in the world.”
Such catholic interests dictate that De Roon is anxious to explore civilian life one day. “I studied business administration at university in Rotterdam and I enjoyed the economics part,” he says. “So, then, at Heerenveen I studied accountancy but it wasn’t easy to combine with playing.” He may try again in the future. “I have an accountant friend and a lawyer friend and speaking to them is always interesting,” he says. “That’s why if I don’t know if I’ll stay in football later – it must be nice to have a job that involves you with what’s going on in the world.”
Not that he underestimates his capacity to affect the lives and, in some cases, livelihoods of Boro fans. “Staying up affects far more people than just the 25 players in our squad,” he says. “This area gets a massive economic and psychological boost from us being in the Premier League. It’s so important for local businesses. You feel it very strongly because they’re such warm people here. My girlfriend and I are really at home. We’re living in a nice place, the schools are very good, everything’s perfect – except our results.”
Anxious to put things right, De Roon is harshly self-critical. “This season I’ve played in a different position from before, higher up the pitch, a bit more involved in attacking,” he says. “In Italy I played much deeper, just in front of the defence, almost like a sweeper and the journalists gave me the nice ‘Wave-Breaker’ name so I’ve had to get used to a new role. Although I’ve improved, I think I can do better. But the most important thing now is to keep believing. We know we can win games, we can feel it, and Swansea’s a big opportunity.”