The very mention of the name Ajax conjures up images of a conveyor belt of stellar talent pouring forth from the most celebrated club in Dutch football. It’s a tradition that continues to this day with Barcelona and Juventus laying out extravagant fees to snaffle away rising talent from the Amsterdam firmament. Back in 2003, another bright light from the Ajax academy left the club, when Andy van der Meyde, joined Inter Milan. From the start though, this was a move destined not for success, but something that would turn into a tailspin of regret and despair.
The winger had started wearing that famous white shirt with the broad red stripe down the centre. An Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double in 2002, was just reward for his enterprising play, ability to dance around an opponent and deliver any number of assists. He was even called up to the Oranje colours in 2002 and scored on his debut against the USA. In the summer of 2003, Ajax accepted a large bid for one of their players, and Van der Meyde was transferred to Internazionale. Change can often be good; at other times less so, and this move definitively fell into the latter column.
At the time, Argentine manager Héctor Cúper was in charge of Nerazzurri and had asked the club to bring in a wide player, but when Van der Meyde arrived, it quickly became clear that this was not the type of player he was looking for. Cúper would not be at the San Siro for long, but despite new men arriving in Corrado Verdelli and then Alberto Zaccheroni, things wouldn’t improve for the young Dutchman who felt out of place in a foreign country and seemingly unloved by his new coaches.
In two years with the club, he would make a mere 32 appearances in Serie A, scoring just once. It was a torturous time, and some have described as being the anvil upon which a promising career was hammered flat. A move away was perhaps the only solution and when Everton offered £2 million for the player in the summer of 2005, a loss of around £6 million incredibly felt like a good deal to Inter, and Van der Meyde moved to Goodison Park.
At the time, the Toffees had enjoyed one of their best periods, edging out city rivals Liverpool for fourth spot in the league, and qualification for the Champions League. Manager, David Moyes was looking to add quality to a side that always looked proficient, but at times lacked the sort of ‘fantasy’ talent that would take them up to the next level. Moyes fervently hoped that the Dutchman would be that elusive piece in the jigsaw. He would be disappointed. Despite reportedly doubling the wages the Italians were paying their underachieving acquisition, Everton would arguably get even less for their money than Inter had managed to wring from the player.
Injury prevented a debut until October of 2005, a substitute appearance against Middlesbrough offered Van der Meyde his first taste of English football. By this time though, troubling rumours from Italy were beginning to show signs of validity on Merseyside. The player would later admit how being largely ostracised by Inter had led him into some poor decisions, particularly with regard to nightlife, where solace was sought in the wrong kind of comforting arms, during his second season with the club. The increase in his disposable income only led to a more lavish and increasingly destructive lifestyle. Something hardly akin to that of a dedicated professional athlete.
During an interview with The Times, Van der Meyde laid bare his soul and the distractions he fell for. “I bought a Ferrari and the first stop was the Newz Bar, a popular place in Liverpool. After a couple of hours of alcohol, I drove to the nearest strip club. Getting drunk in a strip club in the middle of Liverpool was not very smart. But I had a strong longing for naked women.” Such dalliances led to affairs that would destroy his marriage and a number of other relationships.
Personal troubles often have a mirror in a professional life, and so it was. Injuries, both niggling and more long term, bit into his career. One saw him miss a period of six months from January 2006. His career with Everton would hardly recover from that point. Talking to Radio 5 Live, the player explained. “In that six months, I was not living like I should have. For me, it was a way to get out and not think about my problems. I could do what I wanted, I had a lot of money, I could buy what I wanted and I could get girls that I wanted.” He admits that he went wildly off the rails. At the same time, his footballing career was being shunted into the sidings.
By 2009, Everton, much as Inter had done, decided to cut their losses and released the player. In four seasons he had played only 24 games in all competitions. If it was, in any way, an opportunity to recognise a wake-up call, it was ignored. Alcohol, drugs and a party lifestyle took over. “Partying was what my life was about,” Van der Meyde recalled.
In 2010, a move back to the Netherlands held out hope of a recovery when PSV Eindhoven offered a short-term contract to take Van der Meyde back to his homeland. By now though, the damage to his footballing ability had been all but irredeemable. Other than an appearance in a friendly, he would never turn out for the club. In early 2011, at just 31 years of age, and with so many seasons of success sacrificed on the altar of an ill-judged lifestyle, Andy van der Meyde retired from professional football.
The career of Andy van der Meyde serves as a cautionary tale, warning of the temptations open to young men with sudden riches far from home. In 2012 though, Van der Meyde began a pursuit of UEFA coaching badges, that may lead him back into football. If he achieves his ambition, he will surely be in an ideal position not only to pass on the wisdom of the Ajax ways of developing players, but also the importance of avoiding the inevitable temptations that reach out to trip up unsuspecting young footballers.