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jabbaranks Posted on 13/02/2020 08:53
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic
Edited On: 13/02/2020 09:43
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Winning the Premier League and getting promoted from the Championship on the same day, playing in a Manchester United reserve team alongside Paul Pogba and scoring goals as a centre-forward for Melbourne City. Not bad for a full-back who — at the age of 18 — says he was ordered by Tony Pulis to give up dribbling.

But now Ritchie De Laet is back with hometown club Royal Antwerp after 12 years away, first at Stoke City, then Manchester United, Leicester City and Aston Villa, with a handful of colourful loan spells thrown in along the way.

It is here that his career began, with nervous journeys across Antwerp as a 13-year-old, hiding the Royal badge on his club rucksack because he lived near the ground of their bitter rivals Beerschot.

De Laet broke into the Antwerp first team as a centre-back in a side that, due to a long-term partnership with United, included several Old Trafford youth players including Ryan Shawcross, Darron Gibson and Fraizer Campbell. Luke Chadwick also had a spell there. They were also coached by Warren Joyce, who would go on to manage De Laet at United and in Melbourne and who the player describes as his “football father”.

“Warren got the assistant job with the reserves at United and it wasn’t working out for me at Stoke,” says the 31-year-old, who sits down with The Athletic a day after Antwerp booked their place in the Belgian Cup final (pictured above) with a 1-0 second leg win away to Kortrijk. “Tony Pulis’s football wasn’t my kind of football. I didn’t enjoy the training sessions. One day we did a shape training session where the first 11 would face the reserves.

“I got the ball and started to run. I beat a couple of players and got a cross into the box. Tony stopped the session and said, ‘We don’t do that here. Just put it into the channel.’

“That was the point that I realised this was not for me. It wasn’t football. I was just kicking it away to whoever was up there and saying, ‘Good luck!’

“My agent called me to say United would take me. I thought he was joking at first but obviously Joyce had a big influence on that. He has always told me he vouched for me with Sir Alex. On the first day he said to me, ‘I got you here but now it is up to you.’”

On his first day at Carrington, De Laet met his reserve-team manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but then he was introduced to “the real boss”.

“Sir Alex was great to me,” De Laet says. “He would walk the corridors at the training ground and he would stop to talk to everyone, whether they were a first-team player, under-18s or kitchen staff. He was such a gentleman.

“The first time I was in his office I didn’t say two words, and I don’t think I understood two words of what he was saying with the Scottish accent. He had this huge desk in a big room in the corner of the training ground. I was shaking and sweating. He was welcoming me on my first day.

“I have seen the hairdryer though. We played Wolves in the cup. We had Tomasz Kuszczak in goals and he wasn’t a very good kicker of the ball. In the first half he had a few back passes he shanked them out of play. At half-time he came in furious and pointed to the defence. ‘If you, you, you or you give him one more back pass to Tomasz… He can’t kick it. We all know he can’t kick it. Sorry Tomasz but we all know you can’t kick it.’ Tomasz was just sat there like ‘I know, it’s fine.’”

Initially, it was just as intimidating when he met United’s star-studded first team squad, which included Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs, Carlos Tevez, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville.

“The first couple of days were just unreal,” he recalls. “I was just walking around the place meeting the players. Giggsy, Gary, Scholesy. I went from being this unknown Belgian player to being the first Belgian to play for United. All of a sudden I was getting calls from Belgian newspapers and national news. I went from being a no one to being a name out here. It was a wake-up call because I had to work hard.

“I showed respect in the first few days. When they had the ball I didn’t tackle them. They had a big game at the weekend. I couldn’t injure them. After that you were just one of them and you are fighting for your spot. I wasn’t just making up the numbers. I wanted to play. They treated me the same. I got kicked around by Scholes or Giggs, and it was fine.”

Under Solskjaer, United had an impressive reserve side that included Pogba, Federico Macheda, Oliver Norwood, Ben Foster, Michael Keane, Robbie Brady, Corry Evans, Matty James and Danny Drinkwater. De Laet would be reunited with the latter at Leicester in 2012.

“There were so many good players it was ridiculous,” says De Laet. “We just won everything. I remember one first team versus reserves game and we won. Gary Neville was livid. He was yelling at his team-mates that it was a disgrace and they should be ashamed. ‘How can you lose to this lot?’ We were laughing, but I was looking over and thinking that was the sign of a true professional. I learned so much from just watching him.”

De Laet was impressed with Solskjaer’s man-management and was not surprised years later when he landed a big managerial job, even if it was at United.

“Ole was a great guy,” he says. “They were great training sessions. Everyone knew what was expected of them. Everyone listened to him because of his experience and history with the club. I am so happy for him it has worked out in his senior managerial career.

“The good thing about Ole was he would come to you before you went to him because he could sense if there was a problem. He would put his arm around you and ask what was wrong. At that age I didn’t realise, but those were the signs of a good manager. There was always going to be a big job for him in the UK. Obviously, United is the biggest. He deserves this opportunity.”

De Laet would make just six senior appearances for United. Even when Neville was missing Ferguson would opt for either Rafael da Silva or Michael Carrick at right-back. De Laet knew it was time to move on. He joined Leicester in May 2012 on the same day as fellow United youngster Matty James. That transfer would be the real start of his senior career.

“It came surprisingly,” says De Laet. “When Sven-Goran Eriksson was there the year before there was talk of me going to Leicester, but that didn’t happen. I remember speaking to Sir Alex and him saying just go and have a look and if I didn’t like it, I could come back and they would keep me. But it was a great opportunity to explore the Championship and play for a first team.”

In his debut season, Leicester reached the play-off semi-finals but were knocked out by Watford when Troy Deeney scored within 14 seconds of Anthony Knockaert having a 97th-minute penalty that would have sent City to Wembley instead saved, but the second campaign was record-breaking as De Laet and his team-mates won the title with 102 points. A year on it was the great escape as Leicester, who had been bottom of the Premier League on April 17 won seven of their nine games to survive with six points to spare.

“It was a rollercoaster,” says De Laet, with a wry smile. “I think they are still showing the clip of that Watford goal now.

“The second season was the most memorable season of my career. We felt we could win every game. The group was amazing. We did so many things outside of football. We were tight. There was a real friendship about us.”

There were some big characters in that dressing room, from the strong, silent types such as Polish defender Marcin Wasilewski to livewire striker Jamie Vardy.

“Marcin was the go-to guy for us,” says De Laet. “We had a night out in Leicester after we won promotion. We went to Andy King’s house first and decided to go into town with our wives and girlfriends. My wife was lining up for a drink and this guy bumped her out of the way. I didn’t see it but someone told me. I looked over but ‘Was’ had already seen it and was looking at me. He walked over and just said, ‘I’ve got this.’ He grabbed the guy and security came over and threw the guy out.”

De Laet admits in his first season it wasn’t immediately obvious Vardy, who joined that same summer after helping Fleetwood Town win promotion to the Football League, would go on to become the phenomenal Premier League striker he has. “In the first six months I think some of the guys thought he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t what we needed,” De Laet says. “Maybe we should see how he does on loan. But the second season he came back and he was a different man, a different player.

“I don’t know what he did over that summer. He just came back with a hunger and proved everyone wrong. He still is proving everyone wrong. He hasn’t scored in so many games [this season] but he is still top scorer! That says it all.

“He is loud. You know he is in the building from the moment he walks in. You know he has arrived. I would be on the physio bed having a massage and the corridor is quite long at Leicester’s training ground, but I could still hear him shouting as he arrived.

“In the dressing room, he would just start yelling for no apparent reason. We would all be doing our own thing and he would just start shouting, getting everyone’s attention. It would put us in a good mood.

“We had our battles in training. We are both quick so we would have one-v-ones. It would end with his studs on my leg and my studs on the back of his head. He would try to take me on but couldn’t outrun me, it wouldn’t work, and vice versa. It was great fun, on and off the field.”

(Photo: Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)
De Laet had a few run-ins with Nigel Pearson, Leicester manager at the time, too, but he believes he earned Pearson’s respect by demonstrating his desire to play.

“It was strange for me during that 2014-15 season,” he explains. “We did OK for the first few games. We played quite well. We played arsenal at home, 1-1, [in the August] and I got man of the match but Nigel decided not to play me anymore.

“I got into a few fights with him. He called me some things, I called him a few things, but then a week later he would call me into the office and we would shake hands. Then he started to play me again. Perhaps that is what I needed to do — show him I was ready again and I still had that fire.”

Pearson moved on the following summer and Claudio Ranieri was the surprise replacement. The squad were at a pre-season training camp in Austria when they first met the man who would lead them to the Premier League title over the next 10 months.

“One evening, after the second session, we all got called into our meeting space and in walked Claudio,” De Laet recalls. “That was it, here we go. He was quite a big name to come to a team that had just survived the year before. We were all quite surprised.

“We were surprised by his training sessions because he needed everything to be perfect. It was me Vards, [Andy] King, Nuge [David Nugent], we would joke around in the warm-up. Then, everything was synchronised. ‘If he puts his right leg up, you put your right leg up!’ We were thinking, ‘What?’ At the start with Claudio it was, ‘This is how I want it, this is how we will do it.’”

Ranieri would mastermind the title success, but De Laet revealed the players would quite often take it upon themselves to turn games around that season.

“We had a lot of game plans, and a lot of people thought it was Claudio’s game plans that got us out of trouble, but it wasn’t really,” he says. “It was his game plan but at half-time when we were 1-0 down we would look at each other and say, ‘Let’s do our own thing. Let’s go out and enjoy it.’

“We were still very much Nigel’s team to start with. It was still the team that played the year before. The likes of Christian Fuchs and N’Golo Kante weren’t in the team to start.

“With Kante, it was almost as if we were cheating at times, he was like two players. I remember some of the early training sessions and it just wouldn’t work for him. I don’t know when it clicked or what happened. Once he started in that No 6 role, he was unreal.

“[Riyad] Mahrez, he was like Lionel Messi in that you knew he would go onto his left foot, but you couldn’t do anything about it.

“For the [little] English he could speak he always tried to be funny and join in the banter. He tried to come into the group and make jokes and laugh around. I think his confidence was growing because he was accepted into the group and doing important things for us on the pitch. Once his confidence is up, he is some player.”

It was at the end of that 2015-16 season that, in fairly remarkable circumstances, De Laet made a 158-mile dash from Middlesbrough back to Leicester having won the Premier League and gained promotion to the Premier League on the same afternoon.

De Laet played the first seven games of the top-flight season for Leicester but after a 5-2 home loss to arsenal in late September he was replaced by Danny Simpson at right-back and made just five more appearances in the league, all as a substitute, before being loaned to Middlesbrough at the end of the winter window.

(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
“I didn’t want to go. I was still on the bench at Leicester. It was on the last day of the window. My agent called to say Middlesbrough were very interested in me and they wanted me to go on loan and were doing well in the league,” he says. “My wife was seven months pregnant and my eldest, Lilly, was going to school and doing well. We didn’t think it was right to move, and with only 24 hours’ notice I said no.

“Claudio called me in and said if I wanted to go I could go but if not he said I would be involved, although he couldn’t promise I would play. I said it was fine and I would stay and fight for my spot. Then, [Middlesbrough manager] Aitor Karanka called just before training and said it would be good for me to come to Middlesbrough. He promised me days off and I could go home after games.

“I said no but I was sat at home that evening talking to my wife about it and my agent called again. I told him to leave me alone, I wasn’t going, but then about 8pm I thought I just wanted to play. Maybe just play six months and see what happens after. My wife couldn’t come with me. I jumped in the car and drove up to Middlesbrough to sign at the last minute. Nuge [Nugent, who had been sold to Middlesbrough in the August] was there and we would do that drive a few times back to Leicester. We would both drive up to training at 5am. I had an apartment there and he had a house, but we both had to go home.”

De Laet appeared in 10 games for Middlesbrough as they finished runners-up to Burnley on the final day of the season, May 7, following a 1-1 draw at home to Brighton & Hove Albion, who would have gone up in their place if they had won.

“Leicester called me on the morning of their game against Everton and told me I was getting a winners’ medal and I needed to come down,” he says. “I had to be there, but we were playing Brighton in an early kick-off and a draw or win would clinch promotion.

“I got through the game, got my medal and had a glass of champagne with the lads. They wanted me to go out and celebrate but I said I had to go to Leicester. They were like, ‘Come back after, we have to celebrate.’ I said I would and set off.

“I don’t know how I didn’t get a speeding fine because I got back to Leicester in record time. I arrived just after half-time. I watched the second half from behind the bench and then went and got my kit on with the rest of the lads for the trophy ceremony. I collected that second medal.”

The successes De Laet experienced at Leicester and Middlesbrough were in complete contrast to his three wasted years at Aston Villa.

Three appearances after joining in the summer of 2016 he suffered a horrendous injury against Brentford, damaging an anterior cruciate knee ligament and ripping his hamstring and lateral collateral ligament off the bone. When he returned the next year, he found life under Steve Bruce, who had replaced Roberto Di Matteo during his layoff, difficult.

“It is a massive club but I never got going at Villa,” he says. “The injury was a terrible time, then I couldn’t get into the side. Steve Bruce wasn’t my cup of tea. The football was similar to Tony Pulis but at least Tony had a plan. I remember Steve would throw the ball into the middle in training and say, ‘Let’s play’, like we were under-nines. It was crazy.”

He re-joined Antwerp on loan in January 2018 but his former club couldn’t afford to make the move permanent. That summer, he was given an unexpected opportunity to go on loan to Melbourne City, where Joyce once again played an influential part in his career.

After Joyce persuaded him to move his young family to Australia, he became Melbourne captain and would even have a stint as a striker, scoring seven goals for the A-League side.

Off the field, the De Laets loved the experience in Australia and plan to return one day. Now back with Royal Antwerp after joining from Villa on a free last July, he is also exploring becoming an agent to help young players and hopes to complete his coaching badges in the UK.

Makeshift striker De Laet scored twice in a win over Western Sydney last January (Photo: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
“Australia was unbelievable,” De Laet says. “What. A. Place! Joycey said we should embrace the lifestyle there. It was good football and there were so many things to do with the kids as well. We loved the lifestyle.

“I wanted to stay and they offered me a very generous package to stay, but the problem was we had to leave our dog behind, Kobi. He was an American Cocker spaniel and he was there on the first day we went to the UK and he was still there on the last day before we left to go to Australia.

“I bought him for my wife on her 18th birthday. She loved that dog. He came everywhere with us but Australia was too far. We left him with family in Belgium while we were away, but my wife wanted to see him.

“Sadly, we came back from Australia to Antwerp and maybe two months after that he had mouth cancer and we had to let him go. He was 13. It broke us. I was broken for a good week and my wife is still broken. He was our first child.”

The family have a new spaniel now and life in Antwerp is good, both for them and De Laet’s career. Though Antwerp will always be home and his future could take him back to Australia, there will always be a place in his heart for the Leicestershire village of Countesthorpe — particularly after an appeal he made on Twitter in 2012.

Desperate for a copy of the FIFA 13 video game, De Laet asked his Twitter followers for information on how he could get it as soon as it was released.

“I got loads of responses but it was actually my postman, who knew where I lived and DMd me on Twitter,” says De Laet. “He went to the midnight launch and got me a copy and brought it straight round. Unbelievable. He did the same for Call Of Duty. Didn’t even ask him. Unbelievable.

“That shows you what Leicester was like. People have asked me where I felt most at home in the UK. It is Leicester.”
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sydrock Posted on 13/02/2020 10:15
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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That is a great piece Jabba, really shows the man behind the player..Star.
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sixthswan Posted on 13/02/2020 10:18
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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As suspected:

Ranieri would mastermind the title success, but De Laet revealed the players would quite often take it upon themselves to turn games around that season.

“We had a lot of game plans, and a lot of people thought it was Claudio’s game plans that got us out of trouble, but it wasn’t really,” he says. “It was his game plan but at half-time when we were 1-0 down we would look at each other and say, ‘Let’s do our own thing. Let’s go out and enjoy it.’
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harry_threaders Posted on 13/02/2020 10:18
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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Great article. And who'd have thought Wasyl would be a handy bloke to have on your side on a night out?! [B)]
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swabianfox Posted on 13/02/2020 11:42
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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Great interview!

It's always great to get these little insights even if it's well afterwards. A lot of what's going on behind the scenes isn't obvious or seems different.

This time, of course, it's the statement behind the players taking it upon themselves to turn games around.
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Adumass Posted on 13/02/2020 11:53
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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good interview. nice to get an insight on all his managers. who would have thought steve bruce didn't have any plan!

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Mistryman Posted on 13/02/2020 12:33
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic
Edited On: 13/02/2020 14:04
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The notion of players taking it upon themselves in certain match situations shouldn't be a strange one should it? After all, they shouldn't be robots anyway.

Think it's also easy to get hung-up on the vagueness of comments such as "quite often take it upon themselves..." which somehow get interpereted into Claudio not having a clue (& at times 'it wuz Pearson wot wun it').
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Nomadic_Fox Posted on 13/02/2020 12:46
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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A simpler analysis is to look at how many time we were 1-0 down at half time. There won't be many I reckon.
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buz_not_buzz Posted on 13/02/2020 13:16
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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As it happens we were down at half time in each of Ritchie's last 4 starts - not all 1-0s though.
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LGFOX Posted on 13/02/2020 17:03
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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Yes read that yesterday. Very good. Had a row with NFP. Didn’t everyone!!
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Nomadic_Fox Posted on 13/02/2020 17:26
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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Looks like Claudio found the answer to that problem!
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buz_not_buzz Posted on 13/02/2020 17:37
Ritchie De Laet interview - The Athletic

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As I think Steve Walsh mentioned in his own interview in The Athletic.
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