“Sometimes you could slap Kevin around the head because he didn’t listen. He was a stubborn boy.”
I’m sitting in the office of Koen Daerden, Technical director at KRC Genk’s youth department as the former club captain describes the challenges that the Manchester City playmaker’s youth coaches faced.
“At times Kevin would enter disputes with both teammates and coaches; it wasn’t always easy. But these things are normal. The special ones with extra talent have their own vision and he went on to do very well, of course. He’s a special one.”Located on the eastern border of the country, in the province of Limburg, the preferred languages of the locals are both Dutch and Flemish, yet the influx of players from across the nation makes for a melting pot and youngsters are expected to immerse themselves in each other’s cultures and ways.
Outside, in two-by-two order, academy players from the age of seven make their way to the pitch, each child with a water bottle in one hand and a ‘Kickmaster’ in the other.
The popular 90s stocking-filler is seen as an indispensable tool to develop the touch, co-ordination, balance and technique of players and the young talents performed choreographed steps that resembled Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ routine; two touches with the outside of the right foot, two touches with the outside of the left.
The real striking part of the whole affair are the various chants that the fledglings are barking with each caressing kick of the ball: “un, deux, trois etc…” followed by “ten, nine, eight…” to then begin again, upwards in Dutch and back down in Flemish. This is genius.As I watch on from the sidelines of the assorted pitches massed by Jos Vaessen (the club president until 2006) in the middle of the Flanders Forest in 2003, children converse in multiple languages throughout each age group and Daerden assures me that the club prides itself on the education of its children.
“The schooling of players is extremely important for us. The chance of making it as a professional is far smaller than the chance that they’ll end up with a regular job. We have a connection with the schools they’re in and we have a member of staff going into the boarding school that both Kevin and Thibaut Courtois attended.” The 36-year-old persists “For example, if there’s a guy whose attitude isn’t good and the school results are bad then he won’t play at the weekend or even train throughout the week, he’ll be forced to do extra school work.”
Even for the club’s most famous son it wasn’t always plain sailing, Academy Director Roland Breugelmans discusses the “difficult moments” when dealing with De Bruyne: “My colleague of Gent told me “Kevin is a good one, but in his head it’s not easy. He’s happy but sometimes unhappy and he gets a red head”” staring out across the pitches whilst carefully searching for the correct terms in English, Breugelmans continues “He always knew what he wanted. I watch him now and he never stops working or running – here, running and strength and conditioning tasks were never his favourite things to do – he didn’t like to run.”“It didn’t work out in his boarding school and there were sometimes difficult moments with different host families, but he was a good student. You see him now in England and he has to win. Sometimes he doesn’t like things and you can see it clearly. He doesn’t think he’s the man, he’s very low-profile, but whatever the match – whether it’s a 2 v 2 in training or an 11 v 11 in the Premier League – he must win!”
“We do evaluations each April and at the end of both Kevin’s first and second season there were people at the club who were ready to let him go, but they were out-voted on each occasion as others knew he had special things and we had to work with him. Today we have Ronaldo and Messi on their own level, but below them sits Kevin as one of the greatest players on earth. It’s a success story!”
Having ferociously scurried through drawers, Breugelmans finally finds what he’s looking for and hands over an extraordinary list containing the names of 47 players currently playing top flight football; De Bruyne and Courtois are joined by Yannick Carrasco, Christian Benteke, Steven Defour, Dennis Praet, Jelle Vossen, Timothy Castagne, Divock Origi, Wilfred Ndidi and Leon Bailey as well as teenagers Indy Boonen of Manchester United and Inter Milan’s Xian Emmers.Sharing stories of how some individuals on the list went on to leave the club, Breugelmans concedes: “It’s so difficult to keep boys here after one good season. Even after six months in the first team, players will have huge clubs from England, Netherlands and Germany contacting them!” he advances “We’re too small to protect our young players and we can’t compete with the wages offered by our European neighbours.”
Back out on the pitch, the Kickmasters are now laid beside the dugout, yet the technically driven sessions pursue and the ball is always the focal point. Squads will be split up positionally and work in circuits that constantly develop into more game realistic exercises before finishing on a combination play that ends with diverse finishing scenarios for attacking players. Coaches demand slick, one touch passing moves and the quality of execution and finishing progresses as the players sweat it out below the Belgian sun.
“We have patience with the physically small players. Good feet and a good football mind are our priorities.” Breugelmans’ words are echoed by Koen Daerden “We have to develop players who can play in every system. The philosophies and principles stay the same. Whether we train 2 v 1s or in bigger games, players have to recognise when and where to move both with and without the ball.”
Players were required to collect all cones, mannequins and equipment at the end of the sessions and as members of staff gave me a tour of the ‘Jos Vaessen Talent Academy’, the sound of hysterical laughing and the buzzing of hair-clippers escapes down the corridors from dressing rooms. It was easy to feel the familial atmosphere around the place.“With scouts and agents surrounding players, we have to keep player’s feet on the ground, especially with contracts and money talk going on around kids as young as 15 and 16.” Daerden describes the humility and work-ethic that the club demand from the prospects with a pragmatic tone, “We can’t be angry with the players, it’s normal to them to be given free shoes and kit. Young boys start playing football because they want to be Kevin De Bruyne, or Messi or Ronaldo, then when they get older they start to see the ching-ching and the bling-bling; everything happens too quickly for them. After receiving free boots and shoes from the top brands, I always remind them that they can only wear one pair at a time!”
“If there are young guys who think they’ve made it too early then they’ll leave. We help players develop, believing in education and football. If boys work hard then they have to know that they’ll have a greater chance to cross the road and play for the first team.”
“We make all academy players wear black boots. It’s the small things that count. Express yourself through football, not what you wear. We don’t build castles in the sky for players, there are no secrets here, only work hard. Look at Kevin now; he’s working and running like hell. He’s the example.”