Ryan Baldi’s book Next Next Big Thing: How Football’s Wonderkids Get Left Behind seeks to shine a light on why some of the game’s outstanding talents never quite live up to their potential, why talent and desire alone often aren’t enough to ‘make it’, and what happens when the stars don’t align for these young men.
Fifteen such players – some long retired, some still playing – have shared their stories in Next Next Big Thing, each detailing their own unique path to unfulfilment, and exposing the many different factors – such as injuries, relationships with coaching staff, personal problems, timing and plain luck – that can affect a young footballer’s development.
This is an extract from the book’s chapter on Andy van der Meyde, a once-promising Dutch international winger whose spiralling personal life led to retirement at 29 and subsequent drug and alcohol abuse issues.
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“People think I took cocaine when I was a player: I swear on my kids, I never took cocaine while I was playing. But then I did it. I’d stay up two days. After a few months, I thought, “Hey, what are you doing? You’re going to die if you carry on like this.””
Andy van der Meyde’s post-football life has turned out to be almost as fascinating as his truncated time in the game. A Dutch international winger of Europe-wide renown at Ajax – having risen through the club’s famously prolific academy – spells at Inter Milan and Everton proved less fruitful, as a series of off-field issues robbed any hope of continuity and stability. His last meaningful employment as a footballer was with Everton – he briefly resurrected his playing career back in the Netherlands after his initial retirement, before injury halted his comeback – and he decided to hang up his boots when his contract at Goodison Park expired in 2009. He was 29 years old.
In the years that followed, Van der Meyde would parlay his fame in his home nation by, alongside his wife, starring in a reality TV series, which proved so popular it was later adapted into a live theatre show which toured the country. Indeed, he is recognised in the street as we walk towards the coffee shop setting of our interview, past designer store after designer store in an upmarket district around the corner from Amsterdam’s Museumplein, regularly frequented, he assures me, by Ajax players, stopping to exchange a friendly hug with an internationally known DJ.
Before the TV success, though, and before he began to tread a straighter path, Van der Meyde’s life after football had taken on an altogether darker complexion.
Shortly after moving to Liverpool to join the Toffees, Van der Meyde’s marriage broke down, the result of an affair with a dancer he met at a strip club in the city. He and his new partner had a baby daughter together, meaning Van der Meyde had reason to stay on Merseyside after his time at Everton ended, even if that relationship, too, had deteriorated. Long-since known as a lover of nightlife, the Dutchman rented a city-centre apartment and indulged in days-long drink and drug binges.
“I stayed there [Everton] four years, until my contract finished, but after that I stayed in Liverpool for another year. I didn’t want to leave because my kid was there. I was only young, I was 29.
“After my contact [had expired], I was staying in Liverpool city centre with a friend. We would go out partying just to get away from reality. Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday – we were partying. It was an escape from reality.”
That reality: a failed marriage and two children living hundreds of miles away in Italy, the dissolution of his subsequent relationship, the difficulties of his third child being born with a serious illness, and the realisation that a football career which had initially promised so much had ultimately faded sharply, with just two Premier League appearances in his final two years at Everton.
“I called my manager and said, “Get me back to Holland, I’m going to die here.'”
🇳🇱 Andy van der Meyde
During his lengthy absences, addiction, mental health struggles and turmoil in his family life formed a perfect storm of discontent. A visibly out of shape Van der Meyde only ever made 20 appearances for Everton across four seasons. pic.twitter.com/pCHG02b93R
— FourFourTwo ⚽️ (@FourFourTwo) February 15, 2018
Van der Meyde arrived at Everton in the summer of 2005. David Moyes, who was in charge of the Merseyside club at the time, was a long-time admirer of the winger, having tried to sign him from Ajax some years before. The fee Everton paid Inter for his services was officially undisclosed, although The Independent reported it to be somewhere in the region of £2.1 million – a sign of how his career had already begun to slide, as at 25 his market value should have been much higher.
On a personal level, the money was good, seeing the Dutchman double the salary he earned with Inter to £30,000 per week. However, it was only a bizarre twist of circumstances that saw Van der Meyde elect for a Premier League move, with his preferred destination, Monaco in the French Ligue 1, unable to accommodate his wife’s extraordinary animal collection.
“I went to Monaco and they were offering a lot of money,” Van der Meyde recalls. “I went there with my agent to look around and it was beautiful. They showed me an apartment and said, “This apartment is for you. You don’t have to pay.” Beautiful.
“Then I phoned my ex-wife and said, “Listen, I’m going to sign for this club. It’s beautiful here and they are offering a lot of money.” But she said, “No, don’t go there because the animals can’t go.” She had 11 horses, a camel, zebras. The whole garden was full.
“When I played at Inter I had a big field in my garden and it was full of animals. People would come on a Sunday to feed them. So I didn’t sign for Monaco because of the animals. One week later, it was Everton. Liverpool’s a little bit different to Monaco, eh? Fucking hell.”
Injured when he signed, Van der Meyde’s Everton career was off to an inauspicious beginning, but his commitment – something which was continuously questioned throughout his time in England – was, he feels, unimpeachable. The obvious logistical difficulty of transporting what amounted a small zoo’s worth of wildlife meant his wife initially stayed behind in Italy, leaving Van der Meyde to focus intently upon his recovery from injury while living in a hotel for three months.
In addition to his wife and two young children, Van der Meyde also moved a family of friends over from Italy, hiring the husband as a chef and the wife as an au pair, while their teenage son – who had stayed for a time with Van der Meyde as company while he was living in a hotel – and daughter came, too, continuing their schooling in England. Rather than further settle the winger in his new surroundings, however, the arriving support network inadvertently sparked a chain of events which contributed heavily towards his four years with Everton becoming fraught with turmoil.
“After my ex-wife came, the boy was turning sixteen years old and I took him to a strip club – “I’ll give you a present.” I put him on the stage and had six girls dancing around his chair.”
It was while at the club that Van der Meyde first laid eyes on a dancer, Lisa, who he describes as “beautiful, like Jordan, amazing”.
“I thought I would just go out with her one time. I wasn’t planning to stay with her. But we went out together and it was really good; I felt really good. I fell in love with her.”
August 2011 – Van Der Meyde rings new Everton signing Royston Drenthe to convince him not to sign for Everton cause of the “temptations” in town. He played 20 games and he’s now a rapper pic.twitter.com/xPOmKPsQbu
— Partridge (@EfcPartridge) January 20, 2018
His injury, he thought, provided the perfect cover for a surreptitious affair with his new lover. Van der Meyde began to rent a city-centre apartment without his wife’s knowledge, and he would stay there for weeks on end with Lisa, under the guise of taking himself away from the family home to focus fully on his recovery.
“I said to my wife, “I’m injured, I have to go to a hotel for a week,” because I wanted to stay with the other girl.
“I went home every day to see my wife and the kids and to get clothes, and then I’d go back to the hotel. It went on for one week, two weeks, three weeks.
“My wife was thinking, “What the fuck is he doing? He’s been gone three weeks now.””
Of course, it wasn’t long before his wife’s suspicions were aroused, and, with the help of a private investigator, Van der Meyde’s second life was exposed. The hired detective initially attempted to trail him as he travelled between his spacious luxury home on the outskirts of Liverpool to the ‘hotel’ he claimed to be holed up at, alone, recuperating, but the winger’s vehicular velocity proved to mirror the flank fleetness of his Ajax pomp – too fast for anyone hoping to keep apace. The employ of an electronic tracking device, however, fixed to his car on the next laundry run home, did the trick.
“I woke up one morning to my phone ringing. It was my wife. She said, “How’s your new girlfriend?” I said, “What are you talking about?” She told me exactly what my girlfriend was wearing at that moment. I said, “You’re right. How the fuck do you know?”” The detective was stood watching from an opposite apartment block, looking into the window of Van der Meyde’s secret love hideout and describing the scene to his wife.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ve been caught, I have to accept the consequences.'”
There were to be no second chances, no reparations or reconciliation; trust had been broken beyond repair. Van der Meyde and his wife had met in Holland. While he was a homebody with no great desire for broadening his horizons beyond the walls of the Amsterdam Arena, she – harbouring ambitions of becoming an air stewardess – could not wait to flee the country for pastures new. She’d loved Italy, the Milan life, and resolved to return with their two young children upon learning of Van der Meyde’s infidelity.
“That was the worst thing I’ve ever done in my life: I left my kids,” Van der Meyde says, instantly transported back to that moment of regret, eyes welling as he pictures the scene. “I was a real bastard.
“I was thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I was holding them before they got in the car to go to the airport, they were only three and five years old. I was crying and they were looking at me. I still remember that look: “Why are you crying?”
“I drove home saying, “What the fuck have I done?” But the strange thing was, I was also in love with the other girl – if you’re in love, you do strange things. I left my kids for somebody else. It was my own fault. For the kids, it was such a shame.”
Van der Meyde freely admits that many of the issues that plagued his Everton career were of his own making, but amid the professional and personal turmoil lay a serious problem beyond his control. His third child, a daughter named Dolce, born in Liverpool to his new girlfriend Lisa following the breakdown of his marriage, was born with a stomach condition that left her fighting for her life for months at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital.
“She had a problem with her stomach and had to have an operation the day after she was born,” Van der Meyde remembers. “She was on a drip machine. She couldn’t eat so she was being fed by a drip for 12 hours each day.
“I was going to training and then straight to the hospital, then home and bed. Every day. I didn’t want to be there anymore. I was getting crazy. I was making fights with my ex-girlfriend on purpose at the hospital because I had to get away.
“You sit in a little room, this millionaire, you want to play football but you have a bad relationship with the gaffer, you’re falling out with your girlfriend and you have a sick baby. And I was still thinking about my other kids in Italy. I was playing it cool with the team – they knew something was going on but they didn’t know what. I had these four things on my mind.”
Moyes, as Van der Meyde details, was less than sympathetic to his plight. In the pressure-cooker environment of top-level football, where, particularly for managers, jobs are on the line on a weekly basis, compassion isn’t always in bountiful supply. Moyes had been a fan of the winger dating back to his days as a youngster at Ajax, and even tried to sign him from the Dutch club, long before his eventual transfer to Merseyside, so there was obviously a belief in Van der Meyde’s ability from the manager. But Van der Meyde, who has spoken of tearfully pleading with the Scotsman for a chance to play when he was on the fringes of the side, feels he was unfairly treated, and that a line was crossed.
“I came on the pitch one morning at training and the gaffer wouldn’t speak to me. He just [pointed for me to go and train with the reserves]. The second team was there: boys 16 or 17 years old, five players and not even a goalkeeper. I had to train with them.
“The first team were training on the next pitch, playing 11 against 11. Moyes whistled for me to come over. It was a corner, I had to stand at the second post. Once that corner was taken: “Andy, you can go.” A few minutes later, he whistled: “Andy, come.” I had to stand in the wall while they took a free-kick. It was mentally fucking with me. I wasn’t concentrated and my head was everywhere.
“There was a team in London who wanted to take me on loan, but in Liverpool there is the best children’s hospital and my daughter was there. [Moyes] said to me, “Go to London, you can play there.” I said, “I don’t want to go to London. My kid is in hospital; I want to stay here.” He said to me, “It’s always something with your kid. Always problems.” From that moment on, I thought, “Fuck you. You speak like that about my kid? You can do whatever you want with me now.” It was unbelievable.”
In Andy van der Meyde's salacious autobiography, his account of David Moyes is damning. Had no tolerance for his injuries or sickness of kid
— Leander Schaerlaeckens (@LeanderAlphabet) March 18, 2014
Sold by Ajax, where he was happy, comfortable and playing well, Van der Meyde arrived in Milan to find Inter in a period of disarray, the very moment, perhaps, that marked the beginning of his career’s slow denouement.
Argentinian tactician Héctor Cúper, who had previously guided Valencia to back-to-back Champions League finals, was the head coach, but he was not a popular figure, enjoying difficult relationships with many of the side’s stars.
Cúper had campaigned for the club to sign wingers to enable him to use a 3-4-3 formation. Lacking the autonomy to select his own men for the roles, Cúper was provided compatriot Kily Gonzalez, from former club Valencia, and Van der Meyde. Having come from an environment where he had the full support of his manager, the Dutchman found himself in a very different situation at the San Siro.
“I came on the training pitch and went up to the gaffer to shake his hand. He shook my hand, looked at me and said, “Who the fuck are you?” He didn’t even know, because the technical director bought the players.”
Despite that embarrassment, Inter began the season well, and Van der Meyde was in fine form, scoring a stunning strike in a Champions League group stage victory over Arsenal at Highbury, celebrated in trademark style, bent to one knee, firing an imaginary sniper rifle into the crowd.
— Serie A (@SerieA0822) September 17, 2016
That celebration was seldom seen again, however, as Van der Meyde’s form deteriorated along with his team’s, crumbling to a 5-1 thrashing at the San Siro in the return fixture against Arsenal. Cúper was sacked in October of 2003, replaced by Alberto Zaccheroni, and Van der Meyde found himself on the fringes of the side. Inter rallied to finish fourth in Serie A, securing qualification for the following season’s Champions League, although the former Ajax man played little part. He still had enough stock banked at international level to earn selection for that summer’s European Championship, playing in all but one of Holland’s fixture’s en route to a semi-final exit at the hands of hosts Portugal.
Van der Meyde returned from the Euros to find Roberto Mancini had been installed as the new Inter manager, and his preference for a winger-less 4-3-1-2 formation meant the writing was on the wall for the Dutchman.
“Mancini came, and he bought a lot of players; in one season we had 40 players, so I didn’t play any more. It was difficult.
“After a while you know you’re not going to play, so you start pretending you’re sick or injured, “Yeah, leave me alone.” I had to travel a lot and not play. I started to get a bit fat from all the pasta, too.
“We only trained 45 minutes a day because we had a lot of games, so I had to train myself, and I wasn’t used to that. Italian players, they would train for 45 minutes and then go to the gym or go running. I was like, “What the fuck are they doing?” because it wasn’t like that in Holland – you train with the whole group and he gaffer and then he tells you to stop, and you’d train an hour and twenty minutes, an hour and a half.
“The second year I wasn’t playing and I wasn’t taking it seriously any more. I could do what I want. I met girls and did stupid things. Football fans in Italy almost want to cry when they meet you, no matter who they support. It’s different to Holland or England. I went to clubs and they’d put me in VIP, they’d get rid of who was already in there. I wasn’t playing, so I was getting bored and I wanted to go out – that was my last few months in Italy.”
If you’d like to read Van der Meyde’s story in full, along with the stories of other lost wonderkids from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton and more, order your copy of Next Next Big Thing here.