The JJB Stadium is illuminated by floodlights on a cold March night in 2006; the plucky underdogs of Wigan Athletic attempting to avenge their earlier Carling Cup Final battering by Manchester United. Four minutes have passed from kick-off and Gary Neville passes the ball to the Portuguese talisman of Cristiano Ronaldo – the crowd waiting in anticipation for the 21-year-old maestro to produce something spectacular as he did against Wigan in Cardiff a few months earlier. Is he going to beat three defenders and loft the ball to the head of Louis Saha? Is he going to cut in and curl the ball into the stanchion in now-synonymous Ronaldo fashion? This lad can beat anyone on the ball, what is he going to do?
Before he can even gel his hair and shave his legs, the bullish frame of Wigan skipper Arjan De Zeeuw flies through the air with his studs aloft and gets all of the man and none of the ball; sending the flamboyant starlet barrelling into the advertising boards of Wigan Plumbing Ltd. In the book before even touching the ball with a proverbial “have that you stepover pansy” welcome from the no-nonsense Dutchman – arguably a textbook tackle by De Zeeuw’s standards and the kind of attitude that made him a fan favourite among Wiganers, Barnsley supporters and the Pompey faithful.
Fast forward thirteen years and a 49-year-old Arjan De Zeeuw; still in remarkable and intimidating shape that was epitomised in his playing days, returned to Wigan to command a Latics Legends team for the annual Joseph’s Goal charity match. After 90 minutes of putting in trademark crunching tackles against a Manchester United team consisting of 62-year-old Bryan Robson and Andy Burnham; the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Arjan was more than happy to wait further in the rain to speak to 90MAAT about his career.
“So Arjan, your back playing in the Joseph’s Goal charity match as apart of the Wigan Legends. How does it feel to lace up your boots again?”
“Well it was actually quite good! A couple bad misses, like, but scored a header and finished my pen so I was quite pleased with that!”
“Before you carved out your footballing career you completed your doctorate in medical science. Do you ever feel your intelligence from your academic side translated into your footballing ability and how does football compare to being a doctor?”
“I don’t know aha! I don’t think the skills the skills I learnt there helped me to be a better footballer, it’s just who I am naturally I think. But playing football was the best job in the world; the excitement, the fans, the matches, the dressing room, training and having constant new targets was great.”
Growing up in the small seaside town of Castricum in North Holland, a young Arjan developed grand ambitions. Whilst playing sporadically at an amateur level, the stalwart defender also had his sights set on a vocation in medicine; which he had begun before being gifted his belated start in professional football at the age of 22 for SC Telstar.
Even as a largely untried centre-half in Holland’s second division, it was here that Dr De Zeeuw curated his authoritative defending style and became a mainstay in the White Lions’ defence; racking up over a century of appearances before scoring a £250,000 move to Barnsley in the old First Division.
In true De Zeeuw fashion, the Dutchman cemented himself into the Tykes’ side – starting in all of his 164 appearances for the Yorkshire outfit – and helped them to reach the coveted promised land of the Premiership. Whilst Barnsley’s sole season in the Premiership is certainly one to forget from a defensive standpoint, Arjan remained a fan icon at Oakwell and was figuratively waved away with red-spotted handkerchiefs as his contract ran out and he made an epoch-making move to the newly-built JJB Stadium; the beginning of Arjan etching his name into the Wigan Athletic history books.
“The buzz from the fans was clearly still seen with your reception at the Joseph’s Goal charity match today, do you keep up with your old teams such as Wigan and Barnsley now that you’ve retired?”
“Yes of course! Wigan, Barnsley and Portsmouth are standard, and Coventry but not as much as these three teams because these three clubs have been a big part of my playing career. You know, it looked a bit grim for Wigan at one stage [with relegation to League One] but they’ve managed to be safe last season and the new ownership will hopefully put a bit of money in the club. I’d love to see them back in the top flight again!”
The colloquially named “Arry”, alongside his former Barnsley teammate Andy Liddell and future manager Roberto Martinez, became a stubborn mainstay in an ambitious and developing Latics side – keeping 21 clean sheets over the turn of the millennium in the 1999-2000 season, scooping two of his eventual three Player of the Season awards at Wigan and ultimately earning a move to Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth; a team within spitting distance of the Premier League (a distance Arjan knows all too well courtesy of El Hadji Diouf).
De Zeeuw subsequently became an integral cog in the Pompey machine; securing the First Division title in his debut season – falling just shy of 100 points – and becoming one of the Premier League’s stonewall centre-backs thereafter. Playing in the heart of a defensive back-five under Redknapp alongside Hayden Foxe and Gianluca Festa in the middle, the assertive defender held Portsmouth’s backline exquisitely and engineered their reputation for having a sturdy and water-tight defence; ultimately earning Arjan the captaincy in his final season at Fratton Park. As captain, De Zeeuw exhibited managerial leadership qualities in a turbulent time for Portsmouth as they went through three managers in a season – with the model defender aiming to steady the ship like any good captain should.
“You were known for being a stern and solid defender and weren’t afraid to get into tackles! Do you ever feel that that aspect has maybe been lost in the modern game?”
“Well it’s funny because we have the likes of Matthijs de Ligt at Ajax in Holland, players who are actually playing with that kind of strength again but who can also play football and use their feet. So yeah I think football is starting to realise that you need those kind of solid defenders again.”
After leaving Pompey in search of guaranteed starts that the club’s new regime couldn’t promise him, Wigan’s prodigal son returned to the North West to don the armband in the Latics’ first ever season in the top flight following their unprecedented rise through the leagues; a rise De Zeeuw undoubtedly played a part in. As a gemstone in the defence of Paul Jewell’s classic but flexible and versatile 4-4-2 layout, the skipper worked as the rugged and no-nonsense centre-half partnered alongside one of either Paul Scharner or Stéphane Henchoz – a more deft and dexterous counterpart alongside the stocky Dutchman.
“Wigan’s Arjan De Zeeuw [is my favourite player]. He’s really strong, never gives up. I could do with him at the whips’ office!” – Tony Blair, 2005.
Whilst occupying the role of the stern-faced captain in blue and white, Arjan took ‘Little Wigan’ to their first-ever major final in the aforementioned Carling Cup final; led the Latics to the lofty heights of 10th in the Premier League – still the highest finish in the club’s history – and, most importantly, two-footed Cristiano Ronaldo on the touchline at the JJB. As Arjan De Zeeuw signed off his name in Wigan’s history books; before going on to have short stints at Coventry City and Dutch side ADO ’20, the Latics faithful have immortalised their former captain’s contributions by voting him their greatest ever player and, most recently, picking him in the greatest all-time Wigan Athletic XI – a football canonisation for a true Wigan Athletic icon.
“You had two prolonged stints at Wigan, captaining the side in the Premier League and cementing yourself as a club legend. Do you have any particular stand-out moments from your time in a blue and white shirt?”
“Oh well the Wembley play-off finals were always special. But really the whole first season in the Premier League when I returned the second time round was just fantastic. The fact we made it to the Carling Cup final as well, it’s easy to get lost in such special occasions. It was one big party at Wigan; playing well the whole season and working alongside some good players and a good manager in Paul Jewell, as well as a good buzz from the fans! The whole season was fantastic.”
After over a combined 500 career appearances; 146 of which amongst the elites in the Premier League, Arjan De Zeeuw hung up his bloodied and worn boots to pursue his post-footballing passion as a forensic investigative detective – or a “copper” as he jovially puts it – back in Northern Holland. Hopefully, for their sake, Dutch criminals are at least wearing shin pads.
Captain. Leader. Legend. Doctor. ‘Copper’. Regardless of the moniker that best suits Arjan De Zeeuw, the Dutchman’s uncanny aptitude for carrying teams to the footballing nirvana of the Premier League and largely being one of the unsung and robust defenders of the early 2000s era deserves recognition among football fans. As for supporters of Barnsley, Wigan and Portsmouth, ‘Arry’ will always be held in incredibly high esteem due to his vigorous work ethic and fearless defensive attitude and has chiselled his name into the storybooks of all three clubs. As a model and loyal player from a bygone era, you will struggle to find a true football fan who wouldn’t brand Arjan De Zeeuw as a commendable player.
Well, maybe Cristiano Ronaldo.
Arjan De Zeeuw is an ambassador for Joseph’s Goal; a charity looking into the extremely rare life-limiting genetic disorder of Non-Ketotic Hyperglycinemia. Find out more about the charity and the condition here.