A promising young player at Germinal Beerschot, a club on the outskirts of Antwerp in Belgium, Jan had the chance to join Ajax’s famed academy in Amsterdam, Holland.
In football terms, it was the chance of a lifetime, but it also meant not just moving home, but moving country and moving away from everything he knew and loved growing up in Belgium.
“It was a very hard choice to make,” reflected Jan as he prepared to face KAA Gent, a local team to him growing up in Sint-Niklaas, between Gent and Antwerp, in this evening's Europa League Round of 32 second leg at Wembley.
“I had to leave my family, my brothers, my friends and the way I look back at it now, it’s only an hour and a half drive! It’s nothing really, but when you are 16 it feels like you are moving to the other end of the world.
Below: One of Jan's earliest games for Ajax, a friendly against Arsenal and Dennis Bergkamp - August, 2006
“I didn’t have a car, my family was far away and it’s not a different language but a different accent, new people, new school, new friends. It was hard.
“I remember there was a coach in Antwerp, Danny Veyt. I wasn’t keen on going. He said ‘Jan, if you play in the Ajax academy, you can then go wherever you want and if not, you come back and every team in Belgium will want you’. That convinced me at the time. In my memory now, that was a very important thing to say, basically, ‘if you don’t like it, come back’.”
The rest is history.
Jan progressed through Ajax’s ranks and went on to captain the team to successive Dutch titles before joining Spurs in the summer of 2012. He’s now formed one of, if not the, best central defensive pairing in the Premier League with Toby Alderweireld, a fellow Belgian and former Ajax team-mate and won 87 caps for Belgium, playing in three major tournaments.
So how did he get to Ajax and then Spurs? Here’s Jan’s early story…
You were born in Sint-Niklaas, right between Gent and Antwerp and your first club was VK Tielrode, how old were you when you joined them?
Jan: “I was was six when I joined VK Tielrode, alongside my brother Ward, who is one year older. We always played in the same teams, we always went up in the ages together and played together until I was 12.”
Below: Jan's senior debut for Belgium against Portugal - June, 2007
Were you scouted there?
Jan: “If you are a bit of a good player lots of teams like Gent, Antwerp, Anderlecht, they’d come watch to you but my parents (mum Ria and dad Paul) were like ‘no, it’s too far (away) in your head to be a professional footballer’ but you don’t really think like that as a young lad, you just want to have fun with your friends. When I was 12 someone from Germinal Beerschot, the team that I joined, convinced my parents. He said study was the main thing there, that they’d pick me, drop me off and that I’d go to school and that was very important. They came up with a great plan for me and I joined them when I was 12, and that’s where I met Mousa Dembele!”
Did your parents need convincing?
Jan: “Yes, as much as I did, because I wanted to stay with my friends and my father wanted me to go to school and school was priority. They were eventually convinced and then it was my choice to make.”
Were you thinking at that stage ‘I want to be a professional footballer’?
Jan: “No, not really at that time. That was more when I went to Ajax. Beerschot was a 40, 45-minute drive but Ajax was another country. It was always ‘where is my limit?’. It was all about reaching limits and testing how good I was, never did I think ‘okay, now I’ll be a professional footballer’.”
Below: Jan up against Brazil great Ronaldinho in the Beijing Olympics - August, 2008
Lots of kids at school have the dream of becoming a professional football. Was it the same for you? What did people say to you then, as a youngster?
Jan: “It was always the dream. We had ‘friend books’ to fill in (at school), I don’t know if you have them in England, but you had to answer little questions like that and I said ‘football player’ but that was never about the dedication you need or that I was going to be one whatever it takes, at that time it was just that I liked football and my idols were footballers but I never thought I was good enough to make it. I was always told ‘there is only one guy in 500 who will make it’ and I thought, ‘that’s not going to be me’.
Did you have any other career plans?
Jan: “I never had to make that choice. I joined Ajax at 16, studied until I was 18, had a professional contract when I was 19 but I still went to school (in Amsterdam), I did Sports Marketing at the Johan Cruyff Institute until I was 23. I didn’t finish, by the way, because I knew at that point I was going to make it as a footballer.”
Below: Jan up against Cristiano Ronaldo and Real Madrid in the Champions League - November, 2010
What was it like to make the breakthrough at Ajax?
Jan: “It was special. At the beginning of that season (2006-07) I just joined the squad because a few of the internationals had gone and for the experience. I did well in pre-season and the coach said ‘you did very well, you are part of the team now, you are with us for the rest of the season’. I remember where I was when he told me, I was a bit flabberghasted but very happy. I didn’t really play a lot in the first half of that season, just a few games and then went on loan to RCK Waalwijk for the rest of the season. After that, I started playing.”
When you look at the Ajax squad at the time, there were some big names like Stekelenburg, Heitinga, Babel, Sneijder, JuanFran, Huntelaar, Vermaelen and Edgar Davids then joined Ajax from Spurs. What was that like as a young player breaking through?
Jan: “Ajax will always be a team where in five years time, you’ll be speaking about the players who are there now. They always have great talent. I could name six, seven eight other guys at tha time. Yet with all those players, we didn’t win any trophies. It was only in my later years there with the likes of Toby Alderweireld, Christian Erikse and Daley Blind that we started to win. That group won four titles on the trot (2010-11, 11-12, 12-13, 13-14), I won two (10-11, 11-12) before joining Spurs.”
Below: Jan shows his defensive strength against Chelsea's Diego Costa this season
Bring it back to here and now, what do you think of the second leg against KAA Gent and how will they respond to playing at Wembley?
Jan: “Gent are very organised, well-coached and hard to beat. They showed that in the first leg, but we’re confident especially after how we played at Fulham. In terms of Wembley, you probably can’t imagine what this will mean to them. I remember the first time I played at Wembley, it was just two months before I joined Tottenham (a friendly against England in June, 2002). I’d already played for five or six years by then, played for Belgium, played Champions League, played at the Bernabeu but to come to Wembley, I think it’s one of the highest things you can achieve as a football player. It’s something special for every player and it will be the same for the fans as well.”