In 2015, Memphis (21) won the title in Holland, got the golden boot as top scorer and became the most expensive player PSV ever sold. At the same time, he struggled with his image at Oranje and Man United. A look back in seven parts, about misunderstandings and prejudice. “Just give him space to be unique and all will work out…”.
The Title – The Pact of Eindhoven
The championship party of PSV Eindhoven was in extra time, in the bar of the PSV Eindhoven stadium “De Verlenging”. Moist was dripping from the walls and everybody was chanting and dancing . Celebrating the 22nd title in the history of PSV. And a special title, as it took them seven years to win it back from Ajax, AZ and Twente. The DJ starts another tune and technical director Marcel Brands walks over to Memphis and says: “How ‘bout it? Will you performing a couple of raps for us or what?”. Memphis’ eyes widen up and he says: “Can I? Are you sure?”. Brands, six months later: “And there I was. Rapping with Memphis and one of his mates whom he’d brought along, doing some sort of rap…”.
A beautiful piece of symbolism. Brands explains. “When I started as TD for PSV, first thing I did was check the talent pool in the youth. There were some good talents, but one lad jumped out of the crowd. Amazing skills. But…also a rebel. Difficult kid. When he was 16 years old, he signed his first contract with us and the thing that struck me was his mature attitude. And his clothes. He looked impeccable. Now, I have a soft spot for fashion, so we had this bond. People told me he was difficult, but he isn’t. He is more impatient. He wants everything fast faster fastest. We had Dries Mertens as left winger and he played really well for us, so Memphis had to bide his time and bite his tongue at times. Because Memphis thought he was simply better than Mertens. And in that time, we had to put our foot on the brakes. He started to drift, his focus went from football to other things. Like any teenager would have. He became part of a hip hop group from Rotterdam and before you knew it, videos came online on YouTube. Fred Rutten, the coach back then, took Memphis aside and told him to quit those activities, as they might be used against him. Typical for Memphis, he immediately ceased those activities. The first time he rapped in public since that period, was at that title party in the PSV stadium.”
Memphis was living on cloud 9. It all went his way. He had made an impression at the World Cup in Brazil and seemed ready for a move. Brands: “He didn’t have firm offers, but I was contacted by basically every big club in Europe. I wanted to keep him one more year. I felt it was doable. Because Memphis has a tremendous sense of responsbility. He wants to be the leader. We sketched this scenario for him, in which he would lead us to the title. I was able, luckily, to keep Wijnaldum on board for us and that decision helped Memphis to say he’d stay as well. They were both on a mission. Wanted to win the title for PSV and wanted to accomplish something before they’d go abroad. And so it happened…”
Memphis signed his contract pre World Cup so Brands was able to keep interested clubs at bay, post World Cup. Tottenham Hotspur came with a firm offer, but Memphis declined. Just like when PSG came in the winter break with a big bag of money. He made a deal with Brands and he would keep his word. Brands: “Memphis came to me and said “Did you hear about PSG’s offer? That is a shitload of money, yes?” And I replied: “Yes it is, but I’m gping to say no to the offer.” Memphis nodded and walked out. He never asked me about it again. That is Memphis too, loyal to the core. And I will never forget his words when he signed that contract. He said “I’ll win the title with PSV and I want to win the top scorer title.” I remember thinking, that that would be hard for winger, but he was really convinced he’d do it. He even asked for a bonus if he’d score the most goals and I denied him that. I said “If you get that bonus you might be playing for Memphis, instead of PSV”. I winked at him and he accepted.”
The young left winger was grateful to his team for all they did. He was co-organiser of the title party and bought baseball caps for all involved, with their initials on it. He also paid for the champagne. General Manager Gerbrands: “I was not happy that Memphis took a seat in the festivities committee. I thought that might be too much of a distraction for him, but I learned Memphis can compartimentalise really well. He is the kind of guy that can take on different roles aside from football. Clarence Seedorf had that too.”
A remarkable kid. Grew up in Moordrecht, under the smoke of Rotterdam. Played for Sparta until his 12th. Raised by a single mum, not having a lot of means. He didn’t want to meet or know his biological dad and didn’t receive much love from his step dad, more abuse and tyranny. Memphis developed an allergie versus authority and needed a mental coach to transcend his anger into motivation. Gerbrands: “As a club, we are proud of Memphis, but he should basically be proud of himself. He did it all himself.”
The Transfer – more valuable than Ruud van Nistelrooy
The Biggest Transfer in the History of PSV Eindhoven is the easiest one Marcel Brands ever had to do. Marcel Brands: “The choice was Memphis’. We had a fixed price for him and whatever he picked was fine with us, as long as we got that price.” Paris St Germain reached an agreement with PSV. When Man United surpassed this offer with added bonusses and a % share when Memphis is sold on, the Eindhoven club is happy to talk. In 2001, Ruud van Nistelrooy went to Man United for 30 mio euros. Memphis’ deal might rake in 43 mio euros in total for PSV. The amount is dazzling even for Brands. “I won’t discuss amounts with you but we had tagged him for an amount between 20 and 30 million. After a strong season, we were hoping for 30 mio. The amount he went for was beyond expectation. But the big end of town doesn’t care about a couple of million more or less. If they want him, they are willing to go a step further. And they did.”
Memphis picks his dream club. The money in Paris was very good too but Depay prefers the EPL. Liverpool is also in the picture. Memphis even meets with Brendan Rogers at the John Lennon Airport but when Sturridge got injured Rogers needed to fix that issue first (and signed Benteke). Memphis’ agent Kees Ploegsma jr calls Man United and says “he’ll sign for PSV unless you come to the party”. He is flown to Old Trafford to meet with management and apparently established himself as “cocky” when Louis van Gaal started to talk about Memphis’ short comings, the left winger said “if you feel this way, why are we talking here about a transfer?”… There is no proof this actually happened, but people who know Depay claim that this does sound like him.
At that stage, Memphis has a good relationship with PSG’s technical director but he wanted the confidence of his future coach. And he got that from Van Gaal. By then, he is the biggest summer signing for the Mancunians and Van Gaal said this at the announcement: “Memphis is one of the greatest prospects of his generation. And on top of that, he is very confident. I can use him as striker, as left winger and as left midfield player.” Depay, when presented: “I am here to win trophies and to help Man United win trophies. I can help the team. I can score goals and I am sure I can do this in the EPL as well. My dream came true. Man United is the biggest club of the world and I am allowed to play here.”
The former Sparta youngster has a reputation of being difficult, but he is a true professional. Marcel Brands: “He would always be the last on the training pitch. We really needed to order him in. And it is that, with his talent, that got him where he is now. He lives for the sport and he is very mature. When he was a youth player, he already enlisted a nutrition expert. He is only focused on becoming faster, stronger and better. At Sporting Lisbon, you can see pics of C Ronaldo on the wall, to show the newer generations what you can achieve if you work hard. Memphis is basically our example for the youth.”
Self confidence – cockiness & the Number 7
In 2003, C Ronaldo moved to Old Trafford and his skills were not long a secret with the emerging Youtube clips going around the internet. When Memphis signs, the number of views of “Memphis Skills’ clips skyrocket. Memphis is a sensation before he even kicks a ball and the expectations mount up. These go ballistic when LVG hands him the number 7 jersey, made famous by George Best, Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and that kid from Madeira. A sacred jersey, which has its own weight. Too heavy for the likes of Michael Owen, Angel di Maria and Antonia Valencia. Memphis isn’t bothered. “Yes, it carries special significance, I realise that and I am aware of the history of the jersey number. But I don’t see it as a problem, for me it is a challenge. General manager Toon Gerbrands is not surprised Memphis reached for the shirt. “The current generation, they are different. He is a child of these times. He thinks in levels, like in gaming. They think in levels. Sparta youth is level 1. PSV was level 2. He jumped up to level 4 now at Man United. Typical Memphis to jump a level up. In their way of thinking, you don’t die, you simply go back a level if you can’t make it. But typical for him to want that extra challenge of the #7 jersey.”
The Break Through – Club Brugge
Ruud Vormer, ex AZ and ex Feyenoord, currently playmaker of Club Brugge. “I warned my team mates. I know what he can do. He can be very dangerous. The way he played and scored those two goals, it doesn’t surprise me one bit.”
On Tuesday evening August 18, Memphis has Old Trafford at his feet. Two goals and one assist. He led Man United into the Champions League. The goals are superb, the first one he plugged out of the air, controls it and finishes. The second one is from a bigger distance, leaving the goalie without a chance. In the dying minutes, he allows Fellaini to score the third. The Brugge players look at each other and Vormer’s eyes say “I told you so”. Tuur Dierckx: “What can you do against such a player?” Memphis was timely with his performance. In one hit, he made the club the money they spent on him. Van Gaal: “I want to kiss Memphis now. Scoring two of those goals and an assist…that makes you a hero around here.” Memphis himself is not happy. He missed a big opportunity on a hattrick. Van Gaal: “That is Memphis, typically. Never satisfied. He constantly wants to improve. I am happy for him. He is impatient and I told him he has to bide his time. It will come. I will be hard for him to go on like this. He is only 21 years old and only played in PSV 1 for two seasons. But it’s clear to everyone what he has in his locker.”
The English media like to exaggerate. When it is disappointing, they kill you in the headlines. When it’s good, they proclaim you king. The King of Old Trafford, was one headline, The Best Thing from Memphis since Elvis was another. In the away game in Brugge, Memphis is also hard to contain. Man Unitied wins, with a Memphis assist. Ruud Vormer: “We were even lucky that Memphis wasn’t that good tonight.”
Criticism – The Dutch National Team
Oranje is prepping for the away game vs Kazachstan in October 2015. They train on an artificial pitch at Sparta Rotterdam, as Kazachstan uses that too. Danny Blind is focusing on his last opportunity to qualify for the Euros, but Turkey will have to drop points. The coach can’t handle much more setbacks, as the Hiddink reign in the campaign offered up too much stress already. The players play an 11 v 11 match, before they pack up to go to the airport, for the eight hour flight. Memphis is through on goal. The most likely pass is to play in Van Persie who is free and unmarked. It would be a certain goal. But Memphis sees another solution: a backheel to the left back Riedewald. The young Ajax players shoots high over the bar. Van Persie is dumbfounded. Van Persie starts debating Memphis’ decision. The discussion continues over dinner. And when the former Man U star has more than enough of it, he asks Depay whether he thinks he is a big player now? To which Memphis responds: “I don’t know, do big players play for Fenerbahce?”. Blind decides to bud in and asks Van Persie: “Are you at your antics again?”
This marks the end of Van Persie’s position. The all time goal scorer for Oranje expected to play vs Kazachstan but finds himself back on the bench. But Memphis is presented with a notice as well: both players are not selected for the friendlies vs Wales and Germany. Memphis is not 100% fit, but Blind claims he wouldn’t have selected him anyway. A week later, he does call up Depay due to too many injuries. Blind: “His immense qualities means he is the future of Oranje. But, in football, other aspects count as well. You need to be a team player and Memphis fails to do so at times. I had a talk with him, I told him that all the eyes are on him now. He’s a big Man U player, making lots of money and with lots of media attention. As a result, everyone will watch him. It is ok to be different if you perform on the pitch. But once you start to disappoint, all these elements will work against you.”
Kees Jansma was Oranje’s press chef in Brazil during the World Cup 2014 and he witnessed Memphis coming to the fore in his sub turns. He was surprised to hear about the bust up with Van Persie. “Hmmm, this is not the Memphis I worked with in Brazil. He was exemplary. We had three pillars that allowed Memphis and others to shine: 1) the focus on a good team performance, 2) Louis van Gaal and 3) Sneijder, Robben and Van Persie. The hierachy was clear. These three showed Memphis what was expected. They worked their asses off. And they took him on too. Whenever he would become complacent or wanted to play with frills, they were right onto him. Whenever Memphis was practicing the C Ronaldo free kick, the three of them would sit and watch and whenever he missed, they’d yell: “Keep on practicing Memphis, keep on practicing!”. And he didn’t mind, he could chuckle about it. But now I see a different Memphis. I see a young player with lots of stress.”
The Set Back – Benched
In his first months at Man United, Memphis is very popular. He demonstrates his qualities in the pre-season games and makes an impression in the tournament with Barcelona, PSG, Chelsea, Benfica and Fiorentina. He starts in the Man U line up at the season start and one and a half months later he scores his first in the EPL: the winner versus Sunderland. His jersey is sold most globally, behind the jersets of one Lionel Messi and one C Ronaldo. But when autumn arrives, he loses his credit. Against Liverpool, Van Gaal takes him off in the break and is furious. He wonders if Memphis forgot which colour jersey his team mates are wearing. The tabloids smell blood. The Sun announces that Memphis won’t start against Everton. They also serve up the statistic that he is the EPL signing with the most loss of possession. The Sun then prints that some people within Man United are fed up with his antics and behaviour. PSV technical director Marcel Brands: “That might be the case. When you win games for the club, anything goes. When you don’t play well, people start to get annoyed over every little thing. But I have faith in him. He has weathered tougher storms and he will come out stronger, I’m sure.”
Fred Rutten, former Schalke and Feyenoord coach, follows the player whom he gave his debut at PSV. “I can see he his going through a tough time. But, I also see moments where I think “Ah! There he is again!”. It’s logical though, right? Last season, him and Wijnaldum were the big boys in the Eredivisie, and they need time. In England, you play an Ajax-PSV every week. Bergkamp and Jonk struggled in their first season at Inter too, and Van Persie needed time to settle at Arsenal. Or take Eden Hazard? Amazing last season, anonymous now. This is what I see with Memphis as well. Give him time. Next season he could well be the best player in the EPL.”
Generation Gap – The Hat
PSV has another party in their bar De Verlenging. They just reached the knock out stages of the CL, at the expense of Manchester United. Memphis will play Europa League now, while he left PSV to go and win the Champions League. Oh irony… But they don’t chuckle in Eindhoven: “We want the best for Memphis. He made the right choice.”
The bond between the former goal scorer and the general manager Gerbrands is still strong. They don’t get all the humdrum around Depay, in Eindhoven. When he makes his entrance with Oranje wearing a cool Indiana Jones style hat, it becomes the talking point of the nation. Co Adriaanse said he looked like a Peruvian pan flute player. Or some other time, Depay enters the frame wearing a Michael Jackson style outfit. The nation is upset: Memphis had zero goals and zero assists in the failing qualification campaign, but has the balls to wear Hollywood outfits?? Gerbrands: “Unbelievable… They feel Memphis should wear mourning clothing or something? It’s clear that people who say these things don’t “get” this generation…” Gerbrands has made an effort to understand the current youth. As players like Wijnaldum, El Ghazi, Elia and Willems also like to dress and act outrageously. Gerbrands: “I once asked one of our players about his tattoos… And he showed me all of them and told me the stories behind them. I can tell you, I was moved. This kid had gone through a lot with his family and everytime he had overcome something he added a tattoo. It’s culture. You hear gripping stories from some kids and if tattoos help them to face that history, what is wrong with it?”
Toon Gebrands talks about the core values of PSV. “We have simple values, simple rules. Old fashioned, common sense stuff. And we make every player pledge to uphold these values. That is all we ask. Second “agrreement” we have is: you stick to the laws of top sport. And these are all explained to them, etc. What any player subsequently does with his clothing, tattoos, hats… that is their thing. It’s interesting, the football sports is the first “industry” to feel the effects of this generation. There is no other industry where a 20 year old can reach the top at that age. I think the corporate world has something coming towards them, because this generation will have their own views. I can see more and more young talent saying “I don’t want this life, or career, I want to travel for two years, see ya laters…”.
At PSV, Memphis once came to training on a quad mobile. In Eindhoven, they are not really surprised. Or that he asks people to pose with him infront of a sponsor billboard. Or that he goes to a nightclub with a golden bit in his mouth. In Eindhoven, they are used to Memphis flying in his personal nutrition advisor and personal tattoo artist. Years ago, when he signed his first contract, he told everyone that one day he would own the penthouse across from where he lived. Everyone laoughed and giggled. But he owns it now. And he spends his holidays with Romelo Lukaku and Paul Pogba and places pics of the occasion on instagram. Pogba, he met via French team mate Isimat Mirin and Lukaku was one of his opponents in a youth international game vs Belgium. They got to chat and became buddies.
Toon Gerbrands, PSV general manager, actually lives int the building with Depay’s penthouse. “So strange, I saw him suddenly in the lobby and in the elevator. My apartment is large, 120 square meters, big enough for me. His penthouse is 340 square meters big. One time I saw him with sunglasses and hood and not dressed in his formidable style. I said “Memphis, what’s wrong?”. He said “I just need a quick grocery run and don’t have much time. If people recognise me they want my autograph and I don’t want to let them down, so I go like this.” And I said: “Memphis, people will understand if you tell them?”. And he said: “No, last time I received two letters how I am arrogant… I don’t like those.”
This is the paradox of life for young legs. It’s not just Memphis, it’s a whole group of young stars, who are owned by the fans, the sponsors, the media. They receive a lot, but also have to give a lot back. Everything they do, buy, say, touch will be world news in seconds. It is not easy to deal with that. Gerbrands: “”But Memphis will never forget his roots. When he had his last training session, we had 100s of kids waiting for him. He would tell the press officer to inform the kids he’d be out in 15 minutes, and then he’d patiently sign each and every kid an autograph.
When Memphis wears his infamous hat on his way to Oranje, the Dutch media ridiculed him. At PSV they chuckled and said “ha! the old Memphis is back!”. Technical Director Marcel Brands: “Last season we had an early practice match vs Waregem. The club costumes weren’t ready yet so everyone came in their own clothes. Memphis was dressed impeccable. I said “Whoa Memphis, are you getting married after the game?”. Memphis just winked and smiled. He likes that kinda thing. And it sums up who he is. He wants to look good, he wants to stand out, he wants to better himself. I say: give him room and all will come good with him.”