Ajax Amsterdam are one of the most successful football clubs in the world and the most famous of the Netherlands’ club sides. Famed for their highly successful youth academy, the early to mid-2000s proved to be a particularly fruitful period for the young players of Ajax under the tutelage of Ronald Koeman.
Zlatan Ibrahimović, Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder formed part of one of most formidable Ajax sides since the 1995 Champions League winners. In the 2002/03 season, the squad was brimming with players that would become superstars at teams across Europe. However, one member of that squad never truly fulfilled his potential as his career spiralled into ruin in a drug, alcohol and sex-fuelled four years on Merseyside with Everton.
Dutchman Andy van der Meyde was the archetypal winger; a proficient dribbler willing to run at the opposition full-back, beat him and deliver a cross for his teammates. As is expected of all graduates of the Ajax youth academy, he was technically strong and one of the most promising talents at the club. Comparisons were even made with Portugal’s Luís Figo.
Between 2000 and 2003, Van der Meyde was ever-present in the Ajax team, winning the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup double in 2002. Defined by his dribbling and pinpoint crossing, he became one of the stars of the side, with his assists proving invaluable.
His performances for Ajax earned Van der Meyde his first international call-up by then-Oranje manager, Dick Advocaat, in 2002. He made the perfect debut against the USA, capitalising on a defensive mistake from David Regis, rounding Kasey Keller, and firing powerfully into an empty net to make it 2-0 to the Dutch.
The contrast between Van der Meyde and his most famous ex-teammate at Ajax, Swedish striker Ibrahimović, is astonishing. The pair were living the dream in Amsterdam, two young footballers with the world at their feet, adored by the fans and enjoying the lavish lifestyle of many modern footballers.
Although their careers took completely opposite paths, Ibrahimović spoke fondly about his old friend and former teammate in an interview in 2012: “We were a group, we were the crazy guys. Me, Mido and Van der Meyde. It felt like he understood me and it was easy to get to know him. It felt like he came from a neighbourhood where he met people like me and Mido.” He went on to talk about their bad boy image: “People were saying ‘Oh, they are different, they are too difficult to take care of’ but when I saw Van der Meyde, it was like he was one of us also.”
Read | The making of Zlatan Ibrahimović at Ajax
At 24-years-old and on the back of his most prolific goal-scoring season for Ajax, Van der Meyde signed for Serie A runners-up Internazionale in the summer of 2003 for a fee believed to be in the region of €8m. The move to Inter should’ve been his opportunity to shine at the highest level but the difference in mentality in Italy was marked.
Van der Meyde was no longer a big fish in a small pond, but the new boy in a squad of world-class superstars like Christian Vieri, Dejan Stanković and Fabio Cannavaro to name a few. Ex-teammate Ibrahimović discovered a similar situation when he signed for Juventus the following year.
Van der Meyde found himself marginalised at Inter, spending a lot of his time on the periphery of the first team. In his two years with the Nerazzurri, he made only 32 league appearances, and in the summer of 2005 joined Premier League side Everton for the minuscule fee of £2m.
While Van der Meyde had been struggling for games at Inter, Everton had achieved the unlikely by breaking the dominance of England’s top four clubs, securing the final Champions League qualification spot in the Premier League at the expense of local rivals Liverpool. Everton manager David Moyes spent that summer searching for the right players to strengthen and prepare his squad for European competition in the following season.
Van der Meyde arrived on Merseyside alongside a host of new faces including players such as Per Krøldrup, Nuno Valente and Phil Neville. The capture of Van der Meyde was eulogised as a shrewd piece of business and it was hoped that the Dutchman would bring an extra spark to Everton’s midfield; providing the creative wide play that strikers like James Beattie could thrive on.
The move from Inter to Everton was not the most attractive on the table with reports that Monaco were also interested in the winger, but surprisingly the Toffees offered the most enticing wage packet. In his autobiography, Geen Genade, published in 2012, Van der Meyde spoke about the money he was offered: “I made good money in Milan but Everton offered me €37,000 per week. Double what I made in Italy.”
He was one of the highest-paid players at Everton at the time, but minutes on the pitch became increasingly limited through injury. He arrived at Goodison Park with a groin problem that prevented him from making his debut until October 2005, when he came off the bench against Middlesbrough.
Read | The undeniable talents of Rafael van der Vaart, a player born a decade too late
Behind the guise of injury, there were more sinister forces at work threatening to derail the Dutchman’s career on Merseyside. The winger’s problems can be traced back to his second year in Italy with Inter. In an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live in January 2013, he discussed the reasons behind turning to alcohol: “I didn’t go out until my second year in Italy when I knew I wasn’t going to play anymore. For me it was like a getaway so I went out and drank and I wasn’t thinking about football. I was depressed, I wasn’t playing anymore. I was also checking the odds and betting frequently.”
This trend continued when he joined Everton, and the dramatic increase in his wages only fuelled his drinking habits. He was living the lavish life of excess from the day he signed and, in an interview with The Times, he spoke about how he spent his new-found disposable income: “I bought a Ferrari and the first stop was the Newz Bar, a popular place in Liverpool. After a couple of hours of alcohol I drove to the nearest strip club. Getting drunk in a strip club in the middle of Liverpool was not very smart. But I had a strong longing for naked women.”
The visits to Liverpool’s strip bars led Van der Meyde into an affair with one of the strippers – a woman named Lisa – and eventually to the breakdown of his marriage as his personal life sank to a new low.
His life on the pitch didn’t fare any better. Blighted by further injury setbacks during his first season at the Toffees, a severe thigh injury sustained in training before a game against Manchester United in January 2006 kept him out for another six months. Those first six months of 2006 saw his career at Everton spiral into oblivion.
In his interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, Van der Meyde discussed those significant six months: “In that six months I was not living like I should have. For me it was a way to get out and not think about my problems. I could do what I wanted, I had a lot of money, I could buy what I wanted and I could get girls that I wanted.” He continued: “It was very easy. Then you can quickly go off the rails because there is no limit and you could do what you wanted. It was going out and drinking, and not thinking of reality.”
The problems continued to mount for Van der Meyde: run-ins with David Moyes, the health of his daughter and alcoholism were becoming insurmountable. He developed insomnia and for two years stole sleeping pills from the club doctor’s office at Everton. Alcohol and prescription drugs became the cure for his insomnia – he was addicted, not playing football, and he had yet to hit rock bottom.
Read | How Wesley Sneijder fuelled a football awakening like few others
After his release from Everton in 2009, the blonde maverick’s life sank even lower as he delved into hard recreational drugs, taking cocaine, drinking and partying with his friends in Liverpool. As a free agent and living on his own on Merseyside, the situation got rapidly out of hand, so much so that football took a back seat and Van der Meyde began to fear that his life of excess would kill him.
“I took coke and alcohol and partied seven days a week. I couldn’t concentrate on football or anything else for that matter. Partying was what my life was about. Liverpool is dangerous if you don’t know how to control yourself. I realised Liverpool would kill me. I needed to leave.”
Van der Meyde’s life had hit its lowest point but he eventually managed to return home to the Netherlands. His career never recovered and a failed spell at PSV Eindhoven was his last as a professional footballer before retirement in 2011.
Now that he is retired and clean from alcohol and drugs, Van der Meyde has laid bare his past in his autobiography and a series of interviews. He summed up his own squandered career speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live. “At one moment I was second behind Figo as the best winger in Europe and sometimes I think I wasted it. That is a lesson and now I want to help other players and help them not make the same mistakes I did.”
In 2013, Dutch news website HP De Tijd revealed voicemails that Van der Meyde had left former Real Madrid man, Royston Drenthe, attempting to warn his compatriot about the pitfalls in Liverpool prior to his move to Everton in 2011. “Liverpool has too many temptations for guys like us. Before you know it you will be dragged into the nightclubs. The Bacardi flows and you can ski on cocaine; and the women, Royston. Oh man, oh man, oh man. Those British women with their short skirts.”
Van der Meyde’s career may have gone in the opposite direction to that of his Ajax teammates and his old friend Ibrahimović, who became a world superstar, but the Dutchman has managed to turn his life around, and in 2012 began his UEFA coaching badges, thus giving him a route back into football.
As a coach he will be in the best position possible to share his experiences with future generations and prevent others from wasting the unique opportunity for a career in professional football.
By Jamie Allen @plymkrprss