On 1 June Georginio Wijnaldum gave Holland a 2-1 win over Poland, driving his 13th goal of the season into the top corner of Wojciech Szczesny’s net; he packed his bags in Gdansk and did not watch another competitive match until 10 July. It might have been longer had his friend not started the European Championship final that night. “I was done with football for a few weeks,” he explains, somewhat conservatively given he switched off for 39 days before switching on to Portugal’s mind-numbing victory over France. Failures with club and country had cut deep but they seem far away now. “These are better days,” he says with the broadest of grins. Far from done.
If results dictate the 26-year‑old’s mood then it is no surprise the Liverpool midfielder was in engaging form in the buildup to Sunderland’s visit on Saturday. “What a nice guy,” texts the photographer having asked Wijnaldum to pose for a series of snaps after the interview and encountered a patient, amiable Premier League subject. Liverpool’s commanding form, league position and a meeting with Jürgen Klopp must take some of the credit. The Rotterdam-born midfielder chose Anfield over White Hart Lane in the summer, although strictly speaking there was no choice as Tottenham Hotspur did not meet Newcastle United’s £25m asking price, and has settled seamlessly into a team of increasing substance.
“I had great conversations with [Mauricio] Pochettino and Klopp,” says the Dutch international. “But in the meeting with Jürgen we had a laugh and did not speak only about football. He was interested in my personal life and that was good for me. He was not only interested in Wijnaldum the footballer but Wijnaldum the person. When you’re not out on the football field you have to communicate as people and it is good if you know something about how the other person is. It makes things easier.”
Wijnaldum’s debut season in English football was anything but simple when, despite scoring 11 Premier League goals and thriving upon Rafael Benítez’s belated arrival, he endured relegation with Newcastle. Holland’s failure to qualify for the Euros compounded a season to forget.
He reflects: “It was a really difficult time. The first thing was that it was hard to accept we didn’t qualify for the Euros. When you finish third at a World Cup you have confidence you might be able to win the Euros and we didn’t go.
“I didn’t watch the Euros, I only watched the final. I wanted to spend time with my family and friends instead but, to be honest, I was done with football for a few weeks because everything had gone wrong. Personally it was a great year but when you don’t achieve things with your team, and especially if you get relegated, it is hard. I was a little bit done with football but Moussa [Sissoko, of France] is a good friend of mine so I thought I should watch him in the final.
“The Euros was a really big disappointment but relegation with Newcastle was for me even bigger. Before I went to Newcastle I spoke with the manager and the people there and they had big plans to bring good players in and play for titles. I was really disappointed because I wanted to achieve something with Newcastle. Even if it was not a title I wanted to help the club get back to fifth-to-10th place to start with, and maybe get the club back into Europe again. Unfortunately it didn’t go that way. It went totally wrong. That was the biggest disappointment for me last season.”
Four months into his Liverpool career and Wijnaldum has rediscovered the feeling he had during his final season at PSV Eindhoven when, as captain, he led Phillip Cocu’s team to their first league title since 2008. He will not say whether Liverpool can end a much longer wait for a league title this season. To do so would run contrary to everything Klopp demands of his players, indeed the entire club, in his quest for constant improvement, although the midfielder admits Liverpool have confidence they can win every game at present. “There is no chance of us getting carried away,” he says. “That comes from the manager. Even if we have played a good game he still wants to work on the things that didn’t go so well. Every time you have to give 100%. It’s the same every week and in every training session. Every exercise we do he asks us to do it at 100% and never less.”
Wijnaldum adds: “I feel like I did at PSV. The most important thing is to enjoy football because you don’t know how long your career is going to last, but it is difficult when things don’t go well. It was difficult to enjoy last season. You are losing games, everything is going bad, you don’t play well and in the end you get relegated. That was hard.
“This season I started to enjoy it as soon as I knew Liverpool really wanted to sign me, especially after the meeting with Jürgen. I came away from that with a really great feeling that I could train with a good manager, a really good team and make myself a better player. I’m probably enjoying it now more than I did before because I have seen the other side of football where I was losing a lot of games and got relegated with Newcastle and didn’t go to the Euros. These are better days.
“Every training session we do is to improve you as a player. That’s different to what I’ve experienced before and I’m really happy with it. The manager gives you confidence. He’s not a manager who yells at you or gets angry with you whenever you make a mistake. He will only get mad if you don’t do the things you are good at so, for example, [Sadio] Mané is a good player who can dribble, [Philippe] Coutinho is a good player who can dribble and if they stop doing that there’s a chance he might get mad and upset because you are not using your quality. Against Southampton last week he wanted me to make a run. I did it but it was too late and he said something about it.
“But sometimes, if I lose the ball easily, I expect him to be angry and he’s not. You can hear his voice easily enough – he’s quite loud. He is really passionate and not only in the game. People might see him during a game and think that’s an act. It’s not an act. He’s like that in training. For me that’s a good thing because it keeps you sharp and, from his side, he is doing everything he can to make the team ready to win games. That’s a good thing.”
The Holland international has a more defensive role at Liverpool than at Newcastle, where he operated out wide or as a No10, but Klopp did not outline a specific role when they met in the summer. “He explained his way of playing and said that I would fit in. From that moment I was very excited,” says Wijnaldum who, for his part, neglected to mention inspiring Newcastle’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park in December. “At the time he still had to make me an offer so I thought it is probably best to say nothing about that game, although it was a good one for me. Maybe I will remind him.”
Wijnaldum admits that “in different circumstances” he would have “loved to have worked longer” with Benítez. “But I had my plans in my head and we both went our own way. He said he wanted to keep me to get promoted and that the right offer had to be made before I could leave. Once everything was done he said Liverpool was a wonderful club and that he hoped I’d enjoy it here.”
A more formative influence currently resides across Stanley Park. Erwin Koeman, assistant to his brother, Ronald, at Everton, was the Feyenoord coach who gave Wijnaldum his debut in April 2007; the midfielder became the club’s youngest debutant, in a team featuring Pierre van Hooijdonk and Angelos Charisteas, Greece’s European Championship-winning striker, against a Groningen side featuring one Luis Suárez.
“The game was on the Sunday and he told me on the Wednesday that I would be playing,” he recalls of the elder Koeman. “That was a really special moment. I realised that not every trainer has the balls to let a 16-year-old play in the first team and things were not going so well for the team at that time so they didn’t want to take the risk with young players. I was 16 years and 148 days old.
“That is why I always respect him as a trainer, because he made a decision that other trainers would have been scared to make. He told me I could tell my grandma, who I was living with at the time, but asked me not to tell anyone in school. I was still at school and he wanted to keep it a secret. You know how it is with reporters. It was very difficult to concentrate on class.”
While Wijnaldum is effusive in his praise of past and present coaches, it is his grandmother Francina to whom he owes the greatest gratitude. As he explains: “I wanted to be a gymnast when I was young, I used to do backflips and all those things in the street and at home, but my grandma said it was dangerous and made me stop. Now my daughter is doing gymnastics and I’m a little bit jealous of her because she is doing all the things I wanted to do when I was young. I had to stop and concentrate on football but I’m happy about that now.”
The Guardian Sport