Heitinga: I Played My Best Football For Everton – I Felt Love From The Fans

In an interview originally published in Everton’s matchday programme last year, John Heitinga talks about regrets over not staying at the Club longer, playing with pain as a constant companion, growing up on the philosophy of Total Football and developing Ajax’s next generation of Champions League-ready stars.

The principles embedded in John Heitinga as he journeyed through the academy at Ajax Amsterdam reflect a club synonymous with Total Football.

“How to pass and control the ball and play from the back with confidence,” Heitinga details.

“To always try to find the football solution.”

Heitinga was a product of his upbringing.

Recalling an all-purpose Everton central-defensive partnership with Sylvain Distin, he says: “I was doing the football stuff and Sylvain the defending.”

The taller and more powerful Premier League strikers – Didier Drogba and Peter Crouch are the examples offered – would position themselves next to the Dutchman for aerial duels.

Heitinga smiles at that memory. The Ajax curriculum features lessons in how to “stand up for yourself and fight”, too.

This is the club that reared Edgar Davids, a midfielder nicknamed The Pitbull, and Nigel de Jong, nobody’s idea of a shrinking violet.

Heitinga is head coach of Ajax Under-19s today, charged with “developing players who can make the difference at the highest level”.

The ones who fit the bill, insists Heitinga, marry their “big talent” with “character”.

To underline his point, he draws on the case of Matthijs de Ligt.

The first-class defender was 19 when he captained Ajax to the 2018/19 domestic championship.

De Ligt chose to miss the team’s celebratory jolly in Barcelona.

Bumping into a surprised Heitinga at the club’s futuristic De Toekomst training centre, he explained, ‘I have my programme… I want to be the best defender in the world.

‘I want to move to a big club and be the most successful Dutch defender of all time’.

Within two months, De Ligt, who joined Ajax aged nine, was a Juventus player.

“Most players who went through the academy,” adds Heitinga, “are really focused on their own development.”

That was true of Heitinga, a football nut whose mum Monique badgered Ajax to allow her son to join an academy training session for his ninth birthday present.

“Henk van Teunenbroek [an Ajax academy manager] said no about 10 times,” says Heitinga.

“Eventually, he said to come for one session. They were impressed and I started in the academy in 1992.”

Every year, it grew tougher to make the cut.

Heitinga draws a triangle and turns it to his computer screen to illustrate a point which remains valid.

The wide base represents the academy’s early-age intake, the narrowing shape depicting dwindling numbers, until a select few remain at the pinnacle.

“At Ajax, you have one year at a time, if you are not good enough, they send you away,” says Heitinga.

Heitinga was 11 when a primarily homegrown Ajax team became 1995 European champions.

The demand to produce elite performers is nothing new, then.

But a second triangle that exists today, explains Heitinga, is representative of altered practices.

Player, parents and club constitute the three points; all integral in formulating individual development plans.

Heitinga would “play 90 minutes for the Under-19s on Saturday, same again in the Under-21 team on Monday”.

“Now,” he discloses, “the sports science team say that is not possible.”

“When I played in the academy,” continues Heitinga, “we had the trainer and manager and a bag of balls.

“Now, I have a dietitian, video analyst, performance and mental coaches, science team, team manager and co-ordinator.”

Heitinga was 18 before he stumbled across the inside of a gym.

He’d made his senior debut at 17, against Feyenoord, and was increasingly a regular when injury intervened.

“I twisted my knee, it was a lateral meniscus problem,” says Heitinga.

“The surgery didn’t go well and I needed a second operation.”

Heitinga returned after more than six months, replacing Christian Chivu at half-time of a home game against NAC Breda, in August 2002.

“In minute 83,” he starts, “I made a tackle [he was booked] – it was my mistake – and did the ACL on my other knee.

“I didn’t play again for 14 months.

“In that time, I had doubts about my career.”

Heitinga’s worst fears were ultimately allayed but the issue was a constant companion.

Reliving his Everton medical, Heitinga, who joined the Club in September 2009, makes a downwards pressing motion, frowns and shakes his head, to imitate the doctor testing that knee.

“Normally, your knee is straight,” says Heitinga.

“Mine is like this [positions lower arm at right angle to upper arm].

“But because of my history and the minutes I’d played, Everton signed me.

“It is about my character, I never gave up.

“I played with painkillers – and had a high pain threshold.

“The pain was always there.

“The day after a match, I had to deal with my right knee.

“The medical team at Everton was unbelievably good, sometimes I missed training to play the next game.

“I am satisfied with my career.

“But you always ask yourself, ‘What if I didn’t have the injury from that age?’”

John Heitinga
It is about my character, I never gave up. I played with painkillers – and had a high pain threshold.

The original post-injury plan was for Heitinga to spend a year away from Ajax reacquainting himself with regular football.

Performing “unbelievably well” in a summer 2003 friendly match before fixing his mooted loan prompted a rethink from above, however, manager Ronald Koeman telling the player to stay put.

Heitinga became a fixture in Ajax’s title-winning team, gained his first Holland cap and went to the 2004 European Championship as a first pick.

“That is football, you need a bit of luck and a manager who believes in you,” he says.

“The injuries had a huge impact on my attitude.

“When players were complaining about the weather, or the pitch, I was so angry.

“They didn’t have the feeling I had, working in the gym, with pain, to come back.

“I was always fighting against them.”

Ajax’s form suffered amid repeated managerial upheaval after Koeman left in February 2005.

Heitinga’s star was in the ascendancy, nevertheless. He played at the 2006 World Cup and following the European Championship two years later joined Atletico Madrid.

John Heitinga
The injuries had a huge impact on my attitude. When players were complaining about the weather, or the pitch, I was so angry.

“It was a little bit chaotic at Ajax, not like the stability we have today,” says Heitinga.

“I was ready to make the step and wanted to play against the best strikers in the world.

“Atletico Madrid is an unbelievably nice club. Home games were like playing in South America.”

Heitinga introduces a carefully-worded caveat – “But they weren’t as organised as now, we had agreements in the contract and there were some issues” – which was enough to turn his head when Everton enquired.

He consistently played for Atletico and in his final weeks in the Spanish capital was in a side that progressed to the Champions League group stage.

“And,” says Heitinga, “life in Madrid is nice, you wake up and the sun is there.

“Leaving was a difficult choice for me and my family.”

Manager David Moyes’ persuasive powers, added to pre-existing knowledge of “the players, the fact Everton was the People’s Club and the stadium”, swung it for Heitinga.

He taps the back of his shaven head to describe how the Premier League’s intensity originally overwhelmed a sinewy 5ft 9in frame.

“In my first games, I had cramps from my small toe to here,” he says.

“It is the hardest league.”

Heitinga, signed along with Distin and forward Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, as Moyes reinvested cash generated from Joleon Lescott’s transfer to Manchester City, was primarily employed in midfield for two seasons.

He spent his third campaign – 2011/12 – almost exclusively at centre-half and crowned an exceptional season with the supporters’ player-of-the-year award.

“I always felt the love from the fans,” says Heitinga.

“There was a really nice connection between me, the fans and the Club.

“I probably played my best football for Everton, especially the season I won player of the year.

“I felt really strong, my confidence and mindset were there and my body was in top condition.”

Heitinga reels off the names of ex-teammates – Leighton Baines, Mikel Arteta, Marouane Fellaini, Steven Pienaar, Louis Saha and Distin, among them – to emphasise the rich quality of Moyes’ side.

“I loved every minute but the games against big teams at Goodison are my best memories,” says Heitinga.

“We beat most of them and were really a team.

“But to win a trophy, you need some luck.

“We lost some players [injured and sold] and were competing with a lot of really strong sides.”

Heitinga would have made more than 140 Everton appearances had he accepted a new contract offer in May 2013, when the player had one season remaining on five-year terms.

“[Chairman] Bill Kenwright and David Moyes asked me to re-sign,” says Heitinga.

“I didn’t and that is what I regret.

“In my head, I was thinking, ‘Maybe, I can make one more step’.

“But the club I wanted to join didn’t come.

John Heitinga
[Chairman] Bill Kenwright and David Moyes asked me to re-sign. I didn’t and that is what I regret.

“For me, it was better to stay at Everton, it is a family club and still in my heart.”

Heitinga scarcely featured under Moyes’ successor, Roberto Martinez, who preferred players tied down for the long term.

“Roberto was fair with me,” says Heitinga.

“And the Club was always really good to me.

“It is so special. You can see the depth of love for Everton from people working there.

“I am happy with my performances at Everton, especially in the opening three seasons.

“But when I left, I knew my life as a player was almost ended.”

Heitinga enjoyed his five months at Fulham, where he moved in January 2014, but relegation prompted a transfer to Hertha Berlin.

After one injury-plagued season in Germany, Heitinga returned to Ajax.

He’d been back six months when manager Frank de Boer informed him, ‘There is no place for you anymore’.

John Heitinga
I am happy with my performances at Everton, especially in the opening three seasons. But when I left, I knew my life as a player was almost ended.

“Frank said I wasn’t fit, but I was,” says Heitinga.

“I wanted five games in a row to prove it.

“But that was one I had to take.

“I had to count to 10.”

Reluctant to uproot his young family, Heitinga turned down playing opportunities in England and Italy.

Additionally, says Heitinga: “I had to listen to my body.

“In my head, I was still the same player, but my body wasn’t doing what I wanted.

“I wasn’t the player I had been.

“I always thought I would play until 36, 37.

“But, at 32, I had to retire.”

Heitinga is sat in his home office, beneath a meticulously-assembled wall display of match-worn shirts belonging to an assortment of starry opponents.

The arrangement was a post-retirement surprise from wife Charlotte-Sophie, who encouraged her husband to collect the mementoes during his career.

Among the names visible are Pirlo, Henry and Figo, the sort of company kept by a player who reaches a World Cup final.

Heitinga, capped 87 times, was ever-present in the 2010 competition, aside from the closing 11 minutes of the final against Spain after a second yellow card in extra-time.

Spain midfielder Andres Iniesta scored the only goal in minute 116.

“I still get goosebumps when I think about that World Cup,” says Heitinga.

“I wasn’t nervous before the final, we’d won all our games and had belief.

“But we weren’t ourselves in the first 45 minutes, a lot of fouls and mistakes.

“In the second half, we had the better chances, I can still see [forward] Arjen Robben going one-on-one with [Spain goalkeeper, Iker] Casillas.
“The tournament is one of my best memories – and one of the most painful.”

Heitinga wanted to remain in football after playing but was unsure of his direction.

He had a fortnight coaching Ajax Under-10s, summarily concluding, “This is not for me”.

Working with older players sparked a contrasting emotion and Heitinga is four years into his current position.

He is a relatively new owner of UEFA’s Pro Licence – the highest-ranking coaching qualification – and last season Ajax reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Youth League.

Ajax prioritised player development by taking “five or six” of Heitinga’s squad on a first-team pre-season camp that coincided with the final stages in Switzerland.

“We want to win in the academy but what is best for the player is the most important thing,” says Heitinga.

“My squad is mainly under-17, the Under-23s have more Under-18s than seniors.

“The philosophy of Ajax is to give young, talented players the chance.

“When Davy Klaassen left for Everton [in 2017], Donny van de Beek took his place.

“We sold Donny [to Manchester United, in August 2020] and Ryan Gravenberch  [academy product who would join Bayern Munich in June 2022] is taking his spot.

“We take a risk with our players. Age is just a number.”

Heitinga “loves every day”, establishing “my own principles and ways of playing”.

John Heitinga
I watch almost every Everton game – and always search the internet for news. The fans can win games for the team, especially at Goodison.

The end game is a managerial position.

“I will develop step-by-step,” says Heitinga.

“It is about timing and having a club where you choose the team and your own staff.

“I am not setting targets, saying I want to be a manager this time next year.”

As part of his coaching education, Heitinga plans to “take a look in the kitchen at Everton and see how it goes there”.

He swaps messages with Everton’s former Director of Football Marcel Brands, now in the same post at PSV Eindhoven, and in the 24 hours prior to this interview had contact with ex-teammates Tim Cahill and Phil Neville.

“I watch almost every Everton game – and always search the internet for news,” says Heitinga.

"The fans can win games for the team, especially at Goodison.

“I think Everton can compete with the top teams in England.”

Heitinga routinely exchanges ideas with managers and coaches, keeping pace with a game that “changes every second”.

“I am still learning and always open for advice,” continues Heitinga.

“Barcelona had success through dominating possession. Chelsea and Atletico Madrid parked the bus.

“Now you need to have it all.”

Brought up on the understanding that talent is only a starting point for success, John Heitinga is equipped to flourish in his new career.