UTD Unscripted: My flight of fancy
Nearly 24 years ago I got on a plane in Holland, heading for England, to talk to a club about signing for them.
It was a very strange experience, I have to say. Sat on that plane, having no clue at all what the future held for me, I couldn’t help but think back through my past, and how things had led me to that point.
A lot of it was by chance, really. When I was young, I started out with a small amateur club in the neighbourhood where I was living. Like a lot of youth football, it was pretty chaotic, lots of running and not a lot of actual football. Then one day we were going to a tournament and our goalkeeper was ill or injured, so my dad said to the coach:
“You can play Raimond in there.”
That came as a surprise to me, but I did have a little bit of previous experience. You see, when I was very young, my parents used to take us camping in the woods, and there was a little field nearby where you could play football and I always ended up in goal. So, in a way, I had goalkeeping experience, even if I had learned it on a campsite.
So I had my new position and I kept playing well enough for my team that FC Twente, the biggest club in our area, noticed me and invited me along to train with their best young players. By the time I was 16, I was also playing in the senior team of another amateur club in the area, and at 18 I got the chance to go into FC Twente’s reserve team.
But I had to make a decision: play for FC Twente or focus on my studies, because I was studying at university in the north of Holland at the time. The combination was too difficult, because if I didn’t pass my first year then I would have to leave. I made the choice to go to university and focus on the school.
I thought: If I am good enough, a club will come for me.
That’s exactly what happened because a club called Go Ahead Eagles from Deventer invited me there when I was 20. When I had finished at university I became a full professional player with them. I played two seasons in the reserve team and three in the first team, and I was twice the club’s Player of the Year.
After five years at Go Ahead Eagles, I had eight years at Vitesse Arnhem, and throughout it all I’d always hoped that one day I would end up going to England. I dreamed of it. But, in the summer of 1996, I was a couple of years into a five-year contract at Vitesse Arnhem, so I thought my chance was probably gone.
But of course, in life, you never know.
“Raimond, I know you always wanted to go to England, and maybe now I have the club for you. I can’t tell you the name, but if you’re interested then you have to tell me, or I have to go to somebody else.”
Okay, so now I’m interested. I thought about my contract at Vitesse, but I decided: Yeah, I want to give it a go.
I sometimes think to myself about what my life might have been like if I hadn’t got on the plane and taken a chance. You see, life is funny. You don’t know what’s going to happen.
You don’t know that when you’re in the air, your agent is going to tell you that you’re about to go to talk to Manchester United, the Premier League champions.
You don’t know that in an hour or so, you’re going to arrive in Manchester and get picked up by Alex Ferguson.
In the space of a couple of hours, I’d got on a plane with no idea where I was going to land, and suddenly I was in Alex Ferguson’s car, on the way to probably sign for the biggest club in England.
It was insane. I felt strange, like a dream. Everything was moving so fast. My wife, Marita, was pregnant, just to make things a little more surreal!
Actually, we’d already had a talk about a few things in the car. One of them was my ponytail.
“Your hair is a bit long.”
I told him it wasn’t a problem. No more ponytail!
After our conversation in the stadium, my agent told me what United’s offer was, and I accepted.
(Of course I said okay!)
The only demand I had to make was that the deal was for three years; the same term as my remaining contract in Arnhem. That’s what I got and the only thing I had to do after that was the medical test but, of course, there was nobody there to do it, so Ferguson called a doctor, I took the test and, by the time we flew back to Holland later that day, I had signed a contract with United.
Before I’d even told anybody I knew, it was on the news. The agent had called a television channel in Holland, so when I stepped out of the plane, the camera was already rolling.
Oh my God! This is life as a United player.
That was a big surprise, but a good one.
I already knew that United was a huge club, but things like that quickly made me aware of just how big. The spotlight is always on you and everybody always wants to know what’s happening.
Another thing that I soon learned was just how big a family it was inside that club. Ferguson built a family that cared for one another.
I had to leave Marita and Sterre at the hospital and go home because our first child, Nikkay, was only two years old and the only babysitter we had – Jordi Cruyff’s girlfriend – couldn’t stay any longer. The staff at the hospital asked Marita if there was anyone who could come to sit with her and support her. When she told them that we didn’t know anybody else in England, having only moved over a couple of months earlier for me to join United, they asked her if there was anybody at the club who could help. Lyn Laffin, the manager’s secretary, had been great with us ever since we came over, so they phoned her.
About 20 minutes later, Lyn was with Marita. She stayed the whole night in the hospital room with her. She slept on a chair, then phoned Ferguson the next morning to say that she wouldn’t be in the office that day because she was with us.
Sterre was okay in the end, and during the next few weeks, Lyn helped us a lot, visited us all the time, cared about us when we didn’t really have anybody else in Manchester. It wasn’t the easiest start for us, but Lyn helped us so much with a lot of things at that time, finding people who could help us. We also found out at that time that Ryan Giggs’s mother was working in the hospital and she became a good friend as well. She was so helpful to us. We made friendships during that period that have lasted for years, which are still going strong, even today.
I was very fortunate that there were so many good characters and good people among the playing staff too. When the team travelled to away games, my room-mate was Jordi Cruyff in the beginning and we got along very well. Ronny Johnsen, Jesper Blomqvist, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Peter Schmeichel all lived in the same area as me. Later on, Henning Berg and Mikael Silvestre too, and I got on very well with all of those guys. But I have to say that the atmosphere through the whole squad was fantastic – there were no bad guys at all – and that was a big part of all the trophies we won during that period in the club’s history.
It was 20 years after we won the Treble but, if you look at the game, how we played, how the players were, it’s still the same. The same clique. The same group. We’re just 20 years older. When we all came back, everyone had a big smile on their face. You’re talking about things that happened in the past, and all the stories come out that are so good, so nice to relive. You can see that everybody really appreciated that we were all together, that it was a really special occasion, and everybody made the effort to be there. I’ve played quite a few Legends games in the past, but at this one, even David Beckham was there. I had a feeling that David enjoyed it as well! He was looking for a goal, searching for it, fighting for it, and he was so happy when he finally got it.
Every part of that game – playing, spending time with the boys and the staff, interacting with the fans – was just amazing. I loved being a part of it. It took me right back to the season that was probably the highlight of my six years at United; a period which was one of the best times of my life.
Manchester United is a very special club, and that extends to the staff working around the club too. A few years back, Marita and I came along to a game, but even though we didn’t have a car park pass, the steward on the car park recognised me, said
“welcome home”and showed me to a space. Little things like that make a big difference, and I feel so lucky to have played even a small part in the club’s story and to be associated with United even now.
Life is funny, and of course sometimes you get to thinking about what if this happened, or what if that happened. But whenever I think back to 24 years ago, when I was getting on that plane, with no idea at all of which English club I was going to talk to, I just smile to myself.
I could never have imagined what I was going to become a part of.