Short of graduating from the Manchester United Academy, there can be few better places to hone your skills as an aspiring footballer than at Ajax. And midfielder Donny van de Beek is one of the most exciting talents produced by the Amsterdam club in years.
It was at his boyhood club that van de Beek made his name on the world scene, as part of the thrilling Ajax side that reached the 2018/19 Champions League semi-finals. Though joining United at the relatively tender age of 23, his Ajax education meant he already possessed a polished all-round game and a wealth of experience.
Born on 18 April 1997 in Nijkerkerveen, the Netherlands, van de Beek began his football story with local side Veensche Boys and was later invited to join the famous Ajax academy in August 2014.
Donny made his debut for the club's reserve team, Jong Ajax, in January 2015 and, two months later, he was placed on the first-team bench for an Eredivisie match against ADO Den Haag. At the end of 2014/15, he won the AFC Ajax Talent of the Future award, to join a list of previous winners that includes Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Daley Blind and Christian Eriksen.
His first-team debut arrived in November 2015, in a UEFA Europa League match against Celtic, and he finished the 2015/16 season with 10 senior appearances to his name. His first goal, coincidentally, was scored against Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Molde, a month after his debut.
He truly established himself in the first-team set-up the following season, making 29 appearances as Ajax progressed to the Europa League final – where they were beaten 2-0 by Jose Mourinho’s United in Stockholm. Van de Beek, who had recently turned 20, was a 70th-minute substitute in the match.
A senior international debut was achieved in 2017/18, in the Netherlands' 1-0 defeat to England, and 35 more first-team games with Ajax added to his sense of progression.
But it was the following season where van de Beek and his fellow generation of Ajax academy talents really thrust themselves into the limelight, via the European stage. Impressively, Ajax reached the last four of the Champions League, beating Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to a semi-final clash with Tottenham Hotspur.
Van de Beek scored a nerveless goal in Juventus’s Allianz Stadium to put them on the road to a 2-1 win in the second leg of the quarter-final, and then earned them a 1-0 advantage after the first leg against Tottenham, thanks to a similar finish.
Famously, a second-half hat-trick from Tottenham forward Lucas Moura would break Dutch hearts and deny Ajax what seemed a certain place in the Champions League final. But van de Beek and peers like Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Hakim Ziyech were now established on the world stage, and attracting interest from high-profile suitors.
Ajax, as a club, would have to console themselves with the Eredivise title and the KNVB Cup.
De Ligt and de Jong left for Juventus and Barcelona, respectively, in the summer of 2019, but van de Beek stayed, and supplied eight goals and five assists in the following Eredivisie season, before the campaign was cancelled due to coronavirus.
On 2 September 2020, Ajax announced that a deal had been agreed with Manchester United for Donny’s transfer. The midfielder, who can adopt any role in that area of the pitch, signed a five-year deal with the option to extend for a further year.