“I’ve just come back into the City family again. I’m happy to be here,” Nigel De Jong beams.
The Dutch midfielder, who made 137 appearances for Manchester City between 2009 and 2012, is about to lead a meet and greet session in the French capital of Paris, signing shirts and chatting to supporters as part of our tour of the Premier League and Carabao Cup trophies.
The 36-year-old is no stranger to on-field success, having formed part of the essential defensive bedrock which helped City to end a 35-year drought for major silverware in 2011 and, one year later, achieve immortality with a maiden Premier League title.
De Jong looks at home in the suave, sophisticated surroundings of the city of light. When delving a little deeper, that perhaps comes as no surprise given the fact that ‘the Lawnmower’, as he was affectionately known during his City heyday, has already turned his attentions to pastures new, namely the business side of the beautiful game, after hanging up his boots in the summer.
It’s a bold move from the courageous midfield operator, but a relatively familiar strand of the profession all the same.
De Jong already boasts plenty of experience in business, stemming from his involvement as CEO of Continental Cars, a hugely successful specialist car dealership based in Hamburg which he helped to establish at just 23 years old in 2007.
With an economics degree also in tow, De Jong has demonstrated a keen eye for life away from the field.
The next step on that journey sees the Dutchman once again return to the world of academia, with a Masters in International Business with UEFA next on the agenda.
“I start next month. It’s an 18-month course to set you up in a leading role in an organisation,” he explains.
“It could be CEO, it could be Sport Director, it could be team manager, that’s more my aim and that’s where my feelings go to instead of being a manager on the pitch.
“Of course, it could always go that way, but I love the business side of things and the business aspect, so I’m going to do that.
“Then in December I go to Harvard to do a business management course as well. It’s a 10-day course just to get the hang of it, marketing strategy, financial setups, how to set up a company and so on.”
Previous credentials aside, it’s a remarkably swift and smooth transition to life after football from De Jong who was still on the books at Qatari outfit Al-Shahaniah as recently as June 2021.
Indeed, the 36-year-old continues to live out in the capital city of Doha, where he has been for the past three years.
It’s over a decade since Qatar exploded onto the footballing landscape – elected as host of the upcoming World Cup, to be held over the winter of 2022.
De Jong has seen those preparations first-hand: “They’ve been building a lot for the last couple of years obviously, it takes time to build the infrastructure and stadiums.
“It’s been good, most (of the stadiums) are set and good to go, there’s one that they still have to build, apart from that everything’s in place.
“It’s a small state, the tournament is going to be in a very small perimeter. It’ll be interesting to see how they handle that, but it’ll be a good World Cup.”
The Dutchman is one of a select few footballers to have reached the pinnacle of international football – barely 18 months into his City career, he turned out for his country in a World Cup final against Spain.
The midfielder was crucial to Bert van Marwijk’s exciting Dutch side, providing the perfect foil with Mark van Bommel to allow the more creative-minded Wesley Sneijder to flourish.
It worked to great effect, with Sneijder finishing as the tournament’s joint-top scorer and behind only Diego Forlan in the race for the Golden Ball prize, but De Jong and Oranje ultimately fell short at the final hurdle, with Andres Iniesta’s 116th minute strike ensuring a dour affair swung in favour of the reigning European champions.
While he unquestionably ranks his experiences in South Africa at the 2010 World Cup as among his proudest moments, the midfielder instead believes his Manchester City exploits sit top of his career accomplishments.
“The highest stage for any player is the World Cup, but only when you win will it be the absolute pinnacle of your career,” De Jong concedes.
“(But) the FA Cup that we won (in 2011), that was the pinnacle because that laid the success and foundation for what City is now.
“I remember clearly the moment we won at Wembley against Stoke and before that the semi-final against Manchester United, the pure joy from the fans, I saw grown men crying, kids going up and down, everyone lost their minds.
“That was the start. The Premier League (in 2012) was fantastic, but that was the first moment, it was really important for me and it was also to say to everyone around, ‘we’re here’.
“In that time we got a lot of backlash, everyone was afraid of the change happening in the world of football, and it was a great way to say ‘there you go, we’re here’.”
A 35-year wait for a major trophy was over, and the foundations for a title-winning squad had well and truly been laid.
But while looking at the Club’s on-field achievements provides an obvious barometer of our success at the time, De Jong insists the squad’s close bond away from the pitch helped the team to make that final step.
That collective, close-knit mentality, forged over a sustained period of near misses and statement victories in equal measure, added an extra weight of significance to City’s gradual trajectory into the upper echelons of the English game.
"I was very close with Micah and Joleon. We were like the three musketeers!"
“I think it was one of the best times in my career, not only as a football player but also as a person because of the camaraderie we had in the whole build-up to success,” the Dutchman reflects.
“We came in at a time when City were midtable. Nothing beats going into a team and creating a group that can be successful from scratch.
“I understood the brotherhood we had, the dressing room, the staff, people working for the media, the receptionists, the togetherness of a lot of things.
“That’s what made it so special, not only for me but for everyone. That’s why we’re all still in touch with each other to this day, ten years on from that famous first Premier League title, we shared a special moment and a special bond.
“I was very close with Micah Richards and Joleon Lescott, in particular. We were like the three musketeers back at City (but) if you look back at that whole team, we were stacked with quality and proper characters. The humour man, the sarcastic humour that we had!
“You have to understand, for foreign players coming into a new culture, especially the English culture, you really have to adapt. There’s the language, but also the sense of humour that the English have as well, then the weather, it’s a lot of things.
“We made sure that the transition was more of an easy-going thing. That’s why we bonded and really gelled together quite fast, and it really paid off.”
Everyone was pulling in the same direction, but City still needed someone to steer the ship on its course for silverware.
"Mancini changed the menu. There was no breakfast with baked beans and eggs, no fry ups with HP sauce anymore!"
After an 18-month hiatus from management, Roberto Mancini arrived at the Etihad Stadium in December 2009 after guiding Italian giants Inter Milan to three successive Serie A titles between 2006 and 2008.
For De Jong, the Italian’s appointment felt like one of the final pieces of the puzzle for City to make a serious challenge for the top prizes, focusing heavily on making sure an attack-minded team was complemented by a watertight defence.
The shift worked and, from conceding 50 goals in the season prior to his arrival, City shipped only 33 in our FA Cup-winning 2010-11 campaign, and just 29 in the following season’s inaugural Premier League title triumph.
But it was the Italian’s influence away from the pitch, De Jong believes, that really set the course for success at the Etihad Stadium.
He jokes: “He was a proper Italian you know! Fashion wise, up to date with stuff he was doing, his diet. He changed also the menu for the team, he brought in his own chef, so there was no breakfast with baked beans and eggs for example, no fry ups with HP sauce anymore!
“He was an interesting figure. When he came in, he laid a foundation defensively. Before then, we were always conceding, had quality up front but never felt like a team. So, when he came in, he brought in that defensive mentality and structure to the team.
“He changed the culture of City and I don’t think he gets enough credit for laying down the foundation for the success the Club has right now.”
The work of De Jong and co. was built on over the following decade to firmly establish City on the pantheon of world football’s true heavyweights, with a further four domestic titles and a maiden Champions League final at the forefront of those standout achievements.
It’s a period that has left a lasting impression on the Dutchman, but suggestions of a move back to Manchester were waved away for the time being.
“Taking nothing away from the city, I loved Manchester, but weather-wise I’d rather stay where I am now.
“I lived in Manchester for four years and had a fantastic backyard, but it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I used it maybe 11 times if I was lucky.
“It’s a bit different in Doha, it’s not like Manchester – raining 24/7 or grey for 11 months of the year!”
A career in football business beckons for De Jong, and he is sure to approach it with the same bravery and determination that he has demonstrated in every challenge across his storied career to date.
But regardless of what the Dutchman goes on to do, and regardless of whichever corners of the earth his future takes him, the lessons he learned and success he enjoyed during his time in sky blue will stay with him for many years to come.
Thanks to the unbreakable bonds of his teammates, the unwavering affection of the supporters and the unforgettable memories which he forged across his four years at the Club, “the lawnmower” isn’t about to cut Manchester City out of his life anytime soon.