Testimony by / With thanks to: Niall McVeigh, freelance sports writer for Guardian Sport, The Football Pink and The Football Ramble
Follow Niall: @niallmcveigh
The early days of Sheikh Mansour's revolution at Manchester City saw expectation and reality dovetail as neatly as Robinho and Darius Vassell. In the takeover's primordial stages, the green shoots of development were in danger of going under. Vincent Kompany toiled in midfield, academy talents jostled with expensive imports, and the team flirted with relegation.
Mark Hughes, a manager as over-exposed as his players, had still demonstrated an eye for a signing, adding Kompany and Pablo Zabaleta while the flashbulbs focused on bewildered Brazilians. In January 2009, Hughes thumbed his chequebook and ordered four large bags of grit. Shay Given, Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy and Nigel de Jong weren't names to raise heart rates, even in those days. In particular, De Jong's signing was seen as another sign of City's naivety: £14m was handed over to Hamburg for a player running down his contract, his career standing still.
In truth, he was just finding his niche, having been converted from a reckless midfield creator into a tidy holding player by former boss Huub Stevens. The Dutchman was known as 'the lawnmower' in Germany, presumably for his grass-covering abilities. He began to demonstrate them under Roberto Mancini, another coach who appreciated the dark art of defending. Mancini arrived later that year, with a remit to grind City into the Champions League places. With Carlos Tevez scurrying alone in the opposing half, De Jong joined Gareth Barry in forming a rock-solid foundation, as Mancini's team made a habit of wringing the necessary points from their matches.
As expectations expanded anew, De Jong became a more combative figure; an armour-plated, spring-loaded midfield menace whose agricultural style earned him his own chant. City fans were rarely happier than when De Jong went sliding in. The destroyer lurking beneath Manchester City's creative jewels, De Jong also earned a fearsome reputation, with L'Equipe naming him the world's most violent footballer. Outside of Manchester, he will largely be remembered for planting his studs in the chest of Xabi Alonso in the World Cup final. De Jong undeniably had that devilment, but it's worth noting that in that holding role, he has earned just one red card in his career.
If Mancini's trophy-grabbing City team were a film cast, De Jong would be the tough guy; a brooding, tattooed gun for hire who came here to do a job. In reality, more positive moments have outlived the scars on opponents' shins. The dominant display against United in the FA Cup semi-final; the solitary, spectacular goal against West Ham; and the typically straightforward pass that set up the Premier League's most famous goal. A league title and an FA Cup in three years, playing his part as a giant granite stepping stone for a battered old club, and a place next to Shaun Goater in City's hall of cult heroes. Job done.
A little background information from me, the creator of Look What it Means to Him...
This week's entry is influenced by one image alone; the 'DESTROY THIS MAD BRUTE!' American recruitment poster designed to stir anti-German sentiment circa 1917. I'm not the first person to borrow from this famous image (see below for my favourite examples) but while doing research for 'Their Work Brings Victory!' I had my heart set on emulating the original if only due to it being utterly insane.
I had planned to use Roy Keane or Mark Van Bommel as the central 'destroyer' but when Niall selected Nigel de Jong as his DM of choice, I felt the Dutchman's lasting association with football's dark arts and his brief but trophy-laden stint in England made him a suitable candidate. Due to the xenophobic (and potentially racist) imagery contained in the source material, I only wanted to borrow the aggression shown in the original while demonstrating that De Jong's combativeness helped yield silverware - rather than reinforcing his reputation for being unnecessarily destructive.
In the original version, a militaristic German monster clutches Lady Liberty to his chest as he encroaches on American territory; in my version, De Jong clings to his spoils - the F.A. Cup and Premiership Trophy - with justifiable pride. If you're interested in learning more about the original propaganda poster, an image that (unlike mine) is densely packed with significance; I found this short presentation quite interesting.