Daniel Crowley: The ex-Arsenal midfielder out to beat Ajax in the Dutch Cup final

By Matt DavisBBC Sport
Daniel Crowley
Crowley was at Aston Villa and Arsenal before he moved to the Netherlands permanently in 2017

He is not the first young player to leave the Premier League and head abroad in search of first-team football.

Two years ago Daniel Crowley, released by Arsenal and unable to get a move to another team in England because of his "bad" reputation, ended up at Willem II in the Dutch top flight.

He may not have caught the eye in quite the same way fellow young English export Jadon Sancho has at Borussia Dortmund just yet.

But on Sunday, the 21-year-old midfielder has the chance to shine - and win the Dutch Cup in his first major final and the biggest game of his career.

Standing in his and Willem's way are treble-chasing Ajax - conquerors of Real Madrid and Juventus this season, and victors at Tottenham in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final.

"A lot of people think if you go out to Holland 'that is him finished, he will never come back'. They think it is not a great league," he tells BBC Sport. "But on Sunday they will see me playing against Ajax in a final. It is a massive moment - it could change my career."

In a wide-ranging interview, Crowley discusses his early "troubles", his decision to play for the Republic of Ireland and first, how on earth he and his team-mates plan to stop Ajax.

'Get them annoyed and stop De Jong'

Frenkie de Jong is Ajax's danger man according to Crowley
Frenkie de Jong is Ajax's danger man according to Crowley

"Try and stop Frenkie de Jong getting into his rhythm and you have your chance," says Crowley, who has already been on the end of two Ajax defeats this season in the Eredivisie.

Ajax beat Tottenham 1-0 in midweek in their Champions League semi-final, with the second leg in Amsterdam on Wednesday, just three days after they play Willem.

Crowley says defensive midfielder De Jong, who has signed for Barcelona for £65m, is Ajax's key player, alongside 19-year-old centre-back and captain Matthijs de Ligt.

"De Jong is one that keeps them ticking. You can't get near him, and if you do, he is clever enough to get out of it, play a one-two around you," he says.

"As an attacking player you do not want to be worrying about him, that's why it is so difficult and frustrating [to play against].

"De Ligt is a beast. I've not faced a defender like him, he has everything. He's really good on the ball, he is massive. And then you have Donny van de Beek, Hakim Ziyech, Dusan Tadic...

"I think we just have to make it as little like a football match as possible - slow the game down, try to get free-kicks, press them. If we just sit off them, it is just a matter of time before they score. Little fouls, nothing major, but just get them out of their rhythm, get them annoyed and frustrated."

Crowley's only previous experience of a final was as a substitute for Aston Villa Under-19s in the NextGen Series final victory against Chelsea in 2013.

On Sunday, he will play in front of 50,000 at Feyenoord's stadium with the rest of Europe watching on and has invited 20 of his family and friends along.

While Ajax chase the league, cup and Champions League treble, underdogs Willem, eighth in the Dutch top flight, are aiming for their first major trophy since 1963.

"We have a respect for Ajax, they have put the Dutch league back on the European map," he says. "It is great for us, playing against Champions League players. We want them to do well, but we are fully focused on winning the final.

"Already this season we have shown we can surprise people and ourselves."

'I came to Holland to change my reputation'

Chuba Akpom celebrates scoring Arsenal's goal with Alex Iwobi and Daniel Crowley during the match between Chelsea and Arsenal in the FA Youth Cup Semi Final 1st Leg at Stamford Bridge on April 10, 2014 in London, England.
Crowley says he is still in contact with former Arsenal team-mate Alex Iwobi

Crowley started his career at Villa and by the time he signed for Arsenal as a 16-year-old in 2013 he was being touted as the "next Jack Wilshere".

"When I was younger I liked it a bit," he says. "I looked up to Jack as a player, he is my kind of footballer and is [now] a really good friend."

Wilshere himself tweetedexternal-link about Crowley in 2013, posting: "Trust me when I say this kid is a player! Big future."

Crowley says then Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger was influential in him joining the Gunners, promising the chance of first-team football.

But it did not work out and after three loans spells at Barnsley, Oxford United and Go Ahead Eagles, he was released by Arsenal without making a first-team appearance.

"I went back to pre-season and spoke to [transfer negotiator] Dick Law and asked him what his plans were for me, what did the boss want? He said ' I think you should leave'."

Crowley admits he had "troubles" at Barnsley and Oxford, with issues over his professionalism. But he believes his time in the Netherlands has shown he can be trusted and he has started every match this season.

"There was no interest in me [in England]," he says. "Managers could not trust me, they did not like what they heard.

"I went through a lot of crap when I was younger, I did have a bad name. People forget I was just a kid. To go through that as a young lad, it is tough.

"That is why I came to Holland, to get a new start, change my reputation in England and in Holland where no one knows me. Now I can go back to England and say 'there have been no problems'.

"I have shown I have matured and grown up and hopefully I will get a chance back in England one day.

"I want to play in the Premier League, I want to be noticed again and taken seriously and I think I am now."

Crowley is following in the footsteps of De Jong, Liverpool centre-back Virgil van Dijk, ex-Manchester United defender Jaap Stam and former Arsenal winger Marc Overmars in playing for Willem.

Daniel Crowley
Crowley with friend and former Arsenal colleague Jack Wilshere

But, ultimately, moving to the Netherlands was about playing first-team football regularly.

"My first under-21s game was at Villa when I was 15," he says. "So to be playing in that league, the same competition for three or four years, I needed the next step."

He is part of a new generation of young players who have gone abroad, such as former Arsenal team-mates Reiss Nelson (on loan at Hoffenheim), Chuba Akpom (PAOK), Stephy Mavididi (Juventus) and Sancho, who left Manchester City for Dortmund.

"I have seen a few boys on holiday. We are in the same boat, it is frustrating," he says. "But our age-group has a belief in ourselves. You need to be playing.

"Under-21s means nothing, but here you are playing for bonuses and your family. You are thrown into the deep end and find out about yourself as a person. I needed to mature and go into the men's world to do that.

"I used to play for myself, I was not interested in the team, I would not work hard enough. It sounds crazy, but I was young and that was my mindset.

"But my defensive work rate has improved a lot. I do not want the feeling of not playing again and if I don't work hard, I don't play."

The number 10 adds: "I love players like Christian Eriksen. Without him Spurs would not score as many goals or play football the way they play. I base my game on that and help the team tick."

'I cried when Ireland got knocked out of the World Cup'

Daniel Crowley
Crowley says he was thrown an Irish flag when Willem won their Dutch Cup semi-final in February

Crowley represented both England and the Republic of Ireland at youth level, but has now chosen to concentrate on the latter, qualifying through his grandparents, who are from Waterford and Cork.

He has not yet spoken to Republic boss Mick McCarthy, who is rumoured to be attending Sunday's game, but had discussions with talent scout Mark O'Toole.

"I told him I want to play for Ireland. He is trying to get the papers sorted - I have to be patient," he says.

"The way I felt two years ago is different to the person I am now. Growing up I never owned an England kit, I had all the Ireland kits.

"I do love England, all my family and friends are there and I have lived there all my life, but internationally it feels more right to play for Ireland, it's the personal connection [to the country].

"I remember watching in the pub with my dad and was crying when Ireland lost their World Cup game against Spain in 2002 and when Thierry Henry's handball happened [in 2009].

"I even used to do the Robbie Keane celebration when I scored."


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