We meet where it all began for Urby Emanuelson, back at boyhood club Ajax’s training complex De Toekomst, less than a mile away from the Amsterdam Arena.
The versatile Dutch international, who can play at left back or as a winger, is currently without a club but cheerfully insists he is in no hurry to sign for a new one.
“Spain, England, Italy, Germany – I’d like to play in one of these four leagues,” says the man nicknamed ‘Ema’ during his time in Italy with AC Milan, Roma and Atalanta.
“He is reluctant to discuss where things went wrong at Roma… he is not the type of person who washes his dirty linen in public”
“I’ll just wait and see what happens. For now I am training with Ajax and keeping myself in form.”
Can his future be as illustrious as his past? There’s every chance. But although he turns 30 next June, Emanuelson is biding his time and none of the many offers he has received through agent Mino Raiola have appealed to him.
When I suggest he might return to AC Milan, he replies: “Milan? I think that chapter is closed. I had a great time there, I loved Milan, but I have moved on.”
‘Ema’ is engaging and animated company, no trace of arrogance, and always with a big smile on his face. He certainly doesn’t fit the stereotype which alleges Amsterdammers feel they’re slightly superior to other Dutch people and Europeans.
A product of Ajax’s famous academy, he played for his hometown club for seven years before joining Milan in 2011, going on to make 73 appearances for them.
After a 2013 loan spell with Fulham in the Premier League, he endured tormented stints at AS Roma and Atalanta Bergamo and found himself out of contract at the end of last season.
He divides where he once united, with criticism levelled at him by fans and the media for his apparent lack of dedication and his below-par performances.
Beginning the 2014-2015 season at Roma, he was on the fringes of manager Rudi Garcia’s plans. Then his move to Atalanta after the turn of the year did not go to plan, further denting his chances of being recruited by a top club.
Brought in to be a leader, a voice and a presence in an inexperienced side lacking personalities, Emanuelson seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility and failed to meet expectations at the Bergamo.
He is reluctant to discuss where things went wrong at Roma. The Italian media suggested that he and Garcia almost came to blows, but the Dutchman neither confirms nor rubbishes those claims. He is not the type of person who washes his dirty linen in public.
It’s not so long ago – the 2010-11 campaign – that Emanuelson shone for Ajax against AC Milan in the Champions League group stages.
The first leg ended in a 1-1 draw and, despite some Luis Suarez heroics up front, Milan’s hierarchy were impressed by Ajax’s number eight who boasted pace, trickery and end product.
The return leg saw Ajax seal a 2-0 win at the San Siro, with another scintillating performance from the-then 24-year old who managed to keep Ronaldinho and Ibrahimovic at bay.
“He feels he still has enough in the tank to feature in more competitive leagues”
It prompted Milan to sign him during the winter transfer window, seeing off attempts by Manchester United and Arsenal to lure him to the Premier League.
That Ajax team he played in was blessed with some of football’s hottest prospects – Suarez, Jan Vertonghen, Christian Eriksen, Maarten Stekelenburg, Gregory Van Der Wiel and Toby Alderweireld – all well-known names among fans these days.
His move to the Rossoneri coincided with Suarez joining Liverpool in January 2011, but it’s unlikely the Uruguayan’s exit prompted the kind of pain felt by Ajax fans when Emanuelson departed.
He was “one of them” – “Ajacied” through and through. The bond remained strong, and when Milan faced Ajax in the 2013-14 Champions League season, the number 28 was given a hero’s welcome at the Arena, his substitution met by an emotional standing ovation from the home crowd.
Could a return to Ajax perhaps be on the cards? Maybe in a few years’ time. He feels he still has enough in the tank to feature in more competitive leagues than the Eredivisie, where the standard is no longer as high as it once was.
He has many treasured recollections from his days in Lombardy. “The Scudetto in 2011 and the Supercup in China against Inter are great memories. Against Parma in a Serie A match the year we won the Scudetto, I also scored one of the most amazing goals of my career.”
After winning the league in his debut campaign then displacing veteran Gianluca Zambrotta from the starting XI, his third season with under-fire boss Massimiliano Allegri was anything but rosy, and a series of shaky displays cost him his berth.
“It might be too late to follow in Davids’ illustrious footsteps but it certainly isn’t too late to rekindle his old magic”
His relationship with the manager was damaged and first-team opportunities became virtually non-existent. Emanuelson was frustrated as it started to sink in that Frenchman Kevin Constant had become the main man on the left wing.
He quit the Italian giants for Fulham and says that he loved his short spell in London with the Cottagers.
“I had such an amazing time, although it was just for six months. London is a great city and playing in the Premier League was a dream that came true. Great stadiums, great atmosphere and great players.”
Emanuelson was eight years old when Ajax last won the Champions League in 1995 in Vienna against, you guessed it, AC Milan.
That team, which won 1-0 thanks to a Patrick Kluivert strike in the dying minutes, boasted a wealth of gifted players such as Clarence Seedorf, Edwin Van der Sar, Finidi George, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Frank Rijkaard, Kluivert and Jari Litmanen under the tutelage perfectionist manager Louis Van Gaal.
Emanuelson admits to growing up in awe of Davids. “He was my idol. I looked up to him. We played in the same position, and when I was seven years old he played here, at Ajax, so it was easy contact.”
It might be too late to follow in Davids’ illustrious footsteps but it certainly isn’t too late to rekindle his old magic.
And unlike his compatriot, who struggled at AC Milan between 1996 and 1997, Emanuelson blossomed under the Duomo, leaving fond memories in the hearts and minds of Milan’s fans.
People say the reason things are sold cheap at the supermarket is they’re past their best, but although ‘Ema’ won’t cost a penny, this can’t be applied to him.
With any luck, he still has three or four years at the highest levels ahead of him. Whatever club takes him on surely won’t rue the decision.