Goals are the currency of choice in football, and after plundering goals across Europe ever since he burst onto the scene at Vitesse Arnhem as a teenager, Ricky van Wolfswinkel is richer than most.
Although he failed to hit the right notes in the Premier League with Norwich just short of a decade ago, the striker has been a smash hit for a whole host of clubs during his storied career. But all of a sudden, that very same career was left hanging in the balance after the former Norwich man discovered that he had a brain aneurysm after undergoing scans for a concussion that he picked up while playing for Swiss side Basel. Just like that, his footballing story was put on hold indefinitely.
Due to the seriousness of the issue – an aneurysm can be fatal if burst – Van Wolfswinkel was sidelined for almost a year and was forced to undergo surgery. But the Dutchman is now back fighting fit and penning the latest, and perhaps greatest, chapter of his career back in his homeland with FC Twente.
And Van Wolfswinkel is eager to make up for lost time after he was unfortunate enough to return from injury right in the midst of the pandemic. The striker was initially forced to play behind closed doors – but even that wasn’t enough to burst his bubble.
“It was a very strange time,” Van Wolfswinkel tells Mirror Football after he was finally given the chance to play in front of a full house again last month. “It was all a bit unclear really, like maybe it would keep me out for a couple of months, maybe three months or whatever. It turned out to be six months, but then they were talking about two years…When you hear that, and you have to think about no football for two years, you automatically start thinking that your career is done.
“Luckily, that wasn’t the case for me. It took me 10 months to get back – but then the pandemic came directly after that, so the league was out. I was just training when I eventually came back, but I was just happy and proud to be back doing what I love doing the most.”
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But how on earth do you even begin to process the fact that your career could be done in your early 30s? For Van Wolfswinkel, it was important not to dwell too much about the negative permutations that may or may not lie ahead.
He added: “I believe in the fact that life is what it is. There are always worse things that can happen in life, so I didn’t think too much about what could happen. I was just living day by day to be honest and trying to look forward to the moment I might be able to return. When they said the [return] date, that’s what you work towards.
“But it was weird; it wasn’t like my knee injury. I felt great, but I couldn’t do anything. I was feeling normal, but I had the surgery so I couldn’t do anything physical. It takes you out for close to a year, so I missed a season and I was set back physically because I hadn’t done any sports for a long time. But I worked really hard when I could and I’ve managed to make it back to the same level I was at.”
But Van Wolfswinkel is being modest; he’s arguably surpassed the level he’d previously graced. At the time, he was playing for Basel in the Swiss Super League, whereas he’s now thriving back in his native Holland with FC Twente in the Eredivisie.
He admits he’s now found a home at De Grolsch Veste, which is Twente’s 30,000 capacity stadium. Veste translates to fortress in English – and is particularly apt for the Dutch side, whose stunning campaign has been driven by their omnipotent home form. Twente have lost just one home game all season as Van Wolfswinkel and his side bid to wrestle their way back the upper echelons of the Eredivisie.
Van Wolfswinkel has spent the majority of his career scouring Europe to find a place he truly belonged. His four-year stay with Basel is by far his longest stint at a club, with the majority of his previous spells at various clubs lasting a maximum of two seasons. His most famous stint though was arguably his ill-fated experience in the Premier League with Norwich.
Van Wolfswinkel became the Canaries then-club record signing after arriving in a £8.5million deal from Sporting Lisbon back in 2013. But a plethora of factors – including Norwich’s desperation for results as they scrapped to retain their top-flight status – meant that the move didn’t work out as intended for either party.
“I was a little bit unlucky with an injury that kept me out for a long time and we didn’t have a great season. It didn’t go according to plan. You always know when it’s time to move in football, but Norwich have had some great times since then and I always follow the club and their results every year. I always hope they do well. It didn’t turn out like we wanted – I wish it had, but that’s part of life.”
Despite scoring on his debut, Van Wolfswinkel failed to make the grade at Carrow Road. And he’s got no doubt that the Canaries’ yo-yo status made things harder for him in Norfolk. He added: “When you have a team that goes up and down every couple of years, then mostly it means that there’s no real steady of level for them. You have to change system because the points are not there, and all of a sudden you have to play more direct than you’d like, it’s always difficult for any club.
“Every club wants to have a certain system with play where everyone can find their place and get used to it, but it’s hard to do that when results aren’t there. That was the case and that was unfortunate, but the club have some amazing people there and I hope the time will come where they can become a steady Premier League club.”
But while Van Wolfswinkel accepts that Norwich’s desire to stay in the Premier League was the main reason behind their direct style during his time at the club, he’s honest enough to admit that the style of the English game back then didn’t suit him when asked if he got what he bargained for when making the jump to England.
“It was more the playing style. Life was good, the people were great, the stadiums and the pitches were amazing, everything was perfect, to be honest. At the end, it comes down to your job. You have to enjoy your work; you’re coming to Norwich to do well in your profession. And when things don’t work out – whether that’s you don’t perform or the way the team play doesn’t really suit you, or even both, it’s really annoying for everyone.”
But those struggles are now well and truly behind him as he continues to light up the Eredivisie. Only former West Ham man Sebastian Haller – another big-money striker who struggled on these shores – has notched more league goals than the 15 that Van Wolfswinkel has plundered for Twente this year.
The move back to Holland which has helped Van Wolfswinkel resurrect his career has seen the former Norwich man come “full-circle”. The move was engineered by Twente’s sporting director; who ironically was also the sporting director when Van Wolfswinkel penned his first pro-contract as a teenager at Vitesse Arnhem.
Now aged 33, there’s a chance that Van Wolfswinkel could see out his career in his homeland – but that wasn’t necessarily part of the plan.
“The Eredivisie is sort of home to me. I grew up here. I don’t believe really in planning things, because in football you never know. But it was a real good option. I always know there’s a place for me in Holland, so I can always go back here. I’m fresh and fit, I’ve really found my place.”
Twente may not be as instantly recognisable as the likes of Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven, but they are a club with an illustrious history. The Dutch outfit won the Eredivisie as recently as 2010 but dropped out of the top-flight due to financial issues in 2018. They manage to rebound at the first time of asking the following year.
And the Reds – led admirably by head coach Ron Jans – have been enjoying a silent renaissance ever since. After clinching a top-ten finish last year, Twente are right in the mix for Europe and are on course to clinch their first top-four finish for a decade. The club are currently in fourth spot with just a handful of games remaining before the end of the campaign.
Van Wolfswinkel admits that a top-four finish – which would see Twente compete in the play-offs for a Europa League spot – was the target at the start of the season, but the club are determined to muscle their way back into the Champions League.
He’s adamant that the club is a lot bigger than a lot of people realise – and that the people who have helped rebuild the club over the past few years now deserve to go on and put Twente back on the map.
“We’ve got some great people here. The club have had some issues in the past, but we’re a massive club with a massive stadium and a lot of fans. There’s not a big difference between the top three teams in Holland. We’ve had some financial issues in the past and because of that the club went down to the second league once, but we came back again.
Peter Lous/BSR Agency)
“There are a lot of people who have worked really, really hard to get this club back to where it should be. It’s down to the players on the pitch to get the results, and it’s going really well. We’re building things up again and we’re becoming the club we want to be again. We’re fourth in the league now, which is great for Twente. But this is something we have to keep doing for many, many years – this is where Twente should be.
“The people don’t know really. I grew up with this league, so of course I knew the team. I had a feeling of the club from the outside, and it was exactly how I expected when I arrived. I see it every week when the fans are here; it’s fantastic. The club is so much bigger than a lot of people realise.
“There aren’t many places in the league to get into Europe, and to be known abroad, that is really the only way. There was a time where Twente played Champions League often, but that has been gone for some time. We really wish to achieve that goal again and we’re on the right track. So hopefully more people will get to know Twente, because the club really deserves that.
“The goal [at the start of the season] was to make the play-offs. That doesn’t mean we’ll win them because there are some great teams, but we are there for a reason and we’ll give everything to get back into Europe; if not this year, then not year.
“But the season won’t be a failure if we don’t reach Europe, because we’re back on the right-track to reach it. That’s the most important thing for the club after the last few years.”
The Dutch league has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks after Manchester United’s swoop on Erik ten Hag. The 52-year-old has led Ajax to sustained success during his four years at the helm in Amsterdam, where he’s also guided Ajax to the domestic double twice.
Maurice Van Steen/ANP)
And while Van Wolfswinkel admits that the Eredivisie will never be able to compete in some ways with the Premier League, he’s adamant that the Dutch league is one to keep an eye on over the next few years.
“It’s a different league to England, it’s much more technical. England a few years ago was quite direct, but now it’s really quality football. But the original English idea was not to play good football.
“In Holland, that’s not the case; it’s always been very technical but we don’t have the money that’s in England, so teams rely on their young guys. We’re never going to compete with the Premier League, but I still think it’s a fantastic league to watch.”