Eyong Enoh won two titles under Frank de Boer at Ajax and believes the Crystal Palace boss must adapt to succeed in the Premier League. Adam Bate caught up with Enoh to discuss the player’s old boss, former team-mates and his ambitions to return to England.
Softly spoken but extremely articulate, Eyong Enoh has a way of drawing the listener in. It is engaging stuff too. The Cameroon international spent some time playing in the Premier League with Fulham and his family remain in London. But while he is fluent in English, there is no mistaking where the 31-year-old midfielder learnt the language of football.
“At Ajax, you do not just play football,” Enoh tells Sky Sports. “You understand it too.”
“I have seen this with my own son. He started at Ajax when he was six and I talk to him a lot about the game. At training, they ask him questions. Why are we doing this? What is the idea here? Why do I want the ball there? They do not just tell him what to do, they make sure he knows why to do it. It’s the Dutch mentality that you have to understand the game.”
Enoh’s son Bashan is something of a celebrity himself. “A video went viral on YouTube,” explains his proud father. “There were three of them and they did the Cristiano Ronaldo goal celebration. He is already giving me lots of nutmegs too.” A promising talent, the young Enoh has been training with the Arsenal academy since leaving Holland.
But for now at least, it is his father’s career prospects that remain the focus. After six years with Ajax, Enoh’s three-year stay with Standard Liege came to an end in the summer and he is looking for a club in England. There have been talks with Bolton, but with Enoh a free agent not bound by the transfer window, he can take his time to make the right decision.
“I am just focused on training,” he says. “It is quite tough on your own but that is why I have got myself a personal trainer to push me. It is a big challenge because it is the first time I have been out of contract. I could have renewed. I could have got something in Russia or elsewhere. But I just wanted to come back to the UK and I want to make a good decision.”
If it is to be the Championship for Enoh then his next employer will be getting a player with a wealth of experience. In his first season at Ajax, he counted many future big names among his team-mates. Luis Suarez was their top scorer. “He had this unusual desire in him,” recalls Enoh. “This drive always to win. He is a very hard-working person.”
The Tottenham trio of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen were there too. “They were such determined young lads,” he adds. “It is great to see them all doing so well. Ajax gave them the proper foundation so now they are at Tottenham, they are playing in a very similar system so it is quite easy for them.”
It was not so easy for Ajax back in 2008. The club had gone seven years without winning a title. They delivered the KNVB Cup – “a consolation but it was not enough” – in Enoh’s first season and both Marco van Basten and Martin Jol would depart having failed to deliver the much-craved 30th Eredivisie crown. It was only the arrival of Frank de Boer that secured it.
“When De Boer arrived, it changed,” explains Enoh. He took over the team in December before a Champions League tie against Milan and we were champions in June. What made it special was getting the third star on their jersey. It was massive for the club and with De Boer being a youth product as a player, it was very symbolic of what Ajax stood for.”
“Jol had done good work. Eriksen was coming through and the team was playing more like the Ajax way. But before that, they had been playing but just to win. Not the kind of football that fans wanted to see. Ajax is about building from the back not direct football. It is about passing and using the quick players on the flanks. That is what they needed to bring back.”
Enoh will be among the interested observers following De Boer’s reign at Crystal Palace. The Dutchman won four Eredivisie titles with Ajax but began his Selhurst Park adventure with a 3-0 home defeat by newly promoted Huddersfield. Enoh knows from experience that the difference between the two leagues is vast and feels his old coach will need to be flexible.
“For me, it was a huge adjustment going from Holland to Fulham,” he says. “De Boer will have to make that adjustment. I followed him when he went to Inter Milan and that is also a very different style of football. He did not stay too long but I think he realised there that you can have a philosophy but you must also tailor your philosophy to the competition.
“The Premier League has a flow of its own. You can insist on a philosophy and that is what makes coaches. You have to stand by it. But you must also make little adjustments and understand 100 per cent what is going on in the league because otherwise you will really be shocked. If he gets the players he really wants to work with then he will do well.”
Enoh’s own time in the Premier League was brief, but he will never forget working with one of his Fulham team-mates, in particular. “I had a very interesting player in the team at that time,” he recalls. “His name was Dimitar Berbatov. He was one of those players who I will always remember for his touch. It was just fantastic. That was a great experience.”
His time in Belgium was more problematic. “The first year was what I expected but after that it became challenging because they kept changing managers a lot,” says Enoh. “Every transfer window it was another new set of players. As much as you want to build something, that is not possible with a project when you are always changing.
“I think stability in any team is really important because it can give you that base from which you can build something and achieve your objectives. That is how you progress and that is what helped us so much at Ajax. When we started in 2008, we all stayed together for several years and grew up together.”
If Enoh is hoping to find stability in English football’s Championship, it is tempting to wonder whether he is looking in the wrong place. But his heart his set on a return whether it is with Bolton or elsewhere. “I feel good in myself,” he says. “Whether the best years are ahead is up to me, but the potential is there. The key is to get the right club with the right ambition.”
If things go well, maybe that club will get the chance to sign Enoh’s son too.