How a letter from Alex Ferguson put Belgian star on the road to recovery
In a box at home, Steven Defour has a letter. It is a letter he received in 2009 when he was the bright young thing of Belgian football. And it is a letter whose memory may well pass through his mind tomorrow when his new team, Burnley, visit Old Trafford.
After all, the sender was Sir Alex Ferguson and the words of the then Manchester United manager were a message of support to Defour in the wake of a metatarsal injury. Defour was 21 at the time and a player on United’s radar. He had become Standard Liege captain at 19 and seemingly had the world at his feet, only that metatarsal injury was rather more complicated than most.
It is a story that the Belgium midfielder retold this week in the endearingly dog-eared former groundsman’s bungalow that serves as a media centre at Burnley’s training ground, reflecting at length on both the injury which narrowed his horizons and, more happily, the reinvigorating effects of his club-record £7.5m transfer to Turf Moor – a move which has finally brought him to England. As the 28-year-old notes: “This was probably my last chance to go over to the Premier League so I had to take it.”
But first, that sliding-doors moment that occurred in a Belgian league fixture against KV Mechelen on 12 September 2009. Defour’s debut in the Champions League was four days away. Two minutes into the match, after a seemingly innocuous challenge, everything changed.
Defour suffered what he describes as “an open fracture” of the first metatarsal bone on his right foot. Pointing down to his silver adidas shoe, he says: “There was no bone any more. If you looked at the X-ray of the inside of my foot there was a 2cm hole where the bone should be. You have the three little bones that make up the metatarsal but the first bone – two centimetres long – was gone in my right foot and there was just a hole there. To fill it in, they took a bone graft from my hip and mixed it with some cement.
“The doctors had tried it on people who had really bad fractures from accidents and the doctor said to me: ‘If this doesn't work, you have to stop playing because every time the impact will break the bone.’”
The summer prior to his injury Standard had rejected an offer from Everton, persuading Defour to stay for Champions League football. Suddenly that fast track to football’s big time crumbled beneath him. “It would have been my first time in the Champions League and also a lot of clubs were following me so I was really down. I felt really, really bad.”
It was then he got the letter from Old Trafford. “It was a surprise because not everybody gets a letter from Sir Alex Ferguson when they are injured but I knew from a year before that they were following me pretty closely. It was still a surprise to get the letter. I wrote one back to him to say thank you."
In a parallel universe, it could be Defour, not Marouane Fellaini, his old Standard team-mate, wearing the red shirt of Manchester United, Burnley’s opponents today. Defour was the leader of a crop of players including not just Fellaini but midfielder Axel Witsel and Brazilian centre-back Dante who lost a Champions League qualifier narrowly to Liverpool in 2008 – before eliminating Everton from the Europa League a month later.
He did taste Champions League football with Porto, and later Anderlecht, but not with the impact he would have wished for. “I never got to the level I was before,” he says candidly. “When I left Standard for Porto I wasn't ready physically because of my injury, but I had to leave. Then I didn't play as much as I'd hoped for in Porto, maybe 50 or 60 per cent of the games.
“When I see the careers they have had, I think I just got injured at a bad moment. It stopped my evolution and then to get back was pretty hard because the injury had healed but I had a lot of pain. My big toe on my right foot is a little bit smaller than the other one so the whole physiology of my body changed. I started to run differently, I stopped using muscles I’d used before and started working muscles that I’d not used before, so I got several pulls and ruptures. I had to get everything back into shape and find a new way of running and of playing football.
“Everybody kept saying the injury was healed but I was finding that in duels or in games, where I used to be 100 per cent, I was now two seconds late or something like that. That made me crazy inside. Maybe if I didn't have the injury I would have been where they are but you never know. But that is the past. Now I am here and trying to get my level back.”
Here, to be precise, is the Premier League’s least pretentious media centre though it is worth pointing out that a short walk over the bridge crossing the River Calder is the club’s new £10.6m Barnfield Training Centre, complete with a sloping, grass-covered roof and stone-clad exterior to fit the surroundings of this National Trust-owned site.
That will open next spring but it was not a new training facility which brought Defour to east Lancashire. It was something simpler: a desire to be able to kick a football with a sense of joy again.
His love of the game had disappeared during his two years back in Belgium with Anderlecht where his history with Standard had led to him being booed even at his very first training session. The gloom thickened with an infamous meeting with Standard in January 2015 which began with his old club’s fans parading a giant banner featuring Defour’s decapitated head – and ended with him collecting a red card. And when no trophies followed, he took the brunt.
“I was really disappointed in football because I was criticised a lot by part of the supporters and also the Belgian media. I was in the international team when I arrived but wasn’t any more. It weighed heavily on me. Even if I performed well it was never good enough so it was better for all parties that I left, because of my past with Standard Liege. It was a no-win situation for us all – for Anderlecht, for me, and for the supporters.”
This summer came a second sliding-doors moment. The Abu Dhabi-based Al-Jazira were offering him an escape – a switch he considered “for fun and for money”. But then Sean Dyche, Burnley’s manager, came to see him in Belgium and a window of opportunity opened to finally play in the Premier League
“Every day I started to question what I really wanted. One day it was Burnley, the next it was the UAE. I looked at the pros and cons for both. When Burnley came into the picture everybody started to look for Burnley [on the map]. My best friend and my wife said, ‘You have to choose’ but when I talked about the Emirates they said, ‘Yes but…’. They were gently pushing me to Burnley. Then the manager came and he convinced me. He said you have everything to gain – you are going to play in the Premier League and everybody is going to watch you. When I got here, after the first game I could see it was the right choice.”
That first game was a 2-0 home victory over Liverpool, the club who had denied him Champions League football in 2008. A fine solo goal followed against Hull City in his second home outing. On 10 October, he made his first international appearance for two years. Although a hamstring injury meant he sat out last weekend’s win over Everton, and leaves him doubtful – “touch and go” were Dyche’s words – for Old Trafford, he has brought a touch of class to a team already possessing a rare unity of purpose, forged by the impressive Dyche.
“All the experts are saying Burnley will go down but the way the manager talked [when they met], he was really ambitious and convinced that this team we have now can do something.
“He is straightforward, he is honest, he wants us to be a team. It is the first time I am playing for a team that is really that – all the players are a team. There is no little group. Before I had a Spanish side [clique], Portuguese side, English side, different groups. Here everybody is together.”
The perfect environment, it seems, for a player to fall back in love with football. “I didn’t have fun in the game any more,” Defour admits. “That is why I wanted to get far, far away from Belgium and when Burnley came I thought, ‘If this works out really well maybe I can finish what I was after in the beginning’. It’s enough to play. I’ve come full circle, enjoying football again.”
And that, after the troubles he has faced, is something worth writing home about.
Racing Genk (2004-06)
Standard Liege (2006-11)
2 Belgian titles (2008, 2009)
1 Belgian Cup (2011)
2 Portuguese titles (2012, 2013)
22 Champions League appearances
49 caps, two goals for Belgium
Independent News Service