Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Football: All White targets big European club

Ryan Thomas of PEC Zwolle during the Dutch Eredivisie match between PEC Zwolle and Heracles Almelo at the IJsseldelta stadium. Photo / Getty Images.
Ryan Thomas of PEC Zwolle during the Dutch Eredivisie match between PEC Zwolle and Heracles Almelo at the IJsseldelta stadium. Photo / Getty Images.

Ryan Thomas can see himself at Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven when the time is right.
That time could be as soon as next season, which would be a remarkable step for the 21-year All Whites midfielder who is midway through his second full season at PEC Zwolle.

He arrived in Holland on a one-way ticket in October 2013 and has since become one of the hottest young properties in the Eredivisie, regularly mentioned as a transfer possibility for one of the big Dutch clubs as well as attracting interest from Italy and Spain.

He has become a fixture in an over-achieving Zwolle squad, who have reached the Dutch Cup final in each of the last two seasons (winning one), beat Ajax to win the Super Cup and qualified for Europe for the first time. Thomas has thrived at Zwolle, especially under the direction of head coach Ron Jans, but there is a sense he may soon outgrow the club. "I'll like to stay in Holland," says Thomas, when asked about his future plans.

"It's a good league for young players to develop, especially attacking players. If I have played well enough this season, then it could happen at the end of the year, to go to one of the bigger teams. But it all depends on how I play. If I don't perform, then it is not going to happen."

Thomas has ambitions to play in England or Spain but is in no hurry.

"The most important thing is to be playing 90 minutes," he says. "There is no point going anywhere just to be part of a massive squad and sitting on the bench. You have to be ready for that level.

The slightly built Thomas also realises he needs to develop physically if he is to have any chance in some of the elite European leagues.


On the day we catch up, Thomas looks freezing. He's wearing thermals under his kit and a woollen hat, as the Zwolle team complete training on a bitterly cold winter's morning.

After training, Thomas joins the rest of the team for lunch. It's a family affair at Zwolle, as all of the club officials and staff, from the receptionist to the head coach, eat together.

The room is adorned with mementos of Zwolle's history. There's a scarf from the 1982 team, when they had Johnny Rep in their ranks, and a pennant marking a European tie earlier this season. A large framed photo of Japp Stam hangs in a nearby stairwell.

As we tuck into pasta, salad and bread, Thomas reflects on how far he has come.

"I only had a one-way ticket when I arrived. That was all we could afford at that time," recalls Thomas. " I remember Declan [Edge] saying, 'this is basically your only shot'. When you go there, make sure you do well."

Given his amateur background, it was expected he would serve time with the youth team. But within a few days he was promoted to the reserves, and within two months into the first team.

"Coming from New Zealand, you have to stand out and work your arse off," adds Thomas. "In my first week, I had a game with the reserves and didn't put a foot wrong and, after that, they told me they wanted me to stay."

Since his first team debut in November 2013, Thomas has been a virtual ever-present.

Usually young players oscillate between squads. He's become an attacking weapon on the left flank, chipping in with goals and assists and was even handed the responsibility of penalty taker late last year, usually something reserved for a senior player or striker.

"He's a very respected player but this season he has a mission - to be one of the leading players," Jans says.

Taking spot kicks is nothing new for Thomas, but the responsibility in the Eredivisie is a whole new level.

"It's big," says Thomas. "A lot of people see it as pressure but I see it as confidence from the trainer and the team that they can rely on me. I've now I've got a lot more
responsibility. Taking penalties, free kicks and corners gives me confidence."

It's something team-mate and Socceroo Trent Sainsbury has noticed.

"Ryan's come a long way," he says. "But he's also a real team man. He's always the guy collecting balls after a shooting drill, or grabbing the cones."

Zwolle is a modest club in a modest city, but they have over achieved in recent years.

They beat Ajax to win the Dutch Cup in 2014, then trumped the Amsterdam giants again in the Super Cup. The Blauwvingers reached the Dutch Cup final again last season and finished sixth in the league.

Thomas is expected to make his comeback in the next fortnight - a knee injury has seen him miss the past four matches as well as a pre-season camp in Spain.

Zwolle currently sit eighth in the 18-team first division, only one point off the European places and three points below Vitesse in fourth.

Thomas is a bit of a local hero. As we walk around the main shopping area - with medieval streets and a beautiful cathedral - two boys yell, 'Hey, Ryan' as they whistle past on their bicycles. Later, a couple of businessmen nod in his direction.

But it's generally a relaxed place, which suits the humble Thomas.

"It's been the perfect fit," says local journalist Herman Nijman. "He's a kind of player that Zwolle needs, and Zwolle is a good club for him. If the team lose a couple of games, people accept it. There is more patience here than at a big club."

Thomas is settled, too. His language skills are coming along - "90 per cent of the time the coach speaks to me in Dutch" - he's driving a club sponsored BMW and moved into his own apartment 18 months ago. It's a long way from Te Puke, where Thomas lived from the age of 10 after growing up in Mt Roskill.

"I'm now a completely different person. I came as a boy, just to play football and have fun. Now it is not just about having fun; it's business now, getting big results and doing as much as I can for the team."

- Herald on Sunday

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