Johan Djourou could sense someone in pursuit as he walked off the training pitch towards the end of his trial at Arsenal. He turned round and there was Arsène Wenger, typically hands-on, at pains to plan the future of a relatively obscure hopeful from Geneva. “So, how do we sign you?” Wenger asked. The 15-year-old Djourou suggested Wenger should speak to his parents and his club, Étoile Carouge. “Fine,” came the reply. “I really think you can do something special in England.”
In many ways Djourou did, thanks in no small part to the manager’s trust. He played 144 times for Arsenal and, were it not for injury, that number would be significantly higher. When he departed in 2014, nearly a decade after his senior debut, he was their longest-serving player; a thoughtful and considered soul who had watched Wenger’s last great team break up and become a major part of the prodigiously gifted, but ultimately flawed, generation that sought to succeed them.
Now Djourou feels that, in some respects at least, he has come full circle. Last month he signed for FC Nordsjælland, based to the north of Copenhagen, and at 33 he is an elder statesman in the youngest squad among Europe’s top 20-ranked leagues. “When I got here I was blown away,” he says. “By the quality, by the people, by the intensity and attention to detail of the training sessions. I told them: ‘It feels like when I was a younger player at Arsenal.’”
He feels energised after a bumpy couple of years. Knee surgery cut short a spell in Serie A with Spal early in 2019 and, once he had recovered, a return to Switzerland was supposed to set things back on course. But in March he was among nine players controversially released by Sion after a dispute over Covid 19-enforced pay reductions; a short stint with struggling Neuchâtel Xamax followed and eventually he was left with an experience in his home country that “wasn’t really nice … the way they treated people and the way the football was as well”.
What excites him most at Nordsjælland – who are, uniquely, owned by the Right to Dream academy in Ghana and recently employed Michael Essien as a coach – is an approach to education and accountability he rarely encountered earlier in his career.
“The young players here have such a voice,” he says. “They’ve come into a club that involves them in the tactical meetings, the analysis, and they’re encouraged to say what they think. ‘Should we play three at the back, maybe four, should we play a certain way?’ Everyone is really involved with the coaches and you don’t really see that much; in today’s football the coach usually has a plan and you have to respect it.
“Coming through at Arsenal we didn’t really have that voice. Maybe we did collectively, as a team, but when Thierry [Henry] or someone else speaks you just listen. But here it doesn’t matter if you’re 17 or 18; if you have something to say you say it, and the coach will allow you to grow in confidence, to speak in front of people and express yourself. You couldn’t get a better school, either as a human being or for how to see the game as a player.”
Djourou recalls having dinner a fortnight ago with a young Nordsjælland teammate who had been struggling for consistency, offering advice and encouragement. Even in Denmark there is high pressure, with between 50 and 80 scouts attending games in search of talents to follow Mohammed Kudus, who joined Ajax for £8m in the summer. “I’ve been through so much that I think today I can understand what kind of condition someone can be in, depending on their situation,” he says. It prompts what ends up being the centrepiece of the interview: a reflection on the difficulty of dealing with ups and downs, and the reluctance he detects in footballers when it comes to talking them through. Could he have had a similar chat with a colleague at Arsenal?
“I wouldn’t say the players were selfish, but I don’t think you were really so open,” he says. “I don’t think being open was something that was really liked. When you showed something like that, maybe you were seen as weak. Most of the time we’d go down other roads, we wouldn’t really speak about football. You’d talk about life and different things. You don’t really speak about what bothers you.”
That was, he thinks, more of a cultural or generational issue than one specific to the Arsenal dressing room. “Some guys can be very upset after a game, some can let it go, others will reflect in a positive way,” he says. “But then it’s a question of whether you’d rather speak about what happened with one of your teammates or if you’d rather go home, pretend everything is OK, and speak to your wife or someone else. A teammate might say, ‘It wasn’t your fault’ or, ‘It wasn’t your fault but you still killed us in that game’. Do you expose yourself, and do you trust that person 100% to give you a straight answer?”
The obvious question is whether Arsenal, so close yet so far during much of Djourou’s spell, might have overcome some severe disappointments with a little more of the honesty he refers to. When it came to the crunch, they wilted under pressure and players such as Cesc Fàbregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Jack Wilshere were left unfulfilled. They should have won the league in 2007-08 but, traumatised by Eduardo’s injury at Birmingham, the bottom fell out of their season. Djourou had a bit-part role that year but in 2010-11 he played the best football of his Arsenal career at centre-back, a particularly impressive feat given knee ligament damage had wrecked the previous campaign.
It was a team that could beat Barcelona and then, within two weeks, find their nemesis in Birmingham City again, this time at Wembley. Had they not plummeted after losing that 2011 Carling Cup final, winning two of their final 11 games, they would have run Manchester United close for the title.
“As a coach do you have time to go around every individual and understand their feelings? I don’t think so, but I think between the team it could help if everyone was open and able to speak their mind without feeling judged.
“We had Eduardo’s injury that maybe affected some people [that season], then [in 2011] we lost the Carling Cup final and after that we collapsed. In the final, challenging for the title, beating Barça, and suddenly ‘boom boom boom’. So what’s it down to? We weren’t strong mentally? Maybe. Losing a final we were so sure we were going to win had such an impact that confidence went down? Maybe. Even if I can get over it, it doesn’t mean the next guy got over it. He can still have disappointments. These things impact some people from a young age, through their whole life. We’re human beings, not robots.”
Good cheer comes naturally to Djourou, whose forthcoming nature won him lifelong friends at the Emirates, but the frustration of departing without winning major honours still nags. “It does, I try to be honest with myself. I just think we were so good in 2011 that we deserved a trophy. It’s something that will stay with me forever, I think.”
When he left for Hamburg, after a mixed final full season at Arsenal that saw him largely deployed out of position at right-back, it was with little fanfare. Being a defender for Wenger’s side back then might have felt like a hiding to nothing. “I think I had my times,” he says. “Everyone recognises when I did a great job, when I had a good run with Laurent Koscielny and we looked solid. At the time expectations were high and when people looked at the defence they’d say: ‘We don’t have Campbell, Keown, those names.’ Of course mistakes happened, but it was more a global thing.”
Taking the captaincy at Hamburg advertised his leadership quality, and diplomacy was required for the Bundesliga club’s various internecine struggles too. He also played in Turkey for Alanyaspor before joining Spal and feels those experiences, along with the schooling he now receives at Nordsjælland, have cut him out for a coaching career.
“The structure I’m now working in makes me understand I definitely want to do that,” he says. “There’s a long way to go but I’m picking it up quickly and think I have a lot to give. Here, even at 33, I’m learning every day because they are so precise with the details that it’s unbelievable.”
Thank goodness Wenger got on top of the details regarding his signing all those years ago, too. “Arsène is like my second dad. He gave a little guy coming from Switzerland so much confidence, even with the injuries I had, and to be part of that club and philosophy was such a blessing. I’ll always be supportive of them because of the chance he gave me.”