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Manchester United’s Daley Blind puts old ties behind him for Europa League final | Football


Manchester United’s season has in effect come down to one match: Wednesday’s Europa League final against Ajax in Stockholm will determine whether or not José Mourinho’s side will be playing Champions League football this autumn. But for one player there is a little more to the meeting than that.

Daley Blind came to Manchester United from Ajax, won four consecutive Eredivisie titles with the Amsterdam club, and freely admits to still following their fortunes from afar. He is as excited as everyone else at Old Trafford at reaching a major European final but the Dutchman could be forgiven for wishing he could play someone different. Ajax do not reach as many such occasions as they once did, and ordinarily Daley and his father, Danny – also of Ajax and Holland – would be hoping to celebrate a Dutch win.

“On Wednesday we are both Reds,” Daley says. “My dad hopes for the best for his family and his son. Everybody knows I support Ajax, I am from Amsterdam and I played there since I was seven, but now I am at United I am a Red and I want to win this final more than anything in the world. It will be a special evening for me but I will prepare like my team-mates and be ready to do my utmost.”

Daley was five when his father helped Ajax win the Champions League final against Milan in 1995, with a young Patrick Kluivert scoring the only goal of the game. “I was too young to know much about it at the time but I have watched a lot of tapes since and, of course, I have spoken to my dad about it,” he said. “It is very special to play in a European final, not every player gets to do that in his career, and it is something you will never forget. This is what you fight for as a player, to win trophies and play in games like this.”

Blind has been at United for three years but still knows most of the Ajax team, especially Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick, who will be lining up against him in Stockholm. “I know Justin a little bit, and it will be an odd feeling when we see each other on the pitch,” he says.

“His dad was more of a striker and Justin is more a winger, but he is still a talented player. It will be special for us to be on the same pitch but probably special for our dads as well. There are a few more players there that I remember from my time at Ajax, I know a few who have come up from the youth academy and there are players I meet with the national team as well. I still watch most of their games so I will be prepared, though naturally we have already done our own preparation here at United.”

The Dutch league is not among Europe’s strongest, though Blind feels the teams at the top should not be underestimated. “It is not quite like here, where every team seems able to get a result against anyone else. In Holland there are Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, then a big gap between them and the rest. But those teams at the top are very capable.

“We have played difficult matches against Feyenoord in the Europa League and PSV in the Champions League. And Ajax must have a good team, otherwise they would not reach the Europa League final. We know how tough that is. You have to play a lot of clubs and it cannot be done without a certain amount of quality.”

Blind is tougher than he looks and, despite his obvious affinity with Ajax and Amsterdam, there was a time when he had to fight for his place in the team, on occasion to a backdrop of boos from his own supporters. “When I first started in the first team everything went well, then I had a period when it was a bit more difficult,” he recalls. “I went out on loan, came back stronger, and that was when I had a really hard time, fighting my way back into the team. But Ronald de Boer showed a lot of faith in me, and I grew a little as a person and a player. I tried to do my best in every game and training session and this is where I am now.”

With Blind having been signed by Louis van Gaal when the Holland manager moved to Manchester United after the 2014 World Cup, there were fears that he might have to fight for his place all over again when Mourinho took over. In the event he has become one of United’s most regular performers. Mourinho might have fretted out loud about not getting Chris Smalling and Phil Jones back from injury quickly enough but he has not been averse to using Blind in the centre of defence and he has rarely been let down. “There was no battle between us, that was a story created in the papers,” he says. “Journalists have no responsibility, two months later they are writing something different.

“It is not like that for a player. You have to show yourself on the training pitch every day. Every game you play you must show that you want to play. I worked hard all season and I never stopped believing in myself or my own quality. In a big squad everyone has to fight hard for their place and that’s what I did. In spite of what the journalists wrote, I still played 37 matches, and I think that’s quite a lot.”

Blind accepts that United are favourites for the Europa trophy and may even have a stronger motivation than their opponents, who will still qualify for a Champions League play-off round by virtue of finishing second in the Dutch league even if they lose in Stockholm. But he will not entertain the idea that Ajax will be out of their depth or simply there to make up the numbers. “They fought to be in the final and they are there for a reason,” he says.

“When you reach a final you absolutely cannot afford to underestimate your opponents. They came second in their league by a point, we missed out on the top four and we are still a little disappointed about that, but I am not really thinking about that at the moment. Right now there is only one game that counts, and that is the final.”



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