‘The Championship will not be his final step’ – Zian Flemming’s former coaches provide fascinating insight into Millwall’s new record signing

When it comes to nurturing talent in Europe, few clubs can compare to Ajax.

The Dutch giants are by far the biggest and most successful club in a land and have a rich history of producing technical talent – so it should come as no surprise that the Amsterdam outfit’s academy was ranked number one in all of Europe for producing talent, in a study by The International Sports Studies in Switzerland back in 2019.

De Toekomst – which translates as ‘The Future’ in English – is the prestigious place in the Dutch capital where Millwall new boy Zian Flemming honed his skills during the early years of his career.

The 23-year-old became the Lions’ club-record signing after the Londoners struck a £1.7million deal with Fortuna Sittard last week, but what can fans expect from a player who spent years fine-tuning his ability in one of, if not the finest institution in European football?

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“Zian is so good technically – he has a great technique because he was at Ajax for so many years, but he isn’t a typical Ajax player.”

That is the verdict of Dutch coach Francois Gesthuizen, who coached Flemming during a successful year-long stint at NEC Nijmegen. And Flemming’s most recent manager, Fortuna Sittard boss Sjors Ultee, wholeheartedly agrees, claiming that Flemming boasts the technical ability that most people associate with players forged in the Ajax academy, but with the added bonus of physicality.

Ultee adds: “His combination of power and skill was a big plus for us, because you don’t see that in too many players. That is unique.”

Flemming has evolved into one of the most exciting attacking midfielders in the Eredivisie over the past couple of years – but his journey in the Netherlands hasn’t always been plain sailing.

After joining Ajax at the age of 10, Flemming worked his way up through the ranks – but  he struggled to get minutes at U19 level under Aron Winter, who was coaching Jong Ajax at the time.

Winter recalls: “He had a very quiet personality. A big boy. When I started training with him, he was very humble, he listened very well and he was very clever tactically, too.

“Basically, he was part of the team, but he wasn’t always playing. He was initially playing as a defender, but during the season, we realised that he had some special qualities. We pushed him further up into midfield and as a striker, and he started scoring all sorts of goals. From then, he played further forward.”

In his new advanced role, Flemming started terrorising defences instead of marshalling them and racked up 25 appearances in the Eerste division, grabbing six goals as Jong Ajax romped to the title in 2018.

But even once he had muscled his way into Winter’s team in his new position, Flemming had another major issue to contend with.

Unsurprisingly, at a club that churns out prospects on a consistent basis, competition for a spot in the senior ranks is fierce. Flemming was playing alongside the likes of Noa Lang and Noussair Mazraoui, while in the senior ranks, big names like Donny van de Beek and Frenkie de Jong were cementing their spot in the Ajax first-team.

Winter adds: “It was hard, because at Ajax in the youth department there are many, many good players. He was training a lot with the first-team and developing very well, but he was a little bit unlucky because there were a lot of good players who were simply further along in their development than he was.

“I had good years coaching him. In the beginning, it was not easy for him because I wasn’t picking him, but by the end, he was playing every week. But even when he wasn’t playing, he was a real professional and doing everything in his power to try and change that. In the end, he couldn’t get the minutes in the first-team, so he had a decision to make.”

With first-team opportunities in Amsterdam set to come at a premium, Flemming made the bold decision to leave the club he had spent more than nine years with, to carve out his own route to the top. He was snapped up by Eredivisie outfit PEC Zwolle – but despite a decent debut season, Flemming found himself back in the second tier, when he was farmed out on loan to NEC in September 2019.

It was Gesthuizen who brought Flemming to the club after remembering his dazzling displays for Jong Ajax. He admits that he was surprised that the fleet-footed technician wasn’t playing for Zwolle – even if it was him who benefitted.

Picture: Niels van Renen, Reflection Studio

Gesthuizen said: “I couldn’t believe they didn’t play him at Zwolle, because he was a good player for that level. I didn’t get that.

“We were looking for a number 10. We played with three strikers and I was looking for a guy to float around the strikers who can come into the box and score goals, and I knew Zian from Ajax. My previous team, before NEC, had played against Jong Ajax and he had caught my eye. He was exactly what we were looking for; someone whose only interest is getting in and around the box.

“He was great to work with, people like Zian are the best kind of people to work with as a coach. Away from the pitch he’s nice and polite. But on the pitch he can be mean. He’s a very, very bad loser – you’ll know about it when you lose a training drill. He has his opinions, that’s the Dutch way. But he wants to learn, he always listens and he is always looking for ways he can improve.”

After dropping back into the second tier, understandably, Flemming needed picking up. But it wasn’t long before the Ajax alumnus found his feet and began to flourish in his new surroundings.

Gesthuizen added: “Confidence was the main thing with Zian back then – confidence does a lot with a player. When he came to us, it was a lower league. We wanted him because he was a good player, and he was confident because he knew he was the best player in that position and that he’d play for us. He just needed matches.”

Flemming seemed destined for a return to the top-flight, after finishing the season as NEC’s top scorer with 13 goals, and his form was enough to convince Fortuna Sittard to hand Flemming an Eredivisie lifeline.

But even though Flemming had been on Ultee’s radar for a while, he concedes that signing the midfield maestro was a calculated gamble.

“He was on our list for a long, long time,” says Ultee, who also took note of Flemming’s standout performances for Jong Ajax. “We picked him up for a good price. It was maybe a bit of a gamble, but we really believed he could be something special.”

Picture: Niels van Renen, Reflection Studio

To say that gamble paid off would be an understatement – Flemming’s impact at Fortuna has been seismic.

After being signed to play as number 10 for NEC, squad issues meant that Flemming was utilised as a striker for much of the season. But he thrived in his favoured role at his new club, and his tendency to arrive in the box and make things happen has been priceless for Fortuna over the past two years.

Ultee added: “He’s very focused on being in and around the goal, he’s always making smart runs and he can score with either foot and he’s very good in the air with his head.

“He has so many different qualities, that we thought no matter how we use this guy, he can be a success. At some of his previous clubs, he was playing on the wing, but we believed that putting him in the number 10 position, behind the striker, would make him stronger and more important to the team.”

Ultee wasn’t wrong. Flemming has gone on to bang in 27 goals in 63 appearances, during his two years at Fortuna, and established himself as one of the most productive attacking midfielders in the Dutch top-flight.

Not only has Flemming developed the habit of finding the back of the net, he has become adept at scoring different types of goals. Technically, he is right-footed, but he is just as efficient with his ‘weaker’ foot. And as if the former Fortuna man didn’t have a broad enough arsenal, he also has an impressive leap and is capable of bagging headed goals too.

Both Ultee and Gesthuizen have championed Flemming’s unquenchable work ethic, but the duo believe that the midfielder’s mindset has been the main factor behind his rapid rise over the past couple of years.

Ultee says: “He’s a mentality monster. I think his biggest attribute is his mindset – he’s a real example of a winner and he gives everything, on and off the pitch, to achieve his targets.

“He puts in extra gym sessions, extra field sessions and our striking coach used to go out with him every week, a couple of times, for extra finishing sessions.

“Even the way he takes care of his body, he is careful with his food…he’s a real role model. He really deserves this chance, because he’s been a big, big man for us over the past two years. Not just on the pitch, but in the locker room too.”

Flemming’s role in Fortuna’s survival last year has been well-documented, but the Lions’ new man also evolved into a real leader off the pitch at his most recent club. Both Winter and Gesthuizen recall Flemming as a more quiet, reserved character – but Ultee stresses that Flemming has developed significantly as a person, as well as a footballer, during his time at Fortuna, and would often be the first to speak up in the dressing room when times were tough.

It came as no real surprise to anybody when the Dutchman started attracting suitors from overseas. The Lions have tried on more than one occasion to lure Flemming to SE16 over the past 18 months – but Fortuna’s perilous position in the league meant a switch back in January was out of the question.

“We knew we needed a lot of points in the second half of the season to stay in the league, and Zian was so, so important to that,” said Ultee. “Not only on the pitch, but mentally too. What message would it send if we got rid of one of the best players we have?

“Keeping him here was something we agreed on together. He told us: ‘Look guys, I want to make a big transfer, but I understand [you need me]’. He was determined that whatever happened [in the final weeks of the season] that he would leave through the front door and with us still in the Eredivisie. That gave us so much power as a group.”

Flemming went on to play a key role in the final weeks of the season, and inspired Fortuna to the results they required to retain their top-flight status, before leaving just as he said he would, earlier in the season.

At long last, Gary Rowett has his man – and already expectations around the club’s new recruit are sky-high. The Lions have had a dearth of players capable of creating from a central position in recent years, and Flemming’s arrival finally gives Rowett the number 10 he has long craved. With Jed Wallace opting to move on to West Brom, Flemming’s arrival could hardly have come at a better time.

Intriguingly, Fortuna adopted the same 5-3-2 shape that the Lions used for spells last season, which should help smooth Flemming’s transition into a completely new environment, although his versatility will be an effective weapon for the Lions, who looked at their best last year when their attacking options were fluid and interchangeable.

While Gethuizen claims that Flemming is more of a “nine-and-a-half” than a traditional number 10, Ultee believes Flemming is at his best in that pocket behind a frontman, as he gravitates naturally to the penalty area anyway. He said: “It is very important to get him somewhere where he can make his runs – don’t isolate him somewhere in a small place. He is good in small places, he has the skill, but he is at his best when he can use his power.”

As with any player coming into English football from overseas, a bedding in period is perhaps inevitable – especially in the Championship. But Flemming’s impressive physique should lend itself well to the rigours of one of the most physically demanding competitions in Europe.

Flemming was often in the gym during his teenage years at Ajax, after suffering with injuries, and all of his previous coaches believe that his years of hard work and dedication should stand him in good stead for English football.

Gesthuizen also believes that concerns over producing the goods in England, should hold no fear for Flemming, given that the Eredivisie is still considered to be one of Europe’s top competitions.

Gesthuizen says: “I think the Championship is a good fit – he was more than capable of playing at the top of the Eredivisie. He loves that kind of physical game and because he works a lot on his body, I think he’ll enjoy that. He might have to get used to the pace and intensity, as it is a different game, but I don’t think he will have any problems getting used to it. If I know Zian, he’ll be doing extra training to ensure he can adapt quickly; that’s the kind of guy he is.

Winter adds: “For a lot of players from Holland who come to play in England, the difference is huge – but it won’t be for Zian. The first thing with him is, he has played with a team who were scrapping for their lives at Fortuna last year. They were playing real football.

“The second factor is that Zian is a winner – it doesn’t matter if the rhythm or the level is higher, he will adapt, because that’s who he is. I think the Championship is a league that will suit him very well.”

For Winter, who has known Flemming since he was a teenager, there are no question marks over whether Flemming is capable of thriving in his new environment with Millwall. He stated: “The Championship will not be his final step.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Ultee, who believes it is inevitable that Flemming will reach the top.

“The thing with Zian is, once he sets his sights on something, he will get it. I am sure with his working style, his focus and his lifestyle, he will make it to the top. He is a true sportsman in every way, so that makes it very likely for me that he will succeed in England. Whatever happens, in the end, Zian will rise with his qualities and his mindset.”

 

 


 

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