In contrast to their neighbours down under, Dutch football is not a common destination for young New Zealanders looking to further their careers in Europe. Some of Australia’s biggest talents of the last two decades, including Brett Emerton, Jason Culina and Luke Wilshire, enjoyed successful spells in the Netherlands, but after defender Ivan Vicelich’s stint at RKC Waalwijk over half a decade ago, you have to go back to 1993 to find a New Zealander in the Dutch top flight, when striker Fred de Jong featured for Fortuna Sittard. The Eredivisie, then, is not a path well trodden by All White hopefuls and even an unusual one.
But PEC Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas’ career trajectory to date has been as unusual as they come. Few if any would have seen the 19-year-old’s emergence from the relative obscurity of New Zealand youth football to European prominence last season after landing a contract with Eredivisie overachievers Zwolle. Twelve months on from the successful trial that led to a one-year deal with the Blauwvingers, Thomas is one of his country’s hottest prospects and what were once pipe dreams of a move one of Europe’s top leagues now seem perfectly possible.
The diminutive midfielder began his career in 2011 under the tutelage of Declan Edge at Waikato FC, also the first club of Leicester City striker Chris Wood and recent Stuttgart recruit Marco Rojas. When Edge was sacked in November 2012, he controversially took Thomas and a raft of the club’s brightest prospects with him to the Olé Academy, a programme which encourages possession-based football modelled on Barcelona’s tiki-taki – a system that suited the slight, 5ft 9in Thomas perfectly.
Though he was highly rated by coaches in New Zealand, Thomas’ trial at Zwolle in 2013 came out of the blue; indeed, the player had to stump up for his flights and hotel in the Netherlands. However, Zwolle was not a completely random choice: Thomas was scouted by the Dutch side’s youth academy director Rini Coolen, a former Adelaide United coach who retained ties to Oceania. Impressed with what he saw, Coolen decided to take on the Te Puke native and were soon richly rewarded for their optimism as their new recruit went from strength to strength.
Though Thomas initially struggled to adapt while living in a hotel during his first few months at the club, the midfielder scored on debut in a cup tie with Wilhelmina 08, and his Man-of-the-Match performance was rewarded with a place in the starting XI against PSV the following week. A placement with a local host family helped him settle off the pitch and Thomas’ reputation rose exponentially as the season progressed, culminating, rather fittingly, with a brace in Zwolle’s shock 5-1 KNVB Cup final thrashing of Ajax in April.
He may be the only New Zealander on the club’s books – indeed, he doesn’t have a single compatriot in the entire Eredivisie – but Thomas appears to have settled well, significantly aided by his friendship with January arrival and Aussie centre-back Trent Sainsbury. A first senior international cap arrived in March against Japan – “one of the best moments of my career”, says Ryan – with a second coming two months later versus South Africa.
Thomas’ rapid rise to prominence in Europe has even caught the man himself by surprise – see his comments below – and another solid campaign this time around could see the starlet propelled to greater heights and pastures new: the midfielder will undoubtedly now be on the radar of bigger clubs across the continent who will pounce if his form continues. A three-year contract extension in March showed Zwolle clearly see him as a valuable asset.
Predominantly deployed as a centrally operating attacking midfielder while in New Zealand, Thomas is equally comfortable on the wing, where he was been more commonly used at Zwolle. A player who enjoys being on the ball, when playing centrally he often drops deep to pick up possession before motoring forward, exchanging quick passes with team-mates and looking to get a shot away.
In the cup final against Ajax he caused real damage from the left wing, running at defenders with his pace and technical ability, while his fleet-footed dribbling style and diminutive stature allow him to wriggle away from challenges more often than not. His body type means that defensive work is not his natural forte, and in both appearance and playing style he closely resembles another Aussie in the Eredivisie, Utrecht winger Tommy Oar.
Thomas has targeted an improved goals tally this year and will clearly not rest on his laurels: “as an attacking player I want to be scoring more goals and getting more assists,” he said earlier this year. “Other than that there’s always ways to improve your passing, touch and game awareness, but that’ll come as I get older.”
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT HIM
“He’s a sensation,” summarises Coolen, the man who brought him to Zwolle, before suggesting that more youngsters could follow Thomas from New Zealand to the Netherlands: “But that’s also happening by having good contacts – you can give boys opportunities.”
The fresh-faced teenager is seen as a long-term fixture in the All Whites’ national team, as Michael Burgess of the New Zealand Herald affirms. “It is a tricky game predicting the ascent of young footballers from this part of the world but Ryan Thomas looks the real deal…the 19-year-old has made an instant impression.”
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