Sven Botman may be new to Newcastle but the North East of England is not completely unfamiliar to him. In fact, it was in neighboring Sunderland, three years ago next month, that he took the first step on his road to St James’ Park.
The defender, still only 19 at the time, had just agreed a season-long loan from Ajax, his boyhood club, to Eredivisie rivals Heerenveen. His first assignment was a pre-season friendly, a few miles from the place he will soon call home, at the Stadium of Light.
Botman was named on the bench but he did not stay there long. A first-half injury to Ibrahim Dresevic, one of Heerenveen’s starting center-backs, meant he was needed sooner than anticipated.
It was an early opportunity to showcase his potential and he left the field at the end of it having helped Heerenveen secure a clean sheet and a 1-0 win. “He went in and he never went out,” Johnny Jansen, the club’s manager, recalls to Sky Sports with a chuckle.
Botman had never played a first-team game for Ajax, his only prior experience coming with the club’s reserves in Holland’s second tier, but he would go on to play every minute of Heerenveen’s Eredivisie season before it was curtailed by the pandemic in April.
“We needed a central defender and he was a big, tall guy who had a lot of talent,” explains Jansen. “We made an appointment to speak with him at the club and in that meeting, you could see in his eyes that he was interested, that he wanted to play at the top level.
“To stay at Ajax, he knew it was going to be very difficult to get into the first team, so he wanted to take the opportunity we offered him at Heerenveen. He knew things about the club and he was interested in us, in how we wanted to play, in how we trained.
“He was a guy who had a clear goal.”
Botman took a significant step towards that goal at Heerenveen, handling the leap to the Eredivisie impressively and later describing his loan spell there as “the start of me”.
He was not the only one to benefit from the arrangement, either.
“When a center-forward got the ball in his feet, he was always very strong to make a fight of it,” says Jansen. “He was also very quick. Not so much in the first meters, but when he got up to top speed.
“He was strong at defending his own box. He was strong in the air. He won duels. And he was really good in the one-on-one fights as well.
“He was an important player for us in that season.”
Those same qualities have now convinced Newcastle to pay £ 35m to secure his signature and the club’s supporters will hope he endears himself to them as swiftly as he did to Heerenveen’s.
“That happened very quick, very quick,” says Jansen. “At this club, the supporters like it when a defender makes a fight with the center-forward opposition.
He was strong at defending his own box. He was strong in the air. He won duels. And he was really good in the one-on-one fights as well
“I remember one game, at home to Feyenoord at the beginning of the season. We scored a goal, I think it was Dresevic, and the crowd was really happy, but at the end of the game, Botman made a tackle and I think everybody screamed as loud as when we scored.
“Everyone was smiling and saying, ‘Yes, this is what we like!’ That was one of the moments that helped him make a good connection with the supporters here at Heerenveen. “
Botman honed that combative style of defending with the help of Winston Bogarde, the former Ajax defender turned coach, during his time in Ajax’s reputed academy but, for all his potential, he still had plenty to learn when he arrived at Heerenveen.
Indeed, while Jansen loved Botman’s strong character, even handing him the captain’s armband at times, his confidence and competitiveness sometimes saw him overstep the mark.
Most notably, there was a television interview in the wake of a 2-1 loss to Fortuna Sittard during which he was critical of Heerenveen’s forwards for failing to capitalize on scoring chances.
“I do not know what goes on in the minds of our attackers, but I hope it does not get into their heads,” said a frustrated Botman. “At some point, it makes you a bit despondent as a team.”
The comments did not go down well with Jansen but the episode served as an important lesson for Botman.
“He said some things about the team and some players that he shouldn’t have said,” says Jansen. “He needed to talk about himself first, not about his colleagues. But he was only 20 and he was already captain, which is why he had to do that interview directly after the match.
“So, when we came back from Sittard, I took him into my office and told him that he had to learn from it. Don’t talk about your colleagues on television. If you want to talk about them, do it in the dressing room, not in an interview.
“The next day, he stood in the dressing room and said, ‘Guys, I’m sorry, it was a mistake to say those things. Next time, If I have something to say, I will do it here.’
“You could see that he grew up after that,” Jansen adds.
“At 20 years old, I think it was a really good thing for him to learn.”
There were refinements to be made on the pitch as well as off it.
Botman relished the defensive side of the game, his 6ft 5ins frame helping him win nearly three times as many aerial duels as any other Heerenveen player over the course of the season, but, despite his Ajax schooling, his distribution still needed work.
“His passing was at a good level, I would say,” says Jansen. “He had a good pass with his left foot and he could play the ball between the lines, which was helpful, but it was not his biggest quality.
“Remember, Ajax have the ball for 80 per cent of the time in Holland, so it is crucial for them. They had Daley Blind as their left-sided central defender and he is really, really good with the ball.”
The same could be said of Ajax’s other options in the position too, including Joel Veltman, Lisandro Martinez, and Botman’s fellow academy graduate Per Schuurs. “That’s why I do not think he would have got a lot of minutes there,” adds Jansen.
That is not to say his progress at Heerenveen went unnoticed at his parent club. In fact, Marc Overmars, their former director of football, gave him a new contract midway through the season. But an offer of € 9m from Lille that summer was deemed too good to refuse.
It would prove a bargain for Lille and his continued progress there, where he formed a strong partnership with Jose Fonte as they pipped Paris Saint-Germain to the Ligue 1 title in 2020/21, is reflected in their profit from his sale to Newcastle.
Now, only three years on from that breakthrough afternoon at the Stadium of Light, Eddie Howe will hope Botman’s development continues on an upward trajectory for some time to come.
Back at Heerenveen, though, they know he has already come a long way.
“When he came to us he was a big, tall guy with a lot of potential, but he was still a young guy too,” says Jansen. “When I see him now, I think, ‘Hey, he has grown up. He has really become a man.'”