In an exclusive interview, former Shrewsbury Town winger Benjamin van den Broek discusses adapting to the English game, playing international football, and his fascinating post footballing-career.
Little was known of the flying Dutchman prior to his February 2010 move to Shrewsbury Town, and in truth Benjamin van den Broek’s knowledge of Shrewsbury Town was scant as well. However, he won the adulation of his new supporters and manager Paul Simpson, after the latter revealed the ex New Zealand international turned down lucrative offers to follow his dream and play in England.
Belgian side Lierse SK and FC Den Bosch, who van den Broek would eventually join, were both keen on bringing him to the club, but instead he opted for a switch to League Two. Speaking exclusively to Shropshire Live, the now 32-year-old said: “Before I was invited for a trial, I had never heard of the club. In Holland there is only some attention for the Premier League, and I used to watch Match of the Day on the BBC.
“But hey, it was still professional football in England. So, I never hesitated for a second to come to Shrewsbury. When me and my dad arrived at the ground, we were both in love immediately.”
As any football connoisseur will be aware, Dutch football has a global reputation for possession-based attacking football, with players such as Johan Cruyff, Marco Van Basten, and Dennis Bergkamp wowing spectators with their wizardry. Ultimately, Dutch youngsters are taught to keep the ball on the ground – as Brian Clough once said, “If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there,” a sentiment very much shared by coaches in the Netherlands. Therefore, it was unsurprising that van den Broek initially struggled to adapt to the lower echelons of the English game, known more for its unscrupulous challenges and direct style.
The former NAC Breda winger added: “In Holland I was always one of the taller and stronger players. But I still found it pretty hard to adapt to the physical nature of the English game.
“The hardest thing in the beginning was the tempo of the game. (There was) no real possession game, but looking for a long ball ‘in the channels’ and chasing it. And the opposition did the same, so I was absolutely shattered from running back and forth!
“My first English pre-season with Graham Turner was very tough. Training in the morning, running up Haughmond Hill in the afternoon. All I did was train, eat, sleep, and train again!
“But there was a turning point after two and a half weeks, when I suddenly felt so fit that I could run for days.”
Benjamin van den Broek found himself at Town in more unusual circumstances. He had been plying his trade in his homeland with HFC Haarlem between 2008 and 2010 – where he scored ten times in 57 league matches. The former Eredivisie champions, who once boasted ex international stars Ruud Gullit and Gregory van den Wiel on their books, were forced into liquidation after being declared bankrupt.
Fans of Bury will be all too familiar with Haarlem’s story, and van den Broek admitted it was particularly tough on senior players. He said: “For me it wasn’t as difficult as it was for some of the older players, and especially the volunteers who gave their lives to the club.
“I was still a young player and had played a decent season (prior to the club going bankrupt), so I wasn’t too worried. Although there was a lot of uncertainty about payments, and people’s jobs so it was quite a turbulent time.”
In signing for Shrewsbury following the demise of Haarlem, he became the first Dutchman to play for the club, with Akwasi Asante, who coincidentally spent some of his youth career at Haarlem, the only other player from Holland to don the Town shirt. The 6ft 1 midfielder, made his Shrewsbury debut in March 2010 as a substitute during the 3-0 defeat against Grimsby. His first start arrived a week later against Rochdale, whilst he scored his only goal for the club in a 3-2 home loss over Morecambe. In total, van den Broek made 25 appearances for Town.
Summarising his time in Shropshire, he said: “The first six months under Paul Simpson were mostly about getting used to the style of play and adapting to English football.
“But I still feel I wasn’t really given a chance in my second year under Graham Turner. He brought in loads of players – I kept scoring and training in the reserve team (but it wasn’t enough). I wasn’t mature enough back then to walk into his office and ask what I needed to do to be in the starting line-up.
“Together with that I had some injuries at the worst possible moments. When I got near to the first eleven, I got injured.
“Looking back at my career I feel that I should have stayed longer, I think I was respected and a valued member within the team. I feel I could have been a first team regular had I stayed longer. And I loved Shrewsbury – I wouldn’t mind living there.”
Despite limited minutes under Graham Turner, van den Broek still had a huge amount of respect for the Shrewsbury legend. He added: “He was a strong personality with a very clear view and opinion on how to play and how to believe in yourself. I had a lot of respect for him.
“Actually, too much, because I never had the guts to ask him what I needed to do to be a real part of his plans. But his track record speaks for itself.
“When you are in the game for so long, and people respect what you do (as people did) with Mr Turner, it shows that you are a very good manager/person.”
As mentioned previously, current England U20 boss Paul Simpson, lavished praised on van der Broek upon his Shrewsbury Town arrival, and its very much something that is reciprocated: “I really, really liked Paul Simpson. He was ‘one of the guys,’ – he took part in training and was always positive. He gave me a warm welcome and I was very disappointed when he had to leave Shrewsbury. Looking at what he achieved later on, shows that he is a great coach.”
The Dutchman returned to his homeland in 2011 and spent four years at FC Den Bosch – scoring 16 times in 128 appearances. He moved to Romania in 2015 to join Universitatea Cluj; but admits it was never part of his plan to play football in different countries. “I never planned it but that’s just football, right? It just happens, but I wouldn’t have missed it.”
van der Broek was looking for an escape route after his unsuccessful time in Romania, which yielded just a handful of appearances. He found it in the form of his ex-Shrewsbury Town teammate Paul Murray, who was coaching Barrow at the time. The Cumbrian based side, who have just been promoted to the Football League for the first time since 1972, presented a new challenge for van der Broek, but it was a short spell: “Paul was great during my time at Shrewsbury, and we had a good relationship.
“I got in touch with him after a tough period in Romania and decided to give (English football) another try. But me and my wife had a nine-month-old son, and we hadn’t seen each other for six months whilst I was playing in Romania.
“All the stress we had been through the year before I moved to Barrow, didn’t have a positive effect on and off the pitch. So, we decided to moved back to Holland.”
The former Telstar player experienced the “best moment ever” during 2015. He was called up to the New Zealand national side for the friendly against South Korea – a nation he qualifies to represent through his mother who is from the Pacific nation. He made his one and only appearance as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat. “Playing for a national team is something else. Flying to Korea, playing against South Korea, and spending the week with the likes of Chris Wood was just unbelievable.”
He has now retired from professional football but remains just as busy as ever. “At this moment I am working for FIFPro, the global representative for professional footballers.
“So, the PFA’s of this world are a member of FIFPro. After my time in Romania, where I did not get paid, I knew I wanted to do something to make the life of a professional player better. Then FIFPro gave me the opportunity.
“Beside this, I am a member of the Professional Football Disciplinary Committee in Holland. I am also a member of the technical commission of Koninklijke HFC – a second division team based in Holland.
“I’m coaching my sons under 6 team, playing for a local team, and playing indoor football. I am actually quite busy!”