By Matt Styles
It was the summer of 2019 and the Grey football hierarchy were planning for the year ahead. As they were adding spanking new sets of bibs and cones to their basket, word breaks that a former PSV and Portland Timbers player would be joining their ranks. They subsequently pinched themselves.
This man is Wouter Verstraaten, who last year arrived in Durham as a postgraduate sports scholar while completing a Master’s in finance. The 24-year-old has now signed a full-time contract with Northern Premier League side South Shields, having made fourteen appearances for the north east club while carrying out his university duties.
He joins a side who are reeling after the coronavirus denied them of promotion to the National League North, with the FA choosing to null and void the season despite the Mariners being 12 points clear at the top.
“We felt aggrieved and were very disappointed with the decision made by the FA,” Verstraaten told Palatinate. “But it didn’t take long for us to use this as extra motivation to prove everybody where we really belong. During pre-season we have been working really hard to be even better than last season. We feel that we are ready.”
He is some character, markedly sprightly with a real passion for the game. He’s very good at it too, with his star quality encapsulated by the ‘Rolls Royce of a defender’ tag assigned to him by manager Lee Picton.
“The Rolls Royce nickname was a little joke from the manager who thinks that one of my strenghts is to build up as a defender. I take that nickname any day, but I can obviously laugh about it, just as most of my teammates did.”
The Dutchman is a highly versatile player at this level, having performed a variety of roles so far at South Shields. He prides himself on his athleticism and capacity to press opponents for 90 minutes, along with his composure on the ball and ability to connect the defence with the forward line. This season he has also been given the license to roam forward and enter the final third, which is something he feels more than comfortable with.
Verstraaten had the choice of penning a deal with Sunderland following a successful trial earlier this year, but decided to commit his immediate future to South Shields.
“The pandemic made me choose for security. This security was offered by South Shields and gave me a better feeling than Sunderland. So, I would not say I turned Sunderland down, it just didn’t work out at that time.”
But his career is anything but retrograde. Some journalists have tipped him to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Jamie Vardy and Nick Pope, who enjoyed meteoric rises from non-league to the highest level later on in their careers.
This is something Verstraaten modestly downplays, but with all the talent, physicality, drive, and now a degree to fall back on, there is no reason why not.
“The Premier League is a completely different level and is still very far away. It helps to play for a team as South Shields that has the ambition to be a football league team in the near future.
“I am very happy and proud that I can take on this adventure with a Master’s degree from Durham University. I have always wanted to be a full-time football player and in some ways have been a full-time football player.”
He speaks warmly about the footballing set-up at Durham, which helped him maintain sharpness during his studies and provided extra sessions that made him ‘stronger and better’. He has grown incredibly fond of playing in England, which he considers more aggressive than the Dutch game, and more technical than his experiences in America.
This applies right down to college level. Though he only made one appearance for Grey – a quarter-final match in the Floodlit against Collingwood – he was taken aback by the size of the crowds and the level of play.
“I love the intensity of English football. No matter what level, everybody on the pitch plays with heart and soul. Technically and tactically English football carries a very high standard.
“In general England is a beautiful football country, so the fact that both Team Durham and college football are taken very seriously wasn’t a surprise for me. The level at Team Durham was really good and the team was motivated to perform on the Wednesdays. There was a great atmosphere on and off the pitch which made all team activities more fun.”
Going forward Verstraaten hopes that more can mimic his leap from DU level to professional or semi- professional environments, however he is acutely aware that, unlike sports such as rugby and hockey, in football this is extremely tricky without having a high pedigree before arriving at university.
“It obviously helped that I played professional football before I came to Durham, but I hope I created some extra attention for Team Durham’s football programme because I believe there are quality players in the current team and future recruits will only add to this.
“If anything it only proves that clubs in the area watch University football and understand that there are quality players that could be interesting for them.”
Palatinate would like to wish Wouter and South Shields the very best of the luck for the upcoming NPL campaign.