Meet The Manchester City Youngster Thriving In Dutch Football
Lewis Fiorini’s debut season as a professional footballer has been one of sacrifice and success.
On loan at Manchester City feeder club NAC Breda in the Netherlands, the attacking midfielder has been living abroad and alone during the COVID-19 pandemic that has made life so tough and unusual for so many of us.
He hasn’t been able to return to Manchester and his family were stopped from coming over to see him due to lockdowns and travel restrictions imposed.
But after pushing himself out of his comfort zone in leaving the City development squad for his first experience of men’s football, Fiorini has shone in NAC’s push for promotion to the Eredivisie.
In 35 games, the 19-year-old has scored six times and created a further five from midfield – and is in contention for the league’s Goal of the Season award after bagging what has become a trademark stunner of a strike.
“Taking that step from youth football to first-team is probably the hardest thing a footballer is ever going to do in their career,” Fiorini told SPORTbible.
“That first season, it’s always a risk taking that move especially at my age – to have 35 games at 19 years old – not many lads can say that.
“With the pandemic as well, it’s another challenge on top of that. To take a loan in a different country and do as well as I have, it’s something I’ve proud of.
“I had offers in England and Scotland but City were more reluctant because of the physicality, being so young as well.
“They were a bit stand-off in a way and as soon as this one came up, they didn’t really think twice about it. It’s perfect for my style. I was happy, my agent was happy and it moved pretty quick.
“I was in good place at Man City, training with the first-team every day – it’s easy to just settle there and bide my time.
“But I don’t think I would have got half the growth I’ve had from experiencing the men’s game, different scenarios.
“Off the pitch, having to live on my own in a foreign country and looking after myself – run the house, cook.
“For the first one or two months I’ll be honest it was really tough. I really did struggle. But once I got my head around things and got used to it, for the past six months or so it’s just been normal.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen next season or in years down the line but I feel like I’m prepared for any sort of challenge.”
A carbonara has been a staple dish for the boyhood blue as it’s “pretty easy” and he “doesn’t get bored of it”.
With not much going on in the city due to the situation, he’s spent a lot of time in his apartment playing PlayStation and watching TV.
He’s picked up on a few different Dutch phrases but his biggest education has been out on the pitch at the Rat Verlegh Stadion.
He explained: “At City there’s the set way of playing from the Under 9’s to the first-team. It’s the same style every year, every day and that’s all I’ve known in football.
“Coming to a team over here and some games the other team has more possession than us and we have to sit behind the ball and wait for a counter. At City I’d never come across that.
“Even different formations, the physical demand and the mental pressure of playing for the points and promotion.
“You’re playing for a big fanbase as well. There’s a big following over here. It’s a shame they’ve not been able to be in the stadium but you can really feel the support around the city.”
City have a team dedicated to working with their long list of loanees. Fiorini is in regular contact with a psychologist who checks up on his well-being, while there’s also someone tasked with watching and analysing his performances from afar.
Using a programme called ‘Hudl‘, he will add comments under clips from games – in addition to communicating through text and phone calls.
That feedback is alongside the frequent dissections from NAC, who finished fifth and are now a game away from playing top-flight football next term.
The campaign really couldn’t have gone much better for the Scotland Under 21 international – especially given not too long ago he was recovering from a lengthy lay-off that left him frustrated on the sidelines.
“It was my first year as a scholar and the first six months I was flying,” he added.
“I had 10 goals by December from midfield and played in the Youth Cup third round.
“Just after Christmas was when the injury came and that was my season done. I do think back if that season had carried on, where would I have been – I may have got more game-time with the Under 23’s and then more eyes on me from the first-team.
“The first-team pre-season after that, maybe I could have got a look-in? That pre-season I was just coming back from a six-month lay-off.
“It’s something that I do look back at but at the same time I learnt a lot about myself and it made me appreciate football a lot more.
“I was on crutches for two months and it really made me value my football and taught me different sides of the game.
“I suppose it’s all part of the learning.”
In terms of his learning, Fiorini has had the luxury of being in a City class featuring some of the best players in the world.
Here he was training with stars he would watch home and away from the stands and at first it was a little overwhelming.
“Playing against players like that, it’s a bit surreal when you’ve got Kevin De Bruyne coming to close you down or you’re trying to take the ball off him!” he admitted.
“That’s where you see the standard each day and you can kind of see the gap between you and them. It’s good to see what kind of things you need to do to bridge that gap.
“A lot of it will come naturally with age and physicality but also I think a lot of them are just a step ahead of everyone else. In their brain they just know what’s coming and what to do next.
“Just being around them and having breakfast around them, it’s good to see what they do on a daily basis.
“At the start I trained with him them for a ten-week period over the summer and I thought I was just there to make the numbers up!
“After a week or two being around obviously they talk to you and seem like normal people but at the start there probably was a bit of looking at them like they’re superstars!”
And as far as teachers go, one cannot possibly find a better one than Pep Guardiola, a serial winner.
“You can almost see him just thinking and his brain doing a madness. He’s just the same with his detail every day, no matter who’s training.
“The day after the game, where the starting team are not training or recovering, we had times where most of the training was just us young lads.
“It would be like eight of the young lads and five of the first-teamers and he’s still driving the same standards as if he had the starting eleven there.
“That’s one of the biggest things I took away. When we beat Liverpool 4-0 over the lockdown, that was a big result at the time and the next day he’s not letting up and still going full force.
“It was the same after the [Real] Madrid win when we beat Madrid. I think Madrid was on the Friday night and then on the Saturday it was just relentless.”
Fiorini is taking great inspiration from what he’s seen from fellow lifelong City fan academy product Phil Foden this season and hopes to follow in his footsteps.
Unlike Foden, he’s been loaned out in order to further his development but in the pint-sized Stockport playmaker, he’s got the perfect case study of the attitude and approach to adopt.
“From him being a little boy at eight years old, he’s been on the exact same pathway as me – coming through every age group.
“And then when he became a scholar or full-time, he went straight into the first-team set-up.
“I’ve gone on loan and done different things but to see him in Champions League semi-finals and being the star man, it shows you that the pathway is there if you do the right things and work hard enough.
“It’s good to see a local lad like that being one of the main men in the first-team.
“He was always spending time with the younger ones even at the point where he was established. Before training he’d still act like one of the younger lads, being the first one out there kicking the balls around.
“He could have been kicking it around with [Kevin] De Bruyne or [David] Silva if he wanted to but he had time for the younger ones, which was good for us.”
“He’s one of the most technically gifted players in the team now but he’s also one who runs the most. You can see the extra work he puts in.”