Joe Prince-Wright

Toast of the town

LEICESTER – The sun was beating down on the city of Leicester on a day it will never forget.

On May 6, 2016, the city’s club, Leicester City FC, lifted the top-flight title for the first time in its 132-year history.

In the place where King Richard III’s remains were found in 2012 and reburied in 2015 amid huge headlines, there hasn’t been much else in the past which rivaled the spotlight that the club has  received over the past nine months.

The world now knows where the city of Leicester is, along with the local club’s players and manager who delivered the Premier League title. After facing 5000-to-1 odds to secure the title last summer, the group is now immortal.

This is the tale of the biggest party in the East Midlands city’s history and how this season will never, ever, be forgotten.

* * *

Wandering around the streets on the morning of Leicester City’s final home game against Everton, after which they would receive the Premier League trophy, the party was already in full flow. It had been brewing for quite a few days.

The club’s flag was flapping from the flagpole at the city’s famous cathedral. Shop windows were dressed in blue and white with the messages mostly stating, simply, #backingtheblues. Pictures of the players and manager Claudio Ranieri were hanging from lampposts across the main streets in the city.

A huge band of Italian fans were rampaging around the streets singing songs about Ranieri and Co. Many had arrived in England that morning from all over Italy as they wore shirts of every Italian club imaginable. They had flown over simply to celebrate the Italian manager’s achievements and their presence certainly added something special to the occasion.

The global appeal of the Foxes’ story has been remarkable. Over the past few months, during multiple trips to Leicester, I’d heard tales about Foxes fandom from the U.S. to Thailand, Iceland to Australia and many other places as the bandwagon rattled along. Locals were amazed by becoming headline news around the globe.

Pubs were packed in the city way before noon. Down the cobbled side streets, which led from the already bustling market, the local taverns enticed fans in – they didn’t have to try hard. As evidenced below, the waterholes often paid tribute to the club’s stars for advertisements.

One group of fans let off blue flares and chanted “Championes, Championes, ole, ole, ole!” as camera crews descended on Leicester’s already-bustling side streets. There was still over five hours until kickoff.

To try and explain the atmosphere, think of teams from the same North American city winning the Super Bowl and Stanley Cup on the same night, then about the celebrations which would follow. You’d be about halfway to the mood and scenes here.

Outside The Globe pub, which has been around since 1720, one man stood on his own, in the local club’s shirt, holding a pint as he leaned against a lamppost. Groups of fans were laughing and joking and this one guy was just stood there taking it all in.

His name was John Reading, and the 64-year-old man was overcome with emotion when asked about his feelings.

MORE: Posnanski: This will never happen againVardy: We’re all brothers | Watch: What a day for Leicester

“It is just a dream. I’ve not stopped pinching myself, because nobody expected this. I’ve seen them lose four FA Cup finals, knocked out of the playoffs. And this is, it’s not… it’s not real. It is not real,” Reading said, shaking his head as his voice quivered. “I know how this story is going all over the world which is amazing. I’m getting choked up thinking about it.”

Reading then wiped his eyes. A grown man in his 60s was moved to tears just at the thought of what his club has achieved this season. That shows you just how much it means to the local supporters.

It is a city with a proper representation of England’s multicultural past and present. It has a diverse population and is the first city in England to have less than 50 percent of its population identify itself as “white British.”

Members of the local Sikh community handed out free samosas to fans before the game. Drummers roamed in and among the crowds outside the stadium playing traditional music. It is a city which may have had issues with different communities clashing in the past but according to the many citizens I spoke to, this title success has brought everyone together.

Outside King Power Stadium before the game, Dips Patel, his sister and his two cousins celebrated in the streets.

Dips, 32, was born just around the corner at the Leicester infirmary. He was living out the greatest day in the club’s history like he never wanted it to end.

“Unbelievable. In my lifetime, I’m almost 33, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” Patel said. “I was born and bred here, we all were, and I’ve been supporting Leicester since I was a little kid. I was born in the infirmary around the corner.

“We are on the map. The whole world knows small, little Leicester City. Three hundred thousand is our population. All cultures, all communities, all ages, all races… it has brought the city together. You can see it. It has done what the Olympics in 2012 did for London. This is the same, if not bigger and better. It has put us on the map.”

* * *

[nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/PJKyMNEFZbKO?autoPlay=false]

Now that the city and its club are on the map, the expectation levels will, inevitably, increase. However, among Leicester’s fans there is an acceptance that it was somewhat of a perfect storm which saw them win the title this season.

Yes, Riyad Mahrez has been magic, Jamie Vardy has been clinical and N’Golo Kante has been everywhere, but the perennial giants (Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and last year’s champions Chelsea) all having a down year at the same time certainly played a big part in their success.

With that in mind, where can Leicester finish in the PL next season with Champions League qualification causing somewhat of a distraction?

“It doesn’t matter. The only thing is, as long as we don’t get relegated. Which is a possibility because it has just been such an unknown season,” Reading said.

Sitting down with two lads in a pub – someone was ringing a bell, an ode to Ranieri and his now famous “Dilly-ding, dilly-dong” comments — in the heart of the celebrations around midday before the Everton game, friends Joe Longhurst and Jamie Stott, both 23 years old, couldn’t stop smiling.

They are season-ticket holders in the East Stand and chatting with their friend (who couldn’t get a ticket to the game) over yet another celebratory pint, they admitted that this season feels like a one-off.

“I think it is a one-off,” Stott said. “Next season, we will stay up, be mid-table, but this is a day we will tell our grandchildren about. We definitely won’t see this again.”

Stott is from Melton Mowbray, the town where star striker Vardy lives and where the players celebrated the title success last Monday following Tottenham’s draw at Chelsea that sealed it. The fact that club secured the title before the game against Everton meant the day of celebration could be savored that much more.

“It was crazy to be honest. I went up to Vardy’s house and the celebrations were outside his house in the street, people everywhere,” Stott said. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Longhurst, grinning like a Cheshire cat, admitted that he hasn’t be able to stop smiling since his team wrapped up the title.

He also agreed with Stott and was serious when he said the Foxes must first focus on surviving in the PL before they get ahead of themselves, while also discussing the likelihood of star players leaving in the summer.

“Leicester needs to find consistency and be a Premier League team. That’s all we need, Premier League football,” Longhurst said. “We need to stay in the Premier League, that’s all we want. This is a one-off. Definitely.”

If the Foxes were relegated next season, would it sour this season’s incredible achievement?

“It doesn’t matter. I said from the start that if we get relegated, I’m fine with that,” Patel added. “But why can’t we repeat this? Dream big and be fearless. I put a bet on today, 100-1, that we win the Champions League.”

Hey, after this season, why can’t it win the Champions League next season? It’s surprising that the odds weren’t greater.

One Ladbrokes bookmaker across from the market had a sign in the window stating “Congratulations Leicester City, we’ve paid out over £3 million!” So bettors probably won’t be getting value for money out of the bookies when it comes to betting on Leicester for quite some time.

Patel has some family coming over from New Jersey next week and he’s already given them memorabilia as the word about this fairytale continues to spread.

“In America, you can get better odds on Kim Kardashian becoming the next president. We were 5000-1. That says it all. What we have done, I never thought I’d witness it in my lifetime,” Patel said. “The highlight of me being a Leicester City fan was in 1997 and 2000 when we won the League Cup and we built a statue in the town center and this is just massive.”

He added, “(Claudio) Ranieri, I had my doubts. We had the great escape with Nigel Pearson but I love him. I’d marry him. He is a god. He is unbelievable. He is a humble, down-to-earth character. Mr. Nice Guy and they say that nice people never win. He’s come second with Roma, Monaco, Chelsea. He is 64, going on 65. What a man, a true legend.”

The term “legend” gets thrown around a lot in the sporting world, but this team will become that. They are living legends.

Each player is set to get a street in the city named after them and there’s also talk of statues and even knighthoods for each of them from the Queen of England. When Wes Morgan and Ranieri lifted the trophy together, the KP stadium shook with a huge, victorious roar. This was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for the supporters to witness.

Still, many locals are worried about relegation in the 2016-17 season, which shows you just how out of the blue this season has been.

[nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/zIBjMIGal_n_?autoPlay=false]

* * *

I turned around on the platform at St. Pancras International station in London last Saturday morning and there he was, my friend from Finland, fellow journalist Eero Laurila. Over the past few months, we’ve gotten to know each other well — usually on early morning trains from London to Leicester. We smiled, laughed and joked about how the city has become our second home and in truth, it has become that way for most of the world’s soccer media.

As our train rattled through the English Midlands, he thumbed through the latest edition of the magazine for which he writes. In Finland, like everywhere, the Foxes’ success is big news. His nine-page special in the edition a few weeks back says as much.

Laurila was also in Leicester last Monday night, in the pubs watching Tottenham’s game at Chelsea with the fans. One lady won £10,000 after putting on a bet at the start of the season. The celebrations were intense last Monday, too.

“The next morning, I got the train back to London at 7 a.m. and there was an announcement, the train driver hadn’t turned up for work because he was still out celebrating the win!” Laurila said.

Since Monday night’s celebrations, the media has descended on this city. Local market sellers have become its mouthpiece to the world and Richard III’s statue has been bombarded with photos as visitors also head in town.

In the past few days, champagne has become a popular addition to breakfast, pubs have been working overtime to stock up for the weekend’s celebrations and, as the sun beat down on the city on the day the trophy arrived, it felt like this was meant to be. Everything had come together. Free beer, special edition packets of Walkers crisps were handed out to celebrate the win and free pizza was also flying around. It was everything you’d expect, and more.

“Party all day today, sleep it off tomorrow and then back to work on Monday,” Reading said of his plan. “Today is the day. Everybody is going to be partying. We’ve got a famous singer coming to sing. It is going to be amazing.”

That famous singer was world renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli. And it was amazing. Bocelli had promised his fellow Italian Ranieri that he would perform if they won the title. As he stood on the center spot with Ranieri before the game, wearing a Leicester City shirt belting out “Nessun Dorma” and “Con te Partiro,” it was like a dream. How has this happened?

“We are the center of the universe,” Patel said, laughing as he held his beer into the air triumphantly. “Forget the headlines news on the EU referendum, forget the NHS, forget the Mayor of London. This is Leicester. We are No. 1. We are all celebrating, we are all partying, the police are onboard, entire families, wives… everyone.”

Not everyone could get into the stadium, though. Dips and his family watched in the bar at the packed hotel across from the KP stadium, while thousands of others roamed around the streets watching in pubs. Others had more inventive ways of getting in.

Graham Illife, 68 years old, is a lifelong fan of the team, but his only way in to the KP rested on the goodwill of the visiting fans.

“The idea was that when the Everton fans arrived on the buses, I would say, ‘Look, I’ve supported Leicester for 60 years, you can have these programs and 60 quid. That’s all I’ve got. I’m retired,’” explained Illife.

“This old Everton fan came over and I told him and he said ‘here you are mate, it says 40 quid on it, give me 40 quid.’ And I said here’s my programs and he said don’t worry about it. Then I shook his hand like I’ve never shook a hand before. It just shows you how football fans can be.”

[nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/oKvWzg2i7OAf?autoPlay=false]

* * *

The friendliness of fans was portrayed in that story, but it hasn’t always been like that. Before this season, my only two visits to this city were as a fan many years ago.

I experienced hooliganism on both occasions.

The club I grew up supporting, Southampton, was a second-tier team, like Leicester, and after each game at the King Power Stadium I experienced violence. First, as my bus rolled through the city streets, it was pelted with bricks, some fans opened the doors underneath the bus and ripped up the front door and punched the driver in the face. Our bus drove into the back of another and I honestly thought I was going to get ambushed.

I remember a guy in front of me on the bus saying “get your coat, let’s go and sort them out!” and I just looked at him like he had two heads. By now, there was a baying mob outside our bus as we were stuck in traffic in the heart of Leicester. It was not good. I had no interest in leaving the bus.

Eventually, due to police intervention, we escaped and made it home, but police investigations followed.

On my second trip to this city a few years later, a lot of the same team we’re seeing now were playing for the Foxes. They beat Southampton 3-2, and on my way out of the stadium, one fan jumped in my face, tried to headbutt me and pushed others as Leicester fans piled into the away supporters.

As you can imagine, I tried not to let my view of this city become skewed by those previous trips. It hasn’t. Like many of the provincial cities in the United Kingdom, the locals are hugely passionate and protective of their team. Leicester have a huge rivalry with other East Midlands clubs such as Nottingham Forest and Derby County, while Chelsea and others have historic rivalries which go way back. I’ve heard legendary tales of fans running the daunting gauntlet of the streets in and around the club’s old Filbert Road stadium.

But there was a different atmosphere in the streets Saturday.

“After the game, we were outside the stadium for a few hours. Singing, dancing, having fun. Not a single ounce of trouble even though lots of booze had been consumed,” Patel reflected. “On the way in to town you couldn’t get hold of a cab. On the 15-minute walk we continued on partying. Car horns going, shouting, chanting. A sea of flags in blue and scarves. Unbelievable scenes. After 12 hours of partying, drinking, shouting, loads of emotions, tiredness, we simply carried on into the night… as our team has done all season.”

As I walked over a mile from the KP back toward the center of town, it was like walking along the Copacabana in Rio de Janeiro or Las Ramblas in Barcelona after a big win for their respective teams.

Fans weaved in and out of traffic. Cars honked their horns incessantly as fans hung out of windows, waving flags. The party had been building to this moment all day.

Is this the biggest party Leicester has ever seen? Speaking to Illife and his son, Chris, 32 years old, who had traveled down from Scotland just to be in the city, they agreed it was.

“Yes, this is the biggest party by far,” Graham said. “Nothing comes close to it.”

“It was an amazing day, the atmosphere was special and it was great to just see everyone smiling and chanting,” Longhurst said. “The whole of Leicester was buzzing until the early hours. I woke up on Sunday with no voice!”

The bars were rammed on Saturday night. Everywhere you looked, people sung and drunk in the streets. One man was somehow hanging upside down with his legs around his friend’s head as they stumbled around. “We’ve F***** won the league!” he screamed, repeatedly. Predictably, Leicester infirmary reported twice as many casualties as a usual Saturday night. The people of the city went for it. Big time.

This party is far from over, too.

On May 16, an open-top bus will parade through the streets of Leicester with the biggest crowds in the city’s history expected as Ranieri and his players show off the trophy.

On May 28, rock band Kasabian, who hail from Leicester, will perform a one-off concert at King Power Stadium.

Kasabian are huge fans of their local club. A few years back when they were touring in the U.S., a friend of mine arranged for us to go and see them play at Terminal 5 in New York City.

After the concert, we had a connection to go and meet the band back stage. We had drinks with the lads after they’d just blown the crowd away, but the first thing Serge, the lead guitarist and songwriter, asked when he found out I was English, was “who is your team?” We then discussed Leicester’s chances of getting back into the Premier League as the Foxes were a second-tier outfit at the time. The passion lives within.

Ranieri has spoken about his love and passion for Kasabian’s song, Fire, and how it plays after every goal they score at the KP stadium. Now, the local lads will give their city another huge party to close out the season in style.

After living through one of the finest periods in the city’s history, it may never stop celebrating this incredible season.

No matter what happens in the future, a toast to the boys of 2015-16 will always be appropriate.

Scroll Down For:

    The new normal

    In total, 16 full Belgian internationals play in the Premier League, many of whom are superstars across the globe. Of course, one team cannot eradicate the seemingly complex and vast social issues currently prevalent in Belgium following Tuesday’s terrorist attacks, but they can be a vehicle of hope and respite from the dark times which seem to lie ahead for the citizens of Belgium.

    On Tuesday, Marc Wilmots’ national squad were due to train at the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels but canceled their session out of respect for the victims of the attacks. They usually don’t train at King Baudouin but with the security threat so high their usual training base in Anderlecht ahead of international games had to be abandoned.

    The Belgian players always stay at a hotel in the Zaventem airport complex, which was targeted by suicide bombers. Following the attacks, many of Belgium’s players took to social media to share their sadness and in a nation seemingly under siege, they have a lot of pressure on their shoulders to provide hope.

    But with their last friendly in Brussels – against Spain in November — canceled due to safety fears and next Tuesday’s friendly against Portugal in Brussels moved to Portugal, they might not play in front of their own fans before the 2016 European Championships this summer depending on how the situation unfolds.

    * * *

    160323-Belgian-players2

    Vincent Kompany, captain of Man City and Belgium, is from the Uccle district of Brussels.

    He took to Twitter on Tuesday and revealed that he is “horrified and revolted” by the attacks in his hometown.

    The 29-year-old center back is among the finest defenders on the planet but is also a deep thinker who is completing an MBA while leading one of the most ambitious clubs on the planet and also the No. 1 national team. His father was a political refugee from DR Congo and his mother a French-Belgian who worked in Brussels’ employment office. He knows the city inside out.

    Speaking to CNN last November following the Paris terrorist attacks that left 130 dead, Kompany looked devastated as he answered questions about how the terror cell responsible for the atrocities in Paris had been from his hometown of Brussels.

    “It is very upsetting,” Kompany said. “I didn’t sleep for three days after the attacks, as well as information came through that it was related to my city. For me, it was hurtful. I love my city. I love the people that live there and like most of the people, I think I was shocked.”

    But how has Brussels become home to individuals who are acting on behalf of ISIS, who have now carried out attacks on two capital cities in Europe?

    Speaking after the Paris attacks, Kompany offered this explanation.

    “Quite clearly, something has gone terribly wrong,” Kompany said. “I think most of it has happened without a lot of us making the right analysis. If you look towards Brussels it is a city with a lot of youth unemployment and it is a very wealthy city. A lot of the people who actually live in this wealthy city are the poor ones. To say that it is a hotbed of terrorism, I think it goes a lot further than this.

    “I think the way the entire city is structured is favorable for a lot of people to fall out of the system, very simply. We have a city of a million people divided up into 19 boroughs with 19 mayors and six police zones. Those people who have perpetrated the attacks are people who have been able to fall off the grid, that have not come into contact from anything else than the people who have been able to indoctrinate them. That has been made in the mistakes we’ve made in structuring our cities.”

    Kompany also said that he believed the Paris attacks were “really predictable” and slammed politicians in Brussels for only visiting the poorer regions of the capital “every six years when they needed votes.”

    * * *

    Last week, my wife and I traveled through Brussels.

    With the Premier League light on games due to the FA Cup action, we decided to hop on a Eurostar train in London and headed to Bruges for a last-minute trip. We had to change trains in Brussels, but on our way over the heavy police presence in and around the Belgian capital was unnerving to two people from the U.S. and England.

    On our way back we had an experience which perhaps summed up the growing tensions in Belgium and the level they had reached.

    Getting on a train from Bruges into Brussels takes about an hour. Twenty minutes or so outside of Brussels, our train stopped in Ghent. We stayed in Ghent for quite some time and curious as to our delay, I looked outside the window. I did not expect to see several armed policeman frantically running around. They had held our train and after minutes of concern and confusion an announcement was made over the PA system in Flemish and French. My wife asked the lady next to us what was said.

    “They said the police are searching for a man with a gun on the train. They think he is on the train,” said the passenger, nonchalantly.

    My wife and I were startled enough to jump off the train, which was still undergoing a heavy search, to grab a coffee in Ghent’s station before getting on the next train to Brussels and then heading back to London.

    That’s just one story of the growing tensions in and around Belgium leading up to the attacks this week, but what struck me was the sense of acceptance from the other passengers. Not many were surprised or shocked to hear what was happening. Some ate a sandwich or painted their nails and didn’t bat an eyelid.

    The new normal in Belgium seems to, sadly, accept that terrorist attacks will happen and dangerous gunmen will be on the loose. These are dark days.

    * * *

    The problem with Molenbeek is not necessarily about nationality, it’s more about the segregation,” Kompany explained last year. “It’s not just Molenbeek, I need to repeat it. Ultimately, people living in Brussels will have to be responsible as well for making sure the stuff like this can never happen again.”

    Those were Kompany’s words following the attacks in Paris about the Molenbeek district, which has been at the heart of police raids ever since, to try and eradicate those plotting against Western Civilization.

    Sadly, Kompany’s words ring even truer following the ISIS claimed attacks on Brussels which saw houses in the nearby Schaerbeek district once again raided as explosives and chemicals were found in the district on Tuesday.

    Kompany’s teammate with Belgium, and Premier League rival, Marounae Fellaini, is a Muslim from the Etterbeek neighborhood of Brussels, which neighbors Molenbeek. He was reluctant to speak with me last November about the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and how they were linked to his home city.

    Like Kompany, the Man United midfielder had grown up right next to these neighborhoods of Molenbeek and Schaerbeek, which are know described as a “crucible of terror” and a “Jihadi heaven” by the media.

    Fellaini wants peace in his home city.

    “Unfortunately that is the world at the moment,” Fellaini said of the extra security in Brussels. “For me, the first thing is for peace. That is the first thing. Everyone has to be happy, you know? And enjoy their life and stop thinking about bad things because we live just once.”

    Whether they know it or not, Fellaini and his Belgian teammates can become a symbol of peace and hope for Belgium this summer in France.

    Wilmots’ team is made up of players who reflect Belgium’s multicultural society perfectly.

    Kompany and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku are of Congolese heritage. Fellaini, Tottenham Hotspur’s Nacer Chadli and teen sensation Zakaria Bakkali are from Morocco. The father of Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele is from Mali.

    The family of Liverpool striker Divock Origi is from Kenya. The father of Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel is from Martinique. Thomas Vermaelen speaks to the media in Flemish. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard speaks in French. Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne speaks Dutch, French and English. Fellaini can speak Arabic, French and English.

    One thing links all of these players: they play for Belgium. They represent the nation they call home which is currently under attack from within.

    “There are a lot of players from different origins,” Fellaini explained to me. “We have Arabic, mixed race, Belgian, black players and that is why Belgium is strong, I think, because we are made up of a lot of different origins and we understand each other.”

    * * *

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2016/03/160323-belgium3.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

    Due to their status as the No. 1 team on the planet since last November, Belgium is among the favorites to win the 2016 European Championships in France this summer.

    They’ve never won a major title but with Hazard, De Bruyne, Courtois and Kompany leading the charge, they are currently listed as the fourth favorites with the bookmakers to win EURO 2016.

    Security measures will undoubtedly be ramped up even further for the tournament this summer following the attacks on Paris and Brussels, but on the pitch Kompany believes Belgium can win it all.

    “Of course we want to win it. With the talent we have in the team, it is the only ambition that we should have,” Kompany explained to me earlier this season. “I don’t think we are an underdog anymore. We have passed that stage. We are not the favorites, I would say that we are co-favorites, if that makes sense. The two super favorites, for me, are Germany and Spain. Then there is a bunch of teams who might do it and I think we are a part of that. Italy, France, ourselves and I am probably forgetting a team or two but those, for me, are the ones to look for.”

    When speaking to some contacts who live in France last weekend, before the Brussels attacks, I was told there was a growing notion that there would be some animosity towards Belgium’s team and fans at EURO 2016 this summer.

    After all, the perpetrators of the attacks in Paris came from Brussels, with the average Frenchman on the street perhaps growing increasingly wary of Belgium and the threat it posed to France.

    However, with scenes such as the Eiffel Tower lit up in the colors of the Belgian flag on Tuesday evening, it’s hard to see how these shocking attacks in both Paris and Brussels will not act to unite the people of Belgium and France, both in the immediate aftermath and this summer during the biggest-ever European Championships tournament, which will include 24 teams for the first time.

    It will also be the biggest-ever tournament for Belgium and Fellaini told me that people coming together throughout in Belgium to support their national team is something that inspires the players.

    “Millions of people watch football, they come to watch the games, the atmosphere is unbelievable and the players are happy to play football because of the atmosphere,” Fellaini said. “It is great to see people together and for example when they all support one team and they shout, it is an unbelievable sensation, for the players and the supporters.”

    If only for a few hours each game, the Belgian national team will provide the nation with a real sense of hope and belief that they can achieve something special this summer.

    The current security situation in the country is likely to get worse before it gets better but instead of growing further apart, sport — as it has done countless times in the past — can help bring people together.

    Fellaini has set his sights on at least a semifinal appearance for Belgium, while Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois was more reluctant to give me a definite target but believes a bright future lies ahead for the young squad.

    “When I was around 16, 17, you saw the Belgian national team had a lot of young talent getting to play abroad. You saw that what they were missing was a little bit of experience. There was talent and then that (experience) finally came,” Courtois said. “I think (during) the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, we played really well, and at the World Cup, we did a good job. We have a very good national team, and we should be able to achieve some big things with our team.”

    Kompany agrees that Belgium has a big future in the soccer world with talented new stars emerging all the time.

    He is also proud to be the leader of a group of players that is making global headlines as the best soccer team on the planet, the first time Belgium has ever been No. 1 in the rankings.

    “It is pretty historical for us. It is just that one day that is worth everything,” Kompany explained with a smile on his face. “The fact that we could have that achievement under our names, you know, because for Belgium it is a very, very special achievement. Again, it gives people that belief that you come from a small country but you can achieve great things. Now, the whole focus is going to be on the Euros. We want to win it. We’ve said it, we can’t hide away from it, but there’s still so much work for us to do to come even close to that dream.”

    In the aftermath of these attacks, the Belgian national team can help the Belgian people dream of a brighter future.

    Kompany hopes that one day, positive times will return. With a positive performance at EURO 2016 this summer, he and his teammates could have a huge impact on this happening.

    For now and in the future, Brussels will always be in the thoughts of Kompany and many of his teammates who call it home.

    “Brussels will always be this city of diversity, of wealth of culture, and I encourage everyone to speak and say how much they love the city, and to just now start the positive talking.”

    Kings in the North

    LONDON – The tension and pressure are building in north London. Big time.

    On Saturday, Tottenham Hotspur welcome bitter rivals Arsenal to White Hart Lane for the most eagerly anticipated North London Derby in Premier League history. Period.

    On both sides of the fence, the pressure is palpable, almost unbearable. Both teams are battling for the title in the same season, which has never happened in their rivalry dating back over 130 years.

    Former Tottenham Hotspur captain Ledley King, 35 years old, was forced to retire early after chronic knee problems. He still works for Spurs as an ambassador. As a Londoner and one-club man who came through Spurs’ academy system and shined for the first team and England, he’s played in more NLD’s than most.

    King says this is the biggest Tottenham vs. Arsenal clash in his lifetime.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/media/9pcY4zoOk_E4?autoPlay=false]

    “This is the biggest derby I can remember during my time at Tottenham,” King said. “For the two teams to be so close going into this game at such a late stage of the season, it makes it a huge, huge game. In previous times Arsenal were – especially when I was a lot younger in the first team – a team that were challenging for the league, and we were a team trying to get into Europe, maybe. A mid-table team. We’ve slowly closed the gap each year to a point now where there’s nothing between the two teams.”

    Tottenham have the edge going into this clash. With 10 games of the season to go, the two north London clubs are in a four-way battle with little Leicester City and moneybags Manchester City for the title. Leicester lead, but Spurs sit three points back of the diminutive giants, and Arsenal sit three points back of Tottenham.

    Watch Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur: Saturday, 7:45 a.m. ET on NBCSN, Live Extra

    Nobody would’ve predicted this before this season but Spurs’ ascension has pushed this derby into the forefront of people’s minds. It could be like that for quite some time if Mauricio Pochettino’s young squad is kept together.

    “I expect derbies moving forward to have even more depending on the games going into them,” King continued. “That adds a little extra to the game. This will be the biggest. The fans on both sides will generate a massive atmosphere which is going to make a great game.”

     

    Rare title battle between bitter rivals

    This title race is great, too.

    Two rivals duking it out for the crown rarely happens in the PL. If you look in the history books, neighbors and bitter rivals have barely fought for the title in the PL era. Manchester United and Manchester City have done it a few times over the past five years — with the memorable finale to the 2011-12 season set to live long in the memory — but apart from that, local rivals just haven’t locked horns for the title.

    Now they are.

    If you look outside of the PL era, of course there have been battles between local rivals, with the famous Liverpool and Everton dominance of the 1980s sticking out, plus the two Manchester clubs once again dominating in the 60s and 70s. But this is a new phenomenon for Arsenal and Tottenham. The latter have won two titles in its history, and during their success in 1951 and ’61, Arsenal languished in mid-table and weren’t battling with them.

    During Arsenal’s three Premier League titles, Tottenham didn’t finish in the top six, so this experience of going toe-to-toe for the title is something new to both sets of fans.

    Huddled against a brick wall outside Upton Park waiting to get into the stadium before Tottenham’s midweek clash against West Ham, brothers Robb and Glenn (named after Tottenham legend Glenn Hoddle) Ovel weren’t quite sure what to feel.

    Excited? Nervous?

    “Bit of both really,” Robb said as Glenn, wearing a Notre Dame woolly hat, nodded his head in agreement. “It’s obviously unchartered territory. We’ve never been here before. It is exciting while it lasts because once the TV money comes in next year you don’t know if you’re going to get this kind of chance again.”

    “I can’t remember ever being above them!” laughs Glenn before his brother chimes in.

    “I can remember us being above them before. But once it gets into the final games of the season we kind of drop away. Hopefully this year that won’t happen and we can push through. We still have some difficult games coming up. If we can get through that, we will be fine.”

    Arsenal’s fans are confused too. They don’t quite know what to do. Should they applaud Spurs for challenging them? Legendary figures such as Ian Wright and Thierry Henry have both appeared on British TV praising Spurs through gritted teeth, but Wright also muttered the words: “It isn’t meant to be like this… we rule north London.”

    That’s how the Arsenal fans feel too.

    Heading into Saturday’s clash, former Spurs captain Gary Mabbutt believes all the pressure is on Arsenal.

    “Going into this derby game, the fact that they lost last weekend means that they are under much more pressure than we are,” Mabbutt said. “We can go into this game to play our football, play the game how we want to. The pressure is on Arsenal. They have to get something and that could leave gaps to be exploited. It’s a massive game for both teams. If you look at games between the sides, probably the last time there was a game as big as this was the 1990-91 season when we played Arsenal in the first-ever FA Cup semifinal to be played at Wembley.

    “Arsenal were going for the double and we were having a mediocre season but that’s the thing about any game between Tottenham and Arsenal. Whatever the form going into that game, wherever you are in the league table, it all goes out of the window. This is a game you just have to win. It is one of the biggest games of the season for you. Everyone says, ‘Yeah, but it’s the same three points as beating Swansea last week,’ and of course it is. But I think the psychological benefits of beating your biggest rivals and a team of Arsenal or Tottenham’s stature, whichever side you’re on, that has a major benefit.”

    Mabbutt, 54, has played in more NLD’s than any Spurs player in history and knows this particular meeting will have a huge say in the title race.

    He played for Tottenham for over 16 years, is the second-longest serving player in club history and won the Europa League in 1984 plus captained them to FA Cup glory in 1991. The last time Spurs finished in the top three was in 1989-90. They also finished third in the 1986-87 campaign.

    The former England international was at the heart of those Tottenham teams to finish in the top three of the top-flight, and he sees plenty of similarities in this current Spurs team.

    “We’ve got a very solid back six really. That allows everyone in front of them, whether that be Mousa Dembele, Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Nabil Bentaleb, Harry Kane, Son (Heung-min) — whoever it is, it allows them to be the opponents on the back foot and use their creativity to cause them problems,” Mabbutt said. “If we lose the ball, we have a solid base behind us to build from. In the 1987 season when we came third, we had a five-man midfield of Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles, Chrissy Waddle, Paul Allen and Steve Hodge.

    “We had Clive Allen up front on his own and that season he scored 49 goals which is still a (Spurs) record in the top-flight, and at the moment, we of course we have a lone ranger in Kane up front on his own. So there are a lot of similarities. I do hope the similarities finish there … because we were the ‘almost’ team! We came third in the league, reached the semifinal of the League Cup, lost the final of the FA Cup and at the end of the season, we didn’t win anything.”

    Mabbutt believes the team-first mentality is key among the current squad. Arsenal may have more star names and better individuals, but Spurs’ collective unit is trumping that.

    “I believe this team has grown in maturity and grown in stature over the season. Every game I watch I’m seeing a team that is a growing as a team together,” Mabbutt beamed. “The most important factor and characteristic that this team has is we are seeing a team that wants to win together, as a team. Not as individuals. You can see there are some strong characters out there. There is passion out there and they all want to be in this team and want to be winning this together. That, for me, is a vital component of any successful side.”

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2016/03/160304-tottenham-fan-1600.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

     

    Twenty years of Arsenal dominance ending?

    Arsenal have been incredibly successful over the past two decades, and don’t Tottenham’s fans know it. In every debate in the office, café or pub, they’re reminded of Arsenal’s dominance.

    St. Totteringham’s Day is a curse word among Spurs fans and it has become a yearly tradition for nearly two decades.

    What is it? It’s the day where Spurs can mathematically no longer finish above Arsenal and Gooners rejoice and collect their bet money from Spurs-supporting buddies who’d bet them back in August that “this will be the year we finish above you, this is it… .” But it wasn’t, and it hasn’t been since 1995 when Tottenham finished in seventh place and Arsenal slumped to 12th place the season before Arsene Wenger arrived. Then it all changed.

    Like taxes and death, the only other certainty of life in north London over the past 20 years has been that Arsenal will finish above Tottenham in the league. Now, though, all that could change.

    With Tottenham and Arsenal going head-to-head for the title, going in to work on a Monday morning and sitting alongside an Arsenal fan could be quite an enjoyable experience for Spurs fans. Their neighbors in red are squirming a bit in their office chairs.

    The generational certainty could be disrupted.

    Over the past week, I’ve caught up with fans of both clubs. Speaking to Arsenal fans outside Old Trafford last week before a loss to an injury-riddled Manchester United that might have damaged their title hopes, “Gooners” were positive Spurs would’ve finish above them and weren’t worried about their ascendance.

    “I’m not worried,” said Ronald Bruce, a local government official originally from north London. “They are better this season than they have been for a long time. But I think they have a couple of excellent players. Harry Kane and Dele Alli are playing well. Those are their two standout players. They obviously have a decent goalkeeper because their defense is better than it has been for years. They’ve always been known as being weak defensively. They are a bit more solid nowadays. Worried? No. We’ve got a better squad than them. We’ve got experience and knowhow. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn …”

    You will notice, there’s a trend among Arsenal fans I spoke to. First, they totally dismiss Tottenham’s chances of dueling with them for trophies but by the end of their answer, they’re praising their rivals in a backhanded manner and the conviction in their voice dissipates.

    For Tottenham fans, even though they are above Arsenal heading into the final 10 games of the season there is, understandably, an air of cautious optimism among them.

    “I work with a lot of Arsenal fans and the banter definitely picks up from the Monday until game day, it is all the time,” Robb Ovel said. “You’re making bets and saying, ‘If we win, you have to do this,’ and stuff like that. It is intense but at the same time it’s good to have that kind of battle. It would just be nice to win some money back … because every year, I keep saying we will finish above them, and we never do. So I’ve got 20 years of money coming back. I hope.”

     

    The build up: power and passion

    “Is the power shifting? At the moment it could still go either way,” Mabbutt said. “But just looking at the way we are playing as a team. We’ve had the most shots on target of any team this season. That shows we are playing good attacking football. That shows our attacking flair going forward. On the other side of it, we’ve conceded fewer goals than anybody by some margin. That shows how solid we are. If you start putting those things together, and it is a team that is growing in stature together and a team that are wanting to win together, you are starting to put in some of the major points you have to have to be a successful side.”

    A power shift is slowly happening in north London and with a hungry young squad and a talented young manager, Tottenham aim to catapult themselves ahead of Arsenal and become the No. 1 team in London.

    That will take some doing  — considering Chelsea will also redevelop Stamford Bridge to 60,000 and have the riches of Roman Abramovich, plus West Ham’s move to the Olympic Stadium — but huge investment in the future of the club is on the horizon and one thing will mesh this all together: a new White Hart Lane.

    Rising from the rumble which currently sits outside Spurs’ cozy yet cramped home will be a 61,000 capacity stadium fit for an exciting new era.

    “They won’t fill it. They’ve got no chance,” Bruce laughs. “They are talking about having a stadium similar in size to ours. Their current ground, although they fill it very regularly at the moment, is actually quite a small ground. They’re going to have to up the interest in the club quite a lot, bearing in mind they don’t have the history of Arsenal or Manchester United who everyone knows. Spurs are not so well known. Where they will get fans is the tourist fans, who can’t really afford to go to Arsenal’s ground or other big clubs in the Premier League. It might be slightly cheaper and easier to get tickets for, so they might get a lot of people from abroad who will go there. I can’t see them filling it.”

    With the plans for the Northumberland Development Project rubber-stamped by Mayor of London Boris Johnson last week, it’s all systems go for the state-of-the-art stadium which will become the jewel in Daniel Levy’s reign as Spurs chairman.

    Coincidentally, and somewhat amusingly, it will be very similar to Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium.

    The artist renderings look extremely similar to the Emirates but crucially it has squeezed in a few more seats to make sure Spurs will have more fans than Arsenal at every home game. Small victories. It will also be home to at least two NFL games per season from 2018, as the National Football League has already signed a 10-year agreement with Tottenham. Talk is rife of having London’s NFL franchise, if it ever gets one, based at the new White Hart Lane. Big things are happening in an area of north London that can be described as rundown and robust, yet resurgent.

    The future is looking bright. Levy, despite his critics, must be applauded for that.

    “Whenever things go wrong, it is always the chairman’s fault. If things go right there is never credit being given. But I think Daniel Levy has always had the best interests of the club at heart,” Mabbutt said. “Mistakes have been made. Everyone makes mistakes in life and along the way things haven’t gone swimmingly at times, but the way it has all been put together at the moment, Tottenham Hotspur is in the best position both on and off the field I can ever remember.”

    Tottenham’s hopes of muscling in to become a perennial title challenger hinges on this stadium. The extra revenue it will generate will allow them not only to keep their best players – Gareth Bale, Luka Modric and others have been sold in the past – but buy top players and qualify for the Champions League. Spurs fans are wary that with Harry Kane and Dele Alli attracting the biggest clubs on the planet, the club may decide to cash in. If they win the title, that’s hugely unlikely to happen.

    In the short term, plowing money into a new stadium was meant to hurt them.

    Pochettino recently said that “tough times lie ahead” as budget cuts will mean less spending on the squad and more on the stadium project, which also includes a new school, shops, bars, hotels and housing. That is why having a young core group coming through at the same time is so encouraging for Tottenham. If they can keep Kane, Alli, Dier, Eriksen and Co. for the next five years, then they won’t need to spend big and then they’ll have a sparkling new stadium at the end of it.

    Keeping Pochetino is key to all of this.

    The Argentine coach is incredibly ambitious, and if one of Europe’s “super clubs” come calling, then Spurs could lose him. To see the value of managerial continuity, Spurs need only look at the impact Arsene Wenger continues to have on the club down the road. Spurs haven’t had that in over two decades, but with Wenger approaching his late 60s, a faint whiff of transition is seeping through the air in North London.

    None more so than this week as only one thing is on the mind of fans of the two capital clubs. Often, the nerves and excitement gets to the players and can either provide a cagey affair or one that produces goals, red cards and box-office drama.

    “Every family is divided. Workplaces are divided. Schools are divided. It’s a game that, no matter what you’ve done that season, if you beat your biggest rivals, your fans will forgive you,” Mabbutt chuckled. “It always had a special feel about it. It is a special game because it has the bragging rights in North London. The rivalry has been there for a long, long time and is something that will always be there. Some games have the same buildup and the same intensity but this particular game has an extra added edge.”

    Ledley King, the Tottenham lifer, agreed and revealed what it’s like in the build up to the game.

    “I expect [the atmosphere] to be electric. I played in many of these games and it’s not just the atmosphere on the day, it’s the buildup throughout the week. You pick up the papers and people are talking about this game. There are times when a player has made a comment which gets everyone up for the game a little bit more,” King laughs. “Then, driving into the stadium, there is just a different atmosphere around the game.

    “I think that is why there have been some really high-scoring hugely entertaining games between the two teams, because of the atmosphere that is generated. Players just kind of go for it. Sometimes that can help and sometimes it doesn’t help because you can get caught up in the emotion. Whoever handles the emotion better on the day will probably get the result they are looking for.”

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2016/03/160304-arsenal-fan-1600.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

     

    Wenger out … then what?

    The big reason Arsenal’s fans are looking over their shoulders more nervously than at any point since 1995 is that they know change is coming.

    They know Arsene Wenger won’t last forever and in the next few years, the French manager will likely retire. Wenger, 66, has led Arsenal to 20 consecutive finishes above Spurs, has been in charge during their most successful spell as a club and will go down in history as one of the greatest managers in English club history.

    But just like we have seen, and are still seeing, at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, transitioning away from these managerial behemoths isn’t easy. It’s highly likely Arsenal will suffer a blip in the short term and at the same time their stability and continuity takes a hit, the opposite could be said of their neighbors down the road.

    It turns a recent trend on its head. The term “That’s so Spursy” has become a well-known vernacular of the English language in recent years. In short, it means to deliver so much hope but then fall flat at the vital moment. So many times, Spurs have crumbled when pushing for the top four but with Pochettino in charge, the same continuity which has served Arsenal so well for so long could be key to Spurs surging to dominance in their neck of the woods.

    “The stability that Arsenal have had with Arsene Wenger over the last 20 years is important,” King explained. “I think Tottenham have not had that over that period of time. We’ve had a lot of different managers but we’ve always been searching for the right man we felt could take the club forward. I’d like to think we’ve got this young, hungry manager who will spend a long, long time here and develop the young players we have in the side at the moment. He is a manager who looks at the youth players and give them a chance if he thinks they’re good enough. He’s a great man for this club. Tottenham have always had players coming through the youth team which have been important for the first team and now we have a manger who is looking at things that way as well.”

    Like Arsenal’s fans applauding Spurs with grimaces plastered across their faces, Mabbutt also cannot fail to reflect on Wenger’s remarkable achievements.

    “Some of my best friends are Arsenal supporters and I have to say that they are far more worried about the game on Saturday than I am,” Mabbutt said, just to add some more banter. “I’ve spent some time with Arsene Wenger and I think he is the most incredible manager, obviously after Sir Alex Ferguson there is no one who can touch what he has achieved in the Premier League. He is a gentleman. The way he wants the game to be played, he should have been the Tottenham manager! Every time you talk to him about football he has this passion about the way the game has been played and making players use their abilities. Obviously I got on very well with Wenger.”

    What do Arsenal’s fans really think about Wenger? Robb Ovel believes they are close to breaking point, not for the first time in the 20 years the Frenchman has been in charge.

    “I sense they are quite deflated. The people I speak to they are bored of the excuses Arsene Wenger just throws out all the time. They have got to the point now where if they don’t win anything this year I think they want him to go. I think he will go when he wants to go.”

    If Wenger goes, will that lead to a new era of dominance over Arsenal for Spurs?

    “Why can’t that start now?” smiles Ovel as I leave the two brothers and Tottenham’s other fans outside Upton Park to discuss the team news filtering through and, no doubt, chatting about how great it would be if they could finally finish above Arsenal to get one over their friends.

     

    Strong English core adds extra spice

    Despite all of the bitterness, some friendliness, strangely, runs through the heart of this rivalry.

    One of the cool things about this rivalry is that multiple players now in the first team have played against each other for many years coming through the ranks. They know each other from the England setup and they are from the area.

    They get it.

    Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Ryan Mason, Dele Alli and Eric Dier have all made their full England debuts in the past 12 months. Arsenal have England internationals in Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere.

    With both teams possessing so many players from in and around London, they understand this rivalry better than most.

    “Playing in these games in the youth team, you feel the same way about them. You want to win because you know certain guys in that team. I grew up and I was playing against Ashley Cole, who came through the youth team,” King explained. “I’m sure the guys in the first team now would’ve been playing against some of these Arsenal players like Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs in the youth teams. They are well aware of the importance and the bragging rights, I think that adds that extra spice. Especially going away with England, going away with these boys … you want to be on the winning side.”

    For most of his career, King struggled against Arsenal. He made his debut for Spurs in 1999 but didn’t taste victory against their ancient rivals until 2010 when current Spurs left back Danny Rose scored a screamer to seal a 2-1 win.

    “It took me a while to actually beat Arsenal,” King laughs. “They were such a strong side, especially for the first half of my career. [Thierry] Henry. [Dennis] Bergkamp. [Robert] Pires. [Patrick] Vieria. It was a difficult task and took a while to get a victory over them but the thing that really sticks out in my mind is when we did beat them and Danny Rose scored that incredible goal. Once we got that feeling of beating them, it was something that happened on a more regular basis. I remember beating them 5-1 in a cup competition. There is nothing better than getting one over your rivals.”

    Another local lad, Harry Kane, has crossed the divide.

    Kane was Spurs’ leading goalscorer last season with 31 and he leads the way this year with 19 in all competitions. He was also at Arsenal’s academy as a youngster before being released. A photo of him wearing an Arsenal shirt as a youngster went viral last year. Kane’s a north Londoner who knows better than most exactly what it means to the fans. Last season he scored a late header to hand a Tottenham 2-1 win over Arsenal at White Hart Lane. In his first-ever start in the NLD he was the hero. Nursing a broken nose ahead of this weekend’s clash, expect the man with the mask to be the main man for Tottenham.

    The strong connection King talked about between players of both these clubs sometimes boils over.

    Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere, 24, was handed a hefty fine for the FA after his antics during their FA Cup victory parade last season. A slightly (debatable) inebriated Wilshere grabbed the microphone outside the Emirates and asked the gathered Arsenal fans,“What do we think of Tottenham?” to which they replied, “Shit!” and then he asked “What do we think of shit?” to which the reply was “Tottenham!”

    There’s no love lost in this rivalry and extra policing measures will be on hand on Saturday (question: why do you think the game is at 12:45 p.m. local time?) to ensure the passion of local rivals clashing doesn’t extend to fans inside and outside the stadium. In Arsenal’s 2-1 League Cup victory at Tottenham earlier this season some away fans caused damaged at the Lane, ripping off advertising boards and generally being a nuisance.

    Everything is set up for an epic encounter.

    But off the pitch, both sets of players often mix amicably. Mabbutt reveals many outsiders my find that strange, but it’s inevitable.

    “Once the game is finished, what a lot of people find it difficult to understand and I explain it to them, in that particular game when we were playing the Arsenal, whatever we have to do to win that game you do it. You have to win that game. Those are your biggest rivals and each player on that other side is your biggest rival,” Mabbutt said. “As soon as the game is finished, on certain occasions, let’s say we played Arsenal on a Saturday afternoon. If it’s an international week then that Saturday night you then drive from the game to the hotel where the England team meet up and then I am meeting up with Ian Wright, David Seaman, Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, all the England players are meeting up. Then on the following Wednesday we are teammates playing in the same team together.

    “A lot of the things we do in north London, a lot of the community programs, a lot of things we do with charities, Tottenham and Arsenal players are always at the functions. This week there is a big function, the London Football Awards, and there will be lots of past Arsenal and Tottenham players there. Even after our playing days we are all meeting up at events. In that particular game, it’s all about anything you can do to win that game. After that you can be teammates. Sometimes people think ‘crikey, you can actually be like friends with the Arsenal players?’ Yes, of course you can. And they are not only friends but teammates.”

    As we’ve seen in rivalries across the Premier League, those between crosstown or extremely close rivals aren’t quite as ferocious due to families and neighbors being divided by the club they support.

    Liverpool vs. Everton and Manchester United vs. Manchester City are good examples. Tottenham vs. Arsenal is similar but it has the potential to become one of the biggest, if not the biggest rivalry in the PL. And with both teams battling for the title and their young squads potentially being able to do so for the next two to three years, it could elevate itself towards the top of world soccer’s greatest rivalries.

     

    The run-in: Spurs the favorites?

    When you look specifically at the final 10 games of this season, it’s go-time for both clubs.

    The final push kicks off with their meeting at the Lane and then it’s a nerve-wrangling sprint to the finish.

    Sure, both teams have European campaigns to negotiate but with Arsenal’s Champions League bid hanging on by a thread against Barcelona and Spurs likely to prioritize a PL title push over Europa League glory, the full focus will be on bringing a glorious title parade to the streets of north London in May. Arsenal is also pushing for a third-straight FA Cup trophy but would much prefer a first PL title in 10 years.

    If you look at the remaining games of both teams, on paper Spurs have it easier. This clash and away trips to Liverpool and resurgent Chelsea are their toughest encounters in the final 10 games. They should win the other seven.

    However, predictably, the Arsenal fans I spoke to were skeptical of Spurs’ run-in.

    “Historically Spurs have been near the fourth position but they’ve fallen away at the end of the season,” Bruce said. “This season they are higher up but after they lost to Crystal Palace at home in the FA Cup recently, you will find that most Arsenal fans felt that’s the beginning of their end of season collapse. That’s what we’re hoping. They are, however, one of the better Spurs teams I’ve seen for a while.”

    Lea was also adamant that Tottenham’s title hopes were soon about to crumble, but even his hollering had a tinge of hopefulness to it.

    “It always falls down at the last minute and I am convinced that we are strong enough and have the experience to do the business. I’m not too concerned but they are doing really well,” Lea admitted. “They have a good team and they are better than they have been for years. But I think we are better, it’s as simple as that.

    “It’s never happened before [Spurs and Arsenal battling for the PL title] and whether there will be a St. Totteringham’s day this year, I’m not sure yet,” Lea says as other Arsenal fans who gathered around in a group reassure him. “There will be, there will be a St. Totteringham’s Day,” they say, gleefully.

    “I’m convinced we are better than them,” Lea continues. “They are very good. Very good indeed… but I think we are better overall. The question is, can they last out for the entire season? They have days where they do really well and good luck to them, but there are other days where they aren’t so good. Over 38 games, we are better.”

    The Gunners will certainly get ample opportunities to prove that during their tough run-in after the NLD.

    For Arsenal, they face Manchester City away in the penultimate game of the season and face tricky trips to West Ham and Everton. Plenty of points to be dropped there but it further reinforces the importance of this game.

    “Really, now, it’s going to be very tight,” Mabbutt said. “Every single point is going to be so precious. I think this game at the weekend, the Arsenal players and fans coming to White Hart Lane are the ones who are completely under pressure and are not looking forward to this game. Tottenham cannot wait for this game to arrive.”

    Losing points to direct rivals at this point of the season would be critical to both teams’ title hopes.

    In Arsenal’s case, losing points to your rising rivals who are threatening your dominance in north London would be a nightmare.

    “[The power shift] has been a gradual thing,” King said. “I think slowly but surely Spurs have climbed onto the back of Arsenal’s heels but are still yet to finish above them in the Premier League and is obviously a big task. It is gradually coming. The team at the moment is a very young team, there’s a young manager and both are ambitious. Obviously the new stadium is in place, everyone is really looking forward to the future with this young squad. It would be a great time to finish above Arsenal, which could mean winning the Premier League. How amazing would that be?”

    Total belief

    MANCHESTER, England – Dressed in a full black tracksuit, wearing sneakers with no socks and a leopard-print scarf wrapped around his neck, Marouane Fellaini’s eccentric personality is clear for all to see.

    His cheeky smile and infectious laughter does the rest.

    The 28-year-old Manchester United midfielder greets me with a warm embrace as we sit down in the suburbs of Manchester to chat about the season so far and what lies ahead for himself, United and with the Belgian national team. He’s relaxed, calm and precise.

    Born in Brussels to Moroccan parents, Fellaini is part of Belgian’s golden generation of players who have seen the tiny country rise to the top of the FIFA world rankings.

    His career is soaring to new heights on the international stage after scoring five goals in his last three games for Diables Rouges, as Belgian’s national team is known, as they prepare to be among the favorites to win the European Championships in France next summer.

    As for his club side, Man United, Fellaini believes they can push for the title this season as a steady start sees them well placed in the top four heading into the busy festive period. Despite racking up plenty of wins, United have also racked up plenty of critics due to a lack of goals and many questioning their style of play. Fellaini has a message for the doubters.

    “Yes, of course [we can win the title]. At the moment we are in the top four, we are there. It is a tough month but we have to continue like this,” Fellaini said. “We know as Manchester United the expectation from us is high. Now we are focused, we know what we are doing. So, we will see but we are there.”

    Before and after their disappointing UEFA Champions League exit at the group stage, Louis van Gaal’s coaching philosophy and the slow-paced possession style he’s implemented at United has been blamed for the lack of cutting edge in United’s attack. Used both in midfield and up front by van Gaal, Fellaini believes the goals will come and the squad is fully behind their manager.

    “We trust him. He is the manager, it is his philosophy and we have to continue like that,” Fellaini said. “I am sure the goals will come and the chances as well.”

    Fellaini’s start to the current campaign has been a frustrating one with suspension and injury limiting his minutes. His brow furrows slightly as he talks about the opening few months of the season. He’s determined to show his worth to the Red Devils faithful.

    “I didn’t start the season because I was banned three games. After that I would just come in 20 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes – that’s football,” Fellaini said. “The manager decides but I am sure my time will come and I will show myself. … I can help [score the goals] and I can play as well. Last season I scored goals and I did well. I’m sure my time will come and I will play.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/jBMw5m2HPtcr?autoPlay=false]

    Off the soccer pitch, these times are unsettled. Fellaini and his fellow Belgians know this more than most as his hometown of Brussels has been at the center of police raids following the Paris attacks of November 13. Several of the terrorists involved are said to be living in the Molenbeek area of the Belgian capital, just four miles from Fellaini’s home neighborhood of Etterbeek.

    Fellaini, along with over 25 percent of the citizens of Brussels, is a Muslim. He had one simple message for the people of Belgium, no matter their race, religion or beliefs: peace.

    “Unfortunately that is the world at the moment,” Fellaini said. “For me, the first thing is for peace. That is the first thing. Everyone has to be happy, you know? And enjoy their life and stop thinking about bad things because we live just once.”

    With many question marks surrounding Brussels and Belgium – Belgium and Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany recently spoke about the social issues around segregation across his and Fellaini’s hometown due to “politicians failing” the people – Fellaini hopes that the game he loves can help bring people together.

    In Belgium in the past, as Kompany also hinted to, many sons and daughters of first-generation immigrants to Belgium would support the home nation of their families’ origin, instead of the country in which they lived.

    Fellaini believes people coming together to watch soccer games, particularly the Belgian national team, is something that can help bring the nation together in these difficult times.

    “Millions of people watch football, they come to watch the games, the atmosphere is unbelievable and the players are happy to play football because of the atmosphere,” Fellaini said. “It is great to see people together and for example when they all support one team and they shout, it is an unbelievable sensation, for the players and the supporters.”

    The background and makeup of the players on the Belgian national team also point to the multiculturalism of Belgium and how they, with family heritage from across the globe, can stand for a united nation.

    Kompany and Everton striker Romelu Lukaku are of Congolese heritage. Fellaini, Tottenham Hotspur’s Nacer Chadli and teen sensation Zakaria Bakkali are from Morocco. The father of Tottenham’s Moussa Dembele is from Mali.

    The family of Liverpool striker Divock Origi is from Kenya. The father of Zenit St Petersburg midfielder Axel Witsel is from Martinique. Thomas Vermaelen speaks to the media in Flemish. Chelsea’s Eden Hazard speaks in French. Man City’s Kevin De Bruyne speaks Dutch, French and English. Fellaini can speak Arabic, French and English.

    One thing links all of these players: they play for Belgium.

    The amount of nationalities and cultures present within the Belgian national team is vast but this team blends together perfectly.

    “There are a lot of players from different origins,” Fellaini explained. “We have Arabic, mixed race, Belgian, black players and that is why Belgium is strong, I think, because we are made up of a lot of different origins and we understand each other.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/7qVKE6_GCRzq?autoPlay=false]

    Growing up in Belgium, Fellaini’s parents and two brothers played a big role in him making it to the top and the lanky midfielder revealed he does everything he can for them.

    “My dad was an ex-professional, so there was a lot of advice for me. He pushed me to be a good player. My mom, she was always there for me. I was a better player than my brothers,” Fellaini laughed before turning serious. “My family was always good with me, helped me, gave me advice and motivation. That’s why I will do everything for them.”

    Fellaini left Belgium in 2008, signing for Everton where he became a cult hero under David Moyes’ tutelage. Fellaini followed Moyes to Old Trafford in a $42 million transfer in September 2013 and is keen to remain in the Premier League for as long as he can.

    “For me playing in the Premier League and in England, it is different than other countries. It is different football and the supporters are unbelievable,” Fellaini explained. “How they live for football, it is unique. How they are in the stadium and the discipline of the fans as well. For me, it is the best league in the world.”

    What about United? What is so special about playing for the 20-time champions of England?

    “It is the biggest club in the world with lots of supporters around the world. Everywhere you go they know Man United,” Fellaini said. “I am happy to be part of this club and to play for this club.”

    Fellaini is fully focused on United’s title charge for now, but when next June rolls around he will be doubly focused on going to France for EURO 2016. With Belgium currently ranked as the No. 1 team on the planet, they will look to win their first-ever major title and are among the favorites.

    “We have qualified, we are there but other countries are the favorites. France, Germany, Spain, they are the big favorites I think. We will see in June,” Fellaini said with a grin on his face. “We are good players and we are a good team so we have to show our quality. The aim is to do better than the World Cup, where we went to the quarterfinals. We first have to go to the semifinal and then if we win the semifinal it will be great. We will see, but in the tournament we never know, we have to win the first game.”

    One game many people in the United States will remember Fellaini from is the USA’s defeat of Belgium in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup. Fellaini admitted he has been impressed with the U.S. over recent years as the Belgian national team have played Jurgen Klinsmann’s side home and away in friendlies, as well as at the World Cup.

    “They played a great game,” Fellaini said of Belgium’s World Cup win over the U.S. in extra time. “I played a few times against the USA. I played them in Belgium, in America and at the tournament; they are a good team. It was always hard to play against them. Physically, they are strong and they are always in the big tournaments. Soccer is growing quickly now in America.”

    Fellaini is no stranger to America either. Spending many of his vacations over the past years in the U.S., he revealed his love for the States, the “open culture” and the “good people.” Asked about making a move to Major League Soccer, he left the door wide open: “Why not, one day? We will see, you never know.”

    The one thing everyone seems to know and recognize about Fellaini is his hairdo. His perfect coifed afro has become famous the world over and it’s something he’s looking to keep around, especially when he sees fans all over the world wearing wigs to celebrate his bonce.

    “I tried it and I liked it and now it is me, it’s Felli” laughed Fellaini. “I like my style and I won’t change it, at the moment. Of course, it made me happy and is nice to see people with the wigs on.”

    Asked what his plans are for life after playing, Fellaini believes he will remain in the game: “I live for football,” he said.

    How does he want to be remembered when his career is over?

    “As a good person and a good player,” Fellaini says with a smile.

    His smile, warm persona and exceptional talent on the pitch mean he’s already achieved both of those aims. There should still be plenty more to come from Fellaini in the jerseys of Manchester United and Belgium.

    A long road traveled

    Danny Ings laughs, put his head in his hand and rolls his eyes.

    He’s joking again about the man who he owes more to than anybody else: his dad, Shane Ings.

    Along the way there are many coaches, advisors and other people in the soccer world who have helped Ings on his way to the top as a star striker for Liverpool. However, his father’s presence remains the one constant as their close relationship is both warming and indicative of the commitment and guidance needed to make it to the Premier League.

    Ings, 23, has grinded his way from obscurity as a youngster in a local youth league to fighting his way up from the fourth tier to the top tier of English soccer. By his side the whole time remains one man and his partner, Sue Cooper, who have helped mold Ings into the fine man and player he has become.

    “They have had the biggest impact out of everyone to be fair,” Ings says, scratching his left knee, which now has a sizeable scar on the outside of it. “When I was 10, my parents separated and about a year later my dad met Sue and ever since then I lived with her and my dad. They used to take me to every game I was playing in, tournaments, everywhere. They took me down to Bournemouth when I was younger. They have definitely been the biggest influence and kept me on the straight and narrow and on the path to where I want to be.”

    Tracking the path of Danny’s journey took me down to the South Coast of England — a place where the sea salt can be smelt in the air as a stiff breeze whistled up Southampton Water.

    Netley is a small suburb of Southampton close to the Solent, where a humble home saw Danny and his two sisters grow up. He lived a stone’s throw away from a local park which would help him achieve his hopes and dreams.

    Those days spent on “Netley rec,” replicating the stunning goals local legend Matt Le Tissier scored, were to become the stuff of legends as the grass pitches and soccer pitch in a cage on his doorstep gave him somewhere to hone his skills and express himself.

    “He had so much ability,” Shane Ings explained. “If I would pass it to him, he wouldn’t stop it with his strong leg. He would stop it with the inside of the left, not outside of the right. He would get that. We would do everything. Keep-ups to each other and there is a bar just by the rec there. It is a concrete post with a metal bar going across. When we finished our training session I wouldn’t let him come home unless he hit that bar from about 40 yards without touching the ground.”

    [MORE: Watch every Premier League game on NBC’s Live Extra]

    Telling tales of kicking a ball on a Bournemouth beach with Danny as a two-year-old and strangers coming up and asking “wait, how old is he?”, Shane knew his son had a special gift.

    Growing up on a modest street in a modest part of a largely modest city in southern England, Ings’ upbringing saw his family “fight around for the pound” to try and help him achieve his dreams of going pro.

    The journey was long, tough and winding. But he did it, and now look at him.

    A few weeks after I met his family, Ings was grinning from ear to ear as he greeted me at Liverpool’s training complex. The heavily tattooed striker made his England debut in October, but two days later his season was all-but-ended as he ruptured his left ACL in a routine training session, his first under Liverpool’s new boss Jurgen Klopp. At first, forever the fighter, Ings believed he would play again this season, but it looks increasingly likely that his debut season at Anfield was ended in October.

    “When I got the injury I said straight away I will play again before the season finishes but I think with the advice I’ve had of the surgeons and physios, I know they won’t risk me and I don’t want to risk it myself,” Ings said. “If I’m back and feel 100 percent and I am ready, I will be itching to get back to be part of the squad. If I am not 100 percent and even if I am 98 percent, with this kind of injury, I will make sure I work hard enough and be ready to come back in preseason and go again. I am hoping and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get back before the end. Time will tell.”

    His untimely injury aside, Ings’ story epitomizes the rags-to-riches narrative.

    Growing up, a strong focus to remain on the straight and narrow when everything else seemed to be falling down around him – and distractions lurked in every corner – got him to the top. At the age of 23, he is now overcoming the third major knee injury of his career. Looking at the determination etched over his face, you believe him when he says he’ll come back even stronger this time.

    “This is all about the highs and lows of football. I was at the happiest point of my career and then, at the time of the injury, I felt like I was at my lowest point,” Ings said, furrowing his brow. “I just felt like I got my foot in the door. I was becoming established here at Liverpool, playing games and scoring goals, keeping my place in the team and had made my debut for England, then somebody took that all away from me. It is absolutely gutting because football has been my life. If I can’t do what I love doing then it is like someone having their kids taken away from them. That is how I felt. I know that I am going to come back extremely strong.”

    Ings has had to be extremely strong and has battled against all the odds just to get to this point.

    ***

    THE RISE

    In October 2015 – it was the same day he scored for Liverpool against Everton in the Merseyside derby – Ings was called up by the English national team for the first time. When he got the text from England’s secretary, he thought it was a “windup” from one his friends. It was out of the blue, “completely unexpected.”

    Out shopping for the day, Sue got a text message which she showed Shane. Their reaction? “Woah.” Then, predictably, some banter toward Danny arrived from Shane. Ings’ international call-up meant they had to postpone a fishing trip down in Southampton they’d arranged to take place during the Premier League break when Danny visited home.

    “It was just fantastic wasn’t it?” Shane said. “I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed shopping so much! The old butterflies were going and I think I felt it more than he did. I phoned up Danny that night and said to him ‘do you realize I’ve had to cancel all the bait?’ Seriously though, we are immensely proud.”

    As we recalled that memorable moment in the back room of the Ings household, overlooking the garden where Danny used to smash up all the solar-powered lanterns and butchered plants with a ball, Sue got up and picked a mug out of the back of a kitchen cupboard. On it read: “Danny, born to play for England.”

    Thousands of those mugs would’ve been made and sold to kids up and down the country but now Danny can have a cup of tea out of it the next time he’s home knowing he’s achieved it.

    “That was his dream. Always to play for England,” Cooper said. “We bought that cup years and years ago.”

    “To go from Netley rec to Hamble School, knocking around with all those boys to play for my country, it is an achievement in itself,” Ings said. “But it is an achievement that I only want to be the start and I want it to carry on when I am back from this injury and hopefully become a regular one day in those squads.”

    A prophetic mug used by the young Danny Ings. (Courtesy Photo)
    A prophetic mug used by the young Danny Ings. (Courtesy Photo)

    The rise for Ings has been a dramatic one.

    Looking back to 2010 when making his way into Bournemouth’s team, Ings couldn’t drive and his family would often run out of petrol taking him to and from training 30 miles away.

    Before one particular first-team game when he first broke through, his Dad drove him but they only got as far as the motorway.

    “I remember once I was on my way down to a first-team game and I wasn’t driving at this point. My Dad actually broke down on the hard shoulder of the motorway. I had to get my friend to drive out, pick me up and take me to the game whilst my Dad sorted out the car,” Ings laughed. “It’s his own fault because he said ‘don’t worry it will get us there’ but every day he loses his keys, his phone. He loses everything, he is just one of those guys. The amount of times he ran out of petrol and I would have to turn up to football late. It is funny when you look back at it now. In five years to be in that position to where I am now. It is a huge step. I am extremely grateful for that and how quickly it has happened.”

    A loan spell at Dorchester Town (who then played in English soccer’s seventh tier) came after he signed his first pro deal at Bournemouth, which, by the way, was only initially for three months as the club was in dire financial straits after previously battling against a hefty point deduction just to stay in the Football League.

    “At every stage you would pat the nipper on the back but not too much,” Shane explained. “You can’t say ‘you are as big as Rooney!’ That is just ridiculous. We would say, ‘go with the flow Danny. Just keep working mate, keep working. It all fits into place.’ We didn’t know that.”

    Ings soon made his mark for Bournemouth in the 2010-11 season in League One – the third division in England – under the guidance of young manager Eddie Howe, as he signed four contracts in his first 12 months as a pro and then turned down a fifth to make the step up to the Championship and play for Howe at Burnley.

    After injuring his knee in his first training session with Howe at Burnley (sound familiar?), he went on to become a hero at Turf Moor, scoring 26 times in the 2013-14 season to get them promoted to the Premier League. Ings was also crowned the Player of the Year in England’s second tier. Eleven goals in 35 Premier League games followed last season as Burnley were relegated in the penultimate weekend of the campaign. But Ings sealed a summer move to Liverpool, less than five years after he made his debut for Bournemouth in League One as an 18-year-old.

    There was a lot which came before that which made his rise to the top taste even sweeter.

    ***

    THE GRIND

    From almost released by Bournemouth as a 15-year-old to being released by Southampton and brushed aside by Chelsea before settling to play Sunday youth football with friends, it would take a lot for Ings to get back in at the pro level.

    So even when everything seemed to be caving in on Danny, his dad was there to help him through it. That motivated him even more.

    “The motivation came from my dad, really. I didn’t know anything else apart from football,” Ings explained, rubbing his forehead. ”Even in school… ah, I regret it to this day. I wasn’t the best at school. Not behavior-wise. My attendance was up there but I just wanted to play football. To the point where I tried to get out of class to try and play PE with the next class doing that. I think the teachers at the school understood the amount of love I had for the game then, so a few of them would let me join in. That was probably my motivation, my dad and how much I loved the game.”

    If the bond between Shane and Danny seems stronger than a usual father-son relationship, that’s because it is.

    “It was all about stability when Sue arrived. Danny had some family trauma at the age of 10. His mum left us and left me with it,” Shane smirks and half laughs. “And then I was on my own for nearly a year until I met Sue. She has been a mother figure to Danny.”

    Ings revealed that going through tough times personally at the same time that he was being overlooked by pro clubs all proved a bit too much.

    “It was tough then, because at the same time I kept getting knocked back by clubs. So I felt like everything was coming down on me,” Ings explained. “I have never accepted who I am. I have always wanted more, really, even off the pitch. I am quite a demanding person of myself and I think when I was younger, that was probably why I used to cry and shout at myself and stuff like that. It was hard for my dad to control.”

    That anger manifested itself on the pitch, too.

    “He went through a hard time with his mum leaving him,” Shane said. “We’d go to tournaments where we didn’t win or I remember one time he fouled someone and he should have been sent off. It was blatant. So bad. Anyway, he went on and got the winning goal in the final but that day really got his goat. One of the other parents had to hold him back. But his ambition is a winning ambition.”

    Shane took his coaching badges to try and coach not only his son but others to play the game the right way instead of being worried about winning, as the part he played in Danny’s journey to the top cannot be underestimated.

    “We started off by the police training college in Hamble. They said to us, there is some ground over there, you can have it,” Andy Parker, one of Ings’ former coaches explained. “It used to be a pitch but was badly run down. We said, ‘what do you think? Can we make a pitch out of this?’ We set up the goals, measured the pitch and set it all up and that’s where it all started. We did it all ourselves.”

    A young Danny Ings with his father, Shane, who coached him as a boy. (Courtesy Photo)
    A young Danny Ings with his father, Shane, who coached him as a boy. (Courtesy Photo)

    Scoring 11 goals in some games, winning every individual trophy going and often leaving school early to be picked up at a motorway petrol station by Bournemouth’s reserve team on the way to a game, Ings clearly needed a chance at the next level.

    Even at school, he spoke about scoring in a cup final from the halfway line and as everyone celebrated all you could hear from the sidelines was Shane’s booming voice: “Danny, stop showing off.”

    Speaking to Ross Wallis, who attended Hamble Community Sports College but was three years older than Danny, he echoed Ings’ view that playing with the older kids helped toughen him up and make him the player he is today.

    “He was always so small and a lot younger than us but wanted to play football at lunch time and he was half decent… so we let him play with us older boys,” Wallis said. “He has the best attitude I have ever seen. He’s just a top kid who does so much for charities and others.”

    Others who know Danny revealed he is cheeky but was always committed to playing. Off the pitch he’s laid back, likes to watch DVDs – Jim Carey is his favorite actor – and go out to eat with friends and family. Whether he made it in the pro game or not, you get the sense not much would be different.

    He finally got a chance to go pro when a chap called Dean Mayes, who his dad – who else? – knew from taking his coaching badges mentioned that AFC Bournemouth’s youth side needed a striker. The rest is history, but Ings wasn’t sure if he had a future in the game and thought his career may have been over before it had begun after being turned down by Chelsea.

    “That was when I just switched off from all the pressure and thought ‘maybe it is not meant to be,’” Ings revealed. “At the same time my dad was like ‘never give up’ and said to me ‘look, it’s never over. You are still young. For now, just enjoy your football with me’ and that’s what I did and it was the best thing that ever happened to me to be fair because I was enjoying my football and I didn’t feel any pressure. I was playing better.”

    That is when Ings got a trial at Bournemouth. Rising up through Bournemouth’s academy ranks, Ings used to get up at 6:30 a.m. every morning as a teenager and embark on a journey along the South Coast from Southampton to Bournemouth.

    Those lessons learned on long commutes every day when he couldn’t afford his own place have held Ings in good stead to stay grounded in the flashy world of the Premier League.

    “Football nowadays, a lot of the young lads get everything given to them on a plate,” Ings said. “You don’t have to do the work for the senior boys like clean the changing rooms or the boots. That part of it has now gone. So I think I am extremely fortunate that I have experienced some of that because it has made me humble and appreciate everything that I have now.”

    What Ings has now is a longterm contract at Liverpool, a club he joined from Burnley last summer after his deal with the Clarets ran out. Due to him being under the age of 23, Liverpool had to pay Burnley a transfer fee which would be set by a tribunal if the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. Talks are still ongoing but after Ings’ quick start to life at Anfield and making his England debut, the fee is expected to be around $10 million.

    That’s a far cry from his humble beginnings, something and somewhere he’s never lost sight of. After a Burnley game at Everton last season where the Clarets lost narrowly, Ings walked out of Goodison Park with his hood up but among the fans as he met his father and his friends in the parking lot.

    “Ingsy, when are you going to sign for us mate?” shouted a group of Everton fans outside a pub.

    Danny laughed and gave them one of his cheeky grins. No airs or graces, he just wants to be one of the lads.

    “It goes back to the stuff that I’ve had to go through to get at the level that I am at now. I don’t like people seeing me as that guy, I like people seeing me as ‘Danny, that lad who walks around the rec or you see out at dinner,’” Ings said. “When I go back to Southampton there is probably a lot more attention than I get up north because of where I played Sunday league for five years, it is the same faces. They have seen my journey where I used to play with them. I think that is the reason why I probably get noticed more down south, but I try to block it out and be a regular lad who has time for everybody who approaches me.”

    ***

    THE GOOD GUY

    Danny does have time for everybody, and then some.

    Ings’ reputation as one of soccer’s good guys – often staying for many minutes after games and training to sign autographs and pose for pictures – blossomed from one incident during the 2013-14 season.

    A photo of Ings giving a young handicapped Burnley fan his boots at the end of the game went viral. Now, he has his own self-named foundation in Burnley to help children suffering from disabilities who want to play soccer.

    “It was one young lad who started it with me,” Danny explained. “There was a picture with the lad. I was taking a corner and I was talking to him and then when the final whistle went I went over to him and gave him my boots and didn’t think anything of it. The difference it made was huge. So I just thought ‘wow, if one pair of boots can do that for somebody, what can I do for everybody else?’”

    Now, Ings stages sessions for over 600 disabled children at Burnley.

    “To see the parents come over and appreciate the stuff you do, the sessions you put on, it is great to be able to change people’s life in that respect and make them part of my journey. Unfortunately they are not going to have the life I am going to have through football because of the physical demands. If I can make them part of my journey it makes me happy and hopefully it makes them happy as well.”

    With plans to expand the foundation to both Liverpool and Southampton in the future, Ings’ actions brought a tear to the eye of his father.

    “It brings a lump to your throat sometimes,” Shane said, holding back his emotions. “Especially when he said: ‘Dad, I am starting a project for kids with disabilities in Burnley.’ It is fantastic and that’s why he wants to give back. He knows what it is like to have no money and absolutely nothing. He survived on what we gave him when he was in digs at Bournemouth in his first year. We were funding him and gave him about 40 quid ($60 a week), if that.”

    Ings doesn’t like to go into too much detail about the charity work he does or what else he does for others, but it’s clear when talking to those around him that he’s incredibly generous as he tries to help out any way he can.

    Where does his generosity come from? His father, of course.

    “You teach him not to be selfish. There is no point being selfish. It is ridiculous. There is no need to be selfish in life so if you can help someone, help someone,” Shane said passionately. “They will help you back because one time you are going to need help. That is a good philosophy to live by. If you can help someone it does come around. Karma does come around. He is very generous, almost to a fault sometimes.”

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/12/151204-ings-tatoo.jpg” height=600 credit=”Ings’ tatoo of him and his father”]

    THE PEAS IN A POD

    “The way Danny is, you can see where he gets it from can’t you?” exclaims Parker — who helped coach Danny at a young age — as he sits in a circle with Shane and Sue. “These two are incredible. I don’t think he could get any different than he is with Sue and Shane. You can see he is just like these two. He’s like a pea out of a pod.”

    The love Ings has for his family and where he’s from is strong. He admits he misses the South Coast after spending the last five years living in and around Manchester – spending Christmas at home for the first time in five years is something he can’t wait for – but his father is never far from his thoughts.

    On his heart, Ings has a huge tattoo of a silhouette of a man and a boy walking hand in hand. The boy has a ball under one arm. It’s him, side-by-side, with his dad.

    “It was just for him to know that even though I am at the other end of the country now and working up here, he is still the biggest influence on me,” Ings said with a smile. “Even if he watches the games on TV, when I am driving home and for example, say if I’ve not had the best of games, I know he is the first one to call me and get in to me. He’s fantastic. I couldn’t ask for a better dad to mentor me and help me become the footballer I am today.”

    Shane, who played soccer locally at an amateur level, had a lump in his throat when talking about the tattoo.

    “That tattoo is brilliant. That is just like it was. He came with me everywhere. Whenever I played football, he would be there, home and away. It was in my blood, playing football,” Shane explained. “Now I’m having these selfies and the Liverpool fans were telling me they really like him, his work rate and that he is giving everything. Whether you lose, you’ve got to come off that pitch having given 100 percent and saying I can’t give anymore. That’s what those fans like. Danny would play for 20 pounds a week as long as he was playing. The money hasn’t gone to his head at all.”

    Ings revealed that he recently bought his family a new home less than a mile away from where they live now. He took his dad around to look at a house the last time he was home and the realtor played along with it all, showing Shane around and giving him the spiel, when in fact, Danny had already bought it for him. Later this month, Danny will get to spend one last Christmas at the house where he grew up before the family moves on.

    At their longtime family home, Shane points over my right shoulder and over the fence. A small slither of a park is visible in the pre-dusk sky. It was there at “Netley rec” that a future England international was nurtured. With barely room for one pitch let alone two, there was also a small pitch in a cage which became Danny’s Wembley.

    Ings described it as “his patch” and Sue would often have to drag him home – Danny still in school uniform – in the evenings from the cages when it was time for bed.

    “It was walking distance from my dad’s house and every day he used to take me out and we used to knock around down the park,” Ings said. “When I was younger it was great. Having that park so close to the house I could go out and practice and that was where I got my work done. He used to set me challenges. The metal bar… he used to beat me at all the time and I would never live that down. He never used to let me come home until I did it. I remember I used to beat myself up and get upset if I didn’t do it, but I had to make sure I did do it. Those are the little details that have helped me on my journey to where I am today and person I am off the pitch.”

    Lounging back in sofas in the lobby of Liverpool’s Melwood training ground with the Reds’ fifth, and perhaps most famous, UEFA Champions League trophy on show in a glass box behind us, he’d gone a long way from the rec and being teased on building sites by his dad during a brief stint to see if he could cut it as a brickie. Every Liverpool employee who passes us says hello to Danny. He winks, nods and chats back.

    Going back to the building site, he admitted it wasn’t for him to stay in the family trade – Shane owns a small construction company called “Build Ings,” which Danny mercilessly makes fun of him for the name – and he didn’t last a week on site, something he calls “an experience” which made him realize how hard he had to work to get the most out of his talents on the pitch.

    Sue told stories of how Shane used to tease Danny “terribly” as he’d wake him up while he slept on the sofa and tell him he was late for a game and going to miss kick off. Then Danny would rush to get his boots on and then realize it was 10 p.m. on a Thursday night and there was no game to go to. He would often fall asleep on the sofa after a long day training and traveling to Bournemouth, with hilarious tales of sleep-talking playing into his father’s hands for numerous pranks. Two peas in a pod, always ready to laugh and joke around.

    They look incredibly alike and Shane told a story about going to Old Trafford and sitting among the Liverpool fans to watch them play Manchester United earlier this season, as Danny made his first start in the Premier League for the club.

    “I could see eyes on me and someone plucked up the courage to say ‘are you Danny Ings’ old man?’” Shane explained. “Then they asked if they could have a selfie with me. So I’m getting all of that now.”

    Recalling that story, Ings laughed hard and revealed his dad recently got an offer to play for an over-40s team just because his son plays for Liverpool and England. He then put on a deadpan expression and delivered the following.

    “You’ve seen what my dad looks like, we look the same don’t we? He has that smile. Spitting image,” Ings laughed as I nodded my head in agreement. “I think people recognize him and he sort of plays up to it. If I ever see him getting a picture with someone I will slap him on the back of his head! I will.”

    With Ings currently going through a tough time with his ACL injury, his dad, predictably, is right there alongside him.

    “I am on this strict diet at the moment where I am trying to get cut up and my dad rang me the other week and he said: ‘I am on the same diet as you now. I’ve lost about seven pounds.’ And I just said to him: ‘why they hell are you doing it? You’re not coming back from anything.’ Then he said: “Well, I am part of you aren’t I?” All I could say to him was ‘you are a loon mate.’”

    Always laughing. Always joking. Always in it together.

    The New Forest Derby

    When it comes to derbies and rivalries in the Premier League, you probably won’t have listed this one near the top. That’s because up until recently, it wasn’t really a derby.

    On Sunday Southampton host AFC Bournemouth at St Mary’s Stadium (11 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) with the “New Forest derby” taking place in the Premier League for the first time in history.

    This rivalry is so embryonic, in fact, that the “New Forest derby” tag is yet to catch on.

    Southampton and Bournemouth sit 30 miles apart on England’s South Coast. Over the years the City of Southampton and the Town of Bournemouth have shared business, transport, media and many other amenities peacefully. In truth, they still do.

    The newspaper that serves both is called the Southern Daily Echo, with its main headquarters in Southampton and the sister paper, the Bournemouth Echo, based in Bournemouth. Train journeys between the two cities take 27 minutes on South West Trains and in-between them sits one of the most beautiful national parks in England: The New Forest.

    Which explains the name of this new but very intriguing derby.

    * * *

    How has this rivalry seemingly sprung up from nowhere? At some point it must have been brewing, no? Well, it took the demise of Southampton to turn this into a very real “thing.” When Saints – not the Saints of today but a financially mismanaged Saints — fell to the third-tier of English soccer in 2008, like Bournemouth, they were days away from going into liquidation. However, with both teams suffering and then being revived in the same division, a rivalry which began to blossom in League One has now risen up to the Premier League given the success of both cash-rich and well-run clubs.

    When Bournemouth sealed promotion to the top-flight for the first time in their 125-year history in the summer, it was a huge surprise. Young manager Eddie Howe had masterminded their success and when asked about which fixture he would look for first when the schedule was announced for the 2015-16 Premier League season, he earmarked the big boys but also the home and away games against Southampton. Bournemouth wants to rule the South Coast and Southampton are never far away from their thoughts. In fact, Howe turned down the chance to manage Saints in 2010 after they fired Alan Pardew and they instead appointed Nigel Adkins, who led them to back-to-back promotions from the third-tier to the Premier League.

    Historically there has been a big difference in the size of these teams. Southampton get average crowds of over 30,000. Bournemouth’s average attendance at the tiny Vitality Stadium is 11,000. For years you would see car loads of Saints fans streaming through the New Forest and up the M27 towards Southampton for home games, as having a Premier League team 25-30 minutes away was easy and accessible for the people of Bournemouth, whether they were supporting Saints or the big away teams rolling into town. That pilgrimage from Bournemouth to Southampton wasn’t restricted to fans either, as the best young players in and around Bournemouth – Southampton bought Adam Lallana for $30,000 when he was 12 years old from Bournemouth, for example — would be snapped up by Saints’ academy and larger resources, further irking the Cherries. The fact that Bournemouth have to compete with Southampton for fans in their own town often upsets the chairmen and directors at the club, but with Saints entrenched in the top-flight for most of the last 50 years, it is inevitable to expect otherwise.

    Even though the distance between Bournemouth, Southampton and Portsmouth, the three biggest clubs in the center of the South Coast, is small, they hardly get to play one another. All three have been embroiled in financial meltdowns over the past decade, meaning they have been up and down like a yo-yo, often bypassing one another. In fact, Saints and Bournemouth have only faced each other 21 times competitively in over 125 years, but as the fierceness of this rivalry proves, absence does not make the heart grow fonder.

    * * *

    I fondly remember going along to watch Bournemouth play Southampton in a preseason friendly at their old Dean Court home some years ago. Fans of both clubs mingled together and there was a jovial atmosphere. Everyone had common experiences and lived within 30 minutes of one another. For most of both clubs’ existence, this has been a friendly rivalry. A bit of banter back and forth, songs like “I’ve got a shed that’s bigger than this” from Saints fans when they played at Bournemouth’s away grounds and things like that. In fact, in Bournemouth’s numerous times of need, Saints put on friendly matches with the Cherries to help them raise money. They also loaned several players to Bournemouth, meaning they were always seen as Southampton’s younger brother; Saints keeping the smaller Cherries at arm’s length as if they were holding their head with an outstretched arm while Bournemouth would keep pointlessly swinging back at them. Well, now things have changed, as they’re slugging it out side-by-side in the big time.

    The rivalry has, in fact, turned violent in some recent instances, with video footage on YouTube showing isolated disturbances between fans of both teams at stadiums and in small seaside towns on the South Coast over the past five years. Those clashes are rare, however, as both settlements generally live in harmony. Bournemouth plays the role of local nightlife hub, providing rest and relaxation thanks to its famous beach, while Southampton is the hub of economy on the South Coast due to its bustling container and cruise port, one of the largest in Europe. People in the area cohabit relatively seamlessly. Southampton FC’s vast Staplewood training center is in the east of the forest and many of their players live closer to Bournemouth than Southampton. Even in the New Forest, a vast swath of protected, idyllic land which sees its renowned ponies roam the streets and small thatched cottage pubs dot the woodland, there is no real sense that one particular town or village is supporting either club. It is a rivalry which locals aren’t really sure what to make of.

    That may be because Southampton and Bournemouth have not met in a competitive match since March 2011 when Saints won 3-1 away and both teams were pushing for promotion from League One. The last time Bournemouth beat Saints, in fact, was in 1987 in a League Cup game. The last time they beat Saints in a league game was in a third-tier clash in October 1958. Yet, these clubs aren’t really strangers on the pitch. Like death and taxes, it has customarily been a certainty that each preseason Southampton play Bournemouth in a preseason friendly. It’s just what happens. Saints will roll into town, Bournemouth fans will fill the stadium and everyone gets a run-out in the sun on the South Coast before the new season begins. Only, that friendly didn’t happen this season and if Bournemouth remains in the PL, it won’t happen for a while. And with good reason; when you look at all of the big rivalries in the Premier League, can you really see any of them playing preseason friendlies against each other? Nope. Manchester United and Liverpool won’t square off for a tune-up in July. Neither would Arsenal and Tottenham.

    The fact of the matter is, if you ask Bournemouth fans who their big rivals are they will say Southampton because that is the closest professional team geographically, but if you ask a Southampton fan who their main rival is, they will say Portsmouth without hesitation. Therein lies the strangeness of this rivalry. It is a rivalry where, at least it seems from the outside looking in, that fans of one club want it to be a rivalry, while fans of the other don’t really care. Fans of Bournemouth call Southampton supporters “scummers” which is also the same name fans of Portsmouth used to describe Southampton fans. As for Southampton fans, they call supporters of Portsmouth “skates,” but have no derogatory term to direct at their rivals from across the New Forest. Not yet, anyway. Give it time. We are still in the early stages here.

    In general, Bournemouth has always been viewed as somewhat of a feeder club to Southampton, like a Triple-A affiliate of a Major League Baseball franchise. In the past, some of Saints’ most talented youngsters from their famed academy have gone out on loan to the Cherries to gain experience – see Adam Lallana, Andrew Surman and countless others – while Bournemouth were ensconced in the third or fourth tier of English soccer and seemingly a million miles away from a Southampton side who were in the top-flight from 1978 until their demotion to the second-tier in 2005. During that 27-year period, only Portsmouth challenged Southampton’s supremacy on the South Coast, so due to that fact — plus Portsmouth being just 17 miles east of Southampton — that rivalry is known as the “South Coast derby” and will always be the main rivalry down by the English Channel. There is no comparison, at least not in the eyes of Saints fans.

    And yet, could this newfound rivalry flourish in years to come?

    With Bournemouth adapting to life in the PL rather well — up until recent weeks when a trio of ACL injuries to key players has given Howe a headache of epic proportions — you get the sense that Bournemouth could be good enough to stay up this season. Thanks to investments made by wealthy Russian owner Maxim Demin, the Cherries could eventually become a mid-table club in the PL, a la Swansea City and Leicester City. If they do, expect this recent rivalry to gather steam and enjoy its heyday under the bright lights of the Premier League.

    It is fitting that the first-ever top-flight derby between Saints and Bournemouth will be played on Nov. 1, which is All Saints’ Day. After years of living in the shadows of Saints, it would be quite a day for the Cherries to finally have their time to shine.

    So here’s to you

    WARRINGTON, England – If you ask fans of Manchester City, they will tell you that despite their captain hailing from Brussels, Belgium, Vincent Kompany is a true Mancunian.

    An imposing figure, Kompany, 29, is one of the best central defenders in the world and has been the skipper powering City to new levels of success over the last few years. Kompany arrived at the club 10 days before Sheikh Mansour took over as owner in the summer of 2008, and City and Kompany haven’t looked back since. As a bonus for City fans, not only has he inspired the team to glory but he also, every now and then, has a Mancunian twang when he talks, specifically when he says City — or “Citeh” as the locals say.

    At this point, it’s safe to say that the Belgian has endeared himself to the blue half of Manchester and vice versa.

    Sat back, relaxed in a leather sofa at New Balance’s European headquarters in Warrington, England, Kompany spoke with NBC SportsWorld less than 24 hours after celebrating Belgium’s qualification for the 2016 European Championships in France.

    Returning from a calf injury, the big Belgian hopes to be on the pitch against bitter rivals Manchester United on Sunday at Old Trafford (Watch live, 10:05 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra). Kompany made a late appearance against Sevilla in City’s 2-1 Champions League win on Wednesday, and while his status for Sunday isn’t entirely certain, he remains upbeat about his level of play overall.

    “Every game I have played so far this season has been really good so I wanted to keep that going, so an injury is never a nice thing to happen at that moment,” Kompany said. “But, having said that, I came back against Israel [on October 13] and it was fine and I felt good and was able to produce the same level of performance again. It just has to carry on.”

    Given his connection with the City faithful, Kompany knows better than most how these Manchester derbies are. After arriving from Hamburg at the age of 22, he has grown into a cult figure for City’s fans and is the man who helped lead the club to their first league title in 44 years when City won the Premier League in 2012. He also lifted the FA Cup in 2011, the League Cup in 2014 and another Premier League title in 2014. Suffice it to say that Kompany has been at the forefront of the most glorious period in City’s history.

    That fact, plus having married a lifelong City fan and being adored by the masses, means his connection with Manchester City runs true and deep. And it’s been like that since the start.

    “When I signed for Hamburg [in 2006] it was a place where everyone minded their own business. You didn’t get a lot of interaction and a lot of help from randomers,” Kompany laughed. “When I signed for City, it was before the City of today, obviously. I was getting help from all sorts of people who wanted to chat, who wanted to be there without even knowing, sometimes, that I was playing for Man City. It was just a nice place to come into and people were just naturally positive. There was always this thing at Man City, where people always found it funny when bad stuff happened because they were just so used to it. To be able to give those guys the moments we’ve experienced in the last five years, for me, that has been incredible to give it to them. From that moment on, we have kind of been on the same journey, really. We see things in the same way so it is easy for me to relate.”

    What does being a Mancunian mean? Well, as one can guess, it is naturally someone who hails from Manchester, but a “True Mancunian” has a certain swagger in their step. Think of Noel or Liam Gallagher from Oasis, who are lifelong City fans, or Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who can cut you down with a razor-sharp phrase or a look. It is a way of life and an attitude that exonerates what being from Northern England is all about, as music, fashion and soccer mold into local pride. The latter especially.

    City’s fans are proud of their team and more so than their rivals United, most City fans emanate not far from Mancunian Way, the main freeway which leads you four miles across town from United’s Old Trafford home towards City’s Etihad Stadium. Those loyal City fans have a song about Kompany which can be heard loud and proud every weekend. Sung to the tune of the classic “Mrs. Robinson” by Simon and Garfunkel, City fans have tweaked the lyrics to reveal their love for “Big Vinny” at the heart of their defense:

    So here’s to you Vincent Kompany

    City loves you more than you will know

    Woah, Woah, Woah

    His unassuming, laidback personality makes Kompany the perfect man to lead City, a club whose fans often revel in self-depreciation, as years of heartache have been sandwiched in-between present-day success and the glory of the late 1960s.

    * * *

    This Sunday marks the 170th edition of the Manchester derby. Ahead of it, Kompany believes Manchester United have strengthened considerably over the past 12 months and expects them to challenge for the title, along with the “usual suspects” and says a rejuvenated Liverpool will come good again.

    “United have obviously gone into the transfer market big and they have built a squad to be ambitious and built a squad to win trophies,” Kompany said. “That obviously stands in our way of us achieving our goals but the thing is, I look at all the squads and who is not building squads to win titles in this country? It is crazy. They are not the only ones to watch out for, unfortunately!”

    The start to the 2015-16 season has been a little unfortunate for Kompany. Up and down would probably describe it best. He scored in each of his opening games of the season as City trounced West Bromwich Albion and Chelsea 3-0, but then injured his calf in the 2-1 UEFA Champions League defeat to Juventus on September 15 (the pressure he put on Giorgio Chiellini in that match forced the Italian to put the ball into his own net and put City in the lead) and hasn’t started for City since.

    With seven wins from their opening nine games of the season, City have recovered well without their skipper and he’s eager to contribute and help arguably the most talented team in the PL stay focused.

    “It has been a good start but it has kind of been unpredictable in many ways. I thought the first five games we won very convincingly. We did well,” Kompany said. “Then we lost the first game in the Champions League against Juventus; we played well but they kind of ‘did us’ in a very Italian way. From then on we had a difficult spell with the West Ham game, the Monchengladbach game where we didn’t play as well as we could. We got the result against Monchengladbach, then a good performance against Newcastle, especially in the second half. But all of this summed up, just shows that it is a tough league to be performing in. The Premier League and the Champions League. When we are at our best and are focused we are a really good team. Whenever we drop our guards a little bit we come into trouble like any other team.”

    In terms of this current team, with Raheem Sterling, Nicolas Otamendi and Kevin de Bruyne arriving for roughly $200 million this summer in transfer fees alone, Kompany believes this is the best squad he has ever been a part of, from a talent-level perspective, at the Etihad.

    “It is the best squad. Definitely,” Kompany said without hesitation. “I think our first title win, we had something in the squad. Our personalities were massive in that squad and I think that was the way we managed to come back from that far and win it. I think the talent this year is bigger than it has ever been but the personality the first year was probably the biggest it has ever been.”

    Looking back to last season, there were plenty of questions regarding Kompany and several of City’s other veteran players such as Joe Hart and Yaya Toure. City failed to defend the title they won in 2014, but still ended up finishing second after a tumultuous campaign. Kompany pointed to Chelsea’s struggles so far this season as to how difficult it is to win back-to-back titles in the PL.

    “I don’t think any of us doubted ourselves but like Chelsea is experiencing at the moment, the season after being champions somehow just becomes so much more difficult,” Kompany revealed. “We managed to finish second, which was disappointing in many ways for us, but we didn’t just throw everything away. On one side it wasn’t a great season but I wouldn’t say we threw everything away that season we finished second. This year obviously needs to be better than second and we all know that.”

    Would lifting the Premier League trophy as City’s skipper be more rewarding than, say, winning the UEFA Champions League or finally making it past the Round of 16 and into the semifinal or final?

    Kompany isn’t too fussed either way, but ultimately just doesn’t want “the neighbors” at Manchester United, or any other PL team, to be crowned Champions of Europe.

    “Right, so if I am being diplomatic then I have to say, obviously, that they are equally important,” Kompany said, with a serious look on his face. “There is just one thing. You don’t want to see anybody else winning it in your backyard. It is not a case of you want to win the Champions League instead of the Premier League, it’s more the case, for example, [that] it hurts less to see Barcelona lifting the title than it would hurt if ‘the neighbors’ did it. There is huge rivalry in England and I think that is a big part of the story. You are always thinking ‘OK, we want to win the Champions League,’ but you cannot afford to drop your guard because before you even know it it’s not just the title that is gone but that Champions League qualification is gone as well, in a sense where you can’t finish in the top four in the league. There is never really a moment where you can be at ease in England. The difference between being champion and being top four is so little. Then again, the Champions League is a huge priority for the club.”

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/10/vincent-kompany-1020.jpg” height=600 credit=”Kompany was in Warrington promoting the new Baltic/Serene Green New Balance Football Visaro boot (Photo Courtesy of New Balance)”]

     

    So, reading between the lines, it’s a case of: If we don’t win it, fine, but PLEASE don’t let it be United. That sentiment will be echoed by City’s fans across the globe, but particularly in Manchester.

    In the lead-up to City’s first-ever PL title, they were neck and neck with United heading into the final weeks of the season. City played United at home three weeks from the end of the season and Kompany scored a towering header to secure a 1-0 win that would prove pivotal as City won the title in the final minute of the season thanks to Sergio Aguero’s heroics.

    Kompany remembers that match fondly, and in the week leading up to the current derby, it will still likely be on the minds of many Mancunians.

    “It is a special time but none will be more meaningful than the [derby] leading up to our first title,” Kompany said. “It was in a clear week and it was the only game on a Monday that week. It was three games before the end. Every derby since has been pretty heated because the teams have got better and the winning team is playing against each other now. I would say the best moment to experience the derby is if you come towards the end of the season and that is the only thing people have got to focus on. Now, unfortunately, there are Champions League games in the way and other league games. So it will be a bit different.”

    Having won at home and lost away to United last season, Kompany has been part of some memorable City wins in the past on derby day. He has also been around for City clawing back a vast amount of ground on their illustrious crosstown rivals who lead the all-time series 70-50-49 (wins, draws, losses for United).

    “There are two which stand out. The 6-1 win away and obviously the 1-0 win at home before the end of the season we won the title. Actually, I would add as well the victory at Wembley, the semifinal of the 2011 FA Cup. You know why?” Kompany asked, nodding his head for emphasis. “It was because for us, in those days, they were defining victories. We have had many great moments and we’ve also had many bad moments against United. That is the nature of it and what it will be in the future as well. There is so little between the teams now but when we started winning those games, things were massively to the advantage of Manchester United and we only started turning it around a little bit then. Those first victories, they were massive for defining the club, for the future of the club.”

    What about Kompany’s future? He is in the final stages of completing a Masters Degree in Business Administration – “It is coming towards the end… but I don’t want to jinx it,” Kompany laughed – from the Manchester Business School, something he says he did because “weirdly, it helps me relax” and because it will leave his options open for the future after soccer so he can “do whatever he wants” when he’s kicked his final ball.

    There is still a lot of time left for Kompany on the pitch but he admitted that when his City deal is up – he is currently signed on at the Etihad until July 2018 – Major League Soccer and moving to the United States of America is a serious option.

    “It has been crazy since they [Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard] have moved over because MLS is always on. You get to see so much of MLS now, so it’s actually becoming quite a relevant league to people over here,” Kompany said. “Obviously, we follow quite closely what New York City FC does. For us, it is quite important to be supportive towards that club as well. The level is increasing every single year. You see new franchises coming in, you see so many people going to the stadiums and they are also good stadiums now. I think it is just a fun league to be in so I wouldn’t be surprised to go over there when my contract comes to an end at City.”

    When Kompany’s time at City is finally up, he will never be forgotten. He led them to the promised land, lifted two Premier League titles in three seasons and his presence in City’s team gels everything together. His importance to City in the past and the present is undeniable but his vision for the future of the club, and how it can showcase itself to the world, is perhaps even more impressive.

    “It is one of the most important things for Man City in the future. One of the biggest challenges is that we have all these great players from great places but there’s something fundamentally different to Manchester as to other cities,” Kompany said, smiling. “I think for Man City to become one of the biggest clubs in the world it will have to go back to being more Mancunian than ever and to expose that as a brand and a way of being. I think that is a big challenge for City in the future. You know, I’ve bought into it a lot and a lot of players have bought into it. There is just something special about that industrial past of Manchester that somehow needs to filter through the youth teams and filter through the first team. This factor is something that people will support Manchester City for.”

    A true Mancunian couldn’t have said it any better. But then again, that’s exactly what Kompany has become.

    A true football mixer

    LONDON – The NFL’s International Series is now in its ninth year at London’s Wembley Stadium and ahead of the Buffalo Bills taking on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, all indicators show that, along with popularity, respect levels for the NFL are growing in the land where another type of football rules the roost.

    At the training ground of Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur on Tuesday, the Bills and Spurs were part of an NFL community event that invited schoolchildren from London to take part in American football and soccer drills with superstars.

    One of those stars — Belgian international and Spurs central defender Jan Vertonghen — believes the NFL is capturing the imagination of younger fans in Europe, especially in the U.K.

    “I know my brother absolutely loves it, you feel that it is coming on more and more. It is on television a lot more in the UK, with live games. It is a bit like soccer in the States,” Vertonghen said. “Maybe soccer is bigger in the States than the NFL is here but these events help the NFL to grow here … You feel it [growing] in our dressing room, some of the guys absolutely love the sport and these games will help people to actually know the sport. I think the crowd has to first know all the rules and once that happens, it will continue to grow.”

    Bills defensive lineman Marcell Dareus was the star of the show, showing off his soccer skills, laughing and joking with kids and showing them how he lines up at the line of scrimmage. Off to one side quarterback Tyrod Taylor was teaching young English kids to throw a football. On the other side cornerback Ron Brooks was showing them how to tackle, and in the far corner of Spurs’ indoor training facility two club legends came together to chat, laugh and goof around with a football.

    Buffalo’s legendary quarterback Jim Kelly and Tottenham’s legendary defender Ledley King exchanged jerseys and chatted. The mutual respect and appreciation the two teams had for one another was clear, despite coming from two different sports on opposite sides of the pond.

    Rex Ryan was in attendance too, but the Bills’ head coach cleverly stayed away in one corner laughing and joking with school kids as the U.S. media lingered to ask him about Buffalo’s 3-3 start to the season. As the schoolchildren walked out to meet the players, they sung the famous Bills anthem “Let’s go Buffalo!” to the theme of “Shout!” and Kelly revealed he’s enjoying being an ambassador for the NFL in a foreign land.

    “I love traveling and for me this is a pleasure. That singing is great, I like that,” Kelly laughed. “We need about 80,000 of them cheering like that on Sunday. I don’t know whether we will get it but it is cool that they get a chance, as young-uns, to see NFL players and to visit with them and have us here with them… Football is the Grandaddy of them all and we were talking to some locals here in London, and they want a team here. Whether that happens, I think in due time it probably will but I think it is important that everyone gets to see what we see and love in the United States.”

    Many agree that London is a phenomenal base for the NFL to grow its worldwide fanbase, but as has been widely speculated, is London the right place for a future NFL franchise?

    “When I played in Amsterdam for Ajax in Holland, they had a team in NFL Europe but after a couple of years they stopped it,” Vertonghen explained. “I would love to have a team here. In London there is lots of potential. It is the biggest city in Europe and if they have to start somewhere I think it will be here. These games that will be played in Wembley and hopefully in Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground in a couple of years, they will help it to grow.”

    That growth is visible.

    In the UK they now show the NFL Redzone channel on Sundays. They also broadcast all the main games from 1 p.m. ET up until Sunday Night Football, which often begins at 1 a.m. local time the next morning. Thursday night and Monday night games are also available to watch and highlights can be seen on most major networks in the UK. The attention from the UK media on the NFL, and most American sports, has sky-rocketed in recent years. Major League Soccer has been shown in the UK live on TV for the first time ever this season on Sky Sports, and Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld believes that the soccer-football crossover could be key in attracting more fans moving forward.

    “I watch MLS from America a lot and I am going to watch American sports a lot more. I want to learn more about [American football],” Alderweireld said. “[The Bills players] are very nice guys and I am going to try and follow them more now. Here on television there are now more American sports and people are watching. This is why the NFL comes to London and to Europe, to showcase their sport. It is the same with MLS, which is growing because those games are shown in Europe this year and it makes a big difference. I think it will grow in England.”

    There’s an underlying notion in the UK among 18-30 year-olds that American sports are “hip” and “trendy” and those are the people fuelling the sell-out crowds at Wembley each and every season. Fans travel from all over the UK to watch the games, plus all over Europe and make a weekend trip of seeing an NFL game at the famous Wembley Stadium. The expats living in London or Europe also make up a big percentage of the crowd, and they aren’t necessarily fans of the particular teams in action, just fans of the game as jerseys from all 32 NFL teams can often be spotted at Wembley.

    Will that dissipate if there is a franchise in London? Right now, the model of having a few games a year at Wembley, then two more at Tottenham’s new stadium — when that is expected to be finished in 2018 — seems about right. But in the future, who knows how far the NFL can reach?

    “The NFL is trying to broaden the reach,” explained Bills kicker Dan Carpenter, who used to play travel soccer until he was 18 while growing up in Montana. “There was an NFL Europe before my time but they are trying to reach out and obviously soccer is a worldwide sport so I think the NFL is just trying to broaden their horizons and reach out to the whole world as well. If we want to broaden the NFL to be worldwide, there is no better way than to get out here and meet the kids and try to have an influence on what they’re doing in their everyday life.”

    Kelly added that although American Football will never replace soccer in England, it still has a part to play in the future.

    “Soccer is number one over here and it probably will be forever,” Kelly said. “But the experiences they get from the NFL teams coming here, I think it will have a great impact on where I think this will go in the near future.”

    Bills cornerback Brooks was at the forefront of interacting with youngsters as he juggled the soccer ball and showed off some considerable skills. He also mixed in with the Tottenham players –getting nut-megged by Vertonghen — as he and Dareus spoke to Mousa Dembele, Vertonghen and Alderweireld about what it is like to play in the Premier League and the NFL.

    Brooks even laid a modest hit on Vertonghen as he was holding the pads, and the Belgian defender revealed how much interest he has in the sport.

    “I think I can throw a ball but I just got a big hit from one of them,” Vertonghen said when asked if he would like to play in the NFL. “I have to train a bit more, I think, and spend some time in the gym … Why not? If I was born in America I would have played American football. I am not going to show you what I have hit but he was very friendly with me and just gave me a little hit. You can feel the strength and power, it was unbelievable.”

    As for the man who delivered that hit, Brooks believes soccer’s popularity is rising in America and especially among his fellow Buffalo Bills.

    “When I was growing up I liked to play soccer, be athletic and play sports. It is one of my hobbies which I picked up,” Brooks said. “It is definitely growing. I know in our locker room we have Playstations and an Xbox, we play FIFA all day and have big competitions. It is definitely growing in America. I play create-a-player on my [EA FIFA] season and he actually plays for Tottenham. There are a lot of people who have a favorite player, with the generic Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi and all those kind of guys. They are all great players but I don’t really have a favorite.”

    The respect between both NFL and Premier League players was evident and as they spoke about the crazy amounts of snow in Buffalo, and the Spurs players explained what it is like to be a soccer star around the globe, there was a real connection and plenty of respect.

    “There is lots of respect. I think between athletes there is always lots of mutual respect,” Vertonghen said. “It is good. They tell us about their experiences and when they told us they have a six month offseason I was so jealous. Then they said, ‘We have to be in at six in the morning,’ so I was like, ‘Ah OK, I leave the six months to you.’”

    Brooks echoed that sentiment and talked about the similarities between the two sports.

    “There are a lot of similarities, as far as footwork. Those guys have to have tremendous footwork and coordination, but ours are with our hands and theirs is with their feet,” Brooks said. “There are a lot of similarities in that aspect. From athlete to athlete you are going to have respect for any other athlete. I think what those guys do is similar to [American] football. Maybe not as much as physical contact that people would think there is, but those guys are just like football players … but without pads.”

    Laughing and chatting in a small group while the community event came to an end, it is easy to forget that although both sets of players are in very similar professions, they still live on different continents.

    “The Bills are my team. Last year I said something different … so I have to be careful but I met some of the guys now and I have a nice shirt; for this year I will be cheering for the Bills. They told me there is a lot of snow in Buffalo and they asked me if we had snow in Europe!” Vertonghen laughed. “I said yep, we have snow in Europe. It is funny. It is like we come from a different world. It is good to share our experiences and I will go on Wikipedia and YouTube right now and start learning about Buffalo.”

    That learning experience is the same for the Bills, with Brooks taking a philosophical look at how the game is growing and how fans, players and coaching staff interacting with one another on different continents is a positive thing for everyone concerned.

    “This is my first time being here in London. It has been a great experience so far and a chance to go over and play in a game that is growing in popularity in another country. It is extremely entertaining and exciting, to say the least.

    “Not even just with football, but with everything. People all need to branch out and get other people to see more things, different aspects and different walks of life. Coming here to London and playing footb … their version of football,” Brooks laughed. “It is definitely cool and I hope that a lot more people get a chance to do it.”

    If the popularity of the NFL’s forays into London is anything to go by, plenty of new fans in countries and cities around the world will also be playing ‘the other version of football’ in years to come.

    The Great One at the Lane

    LONDON – Wayne Gretzky stood pitch-side at White Hart Lane and looked up to the stands with a smile on his face.

    Wearing brown suede shoes on the hallowed turf, he seemed happy to be on grass even though he’s spent much of his life on ice.

    Gretzky, 54, traveled to London this week with his son to watch the latest installment of the North London derby as Tottenham Hotspur hosted bitter rivals Arsenal in a League Cup match.

    Premier League on NBC: Broadcast and Streaming schedule

    The Great One spoke to NBC SportsWorld before the League Cup third-round game — which Arsenal ended up winning 2-1 — to chat about his fondness for soccer, the upcoming NHL season and more.

    But first up, just what was Gretzky doing at the Lane? While there as a corporate guest, the NHL legend revealed his longstanding appreciation for soccer as he finally got to take in his first professional game in Europe.

    “Oh, yeah. I go way back and remember watching the games in the days of Pele,” Gretzky said. “I don’t claim to know a lot about the sport, but I really, truly enjoy the sport and I think over the years watching guys like Pele … and then when Beckham came over to North America, it really gave the game another boost. I think the success of the U.S. women’s team has been something that has put a positive stamp on the sport over there. Girls like Mia Hamm, what they have brought, to give young girls goals to go to college and play soccer.

    “We enjoy it as a family, and I love watching the World Cup. That is my favorite time to watch soccer. This is my first match ever in Europe. I went to one match (in the U.S.) seven or eight years ago, I had to go and see [David] Beckham play. I went to an LA Galaxy game but this is my first game involving Premier League teams. So I’m really excited.”

    Gretzky admitted his favorite players to watch are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and he also often tunes in with his family to watch Premier League games on weekend mornings.

    Over the years there have been so many comparisons made about the tactics and almost non-stop action both in hockey and soccer, and how certain skills crossover. So, has Gretzky ever looked at a soccer player and wondered, ‘Hey, he plays soccer like I played hockey.’

    “I’ll tell you this, I don’t know a lot about the sport but the one thing I really noticed at the game I went to see in L.A., is that Beckham was the best passer I ever saw,” Gretzky admitted. “He would be on one side of the field, and he could put it on another player’s foot from 40 yards away. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I wonder if I was sort of comparable to that and how I passed the puck when I played?’ That was an interesting comparison.”

    Although ruling out getting involved in ownership of a Major League Soccer franchise in the U.S. or Canada, Gretzky admitted he has been overwhelmed by the growth of North America’s top-flight in recent years and said he’ll go and watch MLS as a fan because he “loves the sport.”

    Naturally, while chatting with the all-time leading NHL point scorer, the conversation eventually veered towards hockey. He was relaxed and laid back as we laughed about “Slap Shot” before delving deeper into hockey; the sport he has given his entire life to is still closest to the Ontario native’s heart.

    Asking Gretzky about the upcoming NHL season – which begins on Oct. 8 (Rangers vs. Blackhawks, 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) – he’s pretty excited to see both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel make their NHL debuts, as the highly-regarded rookies will lead his beloved Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.

    “I think they are both really special, and I think they are both good kids. Most importantly they have got respect for the game and for the players they are playing with and against,” Gretzky revealed. “I think they are both going to have great careers and I’ll tell them the same thing Gordie Howe told me when I was 18: ‘You’ve got to work hard every day and then work harder the next day.’ If those two kids do that — and they seem to have done that as they’ve grown up until this point in time, so I don’t anticipate them changing that at all — and if they stay away from injuries, I anticipate both of them will be staples for both franchises and have great careers.”

    Ahead of the new season Gretzky also revealed that one particular offseason trade is exciting him: Phil Kessel joining the Pittsburgh Penguins to link up with Sidney Crosby.

    “They have great potential,” Gretzky said of the new potential linemates for the Pens. “I think that for Kessel, he is going to have probably the best playmaker in hockey getting him the puck. He is such a natural goalscorer. And for Sid, he has a chance now with a guy who is just a natural goalscorer. So it’s just a great fit for both of them.

    “You know what sometimes happens is that the defenses of teams and coaches are so much better and stronger now, the teaching and preparation, so there’s going to be nights when maybe it’s not working. So, it is not a bad thing to have Evgeni Malkin to play with him because he’s pretty good, too. Kessel is in a pretty nice position.”

    The greatest player in the history of the game also spoke about the current NHL players who excite him, and there’s a handful of guys Gretzky tunes in to watch regularly.

    “Quite honestly, I enjoy Duncan Keith. He is somebody special, and so is Drew Doughty as a defenseman. Anze Kopitar is a friend of mine, and I really love how hard he plays and I enjoy watching him. Then you know, I think [Sidney] Crosby is the best player in the game,” Gretzky said. “I really enjoyed last year — [Alexander] Ovechkin, how he went to another level and the energy he brought every game, and my kids and I love going down and watching [Steven] Stamkos play. So there’s guys all around the league that are unreal players and are good guys and are good for the sport.”

    Continuing with the hockey-soccer crossover theme, Gretzky had nothing but good things to say about former Edmonton head coach Ralph Krueger who was let go in 2013 after the lockout impacted season. Krueger is now the chairman of Southampton Football Club in the Premier League and Gretzky revealed that although he had limited dealings with Krueger at the franchise he made famous, he’s pleased to see Krueger doing well in the soccer world.

    “Everybody speaks very highly of Ralph,” Gretzky said. “I know there were a lot of people who were surprised and shocked that he wasn’t back the following season [in Edmonton], but sports is a business and strange things happen. I’m sure Ralph is going to do very fine in his life.”

    Of course, after his illustrious playing career was over, Gretzky went on to become the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes for four seasons, and with their future as a franchise still up in the air as the new stadium deal continues to linger, he’s hopeful the team will remain in Phoenix.

    “It seems like they’re getting closer to getting it worked out,” Gretzky said. “The commissioner [Gary Bettman] does a really good, positive job of keeping franchises in cities. He is going to do everything he can until the very end before he would let any franchise leave. I know he has fought extremely hard to keep it there, and they seem to have stronger ownership now which will help out a lot.”

    The group wanting to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas has spoken to Gretzky in the past in an “advisor” role and the legendary figure is adamant that Sin City will have its first major league franchise by 2017.

    “I see Vegas coming into the NHL. I don’t know if it will be next year, but within two years. I think Quebec City has a great chance to get back into the National Hockey League. I see both of those cities having a strong possibility of getting in,” Gretzky added.

    So, what does he get up to these days when he’s not taking in soccer games between Premier League opponents? Gretzky spends a lot of time on the PGA Tour with his daughter, Paulina, and son-in-law, professional golfer, Dustin Johnson.

    Gretzky revealed the heartache of being on site to see Johnson’s collapse at the 2015 U.S. Open but believes DJ will continue to fight for majors.

    “We were at the U.S. Open this summer. Obviously, it was a heartbreaking ending,” Gretzky said. “We were at the Masters and went to the Barclays this year. Listen, he is a really, really nice young man, and we enjoy him being part of our family, and we have a beautiful grandson. Dustin is going to win his share of tournaments. He works hard and (is) focused. He’s going to be fine.”

    With that, a pleasant farewell pitchside then saw Gretzky amble away to take his seat for his first-ever soccer game in Europe. He was asked for photos and greeted fans as he made his way up the stairs before taking in the action at White Hart Lane.

    It might be a different playing surface, as well as continent, but The Great One’s legend lives on no matter where he goes.

    Standing tall

    At the age of 23, Thibaut Courtois has won league titles in three different European countries. He has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup. He has 31 caps for the Belgian national team. He’s played in a UEFA Champions League Final.

    All of that may be incredible for a player of his age, but what makes it even more jaw-dropping is one other fact: He’s a goalkeeper.

    Raised in the sleepy Belgian town of Bilzen, Courtois is now one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, and his giant 6-foot-7 frame is familiar across the globe. After signing with Chelsea from his first club Racing Club Genk in 2011, Courtois was loaned out to Atletico Madrid for two seasons, where he won the La Liga title and grew from a boy into a man.

    In his debut season in the Premier League last year he usurped club legend Petr Cech to become Chelsea’s undisputed No.1 and led the best defense in the league to its first PL title in five years. Reflecting on his first 12 months at Stamford Bridge, the boy from Bilzen, Belgium, said it was easy to settle in.

    “It has been good, especially to have other players from Atletico Madrid, the Spanish league and Belgium that you know. It is easier to adapt in the team compared to when you are completely new and you don’t know anybody,” Courtois told NBC SportsWorld. “That went well. We were playing well and winning games, doing well as a team. That helps. Being champions and winning the League Cup in the first year was amazing. When you come to a team in your first season, I said I hoped to win the Premier League and other trophies as well, so if you can achieve that in your first year it is really good. I was happy. This year we will try to do even better.”

    That insatiable desire to do better sums up Courtois’ meteoric rise from a teenage goalkeeper shining in the Belgian Pro League to winning the Premier League and being ranked as one of the top stoppers on the planet.

    But how did he get there?.

    * * * * * *

    Growing up with parents who both played professional volleyball, Courtois was always going to play sports. His sister, Valerie, currently plays volleyball for the Belgian national team and Thibaut grew up playing the sport of his parents, as well as basketball. He received plenty of support from his parents, Gitte and Thierry, and knew exactly what it would take to be a professional athlete at the highest level thanks to their guidance. After long, tough sessions with Genk, former coaches tell stories of him going home and playing in the backyard with his friends for hours. They even had a YouTube channel called “The YardBrooz” to share their shenanigans. He never stopped. To this day, he still finds it hard to switch off.

    “I grew up playing other sports but volleyball a lot. I think if I was not a football player then I would have played volleyball,” admitted Courtois. “I played basketball, I like to play that. I like to play sports all the time, even when I am on holiday. I try to do some things to keep busy. I am not a person who can just relax for two weeks on the beach and just do nothing. I need to do some kind of sport. Even if it is golf … I need to do something.”

    Most of that energy has been funneled into becoming a top goalkeeper, but that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, he doubted whether or not his sweet left foot was being wasted taking goal kicks instead of flying down the left flank as an outside back.

    MORE: Watch the Premier League on NBC and full match replays on Live Extra

    “Between the age of eight and 10 in Belgium you play on a half pitch, just the width of the pitch, so we rotated goalkeepers every weekend and they saw that I had talent,” Courtois said, laughing. “One tournament in Germany, they asked me if I wanted to be the goalkeeper and play every game in goal. I agreed, and I was the best goalkeeper at the tournament. They saw that I had a bigger future in goal instead of on the outfield. I wasn’t 100 percent sure at the beginning. I doubted them a little bit. But when we started playing on the bigger pitches, I was already in the goal more than on the outfield. After the age of 12, I was only playing in goal, but sometimes if I was on the bench I would come in as an outfield player if they needed someone. In a squad of 15 or 16 there were always two goalkeepers but sometimes a ‘keeper would have an outfield jersey and often they selected me. I could play a bit, and that was always nice.”

    So, he was a goalkeeper who thought he should have played out on the pitch. Does that sound familiar? Most goalkeepers believe they can show the strikers how it is done as they often stand frustrated at the other end of the pitch as another chance is squandered. Most goalkeepers think it. Only a few can back it up.

    Courtois is one of them. In Chelsea’s preseason tour to the U.S., he stepped up and took the seventh penalty for Chelsea in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain. Without hesitation, he took a few steps back and a languid swipe of his left leg sent the ball into the top corner for the win. As the crowd celebrated, Courtois looked back to the halfway line where his teammates were huddled with a grin that seemed to say: “See, that’s how you do it.” For the record he also saved two penalties in the shootout to secure the win.

    [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ArsGcj7m7SI%5D

    Even going back to his professional debut for RKC Genk as a 16-year-old, Courtois has always been confident. Unruffled by the weight of expectation, Courtois stepped in to start in a crucial Belgian Pro League game at the end of the season as Genk needed to beat rivals Ghent to secure a spot in European competition for the following season. Recalling that match, Courtois believes it was a crucial part of his development and proved he was ready to step up and accelerate his career.

    “It was a really important game because the team just fired a trainer, we were fourth and wanted to get into Europe and it was an important game against a team who were higher in the league,” said Courtois. “It was a good game, I made some important saves and everybody saw that I was ready to do some important things. So, yeah, I think it is one of those crucial games in your career because if you go under with the pressure, they will put you in the reserves longer and will play you again after two or three years, but then I had the chance to play.”

    Guy Martens was Courtois’ goalkeeping coach at Genk from ages 12-19. Recalling that crucial moment in Courtois’ development, Martens reveals that Courtois was nearly released as a teenager as “his arms and legs were growing and growing and his mind was not following.”

    But Genk stuck by Courtois due to his supreme quality, and Courtois has excelled at every step along the way since his debut on April 17, 2009, at 16 years and 341 days old.

    “For us, we know that he has a lot of qualities, but we didn’t know what his reaction would be when the game was played in front of 25,000 people,” Martens said. “That was for us a big question, but after the game I saw a guy who was playing with so much confidence and without stress that I said, ‘OK, he has everything. He has the technique, he has the tactics, a good mentality and no stress.’ I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe we have gold in our hands.’”

    Mertens polished that gold until Courtois left for Chelsea in 2011, and the Belgian goalkeeper has since spoken extremely highly of Martens, saying: “He is the best goalkeeping coach ever. I learned everything from Guy.”

    How did a young goalkeeper growing up in Belgium learn so much, so soon? Courtois watched and learned from the greats of the previous generation. Edwin van der Sar and Iker Casillas were his favorites, particularly the latter, from whom he drew inspiration after seeing Casillas start and star for Spanish giants Real Madrid at a young age.

    “For him to be playing in goal at the age of 18, it was an inspiration that there was a goalkeeper around at such a young age and he was already important at a big team,” said Courtois. “As well, Edwin van der Sar. When he was playing at Manchester United he was a role model because I think I have quite a similar style to him. Obviously, you would try to see with your eyes and try to learn from things he did in the game and analyze how he reacted to certain situations. For me, you look at every goalkeeper and you try to learn what they do.”

    The van der Sar comparison is a particularly interesting one, as Courtois’ former coach Martens reveals their plan was to always produce miniature van der Sars. Genk’s impressive youth academy — which has also produced Christian Benteke, Kevin De Bruyne, Steven Defour, Divock Origi and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, among others — churned out a team full of youngsters that won the league in 2011 with a 19-year-old Courtois in goal.

    “At Genk, one of the main things about the education was that we watched a lot of video, from their own performances but also other goalkeepers in the world,” Martens said. “We like to make a proactive goalkeeper. You have two kinds of goalkeepers, reactive and proactive. Reactive goalkeepers they only play in the 2-D situations. Proactive goalkeepers play in 2-D and 3-D situations. We always try to make goalkeepers like Edwin van Der Sar. Goalkeepers who play very high, that their positioning is so good and so important for everything. Everything starts with the position. How do you teach that at the youth level? I think with looking a lot at the videos of other goalkeepers. That is so important. One of the goalkeepers we used was Edwin van der Sar. Now we use Neuer and Thibaut as the examples. He has become an example for all of the youths at Genk but probably all of the youths in Belgium and Europe too.”

    Around the same time that Courtois’ obsession with soccer was growing, the Belgian national team went on a run to the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup. His current manager for the national team, Marc Wilmots, was one of the stars of that team, and Courtois remembers being inspired by that side. At the time of writing, Belgium sits at No. 2 in the FIFA World Rankings, its highest ever position, as the country with a population of just over 11 million has become one of the finest national teams on the planet.

    MORE: Chelsea make Pedro addition official  |  Henry praises newest Blue

    Courtois is proud to now be inspiring the next generation of players, just like Wilmots and Co. did for him.

    “I was watching the 2002 World Cup when I was in school,” Courtois laughed. “You dream to play with the national team. Today, young kids dream to do the same as we are doing now. I think that is an amazing feeling, to be a role model for young kids to work hard. I think now more kids also want to be goalkeepers, and that is nice because lots of kids, when they are young, just want to play in the outfield, but now already more kids want to be in goal. As a role model, you can be important and kids really look up to you, so that is always nice.”

    Back in his homeland, Courtois’ adventures with Atletico Madrid and Chelsea are still watched closely by fans of the club where he was made. Fabio Vanderlinden, a Genk fan who helps to run the supporters group in Leuven, said that the club’s supporters get together to watch Courtois play for Chelsea.

    “Even today, a lot of Genk fans can’t believe one of the best goalkeepers in the world came from and played in our team, especially because he’s such a friendly and sympathetic guy,” Vanderlinden said. “He is always in for a photo with a fan or to give an autograph. Sometimes we come together to watch one of his games at Chelsea, just because we’re so proud he was, and still is, a Genkie.“

    That pride back in Belgium is replicated by Courtois, as he is confident Les Diables Rouges can improve on their quarterfinal appearances at the 2014 World Cup and win silverware on the international stage.

    “When I was around 16, 17, you saw the Belgian national team had a lot of young talent getting to play abroad. You saw that what they were missing was a little bit of experience. There was talent and then that [experience] finally came,” Courtois said. “I think (during) the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, we played really well, and at the World Cup, we did a good job. We have a very good national team, and we should be able to achieve some big things with our team.”

    * * * * * *

    [parallax src=”https://nbc-sports.go-vip.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/21/2015/08/0819-courtois-save.jpg” height=600 credit=”Getty Images”]

    Winning. It’s always back to winning with Courtois. Unlike many champions, who seem to succeed wherever they play, the nervous tension that often defines success is missing in Courtois. Recently, I was chatting with a former Manchester United goalkeeper about Courtois, having unearthed his laid-back mentality. “That worries me a little; you want a player to have that fire in his belly. You know?”

    For most people, sure, that works. But Courtois is driven to succeed in a different way.  He has an easygoing attitude in a positive way and never seems in awe or under pressure. Despite being just 23, he seems like he was born to be on this stage and is enjoying every minute.

    “He has always been like that,” Martens said. “I think that is one of the most important things for a goalkeeper. There was no difference for Thibaut if he played in front of 20,000 people or in his backyard. It was the same thing. He loves the game. He loves football. When he can play, he is happy. No matter where it is. In his backyard, at Wembley, at Genk … He likes to play football. This is important. He would never ask, ‘What if something happens?’ or ‘What if this happens?’ No. He just plays. He is very strong, mentally.”

    Mental toughness is one thing, but being a goalkeeper in the most physical league in the world comes with its challenges. Reflecting on his first season in the PL, Courtois laughed as he recalled the hurly-burly nature of England’s top-flight.

    “In the box you are fighting. It is difficult for a goalkeeper,” revealed Courtois. “You have to be strong, and I think I handled it very well. I am strong on crosses and corners. I think I did that very well, but, of course, you have to be strong for every second. You cannot lose your concentration for one second because things can change quickly in a Premier League game. Even when a team is losing 2-0 or 3-0, they still do everything to come back until the last second, and you can never relax. You always have to pay attention, and they could come back. Then you are in trouble.”

    Although aware of the danger, Courtois is rarely in trouble. During his debut season in the PL, he played in 32 of Chelsea’s 38 league games, anchoring the best defense in the league and rarely looking flustered.

    However, in the opening game of the 2015-16 PL season, he received his first red card for Chelsea when he clipped Swansea’s Bafetimbi Gomis. Gomis scored on the subsequent penalty kick to force a 2-2 draw. Question marks surrounded Courtois’ fitness before the game, as he went off injured during the warmup and had some extra attention to his knee, but he started the match and looked fine until that incident arose in the 58th minute.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=http://vplayer.nbcsports.com/p/BxmELC/nbcsports_embed/select/pBZv8_4yngvH?autoPlay=false]

    Arguably, it was Courtois’ first major mistake on the big stage. How he recovers from that, and from missing the following game — an important away fixture at Manchester City in the second game of the season — is huge. As Martens explains, he’s been watching Courtois from afar since he left Genk in 2011 and can foresee a down period at some point in Courtois’ career. So far, though, there’s been no elongated slump or any kind of plateau. The only way has been up.

    His former coach hailed his “fantastic quality” and the “incredible” achievements in his career at such a young age. But he also revealed he has been preparing Courtois from a young age for a dip in form, if that ever arrives.

    “I always said: ‘Thibaut, there is coming one moment that you are going to go a little bit down, and then I will see what sort of strength you will have’ … I am still waiting on that. It is never coming,” Martens laughed. “You saw with another Belgian ‘keeper in the Premier League, [Simon] Mignolet, for a long time he was going a little bit down, and everyone wrote that he was not for Liverpool. … And now, he is again a fantastic goalkeeper. That is so important for a goalkeeper. How do you react when there are moments that are not so good? I am still waiting. I am waiting, waiting, waiting, for Thibaut to have that moment. But it never comes.”

    What is almost certainly coming up this season for Courtois is a tighter title race for the Premier League crown. After Chelsea finished eight points clear of Manchester City to clinch the PL trophy in his debut season in England, he knows it will be a lot tougher to retain the crown.

    MORE: Prince-Wright on Chelsea’s sluggish start to the season

    “Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, they have bought well,” Courtois said. “Last year, we were champions and they were quite far off us in the league. They don’t want that to happen again, and they want to try and win the title, but of course we want to defend it and do our best. It will be a heavy competition this year.”

    Helping Chelsea to overcome that heavy competition is another former Atletico Madrid player joining the ranks: Radamel Falcao. Having played with the Colombian forward in Spain, Courtois is confident Falcao can contribute to Chelsea’s success and recalls Falcao linking up with his new Chelsea teammates Diego Costa to devastating effect in their days up top for Atleti.

    “First of all, the manager will put the starting 11 together and see who is playing with who. I know Falcao very well. He is a top player. … He had his injury one year ago, and at Manchester United, he was maybe unlucky and maybe needed some confidence, but I think if he is on top form, he will add a lot to this team and score a lot of important goals for us,” Courtois said. “If he has to play together with Costa, it is not a problem at all. I remember when we beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, the third goal was a dribble from Falcao in midfield and a pass to Costa, who finished it. They know how to play together, and I hope it works and all of the squad will have an amazing season, and in one year, we can look back happy and add some more trophies to our list.”

    With few additions to the squad so far this summer, manager Jose Mourinho has kept the title-winning team together and shown his faith. After a championship-winning season, Courtois believes the togetherness and camaraderie in this team is unlike anything he’s ever been a part of.

    “It is important if you want to win titles that you have a squad that is really hanging well together well on the pitch and every player is willing to give his life for another one,” Courtois explained. “When one player loses the ball, then he does everything to recover the ball. Sometimes it happens at other teams that their relationships are not so good together and on the pitch that leads to mistakes. I think we have an amazing squad, which has gelled together, and we have a lot of fun during training, after training. We are very good together and we are trying to have another good season again.

    “We want to defend our title in England. It will be hard, of course, because other teams want to do well. And in the UEFA Champions League, last year we went out quite early, so we want to reach as far as possible this season. We have a team that in every competition should try to win it. Of course it is impossible to win all of the trophies in one season, but I think we have a team that should be able to reach the final of every competition if we are lucky. Hopefully we can achieve as many trophies as possible.”

    Having fun while winning seems to be Courtois’ thing. But, where does he rank among the best goalkeepers in the world? Many regard him right at the top and, given his current age, he could become the best in the world for a very long time.

    “A few years ago, I would have said top five but now I say top three. I am sure of that,” Martens said. “You also have Manuel Neuer, he is No. 1. He is 29 at the moment and has a lot of experience. That is always important for a goalkeeper. I am sure that in three or four years Thibaut will be the best goalkeeper in the world. He will be No. 1.”

    Martens then paused, as I asked if there were any other memories of when he first met Courtois and their seven-year journey together.

    “In the beginning, there were no indications that he would be one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He was just an ordinary boy, like everybody,” Martens said. “He is a lesson to all young goalkeepers. You never know what will happen if you work every single day and believe in yourself. Then, maybe, like Thibaut, you can become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”

    When you’ve achieved more than what most professionals could ever dream of in their entire career before your 24th birthday, you have to set bigger goals and aim to achieve greater things. Courtois is routinely listed alongside David de Gea, Gianliugi Buffon, Manuel Neuer and Cech, and given his status as the youngest in that list, many regard him as the best.

    “Obviously, it is nice when people say you are among the best,” Courtois said. “There is individual taste from each person who ranks the goalkeepers. One likes the goalkeeper who comes out to play high, one likes good reflexes, another likes another type of goalkeeper. I just try to do the best for Chelsea and the national team in winning games and help them to win titles. That is the most important for me. If everyone says that I am the best goalkeeper in the world, or the worst, I don’t really care. I just try to do my best, and if I help the team to win games and win the Premier League like last season, then I am happy. That’s the most important thing.”

    Always happy, always relaxed, Courtois has already eased his way to the top of the game. Now, his next step is to become one of the greatest goalkeepers the world has ever seen. At the age of 23, he has plenty of time to achieve that.