Thursday, 4 September 2014

Boudewijn "Bolo" Zenden: An Appreciation

The manner of the Carling Cup hero's exit left a sour taste in the mouth, but history will remember him as one of the Riverside's best match-winners

In the all important third place final at the 1998 World Cup Finals, a game that usually manages to be even more enjoyable than the final itself, Holland's twenty-two year old left winger, Boudewijn “Bolo” Zenden, goes on a solo run at the Croatian defence. It's really a consolation match, and he's little to lose. So he looks up and probably thinks "hm, why not?" before firing a powerful drive over the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Drazen Ladic and into the net. It's 1-1, and Zenden runs off to celebrate with an acrobatic somersault – but lands on his head. Ouch.

It is the sort of unpredictability that, for better or worse, defined Bolo Zenden during two memorable years at the Riverside Stadium. Never the kind to set or control the tone of the game, but always the kind to elevate it, he was an equal blend of selfishness and unselfishness personified; a player born to succeed on the right stage, in the right company, and at the right time. Little wonder that he played a key role in securing silverware and European football – twice – for Boro. If memories of him are not positive, they should be.

When Steve McClaren signed Zenden on loan we were much in need of playing personnel – more than that, inspiring playing personnel. Injuries, suspensions and being beaten to the permanent signing of Geremi by moneybags Chelsea had clearly damaged morale: one point from our opening five games in 2003-04 was testament to that. The arrival of Gaizka Mendieta had been a step in the right direction, but we needed another spark, and Boudewijn Zenden and his unpronounceable name – hence the nickname “Bolo” - provided it. He was now Boro's Bolo, and would remain so for two full seasons – one as a loan signing, the other as a short-term permanent signing.

McClaren's conservatism, or lack of a reliable goalscorer, didn't help Bolo early on in his Boro career. The likes of Massimo Maccarone and Michael Ricketts, one lightweight, one heavyweight, were hardly going to set defences alight, leaving midfielders to be a primary source of Boro's goals in both the Carling Cup run and the league. And so it was with Mendieta, Juninho and now Zenden, although Joseph Job and Szilard Nemeth still finished among Boro's top scorers in 2003-04 (albeit with a mere sixteen goals between them).

Comparisons with Boro's iconic "little fella" are, naturally, warranted; both Bolo and "Juno" were inspirational in their own way. What Zenden offered that Juninho didn't was flexibility. If Juninho thrived in a trequartista-like role behind one front man or two, he was never as effective in any other role. He simultaneously helped and hindered the team during his best years at Boro: it felt like virtually every attacking move had to go through him.

Zenden, on the other hand, prospered as a left winger but even more so in the engine room, even if it was only injury to Mendieta and the emergence of a certain Stewart Downing that had forced him in there. It was a happy accident; his partnership with George Boateng, along with the arrival of Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, led Boro to the fringes of a Champions League place.

At least until injuries intervened again. But Bolo remained no less adaptable, dovetailing with the less gifted likes of Ray Parlour and taking on additional defensive duties when necessary. Wherever he played on the pitch, one saw a sharp, enviable football brain and a big heart; when he EIO'd around the Millennium Stadium following our cup win, you felt as if he meant it.

There are enough passes, crosses and goals – fifteen of them, more than he managed for any other club – in the Zenden catalogue to make him some sort of Boro legend. No one will forget his great cross for Joseph Job in Cardiff or his brilliantly taken double strike – one piledriver, one looping header – against Lazio in front of a full Riverside. He was even a reliable penalty taker; something you could definitely not say about Boro's Greatest Brazilian icon. (Yes, we'll try to forget that the most important penalty he scored for us came off both his feet.)

Alas, his departure for Liverpool, a club who Boro still hold animosity towards for the Christian Ziege saga, cast a shadow over all this. In retrospect, disappointed fans have gone on to accept that Zenden had every right to leave, but only left a bad taste in the mouth because of his apparent “love for the club” and promises of staying if Boro qualified for Europe. Yes, it hurt that he moved to Liverpool, a club who Boro still hold animosity towards for (a) Rick Parry, (b) the Christian Ziege affair and (c) qualifying for the Champions League by the back door to entice Zenden, at a time when Boro feel they might have reached the competition themselves had it not been for those pesky injuries.

But why should that taint the memories? It was only a stark, realistic reminder that Liverpool had more to offer him, and that as far as Boro had come, they still had some way to go. It's not Zenden's fault that his replacement, the gifted, enigmatic, erratic Fabio Rochemback, failed to live up to expectations.

Far better to remember, instead, that no attacking midfielder of the Riverside years has been as versatile – or arguably as effective – as Bolo Zenden, as complete a team-playing action man as Boro are ever likely to find.

Originally published in August 2014's Northern Promise magazine as "Boro's Bolo".

No comments: