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Jeremy Doku exclusive: 'Match of the Day played a big part in me deciding to join the Premier League'

Jeremy Doku exclusive: 'Match of the Day played a big part in me deciding to join the Premier League'

The Belgian winger opens up to SPORTbible about his journey ahead of this weekend's FA Cup final.

Fresh from lifting the Premier League trophy in front of more than 53,000 fans, Manchester City winger Jeremy Doku has transported himself back to the small district of Borgerhout in Antwerp, Belgium to reminisce about a special part of his childhood.

It is a Saturday night in the early 2010’s and those inside the Doku household are waiting for one of the highlights of their week to begin. Sat in front of the TV alongside his father and older brother, Jeremy leans forward as the unmistakable theme song starts playing.

"Any games we couldn’t watch live, we’d always watch on Match of the Day," he tells SPORTbible after becoming the face of the latest Nike Underwear collection.

"That’s when I really fell in love with the Premier League. I enjoyed having the opportunity to see players on the pitch that you wouldn’t always get to watch very often. The show also played a big part in me deciding to join the Premier League, as it always kept me inspired growing up."

That ambition to play in England's top flight can be traced back to those memorable evenings.

Jeremy and his older brother Jefferson would try and replicate the goals they’d seen on one of the few concrete pitches in Borgerhout. And only when the lights went out did they venture back home through the cobbled streets of Antwerp.

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Ronaldinho are mentioned as sources of inspiration in those early days and later on, another Belgian influenced his game growing up. “Eden Hazard inspired me and now I can say I've had the opportunity to play with him," he beams.

Image credit: Getty
Image credit: Getty

It wasn’t long before Doku joined Anderlecht; a club that spotted his dynamic play style while playing for local side Beerschot as a 10-year-old. Those countless hours practicing his dribbling technique on the streets were paying off.

Jean Kindermans, who was Anderlecht’s academy director at the time, remembers scouts describing him as “very special” player.

“He stood out for his daring on the ball and his speed, of course. He had the courage to constantly take on players,” Kindermans told the Premier League’s official website.

"I remember very well how he would sometimes put his right foot on the ball when it was played to him, causing opponents to come nearby and challenge him, but then he would turn away in a matter of a second and dribble past everyone. That was his trademark.

"At first, we were actually in doubt whether we should discourage him from doing that, as we always emphasise that the player and ball have to be in constant motion. But pretty soon I felt, 'Let him do it. It’s a special feature of his game and gradually he will either continue refining it, or stop doing it if he feels so.' But he still has that special feature in his game.”

A number of English clubs would later express an interest, including Liverpool, who pulled out all the stops to try and convince him to join. He spoke to Jurgen Klopp, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane during his visit, and even looked around the stadium on a tour of Anfield.

But the level-headed Doku realised there was a route he needed to take, which involved staying at the Belgian club. In his own words, continuing to play football with his mates was “paramount” to his development. The idea of moving abroad came too soon at 15.

Jefferson, meanwhile, was also a highly-rated member of Anderlecht’s youth academy growing up, although his journey would take a different turn. The former Beerschot youth product is currently Jeremy's agent after retiring early.

"My brother is very important to me," Jeremy tells us. "He’s really helped me in terms of my achievements so far and to be where I am today.

"I spent so much time playing football outside with my brother when we were younger and he has always been so talented, but injuries happen. I was always excited to go and watch his games and admired how fast he was and his dribbling skills. I’m sure we both get it from our dad, who was also a dribbler.

"Regardless of his injuries, my brother still helps me so much with my football to this day."

Image credit: Instagram/jefferson_doku
Image credit: Instagram/jefferson_doku

With the backing of his family, Doku made the switch to French side Stade Rennes for a club record deal in 2020. He went on to complete 110 dribbles in his debut season at Roazhon Park — the most by any player aged 23 or under in any of Europe’s top five leagues.

He also completed 12 successful dribbles in a match against Bordeaux, breaking the previous Ligue 1 record of 11, set by Neymar for Paris Saint Germain.

Neymar’s then-teammate Kylian Mbappe was blown away. “I recently spoke with my father about a player who caught my attention from the stands because of his pace. It was Doku from Rennes,” he said in 2021. “In my five years as a professional, I've never seen someone with such explosiveness in his first steps."

The compliments kept on coming. After a game against Stade de Reims, opposition left-back Thibault De Smet said it was “impossible” to stop him.

“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played against,” De Smet told reporters. “The only thing that can help is defending with two men. But when you face him one-on-one, with his starting speed, he only needs to give the ball one tap to pass you.”

As Doku continued to flourish, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola made a telling comment on Spanish television in 2022 that appeared to signal his tactical intent. “Today football is losing the dribble,” he said. “Without players who dribble, nothing can be done."

In total, Doku made 92 appearances across all competitions for Rennes, registering 12 goals and 10 assists across a three-year spell. He was also making a real impression at national level alongside Eden Hazard — all those years after watching him tear up the Premier League on television.

That form was enough to peak the interest of treble winners City. In fact, a year after Pep Guardiola stressed the importance of dribbling, City made a statement when they announced the signing of one of Europe's most explosive wingers.

Jeremy Doku is the face of Nike Underwear's latest collection. Image credit: Nike
Jeremy Doku is the face of Nike Underwear's latest collection. Image credit: Nike

A chat with Guardiola and City's director of football Txiki Begiristain about the sporting project in Manchester was key for Doku, as was his relationship with countryman Kevin De Bruyne, who was all but positive about the move.

"I arrived at Rennes I when I was 18 and I learned so much in my three years there. However, I also felt ready to take another step in my career," he tells us.

"Like I’ve said, I always aspired to play in the Premier League as a child. I really admired Manchester City’s approach and their interest in me. I was already convinced by their track record and when a team like Manchester City shows interest in you, it’s a pleasure to hear such positive feedback."

It didn't take him long to make an impression. Doku made a blistering start to life in Manchester, picking up three goals and six assists in his first 12 appearances for the Citizens as they began their title defence.

"As a winger in the final third, he has special quality," Guardiola said after he opened his account for City in their 3-1 win over West Ham in September. "We try to use him for that."

Although rough around the edges at times, Doku can look back on his debut campaign with pride. As well as boasting the most progressive carries in the Premier League with 218, he completed the second most successful dribbles (168 attempted with a 51.2% success) in England's top flight.

A game that encapsulated his willingness to drive at defenders came at Anfield in November, when he gave Trent Alexander-Arnold the mother of all headaches, completing more dribbles (11) than any Premier League player since September 2021.

Image credit: Getty
Image credit: Getty

Doku's ability to break through opposition lines with his direct and unpredictable style almost goes against the grain at City, who are more known for grinding teams down by being patient in possession.

Even the man himself was surprised to slot into Pep's system with such ease.

"I expected adapting to be more complicated, based on what I had watched on television," he says when asked about the system. "But honestly, what he asks from me is quite simple.

"He just wants me to do what I’m good at and to be natural. He always strives to place me in the best positions to show what I’m truly capable of. He wants me to showcase my dribbling and defence to the best of my abilities.

"Of course, sometimes it’s difficult. However, he helps me a lot and so does the rest of the team. I am very happy with how things are going."

Doku knows that Guardiola's presence has only enhanced his overall game.

"Most of his advice has been adapting my positions on the pitch to explore my dribbling skills further," he continues. "Whether that’s being more in front of the goal, his advice can be minimal but always filled with so much detail."

Last month, the Spaniard spoke about Doku and how they’ve worked together to help develop another aspect of his game. On several occasions in recent weeks Jack Grealish has started games as Doku conserves his energy before making an impact from the bench.

Grealish, who will no doubt go down as one of the most fouled players in Premier League history, will slowly wear his opponent down by inviting pressure before Doku's frightening speed is introduced when fatigue comes into play.

It’s a formula that works. “From the start he was good but the bench not good,” Guardiola said about the Belgian in April. “We talked about that and how he has to make an impact when the players are more tired. He has a special quality one against one.”

On Saturday afternoon, Doku will be hoping to deliver one of those special moments at Wembley when City come up against Manchester United in the FA Cup final.

If all goes to plan, he will be watching this weekend's episode of Match of the Day with a smile on his face.

Featured Image Credit: Getty Images - Instagram/jeremydoku

Topics: FA Cup, Manchester City, Manchester United, Pep Guardiola, Premier League, Spotlight