He enjoys weekdays more than match days. But that doesn’t apply to Sunday, when Ajax will play PSV. Then reserve keeper Jasper Cillessen will finally get what he’s been waiting for: a place in the starting line-up.
Does a reserve keeper need to have specific qualities? Jasper Cillessen shakes his head. “No” is his immediate reply. But as Ajax’s second goalie thinks about it a bit longer, he changes his mind. “Patience. You need a lot of patience. But the problem is: I don’t have any patience.”
It’s Friday, two days before Cillessen will take the spot normally reserved for Kenneth Vermeer, who is suspended due to the red card he received against Heracles. That’s why for Sunday’s critical match against PSV, his stand-in, Cillessen, will enjoy a starting spot. While some of his fellow players are polishing their kicking technique after the training, the reserve keeper takes some time to reflect.
His situation is far from ideal. He admits that whole heartedly. Young, driven keepers like him want to play. “You want to feel pressure, and play in big stadiums.” But that most likely won’t happen this season. Kenneth Vermeer is above him in the pecking order, meaning that the Groesbeek native must content himself with sporadic substitutions and five KNVB Cup matches. “But am I supposed to walk around frustrated? No, that doesn’t help anybody, especially not me.”
So the goalie, who came from NEC, handles it differently. His motto is hard work. “That’s how I keep Kenneth sharp”, he says. Because Cillessen is breathing down his neck, Vermeer can’t afford to let up. Moreover: “If he wasn’t training as hard as he is, he wouldn’t be performing as well as he is. Because if you don’t feel any pressure you become lazy. That’s true for everyone.” In part due to the fanaticism with which he competes, the reserve keeper also impresses his coach. Frank de Boer calls him a true pro. “But in my experience it’s normal to give everything. You train so hard to get better.”
On the other hand, he doesn’t have much choice. Aren’t all employees expected to give everything? “Yes, but I think work is a bad word for football players. I always call it ‘hobbying’. If you start to look at football as being work, then it stops being fun. As far as I know, there aren’t many people who go to work every day with a smile on their face.”
Cillessen does. “Even when I’m not having such a good day. Those are mostly during the weekend. That’s when I don’t play.” But, playing minutes or not, nobody will ever catch him with an indifferent attitude on match day. “I prepare for a match just like any other player. You wait for an opportunity, although I don’t like the word wait so much. That’s like saying I’m waiting for Kenneth to get injured. But I make sure that I’m always ready for that moment. That could be in the warm-up, or after five minutes. I need to be there then. And until now, I always have been.”
A good example was the home game against Steaua Bucharest, during which he substituted for Vermeer in the second half. Cillessen made a sharp impression during that session. With a few key saves, he kept his team in the game. As he says himself: “I’m always in the starting blocks when I’m needed. If Kenneth stays down for longer than usual, I’m ready. As a keeper, you don’t have much time to warm up, so you need to use all the time you have in a moment like that. Every second counts.”
“What am I feeling at a time like that? Eagerness. Then I think: it’s my turn now. I’m just like a kid who comes home from school and throws his stuff in the corner. That’s how it is on the bench, too. Take everything off and go.” Moments like that are what I do it all for. But he gets most of his satisfaction from training. “Working hard, improving. Enjoying the game. I’m enjoying every day I’m here. And I’m noticing that I’m getting better. That’s logical, training at a top level every day for a year and a half. It’s just that you also want to show it in the duels that matter. Not in the second team. That level is pretty high, but less.”
The question is what does his future look like. Earlier, Cillessen – whose contract runs until 2016 – admitted that he isn’t looking forward to another year on the bench. “But I wouldn’t dare say that to you. I’m not busy with that. Only Sunday counts now. We’ll hopefully get the title after that.” And after this season? “Holidays. After that, I’ll come back to the club fully rested and we’ll look at the possibilities then.”