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From Arsenal bad boy to Dutch cup finalist - Daniel Crowley on his remarkable road to redemption

09:00 BST 30/04/2019
Daniel Crowley Willem II 2018/19
The former Gunners prodigy is now with Willem II and this weekend will take on Ajax in the KNVB Beker final in Rotterdam

For Daniel Crowley, there is no looking back – only forward.

Signed by Arsenal from Aston Villa at the age of just 15, he was once hailed as the next big thing.

He was a teenager with the world at his feet, the next Jack Wilshere some said, but as has happened with so many supposed 'wonderkids' in football, things didn't go to plan.

Now 21, he is adamant he is good enough to still be playing for the Gunners and making a difference in the Premier League.

However, he is instead turning out each week for Dutch outfit Willem II, whose last major honour came way back in 1963 – 34 years before Crowley was even born. 

That barren spell could come to an end this weekend, however, when the Tricolores take on Ajax in the KNVB Beker final.

Consequently, as Crowley prepares for what will be the biggest game of his life, the playmaker insists he has no regrets about how things have turned out.

Quite the contrary, in fact. The Coventry native is loving life in Tilburg – a city 382 miles from home – as he rebuilds a career that was threatening to derail itself before it had even got going.

“I do see players from my age group playing in the Premier League now and I think, 'How are they playing there and I’m not?" Crowley admits to Goal.

"Do I think I'm good enough to still be at Arsenal? One hundred per cent. But there are no real regrets because that’s just the way I am. Every career is different.”

And Crowley’s short career so far has been exactly that. In fact, 'different' would be an understatement.

He was lured away from Villa by Arsenal in 2013 and much was expected of the prodigious talent. Unfortunately, the teenager struggled to live up to the hype in north London.

The early days were positive and some excellent performances for the Under-18s and Under-21s saw him join Arsene Wenger’s senior squad for a pre-season tour to Singapore in 2015.

But subsequent loan spells with Barnsley and Oxford were then cut short amid clashes with coaching staff – something that would also cause him problems when he was back with the Gunners at London Colney.

Crowley hadn’t even reached the age of 20, but he was already viewed by many as a troublesome character.

It was that reputation that ultimately forced the attacker to move away from England in 2017 – just four years after making his big move to Arsenal.

All he wanted to do was play football, but now he had to go to Netherlands to do it.

“I had no choice,” he said. “I had quite a bad name in England, which was fair, but the thing is – I was still a kid.

“I was this kid in a man’s world and it was really hard. Just because I was ready with my feet footballing-wise, it doesn’t mean that I was ready maturity-wise and I think that that is what people forget in football. That side of things is not really fair.

“You have to grow up so fast and I wasn’t ready to do that.

“I feel like I was a bit of a scapegoat at times. But don’t get me wrong, I didn’t always handle things in the right way.”

Crowley added: “The thing with Arsenal is they play a certain way and not many teams play that way – and I think that’s a problem as well.

“They don’t teach you about going on loan to the lower league clubs: to go from such a big club like Arsenal, playing with great players, to then playing a completely different way in League One.

“That’s what’s wrong with the youth system in England. That’s nothing against the first team because the first team have to win, they don’t have the time really to worry about the young players. So, I don’t put any blame on them.

“But something does have to change and that’s why everyone is coming out to Holland and Germany, because they need game time.”

Crowley made the move to Willem II without making a single senior appearance for the Gunners, who let him leave on a free transfer despite still having a year left on his contract.

It was a brave step for such a young man but it was one that soon ran into familiar problems when Crowley found himself kicking his heels on the bench once again.

But, unlike at Barnsley and Oxford, this time there weren’t any tantrums. Crowley went looking for a solution and he found one in the Dutch second division with Cambuur – where he spent the second half of last season on loan.

“I had to take quite a big cut to my wages to go out and play,” he said. “Not many players would have done that but I can’t sit on the bench; it drives me crazy.

“The second division was not where I wanted to be. It hurts your ego a little bit having to drop down but you just have to get over that and do it.

“Once I was there, I was really happy because I was playing. That’s all I want to do, I just want to play – that’s what makes me happy.”

And Crowley hasn’t stopped smiling since he returned to Willem II last summer.

A change of coach, with Adrie Koster coming in, has transformed his spell in Holland and this season he has featured in every single game, something no other player in the squad can say.

Crowley now feels settled. He has six goals and eight assists in all competitions, helping Willem II up to eighth in the Eredivisie and into the cup final.

He is the first to admit he needed to grow up, to mature – but he has done just that in the past 12 months, with concerns over his attitude now a thing of the past.

“I haven’t had any problems out here,” he said. “There hasn’t been anything in the papers about me and that was an issue when I was in England. People questioned my attitude and my maturity but I think I’ve proven that now. I’ve grown up a lot and I needed to.

“Before, I was falling out with people because I wasn’t playing but I’ve learned you can’t do that because you just become disruptive for the team and it’s not their fault.

“The thing with me is I have a strong personality. I’m a bit like marmite. You either really like me or you don’t understand me.

“I’ve had to change because sometimes I would say things in the wrong places. I’d speak my mind in the wrong situation when it wasn’t needed or it was out of order.

“But there is no malice in me; it’s just I don’t sugar-coat what I say.”

Crowley has certainly done his talking on the pitch this season and, on Sunday, he will get his reward when he starts for Willem II against Ajax in Rotterdam.

“It’s going to be massive, he said. “You don’t actually realise how big it is for the people of Tilburg until you actually speak to them. The place is buzzing.

“We’re the underdogs and you do think sometimes, 'How are we going to stop them?'

“But you just never know in football. We’ve lost both times in the league to them this season but the final will be a completely different game.

“We have to try and test them, to get around them and cause them problems.”

For Crowley, Sunday’s final will not only be the biggest game of his life, but it will also be an opportunity to prove he has put his troubled days from England firmly behind him.

He has just one year left on his contract with Willem II and talks are planned for the summer, with the Dutch outfit having expressed a wish to tie him to a new deal.

But his performances this season have not gone unnoticed and several top clubs are circling, both in Holland and elsewhere in Europe.

And Crowley admits that he has a burning desire to play at the top level.

“I am ambitious,” said Crowley. “I do massively believe in myself, I think I can be one of the best No.10s in Europe.

“We’ve done really well this season, but it’s been tough at times. I want to go to a team where you are playing top five, top six. 

“The next team I want to go to I want it to be about attacking, when we have the ball and dominate the game.

“I do miss home, I do miss England and I would love to play there again but I’m not the type of person just to go to a team in England because it’s in England. If there is a better team for me in Holland or Belgium, or somewhere else, then I would do it.

“But I want to play in higher-paced football. I think it makes you better and that’s what I’m looking for next.”