Chery on top: The unexpected rise of Tjaronn

On one of the last days of the season, after a laid-back training session, FC Groningen goalkeeper Sergio Padt was flipping through his phone. The team had completed their main objective for the season, having beaten PEC Zwolle in the KNVB Beker to qualify for the Europa League in 2015-16. It was a historic first major trophy for the club beating Ron Jans’ men 2-0, wrestling it from the team who beat Ajax 5-1 in the final the previous year. Yet it turned out there was still another crowning of said season to be taking place and Padt would be the first to find out.

For the first time since 1990, a player of FC Groningen was called up for the Dutch national team. In between, the supremely talented Arjen Robben needed a PSV transfer for it, while Virgil van Dijk (still waiting for his first cap) was accepted as a contender after a few months at Celtic.

Now, after two fantastic campaigns in the green of Groningen, Tjaronn Chery was invited into a team consisting of the likes of Robin van Persie, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Memphis Depay and Stefan de Vrij.

In the end, a cap was a bridge too far for Chery. But to finish a season training with the nation’s top players is a massive step forward considering that just months prior, he was willing to move to Al Ahli to get a bigger pay-check. In less than a year, the 27-year-old has re-ignited his footballing dreams after making peace with the fact that his main target should be ensuring financial stability.

The road to becoming one of Eredivisie’s finest – Chery was one of only five players involved in 20+ Eredivisie goals last season – has not been a straight forward one for him.

An FC Twente youth academy player, Chery was one of the few players training with the reserves despite not having a contract. His lack of physical development was cited as the main reason for a lack of trust from the technical staff.

After loan spells in the second tier at SC Cambuur and RBC Roosendaal. he ended up at FC Emmen and later earned his move to the Eredivisie, rejecting sc Heerenveen and FC Utrecht to sign for ADO Den Haag. The then 23-year-old was a playful winger with a lack of upper body strength and nothing was pointing to any big break. At ADO, the Den Haag-born attacker showed flashes of brilliance playing from the wing. But a lack of physical presence still kept him away from his favourite position, as did his playful nature.

An exciting player from time to time, Chery was still not a mark of efficiency. However, after two good seasons at ADO, FC Groningen decided to take a punt at the left-footed player, now a No.10 more than a winger.

The move caused more disgruntlement than satisfaction among the fans of the club. After all, the signing, who was obtained via a loan deal and a mandatory fee of €800.000, was 25 and while he may have been one of ADO’s better players, it was by no means a vintage side. His first game for Groningen did much to appease the fans though, as he scored one and assisted two more in a 4-1 away win over N.E.C.. But there was plenty to complain about over the months following, as Chery seemed out of his depth in a struggling team.

In reality, the quicksilver midfielder was not fitting in the more energetic style FC Groningen tried to display. But a switch in tactics in early 2014 unearthed the better in the suave playmaker. In a style more based on transition and pace, Chery started to develop more as a midfielder, aided by Filip Kostic and Richairo Zivkovic as thankful outlets for the rangy passing of the, by now, fulcrum of FC Groningen’s attack. As the season progressed, Groningen hit a hot streak with Chery as the main inspiration. They won their last nine games, with the creative star scoring five goals in that run, ensuring qualification for the Europa League in the process.

The summer of 2014 was one of a lot of flirting without any substance for Tjaronn Chery. Whereas Zivkovic earned a transfer to Ajax and Kostic found a new home in Stuttgart, Chery was considering moves to Anzhi Makachkhala and Al Ahli. Knowing how fickle the world of football is, the playmaker sought for a move that would land him financial security for years to come.

To everybody’s surprise, he was still at Groningen come the beginning of the new season. And without his two favourite tools in Kostic and Zivkovic, 2014-15 could well have turned out to be a difficult one for him.

However, not only had Kostic and Zivkovic progressed, but by the time the Eredivisie kicked off again, FC Groningen seemed to have a bonafide class player in their midst in Chery. The ability to dribble was always there, his vision was undisputed, his shot a weapon, but soon it would turn out that Tjaronn was a more focused, physically stronger version of himself compared to the previous season.

A first glimpse of his new found level was shown against Ajax. Facing the likes of Davy Klaassen and Thulani Serero on the opposite side, there was no question that Chery was the best midfielder on the pitch, elevating himself to another level than any other player out there. The Euroborg star set up both goals for Groningen as they went on to beat the reigning champion 2-0 and, whereas in previous years he had peaks followed by troughs, he continued on a good level in the months following.

In the winter period, Chery was again courted by clubs, but the tune changed. Now it was not the big pay check clubs looking for him, but reputed clubs like Feyenoord started to flutter their eyelids towards the No.10. The vision to continually read the play, hardly ever being caught out in possession and the ability to accelerate play was recognized. Still, there was plenty to work on for the stocky playmaker. One of the weak points in previous years had turned into one of his strengths, as Chery was now a physically full-grown midfielder with great stamina. But efficiency was still an issue as it was in previous seasons. His five goals from 21 games were a decent return, but nothing special.

But again, Chery managed to take his game to a new level. The year 2015 was kicked off with a 2-0 defeat to Ajax, but in each of the next four games Tjaronn managed to find the net – including an all-important opener against Vitesse in the quarter-finals of the Dutch Cup – looking a new and improved version of his previous self. Slowly but steadily, the former playful, weak and inefficient winger was turning into a decisive, industrious attacking midfielder, aiding his team with goals and assists.

That’s not to say he wasn’t put to the test, though. In March, he lost his best friend due to a car accident. Rico had always watched all of his games and the first game he missed was the home game against FC Dordrecht. Chery, desperate to score in order to pay homage to his friend, finally found the net in the 90th minute, dribbling past his opponent and finding the far-away corner to seal a 2-0 win. With a shirt containing the text ‘Rust zacht Rico’ (rest in peace Rico) he honoured his friend in an emotional moment – later on voted the Fox Sports moment of the year –  that saw both the home crowd and the away fans applauding the midfielder.

The awful incident only spurred Chery on to make the best of his abilities. After a few games in which the playmaker was relatively anonymous, he once again showed his importance in setting up Hans Hateboer’s opener in the semi-final in the Cup against Excelsior with a delightful through ball. He eventually completed the rout scoring the goal to make it 3-0 himself. In the games following, he developed a habit of scoring free-kicks, with the pinnacle being a Ronaldo-esque rocket past Feyenoord goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer.

In the Cup final he was responsible for setting up the attack for the opening goal and with six goals in his last seven games, Chery underlined his readiness for a next step. Despite his age, there is still plenty of room for him to develop into an even better player and the reported interest of Werder Bremen, Lazio and Napoli shouldn’t even come as a surprise.

The preamble has taken several years, but last season has been the perfect catapult for Tjaronn Chery to burst onto the scene and turn a career that seemed unremarkable into a fairy-tale ending in a Dutch national jersey, representing a big club in the national colours of his country.

Regarded as weak fruit only five years ago, Tjaronn has managed to turn things around and become the Chery on top.

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