EXCLUSIVE: PEC Zwolle teen Ryan Thomas developing years ahead of schedule
“It’s hard to imagine how it’s gone so quickly and so well,” says a gleeful Ryan Thomas as he reflects on his first seven months in the Eredivisie with PEC Zwolle.
The 19-year-old forward has had a blistering start to life in Holland since signing for Zwolle at the start of the season, playing a key role as they marched to the Dutch Cup final and secured Europa League football in only their second campaign back in the top flight.
Those aren’t the only highlights for the youngster, however, as his valiant displays in the league even earned him his first cap for the New Zealand national team.
“It has just been a crazy season for me,” he says with pride surveying the inaugural months in which he has made a seamless transition into Ron Jans’ entertaining and attacking side.
Did he ever imagine he’d have such an exciting start to his career?
“Definitely not. With my coach back home, I planned that I’d play in the [Zwolle] second team for a season and then try to break into the first-team the next season. But to then be playing in the first-team within two months and then have my performances get even better, then the national team came, it has been crazy.”
Gaining his first cap for New Zealand in the friendly against Japan in early March is a particular highlight for the teenager as he started the match, coming up against the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Keisuke Honda and Hiroshi Kiyotake.
Although the All Whites conceded four goals within 17 minutes, they were able to pull it back as the game ended 4-2.
Despite the defeat, Thomas was entirely upbeat about his first display for Neil Emblen’s side.
“It was very good, it was one of the best moments of my career.
“We didn’t start very well but that was definitely one of the best experiences, playing against those players, just learning from them; what they did in the game, how they acted to different players, it was a great experience.
“To play against Japan in Tokyo was pretty crazy. I never saw myself doing that six months ago. It’s been crazy how that’s happened in the last month so I was very happy with that.”
As he looks back on representing his country, there is a clear sense of jubilation in his voice. It’s as if he is still basking in the glory of his maiden national appearance, almost like the mere recollection of the day fills him with pride and sheer euphoria.
He is living the dream and of course he is right to enjoy the great moments that come as a result of his ephemeral and unexpected rise to the top level in the Netherlands as well as New Zealand.
It all began when he was given a trial with the team in blue and white hoops last year. Paying for his own flights and hotel, he travelled over from his homeland and successfully earned a contract with the club in October. Since then, he has settled in very well.
“The first two or three months was a bit hard living in the hotel but after I moved out and found a family to live with, everything settled down quickly and that was good for my football.”Despite some cultural differences between New Zealand and the Netherlands, Thomas has adapted quickly to life in Holland.
“The weather was a big one, luckily it was a warm winter so it wasn’t too bad but the lifestyle is quite a bit different. It’s much more relaxed than New Zealand and everyone is quite chilled.
“That took a bit of getting used to but there’s not too many differences that throw you off, so it’s not too bad.”
He feels lucky to have such a helpful, supportive group of players around him, while his coach, Ron Jans, has been a positive influence on him.
“There’s a few experienced players and they always help me out and some of the other players come up to me and put an arm around me and say what’s going on and what I should do. That’s good to have.
“[Jans] is very good for me. He tells me what he thinks I should be doing, he puts his arm round me and we trust each other, we can say what we feel to each other. He’s been really good for me in my first season.
“It has been pretty uncanny how perfect the club has been for my development so far.”
He received his first taste of first-team football just a few weeks after joining the club, opening the scoring in his debut for the Blauwvingers in the 4-0 win over amateur side Wilhelmina ´08 in the cup. Days later, Thomas was in the starting line-up to face perennial Dutch giants PSV, putting in a positive display as they earned a 1-1 draw.
“I was getting goosebumps. You look around the stadium and see 30,000 fans, it was quite incredible for my first taste of it. It was quite nerve-racking.
“All the players came up to me and said ‘just relax, do your own thing and it’ll be good,’ it was a bonus to get a draw there.”
Clashes with the Eredivisie’s biggest teams have proved fruitful for Zwolle as they have beaten Feyenoord and drawn with Twente and Ajax while they also came close against Vitesse and the experience of facing the league’s powerhouses is exciting for Thomas.
“It’s second to none. You can’t get many experiences like playing against the big teams in the big occasions and all the fans come and they’re screaming and shouting.
“It’s a great experience to be able to play in games like that, especially with the way we play. We’ve been playing well against the big teams, and not so well against the small teams but it’s definitely good and exciting to see the team getting better and better against the big teams.”
Since his introduction into the Zwolle team, Thomas’ speed, technical ability and impressive skill have seen him become a key member of the side, helping them on their march to the KNVB Beker final, beating NEC in the semi-final to set up an ultimate fixture against Ajax.The meeting with Frank de Boer’s side in De Kuip on 20th April comes as a momentous occasion in Zwolle’s history. The Overijssel side’s previous two appearances in the final, in 1928 and 1977, proved fruitless and being faced with the likely league champions means the mid-table team will play in the Europa League next term – a first in their history.
Thomas has noticed the whole club has been uplifted by the team’s excellent achievement and he feels his side will put up a good fight against the Godenzonen, whom they held to a 1-1 draw in their previous meeting.
“Ever since [the semi-final] everyone has had a smile on their face and it’s all been going well. That was really good for the club.
“Playing against the big teams, we usually do step up our game. We played well the last time [against Ajax], we could actually have won that game so we have some confidence heading into it.
“Hopefully we can get something, nick a win or a draw and take it into extra time. But we’ve got quite a bit of confidence which is good and you don’t see it from such a small club.
“For us just to have a chance to win the cup is great for everyone involved with the club, so it’d be great if that would happen.
“It’s pretty unreal to think we could be playing in the Europa League next year.”
His maiden campaign in the Dutch top flight has been rather unbelievable and has brought nothing but success. However, Thomas is remaining grounded and is only looking to continue his development, hoping to improve on his current record of one goal and one assist in the league so far.
“Playing as an attacking player, I want to be scoring more goals and getting more assists, but other than that there’s always ways to improve your passing, touch and game awareness, but that’ll come as I get older.
“Hopefully soon I can learn to chip in with some goals every two or three weeks. Hopefully that’ll come with age but I’m working hard to improve on it.
“I’m just trying to get games under my belt, get experience, especially with the season I’ve had.
“After the final games of the season I’ll have a look at how everything has gone and then I’ll try to decide what I want to improve on then.”
He has his own long-term dreams and ambitions, setting a move to the English Premier League as a career goal, but staying focused on the present is key to reaching his targets in the distant future.
“I try and stay in the present, stay grounded and not look into the future to see what’s going to happen. Just try and improve on now.
“In New Zealand we only have the Premier League to watch, growing up that’s all I saw before they showed Champions League, so I’ve always wanted to play in England and play for the best teams there.”
Thomas remains wise, patient and firmly rooted to the ground despite an electrifying, exciting and truly impressive first season in the Eredivisie. He is already years ahead of his own development schedule but is concentrated only on developing further. With his attitude, raw talent, potential and the nurturing surroundings of Dutch football and Zwolle, he is a player who has a great chance of fulfilling his potential and achieving his dreams.