CLUB BRUGGE, in spite of various ups and downs, have been good for Laurens De Bock. He won three domestic trophies there and twice flirted with an international debut for Belgium.
A generous contract came his way two years ago too, but he left for Leeds United with a certain amount of relief.
The best years of his career at Brugge were topped and tailed by harder times and the realisation latterly that the end of the line had come.
De Bock wanted a transfer this month and Brugge were happy to cash in at the right price. A meeting in the outskirts of Brussels and a few subsequent phone calls were enough to tempt the left-back to take what Leeds were offering last week. Several Italian clubs and at least one other English side had also shown their hands.
De Bock’s CV has relatively few holes in it. He was part of the Brugge team that won a first Belgian Cup in eight years in 2015 and a fixture in the side which claimed a first league title in over a decade a year later.
Brugge opened the door to Champions League and Europa League appearances and brought him a domestic Super Cup medal last season.
The best years of his career at Brugge were topped and tailed by harder times and the realisation latterly that the end of the line had come.Phil Hay
Belgium had already capped him at almost every youth level and a senior cap was dangled in front of him twice at the peak of his form. A rib injury suffered in the 2015 cup final ruined one chance. The other faded away when De Bock failed to make Belgium’s final squad for the 2016 European Championship.
Those near-misses were no small matter. Belgium’s national squad is in a purple patch, drawing in players from clubs across Europe and several from the Premier League.
“He did well to be considered,” said Tomas Taecke, a football writer with Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws.
“Players in Belgium don’t often get into the national team. The top players are playing elsewhere in Europe. It’s tougher for someone like De Bock.” That the opportunity has not materialised again is reflective of his final 18 months with Brugge.
His contract was enhanced and extended in the summer of 2016, soon after he made the provisional squad for the Euros, but injury began to hold him back last season.
In the first month of this season Brugge’s head coach, the former Croatia international Ivan Leko, employed a back three in place of Brugge’s usual four-man defence.
De Bock was and is an attacking full-back who, as Taecke saw him, was “technically good and produced a lot of crosses in a system of four defenders” but Leko wanted out-and-out wingers in his 3-5-2 system.
De Bock became marginalised and had no grounds for contesting his manager’s tactics. When Belgium’s winter break began on Boxing Day Leko’s side were 11 points clear at the top of their division.
“Brugge always play attacking football but Leko wanted his 3-5-2 to be more offensive again,” Taecke said. “De Bock is 100 per cent left-footed, which means he’s only a left-back, and he’s not a player who goes past opponents one-on-one like a winger does. He’s had a few chances but in his last game, he messed it up.”
De Bock started against KAS Eupen at the beginning of December but was substituted after 55 minutes with Brugge 2-0 down. Leko’s players rallied without him and pinched a 2-2 draw in injury-time.
A January move, by all accounts, has been on De Bock’s mind for some time. Taecke said the 25-year-old had reached the point of thinking “okay, I have to leave now” and on Monday he quit Brugge’s winter training camp in Spain to fly to England and undergo a medical with Leeds.
Brugge were willing to let him go provided they recouped a reasonable portion of the £3m spent on signing the defender from Lokeren in 2013 and United are understood to have offered in the region of £1.5m. Brugge pepped up their own wide options this week by signing right-back Ivan Tomecak from fellow Belgian club KV Mechelen.
The fee paid for De Bock five years ago hung around his neck for a while and, to some extent, still does. He was prodigious at Lokeren, making their senior squad at 16, but in his first six months with Brugge he was sent off three times. Some among Brugge’s support questioned his ability and attitude and scoffed at the money invested in him.
“That fee is quite a lot of money for a transfer in Belgium,” Taecke said. “It’s a big fee by Belgium’s standards. He got three red cards before the end of his first season and people made jokes about how much the club had paid for him.
“It was difficult and people picked up on other things too. On the pitch he didn’t always look so motivated and around the pitch, around the club, you would say he’s an introvert.
“But away from football he can be a bit rock-and-roll. A lot of the fans liked that about him, even though it brought some controversy. When Brugge won the league, there was a video from the changing room afterwards where De Bock looked at the camera and said ‘every day now, let’s get drunk!’ That’s how he is.”
He is also a specialist left-back, something Leeds have been missing since Charlie Taylor burned his bridges at Elland Road and upped sticks for Burnley last July.
Taylor was consistent and defensively sound but adept too at overlapping going forward, delivering the ball regularly from the left wing. Having signed a four-and-a-half year contract with Leeds, De Bock has the chance to show his ability with an immediate debut at Ipswich Town on Saturday.
“Physically he should be okay,” Taecke said, “and the technical side of his game is good. He’s nice defensively but he’ll attack. That’s how Brugge like to play.”
He added: “The big thing for him is how he adapts psychologically in a league which is different and where teams play a different way.
“There are a lot of games in the Championship compared to Belgium but if he can adapt, England should be good for him. And he’ll be happy to be away from Brugge.”