“It was one of the happiest times of my football career," says former Burnley midfielder Steven Defour on his time at Turf Moor
"I played for some great teams, but to be a part of Burnley Football Club was a real highlight in my career.”
Steven Defour’s move to Turf Moor just over four years ago helped the Mechelen-born midfielder rediscover his love for the game.
Following a troubled time at Anderlecht, which included a deplorable return to Standard Liege in 2015, Defour had turned his back on his native Belgium and sought an escape route.
“It was difficult,” said Defour, reflecting on his switch to Brussels.
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“When I signed for them I knew that there was going to be some difficulties, but I thought if I was playing well the Anderlecht supporters would appreciate the things that I was doing for them.
“I convinced a big group of fans, but the most hardened fans never accepted me.
“At that point I just thought it would be better for me to leave.
“It was difficult for me because it felt like everything I did just wasn’t enough.
“I just wanted to get away from Belgium.”
The one-time Manchester United target, who had seen a proposed move to Dutch giants Ajax collapse earlier in his career, was cherished in Liege.
He played a leading role in securing the club’s last couple of Pro League titles, as well as bringing domestic cup glory, prior to his move to Porto.
But his transfer to their eternal rivals, on the back of adding two Primeira Liga titles to his CV, soured his reputation to an unfathomable extent.
A banner, depicting his severed head, brought nationwide condemnation when displayed by home supporters at the Stade Maurice Dufrasne.
Defour was sent off in the derby, a moment that may have spelled the beginning of the end for his playing career in his homeland.
Fortunately, he would find sanctuary at Burnley. “It was a different world!
“To be loved from the first minute, even when I wasn’t playing, was special.
“They appreciated me more and more when I started to play the games.
“It was one of the happiest times of my football career.”
The ‘will he, won’t he?’ narrative, which accompanies all great transfer sagas, had fans on tenterhooks as Sean Dyche looked to break the club’s transfer record at the time.
Defour had been on the verge of a move to Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi, but the Burnley boss flew out to convince his target that the Premier League was where his future would lie.
The pair met at Lotto Park and things started to gather pace from that point.
Defour said: “There were two clubs that were really interested with Al Jazira from Abu Dhabi and then Burnley came along.
“We were very close [to agreeing a deal with Al Jazira], but there was a little disagreement about the transfer amount.
“Then Burnley came up and they were really direct so they came to an agreement quite quickly, within about 10 days.
“Al Jazira had been going on for about two months.
“I started looking on the internet about Burnley and there was a journalist who watches Belgian players in the Premier League so he told me some things about Burnley.”
He added: “I was done with Belgium so I wanted to go away.
“At one point the ‘gaffer’ was calling me everyday, he came out to see me and we had a nice discussion.
“He just made me change my mind. He suggested that if I played in the Premier League I could return to the national team so I decided to give it a shot. It felt like the ‘gaffer’ really wanted me, which is always nice.
“He was explaining how everything works at Burnley, he was telling me the story of the club, and he said that they were trying to add some players who could give them something more.
“He wanted more creative players so afterwards Jeff [Hendrick] came in and Robbie [Brady] and Johann [Berg Gudmundsson] signed just before me.
“He was trying to bring a bit of a change while sticking to the same principles as well.”
Defour provided the assist for Andre Gray’s goal against Liverpool on his debut as the Clarets ran out 2-0 winners at Turf Moor.
He would go on to start the next six games for Burnley in the top flight, netting his first goal for the club with a stunning turn and finish against Hull City, but he struggled to play beyond the hour mark as he continued to acclimatise to a new way of working.
“He [Sean Dyche] was pretty straight forward from the beginning and he liked me, but we had some difficulties with the away games,” he said.
“He put me on the bench at Stoke City and I couldn’t understand why, but he said that I had to adapt to Burnley and not the other way around.
“He always said that I was one of his best players in training, but I had to adapt.
“He always said that he had a lot of confidence in me so at the start of the second season I just gave it a go.
“It worked out quite well.
“I had always played in teams who had a lot of ball possession, but he taught me that there are other ways to win games.
“He taught me a different style of play, which, in time, I really appreciated.”
Defour had continued to build on his match fitness and eventually completed his first 90 in the goalless draw against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in the FA Cup.
He would match that feat in the replay before going on to score a quite magnificent winner at home to Bristol City in the next round of the competition.
However, a hamstring injury, sustained in victory over Leicester City, would curtail his progression as he endured a two-month spell on the sidelines.
Better would follow, most notably a 3-2 triumph over defending champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the following season and, who can forget, that free-kick against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Defour said: “My first game, my first goal against Hull, the away game against Chelsea in my second year. There were some good moments there.
“The free kick at Old Trafford was quite special, but I think my goal against Bristol City in the cup was nicer because it was technically more difficult.
“The free kick was good because you’re playing against Manchester United in Manchester, the free kick was far out and it was against one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”
Defour, by his own admission, had been in the ‘best form of his life’, but further devastation was just around the corner.
Read part two of the Steven Defour interview in next week’s Express Sport