The afternoon of April 20. Manchester City had just beaten Tottenham. The heartache of a Champions League defeat four days prior had been avenged – the slender 1-0 win took them a giant step closer to consecutive Premier League titles.
Exultation consumed the dressing room, but not in Kevin De Bruyne’s corner. He had suffered a fifth injury of the season, forced off before half-time with a hamstring problem.
He told City physios his campaign was over. Leave him alone, he wanted a holiday. ‘I’m done,’ he said to them. Season finished. Five injuries were just too much to bear.
Kevin De Bruyne has overcome five injuries this season to be fit for Saturday’s FA Cup final
The Belgian midfielder is a key part of Manchester City’s side as they chase a domestic treble
So there are two things here. Firstly, it is remarkable he fought back to play some part in the final-day drama at Brighton and is pushing for inclusion in today’s FA Cup final. Secondly, his answer when assessing the last two titles is hardly surprising.
‘Last year was way better for me,’ De Bruyne smiled with that deadpan delivery for which he is now famed. ‘I hate watching my team, I just can’t, especially at the end of the season when there’s so much at stake. I just think you’re not in control.
‘You can’t do anything. You feel more like a fan. Obviously I watched all the games, but it’s not something I really enjoy.’
De Bruyne has done brilliantly to regain fitness as he played a role on the final day at Brighton
De Bruyne never took that holiday, summoning the strength to overcome yet another setback. He mused on Friday that his wife, Michele, and family kept him sane during the lengthy layoffs.
His youngest son, Rome, was born the day before De Bruyne suffered knee ligament damage in a Carabao Cup match against Fulham last November. He FaceTimed his wife in tears. These have been trying times.
‘I already had a little boy (Mason, aged 3),’ De Bruyne said. ‘Going from one to two just means more sleepless nights! It kept me busy. Your family is always the sounding board for the players.
‘If you have a good base then the rest will be better. I knew my body was not ready enough to cope with the physicality. Afterwards, I said to myself, “Maybe I should have taken some time off,” because I had such a short summer. I’ve no doubt in my mind that after a good summer break and preparation everything will be fine.’
An appearance on Saturday would actually be the Belgian’s 32nd of the season, just over half of City’s 61 matches. Yet his presence has been missed enormously and Pep Guardiola might have been celebrating another 100-point haul had his fulcrum been fitter for longer.
The Belgian, a boyhood Liverpool fan, says he has no sympathy for the Reds missing the title
As it was, City pipped Liverpool by a point after Jurgen Klopp’s side amassed 97.
Does De Bruyne have any sympathy for Liverpool, a team he supported as a boy growing up in Gent?
‘No.’ There is a pause. He continues: ‘It’s a remarkable effort, but it means we were just better than them in the end. I don’t feel sorry for them, because I don’t think they’d feel sorry for us. I don’t think anybody felt sorry about the way we went out of the Champions League.
‘It has been a great battle. But to feel sorry for them is maybe going a little too far.’
At 27, his character – a dry sense of humour, a matter-of-fact outlook on life – is finally understood. Guardiola knows how to handle him and, to that end, De Bruyne knows how to handle his manager.
There was a difference of opinion after the midfielder stormed down the tunnel when substituted during a 9-0 win over Burton Albion in January. De Bruyne admitted Guardiola criticised him for his reaction. ‘I shouldn’t have left,’ he said. ‘Sometimes emotions come up. At that moment I was like, “I need the game-time”.
Looking back to earlier in the season, De Bruyne reflected on a brief fall-out with Pep Guardiola
‘(But) football is a game of emotion. If you’re angry, you’re angry and if it comes out that’s it. I don’t like how people try to get emotion out of the game. That’s why I also don’t like the new things like VAR.
‘You need to be more like a robot these days. You can’t let emotions out because every emotion that comes out is going to be published on social media in a bad way.’
De Bruyne, you sense, will never become anything close to robotic.