Steven Pienaar represented another of David Moyes’s great bargains, one of the proverbial rabbits the Everton manager regularly pulled from a hat to infuse his Everton side with fresh impetus and vim at a time when they struggled to compete financially with rivals that they outperformed on the pitch.
The South African first achieved prominence at Ajax Amsterdam, having originally been picked up playing for the Dutch giant’s South African satellite club, Ajax Cape Town. Indeed Pienaar’s rise to the elite of European football was impressive indeed. He grew up under the shadow of apartheid and gang violence in the Johannesburg township of Westbury, where drug-dealing and shootings were commonplace.
‘One thing that sticks in my mind is watching television sitting on the floor. We had a couch, but I wasn’t allowed on it, because you never knew when a bullet was going to come flying in through the window,’ he recalled in a 2010 interview with the Daily Mail.
‘It has calmed down a bit now, but in those days, when I was eight or nine, you witnessed violence and drug-dealing at close quarters on a daily basis. You grew up with it. It was part of your life, and no one ever dared try to do anything about it.’
As a 20-year-old Pienaar was a member of South Africa’s World Cup squad that competed in the 2002 finals in Japan and South Korea. In 2006 he joined Borussia Dortmund as a replacement for Arsenal-bound Tomas Rosicky. Scarcely then could he have imagined that he would soon be following the Czech star to the Premier League.
The South African’s stay in the Ruhr was brief and unhappy. In the summer of 2007 Moyes signed him on a season-long loan with an option to sign him permanently. He was, in effect, a direct replacement for the disappointing Simon Davies, who had joined Fulham in the previous transfer window.
Few on Merseyside knew much about Pienaar at the time. A slight figure, who stood just 5ft 7in tall, with his hair matted into dreadlocks he looked an unlikely Premier League star. Indeed when he made his debut as a substitute on the opening day of the 2007/08 season, one wag sitting near me in Goodison’s Main Stand opined to guffaws of laughter that he looked ‘more like a single mother from Toxteth than a footballer’.
How wrong he would be. Pienaar was a beautifully balanced player, speedy of thought and foot, always moving, probing, seeking to find gaps in the opposition’s rearguard. In a vibrant, skilful midfield that included Mikel Arteta, Tim Cahill, Leon Osman and, later, Marouane Fellaini, he was often the heartbeat, omnipresent and energetic, keeping the possession football that Everton were increasingly playing ticking. An evangelical Christian, on scoring he would often lift his royal blue shirt in celebration to reveal a T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘God Is Great’. At the end of the 2007/08 season Moyes took up the option to sign Pienaar permanently, the £2.05million fee representing another staggering bargain for the Scot.
With left back Leighton Baines Pienaar would develop a formidable left-sided partnership, the midfielder feeding through balls to the defender’s overlapping runs to beautiful effect. Between them the pair would have a telling impact on Everton’s rise to fifth in the 2008/09 season and their FA Cup Final appearance against Chelsea. The following season they were Everton’s most influential players as the club overcame a difficult start to finish eighth. Pienaar was awarded Everton’s Player of the Year award in May 2010.
‘I believe that he has grown this year,’ said the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, soon afterwards. ‘He was usually a very busy player where the final ball was missing a little bit, but this year he has gained in personality, and he has kept his work-rate, so he has been much more efficient. I believe what also played a big role in his growth was that [Mikel] Arteta was not there for a while, and that he had to take the responsibility of being the playmaker of the team. In fairness, he was one of the best players in England this year.’
At that summer’s World Cup, Pienaar was the face of his home nation. He was outstanding in South Africa’s group match victory over France, but it was not enough to see the hosts through to the second round. In England speculation abounded over Pienaar’s Everton future. With 12 months left on his existing deal a new contract remained unsigned. He remained an Everton player as the 2010/11 season kicked off and never let transfer talk undermine his perennially excellent performances. But with Everton mired in financial difficulty, a £2.5million offer from Tottenham Hotspur in January 2011 was always too good to turn down when the player was able to leave for free the following summer.
‘I really have to admit that Everton and especially David Moyes made me the player in the Premier League that I am today,’ said Pienaar on his departure. ‘I will be always thankful for that.’
However, the move to White Hart Lane proved unhappy and there was a successful return on loan to Everton minutes from the January 2012 transfer deadline. With Mikel Arteta now an Arsenal player, Pienaar was the uncontested Everton playmaker and the team thrived under his influence, overcoming a slow start to the season to finish seventh – finishing above Liverpool (by one place) for only the fourth time in 40 years.