‘I went from living in an attic on £50 a week to marking Wayne Rooney at a World Cup’
Jay DeMerit knows a thing or two about doing things the hard way.
The retired defender will be a familiar name to English football fans, having spent the majority of his professional career with Watford in the Premier League and the Championship. He also made 25 appearances for the United States, one of which came against England in that infamous 1-1 draw at the 2010 World Cup.
But what supporters might not remember is that DeMerit – who began his career in England with spells at non-league outfits Southall and Northwood – was the man charged with keeping Wayne Rooney quiet that night.
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Given the former Manchester United man didn't even come close to finding the back of the net on that fateful evening in Rustenburg, it's fair to say DeMerit executed his task to perfection.
And yet things could have been so different had the 42-year-old star not rolled the dice and taken a chance on moving to England on the advice of a friend, having failed to make the breakthrough in MLS.
"I didn’t turn professional until I was 23," DeMerit exclusively tells Daily Star Sport in a chat over Zoom. "I was passed up on in the States and didn’t get drafted in MLS.
"At the same time, I was playing semi-professionally with an Englishman in America who was moving back home, and he told me, 'You should come, if you’re going to do it the hard way, why don’t you try it in the UK?'
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"I had to do it the hard way anyway so I thought why not start where the light at the end of the tunnel is even brighter and give it a shot? From there I was playing in non-league for Northwood and Southall.
"I was so appreciative of the fact I got the opportunity to show what I had. I got a trial against Watford in the next pre-season and played well enough to get my first contract."
Needless to say, DeMerit didn't look back. Taking a chance on moving to England paid off in spades, and it wasn't long before he was making a huge impact for his new club.
"Sean Dyche was playing in front of me at the time as one of our older centre backs and he got injured in my first season and I ended up playing 30 games," he continues. "The next season we got promoted to the Premier league and I scored the first goal and got man of the match at the Millennium Stadium."
It was then that it dawned on DeMerit just how far he had come. "I'm sitting there giving this man of the match speech at the end of the game in front of 64,000 people going ‘two years ago I was watching this game at a bar in America!’
DeMerit's impressive displays for Watford saw him called up to the USMNT for the first time in 2007. Three years later he was named among Bob Bradley's squad for the World Cup in South Africa – and a date with destiny against the nation he had come to call home.
The former centre-back admits the pressure on the game was a little bit bigger for a number of reasons. "Mainly because it was the first marquee match of our group," he says, explaining the context of the game.
"That as the first big game in Group C was kind of the way we wanted it. You want to get that big game done so you can navigate the rest of the path from there. We were excited.
"We thought as a team that if we could get a good result against England it would give us a springboard for the rest of the group. We knew that if we did ok and got a point, or the potential bonus of three points, it would be a good place to start."
The game clearly meant a lot to DeMerit, who describes the moment leading up to kick-off as one of the best of his career. "I owed my professional success to the country of England, but it is the ultimate honour for any footballer to represent their country," he says.
"I was in two minds with that but it wasn’t like one side or the other, it was more like 'how does this happen?' To come from so far away, playing non-league football five or six years earlier, to standing on the halfway line with your hand on your heart representing one of XI, that for me was the moment.
"People always ask you what the pinnacle of your career was, and for me that was it. Hand on my heart, listening to the US national anthem against the team that gave me my professional life was such a big moment, both for me and the people that were in the stands that day cheering me on."
Turning to the game itself, DeMerit has particularly fond memories of marking a certain Wayne Rooney. The England forward went into the World Cup off the back of one of his most successful seasons at club level, having scored 34 goals in 44 games for United.
But that didn't phase DeMerit. "I had a pretty specific focus on marking Wayne Rooney," he continues. "They had Rooney and Emile Heskey up front and we had Oguchi Onyewu and myself. We were both little and large and that set the partnerships for who we were going to be marking in that first game.
"Rooney had just come off his best season – he was player of the year at Man Utd – so I was essentially preparing to play against the world’s best player.
"I had a cornea transplant six months before the World Cup, so I had a big eye injury I was trying to recover from, but I was trying to focus on what I knew would be a World Cup opportunity. Once it was announced it would be England, I did a lot of imagery and visualisation stuff and a lot of that had to do with Rooney and knowing I was going to mark him in that game.
"To have the performance that I did against the best payer in the world was really down to that preparation for that game and why it was so different. Not only because it was a World Cup, but because it was against someone like Rooney I knew I had to do everything I could to ensure that the game would go the way that it did."
Rooney always left everything out on the pitch, as he showed in his rant after England's 0-0 draw against Algeria. But DeMerit felt like he had the measure of the forward, both in terms of physicality and drive.
"One thing Rooney will always do is give back a bit of fight and competitiveness," DeMerit says with a smile. "That was also the type of player I was, so that match up was something I relished.
"If you can show a guy like Rooney that you can fight like he does, that makes it a bit easier to shut him down. I made sure I was right up against him so that he had to take his touch the other way and my team-mates made sure to close down from the other side, and that was our tactic to negate the type of player that he can be – and was – that season."
These days, DeMerit runs a teenage leadership programme in Vancouver, focusing on holistic leadership for young people. It feels like the perfect role for someone who achieved so much against the odds, and who has a great appreciation for what life gives – whether good or bad.
"One thing I’ve learned from my story is to appreciate every step of it – even the parts nobody else would see a a positive. Sleeping in an attic and playing 12th division football for $60 (£50) probably doesn’t sound like it would be a major part of the journey, but for me, those moments are just as important as the big ones, because they’re what make it all worthwhile in the end."
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