Everything was a bit last minute when Dennis Praet completed his £18m transfer from Sampdoria to Leicester City last month. The Belgium international did his homework on his new club on the Sampdoria team bus and when he turned up at Leicester to sign a week or so later it was without the tools of his trade.
“It was a really close call because it was deadline day,” Praet says. “I arrived at the training ground but there were some small issues with the contract and I think it was only one hour before the deadline that everything was figured out, so I signed just in time. But I arrived here with the thought that if I sign, I could go back to get my stuff I needed. But the gaffer really wanted me to stay for the first game. I had no boots, so I did two training sessions and the first game with somebody else’s. I don’t even know whose they were.”
Praet smiles as he looks back on that rather chaotic start. At one stage Brendan Rodgers, Leicester’s manager, thought Praet was ignoring him. “He sent me a text message the day before I came but it was on my Belgium number that I didn’t have with me, so I saw it three days after I signed,” says Praet, shaking his head. “He thought I didn’t reply to him. He said: ‘I sent you messages!’”
Other lines of communication were already open at Leicester. Youri Tielemans, who had joined from Monaco earlier in the summer, was a former teammate at Anderlecht as well as being part of the Belgium squad, and Praet was soon on the phone to his countryman once he had satisfied himself that Leicester’s style of play complemented his own.
“When I heard about the interest from Leicester in me, it was important for me to see how they played because I didn’t know exactly. At that moment I was on the coach with Sampdoria, we were driving to a friendly game and I watched the second half of Leicester v Atalanta,” says Praet, smiling at the thought.
“I know Atalanta from Italy – they’re a really good team. But I was really surprised by the way Leicester were playing – with a really high press, really nice football, a lot of chances. At that moment I was sold. Of course after that, when it was really getting serious, I spoke with Youri about: ‘How is the gaffer? How is the training center? How are the players?’ And he was so positive.”
Although the intensity of the Premier League has taken Praet a little by surprise – his debut at Chelsea was more like a basketball match when he came off the bench – he has no doubt he has made the right move and also believes Leicester can achieve something special this season. “We must be a team that tries to get into that top six,” he says before Saturday’s fixture at Tottenham, “and I think we have the players to do it.”
Part of a golden generation of Belgium players and gifted with a racket too (he was ranked the seventh-best tennis player in the country in his age-group at the age of nine), Praet has been linked with Premier League clubs since he was a schoolboy. He was shown around Arsenal’s training ground as a 15-year-old by Liam Brady, when Praet was coming off the same conveyer belt in Genk that produced Kevin De Bruyne, Divock Origi and Thibaut Courtois.
“I had three or four really good options,” Praet says. “We went to visit Arsenal, Lille, Ajax and Anderlecht. Arsenal would have been a really nice step and I could earn a lot more money there than in Anderlecht, but at that moment my education was not finished and that was really important for me – there was no insurance that I would become a good football player.”
Praet gave himself every chance of succeeding, though. As a child, he would be picked up from his home in Leuven just after 7 am, attend a secondary school in Genk, which was 70km away, and then train with the club’s academy across the afternoon and evening. “I would came back to Leuven at 10 pm,” Praet says. “They were 14/15-hour days. But I never thought: ‘This is heavy.’ It was my goal to become a football player. Of course, in Genk they always said: ‘Come to this guest family, it’s much easier.’ But I’m also a family man and I like being at home.”
Genk’s loss was always going to be Anderlecht’s gain. Praet broke into the first-team as a 17-year-old and racked up more than 100 appearances by the time he made his Belgium debut at the age of 20. Scoring and creating goals freely, he was named Belgium’s player of the year in 2014 and it was inevitable he would move on sooner or later.
In the end he joined Sampdoria and it is clear that the club, the city of Genoa and Italian football in general left a big impression on him during his three years there. Praet talks about being “a more complete player than I was before” and explains how he has evolved from a No 10 into “a modern No 8 that can be creative in attack but also do the dirty work in defensive ways”.
It was, Praet says, a totally different way of training as well as playing. “In Italy, the tactics is what it’s all about. To give an example – and I really thought this was funny – we came into the TV room to watch videos almost every day, and when we played in training against the under-20 team [as preparation for an upcoming match], they also had to come into the video room to show them how the opposition team was pressing; that’s how far it goes. They were in there for half an hour: ‘This guy presses like this, now this guy presses like this,’ and then they did it on the training ground too.”
While Praet, 25, has many happy memories from his spell with Sampdoria, his time in Genoa was marked by tragedy too. On 14 August last year, a 200-meter section of the landmark Morandi Bridge collapsed, killing 43 people. Praet and his Sampdoria teammates, together with the Genoa players, attended a state funeral for the victims as the city’s football teams united.
“It was a really, really sad day,” Praet says. “I remember our team manager saying in the WhatsApp group for the team: ‘The Morandi Bridge collapsed. Is everybody OK?’ I was thinking: ‘Hell, what is he saying?’ Then I put on the TV – I was at home at the time – and then you see all those images. I was just watching it with a dry throat. It was unbelievable.”
It is another reason why Sampdoria and the city of Genoa will always have a “special place” in Praet’s heart. Returning to say farewell to his former teammates after signing for Leicester was something that Praet, who comes across as such a likable character, simply had to do. And, of course, he needed to pick up those boots.