Villa's Dutch captain, who bears the nickname Concrete Ron, warns that Manchester United could be in for a hard evening
Ron Vlaar knows Robin van Persie well. He plays alongside him for Holland, has the utmost respect for his ability and remembers listening to the Manchester United striker telling him at Euro 2012 why the Premier League was the place to be. There is not, however, the slightest chance that the Aston Villa captain will take a leaf out of André Santos's book by doing everything he can to get the shirt off his friend's back during United's visit on Saturday.
"Never, never," Vlaar says, when asked whether he would ever consider swapping shirts at half-time (video), in the same way Santos did with Van Persie last Saturday, when the Arsenal defender behaved more like an autograph hunter than an opponent hell-bent on winning. "I don't think of that before I go into a game. It's not about changing your shirt with another player. I want the points, that's the most important thing."
The 27-year-old hardly comes across as a serial shirt collector. This is a man who has Mike Tyson's face emblazoned across the front of his hoodie and is nicknamed "Concrete Ron". That moniker was bestowed on Vlaar at Feyenoord, where he spent seven years before joining Villa in the summer. He loved his time at the Dutch club but there were also some tough periods, in particular the back-to-back seasons lost to injury after he damaged the same cruciate ligament in his knee on two separate occasions.
"The first time it happened was on 16 September 2007 and that season was gone," Vlaar says. "And the second time was 17 September 2008, so one year and one day later. Again the same knee and again the season was gone. But I'm a fighter, so I always think of the positive side."
Did he ever fear his career could be over? "I was worried," Vlaar says. "Not the first time because it happens often with players and you see they come back. But the second time I was only thinking: 'OK, become fit and then you'll see.' The recovery was very good and at the start of the [following season] I came back to the club. And after two years of injury, I played 32 of the 34 games, so that was really amazing."
These days Vlaar is very much into the psychological side of football. At Feyenoord he worked with a personal trainer who opened his eyes to "mind setting", which involves visualising how games will pan out beforehand. "I really believe in mind-setting because you can already play the games a little bit in your mind before you play, recognising situations that you have to deal with, and that worked great for me last season."
A graduate of the youth system at AZ Alkmaar, Vlaar started playing as a centre-half in his early teenage years and grew up idolising the Dutchman who was at the heart of the Manchester United defence at the time. "Jaap Stam was really amazing. He was an example," he says. "He was strong. And the way he stands on the field, his stature, I think he frightens [opponents]. He was a real winner. Everything for the win, a leader."
Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, quickly identified Vlaar as someone who can inspire others. Vlaar has worn the captain's armband since Swansea's visit in September, a game that was watched by his parents, who try to get over from Holland to see all the home matches, and also his grandmothers, who are aged 86 and 90. "I loved that," Vlaar says. "To come to England was very big for them."
The trip was good timing because Swansea is one of only two league games Villa have won this season. Although last Saturday's 1-0 victory at Sunderland was encouraging, Villa remain 17th and face United, Manchester City and Arsenal in their next three matches. Not that Vlaar is downbeat. "I know, especially from last year, what we did with Feyenoord... I believe that we can do that again [at Villa]. I'm not saying that we can come second. But we can build and make a team that can believe."
Like most Dutch footballers, Vlaar's English is excellent. He has quickly settled into life here and last month took in one of his favourite sports, when he watched Ronnie O'Sullivan and Jimmy White play in Bedworth as part of the Snooker Legends Tour. There was also a pleasant surprise when Jan Verhaas, the Dutch referee, arranged for Vlaar to partner O'Sullivan in a doubles match against White during the interval. "I don't think that many people can say they've done that," Vlaar says. "I potted red, pink, red, blue, so I was pretty happy with that."
Vlaar admits that he was more nervous with a cue in his hand than he will be when he lines up against Van Persie, who will be on the same team as him a few days later when Holland take on Germany in a friendly in Amsterdam. Villa have a dreadful home record against United, and Van Persie, is bang in form. But Vlaar gives the impression that reputations mean about as much to him as opposition shirts. "We all know who we're playing against," he says. "But I'm not afraid of anyone."
Ron Vlaar supports the Acorns Children's Hospices "Now is the Time" campaign, which aims to raise funding for 25,000 days of care for local life-limited children by the charity's 25th anniversary in December 2013. The campaign has just passed the 10,000 days milestone. To donate £3, for example, text 'AVFC12£3' to 70070 or visit www.acorns.org.uk for information for more information.