THE Dutch version of Match of the Day is called Studio Sport. It airs every Sunday at 7pm. For over 50 years it has shown the highlights of Eredivisie games, writes ERIC SCHIPPER.
It’s tradition to eat in front of the telly when it starts. A similar type of tune. No pundits, though. Never sure whether that’s a blessing in disguise.
It was around the end of the season, near the time of the league’s UEFA Cup playoffs and just before those teams that rest players give game time to the young lads. Virgil van Dijk got the nod. Young, tall, confident. Sometimes you get the feeling that someone is going to be a top player when you see the look in their eyes. No fear, just sheer dedication. He had that.
Good players often burst on the scene quickly. When you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Virgil made two further substitute appearances before starting in the playoffs for European football. He was deemed good enough to start in a few of the most important games for the club, at just 18 years old. He scored two goals and notched an assist in three play-off games. Eventually though, they lost in a penalty shootout after overcoming a 5-1 loss with a 5-1 win.
But Virgil’s future was cemented. His frame, pace, vision, aerial ability and marking made him a standout defender in Holland, where most defenders have been failed midfielders, wingers, strikers and what have you — decent at football, but not natural defenders. The Dutch ‘Total Football’ breeds just that, total footballers. Every striker knows how to press, when to mark and how to block. But out-and-out defenders? They’re rarely seen. It’s just not in the system where possession is sacred, treasured above anything. The entire system is around the beauty of football, Johan Cruyff’s legacy.
But Virgil stood out as a no-nonsense defender at times, while still possessing the Dutch quality with the ball at his feet. In his early days he said that Barcelona was his logical destination — him being the Dutch Gerard Pique. The only thing his youth coaches wanted him to learn was his leadership skills, his vocal presence. Since then he’s gone on and donned the armband for Groningen, Celtic and Southampton, it’s safe to say they succeeded.
Steven Gerrard has said previously that talent isn’t enough: “You have to be obsessed. Even though they’re your teammates, you’ve got to be obsessed to move them out of the way, and once you’re in, they’re staying out of the way and not coming back. The world ‘talent’ frustrates me. I love talent and I love seeing it, but these players need to understand the other side of the game: fighting, winning, tackling, going where it hurts, letting your lungs burn, really digging deep.”
It’s what separates the world-class players from the good. And the good from the OK. Willpower and sheer determination to be the best. Never back down, never doubt yourself. Pressure fuels will power, but setbacks do even more. And Virgil has had to endure some pretty difficult setbacks.
He lived with his mum, brother and sister when he joined the ranks of Willem II (Sami Hyypia’s old club). At the age of 18, former Manchester City player Alfons Groenendijk deemed him not good enough to make the step up to the first team. Virgil decided to leave. He joined Groningen (Luis Suarez’s old club) and from there his career took off.
In March 2012, halfway into his first full season for Groningen he felt a bit of pain in his stomach — mild complaints. He kept training for three more days. He went to bed early on Thursday, despite the issues worsening. At 3am his roommate took him to the emergency room. They could not find a root cause so they sent him home with a couple of painkillers.
His mum made the three-hour drive the next day. The pain got worse as days went by, he couldn’t eat and was throwing up. His mum took him to another hospital. They discovered he had appendicitis with uraemia and kidney failure on top of other things. He was rushed into surgery and the imminent danger was averted.
For almost a week he was hospitalised, in agony, fighting for his life. He survived and after 10 days he was released and taken to his mum’s place to recover fully. That night Virgil was hospitalised again. This time it was pulmonary edema, which was dealt with adequately by hospital staff.
The experience made him realise how lucky he was. A doctor said that a less fit or older person would not have survived his condition. It was a life-changing experience for a young lad that had so much going for him. Van Dijk himself said: “I realised how lucky I am that my mum, brother, sister and those around me are in good health. How blessed I am I get to play in front of 20,000 people, making a career out of my hobby. All those things that you take for granted, but aren’t normal.”
He started pre season earlier than all his teammates. Driven by his willpower to overcome the ordeal that had kept him out for three months. And he succeeded, gained back the weight he lost, got even fitter than before and had a brilliant season. A season that brought Celtic knocking on Groningen’s doors.
When it comes to Eredivisie players making it abroad, a player usually has to have played around 150 games and at least one, preferably, two seasons at one of the top-three Dutch clubs — Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV. Players need to have experienced certain situations, encountered the highs and lows, made the errors and have a bit of consistency in their game.
Virgil had the option to go to Ajax and, if rumours were true, the other two as well. But Virgil knew that his destiny was elsewhere. He knew that he was built for English football. He had the physical traits to become a real stalwart in English football. But he was very aware of the fact he didn’t have the experience of a top club. And he knew that he needed that before making the next step.
So he joined Celtic as soon as he could. And he hit the ground running. Virgil was almost instantly loved at the club. His willpower and determination came through once again. Earning him the Players’ Player of the Season award in his first season, alongside a league title win. The season after that was even better. He won the league and the league cup, played Champions League football and even reached double figures for goals.
Throughout his time at Celtic Park he ticked all the boxes of an Eredivisie player making it abroad. Playing 181 games over two seasons for a top club and becoming the main man in the process. He was ready for the next step. Another season at Celtic would not have been especially beneficial to his career. He needed to make the next step up and was ready to do so.
When Ronald Koeman called, it seemed the perfect match. Dutch manager, a former Groningen player, a team littered with former Eredivisie players and fellow countrymen. The goalkeeper he used to play with at Celtic. It all made sense. And within weeks he had settled and Southampton looked the real deal. By the end of the season he was Southampton’s best player and as such was awarded the Player of the Season. All familiar sights.
Being their best player and arguably the best centre half in the league in 2016-17, Southampton was another pond that became too small for the lad who had grown into one of the best in the world. There are similarities in the stories of van Dijk and Dirk Kuyt. Every time Dirk went to a new club people questioned whether he could take his game to the next level. Van Dijk has had similar treatment. If that’s anything to go by, Virgil will have a very decent career at Liverpool.
Virgil has taken smart steps throughout his career. He couldn’t break through at Willem II so he moved to Groningen, stayed for two seasons, moved to Celtic where he played two seasons and moved to Southampton. It’s all very linear. No step too steep. So Liverpool is the next logical step.
Anyone can see The Reds’ potential. A young and exciting squad, a top manager who has a track record for improving players, positivity around the club, a big new stand and a great crowd. Van Dijk is no fool, and like most Dutch sportsmen, he’s a bit of a romantic. And that works out well for Liverpool. The club’s heritage speaks for itself.
Crucially for The Reds, he knows what it takes to play for a club that challenges for the league and to win trophies. His willpower and determination saw him succeed everywhere. His leadership on the pitch has seen him take the captain’s armband wherever he’s been.
He may not be the final piece in the jigsaw, but he’s a piece that could take Liverpool a step closer to a complete puzzle.