Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Virgil van Dijk’s Journey From Parkhead to Paradise

As the song, to the tune of Dirty Old Town, goes down Anfield way:

“He’s our centre-half, he’s our number 4, watch him defend and we watch him score, he’ll pass the ball, calm as you like, he’s Virgil van Dijk, he’s Virgil van Dijk.”

Virgil van Dijk has very quickly gone down as an absolute fans’ favourite around the red half of Liverpool and it’s very easy to see why. Their defence was at times an absolute shambles before the arrival of the Dutchman on Merseyside, for a world record fee for a defender of £75 million, but this monumental transfer has seen Liverpool come on leaps and bounds. Since Virgil’s arrival, the Reds have finished second to Manchester City in the English Premiership on 97 points and have gone on to contest in back-to-back Champions League finals. Not bad for a player who the Scottish media once told us wasn’t even worth £10 million.
 
Van Dijk’s arrival at Celtic passed without a great deal of fanfare; there was very little known about the Dutchman, who was signed from Groningen back in 2013. What then transpired from the signing was completed unheralded, John Park had found for Celtic an absolute gem who fans will talk about for years and years to come.

Ajax were expected to be van Dijk’s next club once he had outgrown Groningen in a similar fashion to many Scottish players who develop at the likes of Hibs, Kilmarnock or Motherwell before stepping up to either Celtic or Rangers to further their careers. In fact, someone that I work with, who is based in the Netherlands, was so convinced that van Dijk would be joining his beloved Ajax that, when I reached out to see what kind of player he would be, his response was:
 
“You have to be joking me! He joined Celtic over Ajax? You guys have a hell of a player!”
 
Well he wasn’t wrong was he? Joining for a fee of £2.6 million, van Dijk quickly made his mark on the Celtic team, where he debuted in a victory over Aberdeen at Pittodrie before making the position his own, as he partnered Efe Ambrose in the heart of the defence. A threat in the air, van Dijk scored twice against Ross County before scoring an absolutely world-class goal against St Johnstone, in which he stepped out of defence before beating three players and toe-poking the ball past the goalkeeper from 20 yards. In total Van Dijk scored 5 times in 47 appearances in his first season at the club as the Bhoys secured their third league title in-a-row in what was Neil Lennon’s last season in charge.

By the time Ronny Deila joined the club, there were already rumours of van Dijk catching the eye of teams down south with his nominations for PFA Players Player of the Year.
 
Van Dijk’s second season at the club was even better than his first, with the Dutchman netting 10 times over the course of 58 games and showing that he had a lot more in his locker – From fancy footwork against Partick Thistle to scoring some incredible free-kicks against Dundee, Inverness and Hibs. It was clear to see for the majority of fans that van Dijk was a level far above the Scottish Premiership and he managed to be the best player on the park without breaking a sweat.

Van Dijk wasn’t without his flaws, silly red cards cost the team dearly without his presence, none more so than in the San Siro where his early red for a tackle on Icardi left Celtic with an even bigger mountain to climb. These things seem to have been weeded out of Virgil’s game with a recent stat showing that in van Dijk’s last 64 club appearances, no one has managed to dribble past him as he won 52 out of 52 tackles this season.
Van Dijk always had a presence within the heart of the Celtic defence and often would strike fear into the heart of any striker that faced him, but the question always remained – could he make the step up to England’s Premier League?

Virgil took on the challenge when Southampton and Ronald Koeman came calling for the sum of £13 million with Celtic inserting a sensible 10% sell-on fee, something which would reap rewards upon the move to Liverpool. It didn’t take long for fans, players and press alike to realise the ability of van Dijk as he continued to stroll through games in what some would call “The Greatest League in the World”… The less said about that, the better.
 
Even after only a season at Southampton, rumours emerged of interest from Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester United and further afield, but it seemed like Liverpool was the favoured destination for the Dutchman. Even after Southampton took Liverpool to the FA for an illegal approach, it was only a matter of time before they got their man.

£75 million pounds later, Virgil joined Liverpool on the 27th December 2017 and on his debut, an FA Cup tie against local rivals Everton, scored the winner to knock them out of the cup. Not a bad way to introduce yourself to the Kop. Despite only being at Liverpool for 18 months, van Dijk has already created a legacy which enables him to be compared to the Anfield greats such as Lawrenson, Hansen, Hughes and Carragher with the crowning glory of Saturday’s Champions League victory.
 
Virgil van Dijk may go down as the greatest player to have graced the Celtic jersey since Henrik Larsson, and his man-of-the-match performance during Liverpool’s recent Champions League victory will go a long way for the fans who are crying out for him to be included within the Ballon d’Or nominations this season. Whilst very different players, both Larsson and Virgil now both have the pinnacle of European Football in their trophy cabinet – a Champions League winners’ medal, and, whilst it is impossible to compare both players and their contribution to Celtic, there is no doubt that in a Celtic team post-2000, both players would be a guaranteed pick!
 
At only 27, Virgil van Dijk has the opportunity to join any team in the world that takes his fancy, but the Dutchman seems very happy at Liverpool and who can blame him? The journey there is far from complete. Having lost the title to Manchester City by the smallest of margins, with the most amount of points for a second-placed side ever, the aim must be to with the Premier League and his first domestic honour since leaving Celtic in 2015.

As for me, with a fondness towards Liverpool which had been seeded ever since that night in Istanbul, it is a pleasure to see Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson flourishing down south, and hopefully one day I will get the opportunity to once more see van Dijk in the flesh and this time truly appreciate the quality of his play, something I believe we at Celtic didn’t fully appreciate until he was gone.

Colin Watt

Listen to the award-winning A Celtic State of Mind podcast

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