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14 November, 2019 00:00 00 AM

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Van Dijk: A Liverpool legend in the making

Goal.com, Liverpool
Van Dijk: A Liverpool legend in the making
Liverpool's striker Sadio Mane (R) celebrates with defender Virgil van Dijk (L) after scoring their third goal during the English Premier League football match against Manchester City at Anfield in Liverpool, north west England on Sunday. AFP photo

“Maybe it’s time for a defender to win it.”

There’s a glint in Virgil van Dijk’s eye as he delivers the killer line.

He knows that this is an unusual situation, an unusual achievement. Not many centre-backs get the better of Cristiano Ronaldo.

Not many defenders outshine Lionel Messi or Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah or Kylian Mbappe.

Not many, though, are like Van Dijk.

The Dutchman is at Liverpool’s Melwood training ground to receive his award for finishing as No.1 in the 12th annual Goal 50 list.

He’s the first Liverpool player to win it, the first defender, only the second Premier League player and only the second player from the Netherlands.

“Very proud,” Van Dijk says, examining his silver trophy. “Just to even be in that bracket, with so many great players, is something I am proud of.”

He’s getting used to this kind of recognition, of course. In April, he was named PFA Player of the Year, while in August he picked up the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year award ahead of Messi and Ronaldo. He is, at time of writing, the odds-on favourite to win the Ballon d’Or before the year is out, too.

That’s how good he is. Good enough to stand alongside, or even above, two of the greatest players of all-time. Good enough to be considered the world’s best. Good enough to be a European champion, captain of his country, a player respected and admired across the globe.

“Maybe now I don’t really understand how big it is,” he smiles, when asked about coping with such adulation. “It just comes at me and I am just absorbing everything.”

He pauses for a second. “But there will definitely be a time that I realise what is going on.”

Van Dijk’s modesty is endearing. He speaks of his team, of how individual awards are not possible without collective achievements. He is confident, but doesn’t enjoy talking himself up.

Fortunately, Goal's arranged for a few others to do that.

So, as Van Dijk sits down for his exclusive, in-depth interview, a number of clips play on the screen above him; ghosts of Christmas past, figures who have helped shape his career, from “a slow right-back” – his words – at Groningen to the Rolls Royce of a centre-half we have become used to at Celtic, Southampton and Liverpool.

“He’s the best in the world,” says Celtic boss Neil Lennon, drawing a smile. Lennon was the manager who brought Van Dijk to the UK from Groningen in 2013, and remembers his first ‘bounce game’ against Carlisle. He knew then that he was onto a winner.

“He went on this dribble,” the Irishman remembers. “He went past a couple and thought ‘I’m gonna hit this’. He was about 45 yards out, and it hit the bar and bounced out way beyond the box.

“I was like ‘that’s our centre-half there’, you know?”

Van Dijk would spend two seasons in Glasgow, making 115 appearances and winning two league titles.

“Celtic, what a time it was!” he smiles as a jokey message from Scott Brown, the Hoops captain, plays on the screen. Brown and Van Dijk became close pals at Parkhead, the firebrand Scot teaching the laid-back Dutchman the importance of a winning mentality, of never settling for second best.

“I had to get that in my system,” says Van Dijk. “Every game that we played, everyone expected us to win. And the way we played, most of the time we had 60 per cent ball possession, and we were just attacking all the time. That was something I’d never experienced in my previous career.”

Lennon remembers wondering “Where’s the catch?” after his scouting team had brought him a 15-minute compilation of Van Dijk’s best bits at Groningen. To this day, the Ulsterman still can’t believe Europe’s biggest clubs let him slip through their nets.

“Straight away, I was thinking ‘Rio Ferdinand’,” he says, though he goes on to reveal that, a few weeks into his Celtic career, Van Dijk was asked if he’d ever considered playing in midfield. “He was good enough,” Lennon adds. Van Dijk, though, was firm; he was a centre-back, nothing more.

By 2015, it was time to move to the Premier League – though again, the traditional ‘big boys’ were conspicuous by their absence. Instead, it was Southampton, managed by another ex-Groningen man, Ronald Koeman, who met Celtic’s £11 million ($14m) asking price.

“It was always a dream of mine to play in the Premier League,” says Van Dijk, watching a clip where Koeman refers to him as ‘The King'.

Van Dijk had got to know Koeman’s father, Martin, at Groningen. Ronald, he says, was a big factor in his decision to join the Saints.

“It was the right time, and I think it was the right club at the time too,” he explains. “The whole setup at the time was outstanding, and obviously the manager played a massive part in my decision to come to Southampton. I learned so much there, made massive steps there and will always be thankful for my time there.”

Jay Rodriguez, a team-mate at St Mary’s, remembers Van Dijk’s debut against West Brom.

“I knew then,” the Burnley striker tells Goal. ”I said to my mates in the changing room that this guy was top class and could play anywhere.

“He could probably play anywhere on the pitch and be the best player. He’s an unbelievable talent.”

Van Dijk’s reputation soared on the south coast. He was Southampton’s player of the season in his debut campaign, and helped them to the League Cup final in his second year. By the time the summer of 2017 came around, the big clubs had woken up. Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea were circling.

In the end, it was Liverpool who won the race.

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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