Scouting for greatness
As financial disparity widens between English and Scottish football, clubs north of the border have had to use more traditional methods to continue profitability. Unfortunately, as is the current state of football worldwide, many clubs are forced into breeding players and prepare them for a big money move. This has become the new norm and although it is tough for fans to watch their once beloved centre-back say farewell, there has become an acceptance to let go so the player can realise their true potential elsewhere.
This was the story of Virgil Van Dijk.
From Groningen to the Gallowgate
Celtic’s scouting record in the 21st century has been a vital part of their success and often does not receive the admiration it deserves. Victor Wanyama, Fraser Forster and Moussa Dembele are just some of the talent that have proven their ability beyond that of the Scottish Premiership and thus brought in large transfer fees for the club.
However, none have impressed quite as much as Virgil Van Dijk, both in Glasgow and since leaving Parkhead. It is easy with hindsight to say: ‘oh yeah, I knew he would go on to be great’. Nevertheless, with Van Dijk, it didn’t take a dedicated season ticket holder watching him every week to see he was far superior than his counterparts. It was very obvious from the beginning that his ability would entice suitors from south of the boarder.
Celtic signed the 6”4 centre half from Groningen for £2.6m in 2013. When playing for the Dutch side, Van Dijk scored two goals on his full debut, a feature that would become as much a part of his game as his defensive qualities. The big Dutchman was known for his strength and fitness ability which during his time at Groningen, had helped him recover from a burst appendix that had put him close to death.
Ajax, among others, spurned the opportunity to sign the young defender as he elected to sign for Neil Lennon’s side.
Upon arrival in Glasgow, Van Dijk was thrown in at the deep end but wasted no time in cementing his position as the mainstay in the Celtic defence, swiftly implementing his organisation and leadership. With Van Dijk playing 36 of the 38 league games, Celtic lost only once and conceded just 25 goals.
As with the true greats of the game and those who go on to achieve glory with ‘bigger’ clubs, Van Dijk had attributes that set him apart from his teammates in that stellar season.
Apart from frustrating opposition strikers, Van Dijk introduced the Celtic faithful to his attacking potential. In one match against St. Johnstone, Van Dijk ran from his own half taking on 4 defenders before prodding the ball beyond the opposition goalkeeper.
Furthermore, the centre half was adept at striking a free kick into the upper stanchion, a quality that he has been unable to use at Liverpool given their array of attacking talent.
Van Dijk had arrived as a work in progress and had tool a gamble to come to Celtic, knowing that many players before him had moved on from the Glasgow side to the spotlight of the Premier League. By his second season he had created some buzz, scoring a further 10 goals for the club and, for a second consecutive season, was named in the SPL Team of the Season.
Celtic conceded only 17 goals as Van Dijk and new defensive partner, Jason Denayer, created a formidable partnership. It wasn’t long before his agent’s rumours became reality.
Van Dijk had always made it clear that he wanted to move on and departed the club in the summer of 2015 to Southampton for £11.5m.
By virtue of his greatness, Van Dijk has gone on to win the Champions League and Premier League with Liverpool.
However, the accolade for UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, fending off serial winners Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, is most certainly his most impressive individual accolade.
The rarity with which a defensive player has received this award shows the magnitude of what Van Dijk has gone on to achieve.
Despite the difficulties in finding a reliable centre back, the trajectory with which Van Dijk’s career has since taken is symbolic of the route players can take through leagues such as Scotland’s Premiership.
In the current financial market, scouting has never been more important.
The ability for clubs to acquire, unbeknownst to their rivals, a rising talent is essential in making significant profit.
Although it can lead to a lack of stability and consistency, clubs such as Celtic have managed to make sustained growth while knowing that they played a part in the success of players such as Van Dijk.