Monday 27 May 2019

The making of Virgil van Dijk: From washing dishes for €4-an-hour to most expensive defender in world

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk celebrates
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk celebrates

Sam Wallace

In the kitchen upstairs at the Oncle Jean restaurant in Breda, a Dutch city an hour's drive south of Amsterdam, 16-year-old Abubakar Abdulle is emptying the dishwasher and listening in amusement as his manager explains why a British newspaper has come to visit.

Abubakar is being told about Oncle Jean's most famous dishwashing alumnus, and currently the country's most successful football export: Virgil van Dijk, Liverpool and Netherlands defensive colossus and soon to be the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year.

As a 17-year-old, Van Dijk worked at Oncle Jean between school and training at the academy of Eredivise club Willem II, a 30-minute train ride east in the town of Tilburg.

He would pick up his bike at Breda train station and cycle the 15 minutes for a shift at Oncle Jean in one of the city's more expensive neighbourhoods.

There is a bar and a restaurant and various other rooms which the proprietors proudly announce can accommodate christenings, birthday celebrations, weddings and wakes.

It was built in 1935, requisitioned as a mechanics workshop during the War and is also the place that football's most expensive defender, the £75 million Van Dijk, washed dishes for around €4-an-hour plus a cut of the tips.

A 20-year-old Virgil van Dijk poses for a portrait during his spell at FC Groningen. Photo: Getty Images
A 20-year-old Virgil van Dijk poses for a portrait during his spell at FC Groningen. Photo: Getty Images

He was a kitchen grafter at an age when many 17-year-old prodigies now sign contracts in the multiples of millions.

Tonight against Huddersfield, Liverpool's title bid continues, led by Van Dijk, 27.

His career was, for a long time, a slow burn. He was allowed to slip away by his first club, Willem II, and his second - Groningen - sold him for just £2.8m plus a sell-on cut to Celtic in 2013.

Even after that it took two seasons in Scotland before Southampton came in, and the rest is history.

Abubakar plays football too, a striker for the U-17s of a local amateur club in nearby Zevenbergen and he likes the story of Van Dijk, a young man who has exceeded all expectations.

That is the theme of this visit to Breda, where Van Dijk grew up in the northern part of the city, Haagse Beemden, and played his first organised football in the youth team of the amateur club WDS'19.

Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk in action against Manchester City. Photo credit should read Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.
Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk in action against Manchester City. Photo credit should read Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.

At Willem II, he was considered a prospect but there is disbelief at how he was allowed to leave so easily as an 18-year-old for the northern club Groningen.

It is a source of embarrassment and Willem II do not even return calls about Van Dijk. His local professional club, NAC Breda, who have a partnership with WDS'19, missed him altogether.

The manager at Willem II around the time Van Dijk left was Fons Groenendijk, 54, a former Manchester City midfielder and now in charge of Den Haag.

In the past, Van Dijk has been critical of Willem II's failure to give him a first-team chance, saying that he felt "betrayed".

Reluctant

Initially, Den Haag are reluctant to let Groenendijk step into the debate but he is keen to give his view of why Van Dijk was never given a chance at Willem II.

"Virgil was in the U-19s, just turning 17 when I took over at Willem II (February 2009) and we were in relegation trouble and you know what kind of football that is," Groenendijk says.

"Virgil was an 'A-junior' and I had never seen him play. In fact, I didn't even know who he was.

"At some stage, I heard that there were a couple of talented boys in the U-19s but it is not anyone's notion of a good idea to bring kids into a relegation battle.

"There have been stories that I didn't want to use him but I never had him in my squad. He never did a single training session with the first team.

"When you are a manager playing relegation-battle football, you can't focus on the kids."

In the end, the scout Henk Weldmate, now working at Ajax, spotted Van Dijk and took him to Groningen.

There have been similar allegations that, in 2015, Willem II let Ajax midfielder Frenkie De Jong, now a €75m Barcelona signing, slip away too easily.

"I have to admit that Virgil has stunned everyone," Groenendijk says.

"Not just the people at Willem II. Not just the people at Groningen. Every big club in Holland. None of them saw his potential. I think Virgil deserves all the credit."

Rob Maaskant, 50, a former midfielder who had a season at Motherwell in the early 1990s, was Van Dijk's manager in the second and final season he played at Groningen.

In his first season, Van Dijk had suffered a serious case of appendicitis and, after that, his mother, Hellen, had come to live with him in Groningen.

She is estranged from his father, Ron, which is why he wears 'Virgil' on his back since his days in Holland.

Sitting in the canteen of Almere City, the upwardly-mobile second-tier club near Amsterdam he now manages, Maaskant is well placed to judge Van Dijk's early career.

As well as that season at Groningen with the defender, Maaskant is also a former manager at Willem II and NAC.

"They (Willem II) just didn't see it in him," Maaskant says.

"It came back to his nonchalance. He's a tall dude. When he walks around, he looks like one of those basketball players when you see them off the court. So slow and then the game starts and all of a sudden - boom - they can do everything.

"At NAC, they just never saw him. At Willem II, he was in the youth teams. They just did not rate him very highly.

"When I saw him play, there wasn't any doubt that I was going to pick him.

"He was a strong character, great passer but a bit nonchalant now and then. I think that cost him a transfer to PSV. He made mistakes in a couple of games.

"Not against Feyenoord, but in others (against the top three) he didn't do so well.

"Big clubs here scout those games, they don't really care about smaller games. It's all about top-level games.

"I was surprised, everyone could see his talent. He wasn't expensive back then. He was easy to pick up."

Van Dijk was a first-team regular for Maaskant in 2012-2013 but there were other reasons that the biggest Dutch clubs ignored him.

"The same thing happened with (Van Dijk in) the U-21s," Maaskant says.

"They played Italy in Friesland (in August 2012) and were beaten 3-0. They got slaughtered by the Italian centre-forwards. Really quick guys.

"You come back to 'Where is it you are going to be judged?' And those are games where all the people are there. It wasn't his fault mainly but it's just that 3-0 doesn't look good on your resumé."

Yet Van Dijk was being watched closely that season by experienced scout John Park, then Celtic's head of recruitment who may yet have two of his recommendations - Van Dijk and Victor Wanyama - play in this season's Champions League final.

He was also watching the Utrecht defender Mike van der Hoorn, now at Swansea, but his eye was taken by the performances of Van Dijk.

"You need to find leaders," Park says.

"You need to find types who will communicate. From just watching the video, you can't see them communicating.

"You need to go and watch to form a decision. Then we put together the video, take stock of the analysis and data, look at the costs and put it to the coaching staff.

"Virgil was confident. You could see him thinking, 'OK, I'm going to try this but if it doesn't work I am getting the next one'.

"He would go off-the-cuff and try things that were difficult. There's no question about him, he's a Rolls-Royce, and sometimes you get a banger.

"His progress is good for the British game, players see you can really develop. He's had three moves now in Britain. The players are there. You just have to find them."

At Southampton, director of football Ross Wilson, a Scot whose career began at Falkirk, had a gap to fill in summer 2015 with Toby Alderweireld leaving.

Together with the scout, the late Bill Green, and former director Les Reed, Wilson drew up options for manager Ronald Koeman.

Rapid

By then, Van Dijk's improvement was so rapid that Wilson and Koeman saw him as the No 1 choice. Even so, they faced little competition.

"Virgil fitted like a glove at Southampton," Wilson says.

"A big help was that we had some Dutch players already and Ronald was coach. My recollection is he hardly needed any settling-in period.

"The crowd took to him, players loved him and he looked like he loved it. We are very proud to have had him. He had huge desire to play Champions League and Liverpool was where he wanted to go."

Van Dijk's £75m fee in January last year has been worn lightly, a result of his accomplishment in all areas of his game at Liverpool, while under Koeman with Netherlands he is captain.

It is still a mystery back home why they barely noticed him as a teenager, although Maaskant has a theory.

"With his build in England he would have been spotted much earlier," he says.

"He was probably born in the wrong country." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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