During his time in the Premier League Virgil van Dijk has shown himself to be one of the finest defenders in the world. However his route to the summit of European football was far from conventional and in an interview with Sky Sport’s Jamie Redknapp he revealed some of the formative moments at his previous clubs.
Starting out at Willem II
Van Dijk’s first club was Dutch outfit Willem II but he was not always the imposing figure that we know today. It took an 18 cm growth spurt at the age of 17 for the Dutchman to move from right-back, the position he had always played, into a more central role.
“I played in the academy of Willem II for 10 years. There was a period at Willem II when I was around 16 that I was on the verge of not going through to the next year of the academy. I was not good enough at all, I was on the bench a lot.
“In the summer I had a growth spurt and after that everything went really well. I had an injury in my groin because I was growing so much, but after that I made big steps.”
Break-through at Groningen
After failing to make an appearance for Willem II he arrived at FC Groningen 2011 and was initially sent to train with the U23s instead of the first team. But after knuckling down he was able to force his way into the side and has not looked back since.
“I had a feeling that I needed to work harder because I wanted to make my debut as soon as possible. I didn’t have my driving licence at the time, so I had to take the bike every day. It was tough but all these small things that happened have made me who I am today. I appreciate everything that is happening today.”
That determination has been a huge part of the Dutchman’s success in the Premier League and his relentless focus is clear for all to see. After signing for Liverpool in 2018 he went 50 Premier League games without an opposition player dribbling past him.
Move to Celtic: “Everyone expects you to win”
Having built a reputation as a solid defender with an eye for a pass, a 21-year-old Van Dijk was ready for a new challenge and signed for one of the most demanding clubs in Europe.
“Celtic is a massive club – people still underestimate how big it is – with European football and I spent two fantastic seasons there. I learned a lot about football and life. The European nights were outstanding, I learned a lot about how to deal with certain strikers.”
His time at Groningen had seen the club record two respectable mid-table finishes but in Glasgow he knew only first place would be acceptable. He had won nothing as a professional before signing for Celtic but two league titles and two appearances in the PFA Scotland Team of the Year helped mould him into a winner.
“[The Scottish Premiership] isn’t the hardest in the world but it’s a league where everyone expects you to win and that was something new for me to deal with because Willem II and Groningen were never teams people expected to win.
“Winning championships was something I hadn’t experienced before at a young age and it [moving to Celtic] made me a winner. It was very important for my development to go there.”