At the age of 18, a tall, gangly and unpolished central defender made the 160 mile journey from the Dutch town of Breda up to the north and Groningen.
For Virgil van Dijk, it was a leap into the unknown but it was also the act of a young footballer fearing the game may leave him behind.
‘This was 2010,’ says Groningen director Hans Nijland. ‘He was not a professional at his previous club Willem. He was an amateur and did not get the contract. One of our scouts spotted him in an academy match.
The story of Virgil van Dijk started with Groningen, where he made his first steps in football
Van Dijk was spotted by Groningen scouts during an academy match and quickly taken on
‘We rolled the dice. A tiny contract, maybe €1500 a month. We put him up in an apartment but he had no car in the first year. He cycled to training. Honestly, I don’t know what would have happened if we did not take him.’
For Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp, the relief must be palpable. Van Dijk became the world’s most expensive central defender in January, 2018 when he signed in a £75m transfer from Southampton.
Van Dijk has transformed Liverpool from pretenders to contenders. He has brought collective and individual strength. Consider these statistics. Since Van Dijk signed for Liverpool, his team have played 48 Premier League matches, lost only four and conceded just 32 goals. Remarkably, not one player has successfully dribbled past Van Dijk this season. Newcastle’s Mikel Merino was the last to do so in March 2018.
It seems extraordinary, therefore, that Van Dijk’s high-level suitability has been shrouded in doubt for much of his career. Willem were not the only club to underestimate his talent. After two seasons at Groningen, Van Dijk moved to Celtic in a £2.8m transfer.
With Celtic Van Dijk got his first European move, but Groningen could only get £2.8million
Quickly making a name for himself in Scottish football, Van Dijk was in the running for honours
‘They were the only club in for him,’ says Nijland. ‘We met Celtic in the Hilton hotel in Amsterdam. We hoped for £5m but there was no auction. Ajax’s Marc Overmars called me and asked my opinion. ‘Who is better to sign out of Mike van der Hoorn or Van Dijk?’ To me it was clear.’
Ajax did not heed his words. They chose to replace the Tottenham-bound Toby Alderweireld with Mike van der Hoorn, who now plays for Championship Swansea. PSV Eindhoven instead plumped for Jeffrey Bruma from Chelsea.
Even at Celtic, not everybody was convinced. Scout Neil McGuinness identified Van Dijk as a target.
McGuinness recalls: ‘Virgil had all the tools to be successful. Pace, power, technique, aerial ability and 1v1 defensive timing, tackling and judgement. He was far from the finished article but had the correct mentality to release his potential.
‘I was keen on him from the start but it was hard to get some people on board internally at the club who disagreed and had differing opinions.
‘In the end I had to fast-track the player and show him directly to manager Neil Lennon and assistant Johan Mjallby. I had concerns we may lose him if we didn’t act in a quicker manner.’
Southampton took a chance on Van Dijk and brought him to the Premier League
The Dutchman adapted instantly and displayed power, pace and a calmness upon the ball
For Van Dijk, life has not always been straightforward. He is a private individual and some of those who interviewed Sportsmail this week requested his permission to do so.
Van Dijk has been perturbed by headlines surrounding his family. He remains extremely close to his mother Ruby but relations are fractured with his father after an acrimonious break-up between his parents. This is why his Christian name Virgil adorns the back of his jersey. In his teenage years, he worked as a pot-washer in a Breda brasserie for pocket money and to help his mother.
At Groningen, he started as a substitute in the reserve team. Manager Peter Huistra recalls: ‘The coach worked with him very strictly. It could not be that two of five sessions every week are not at 100 per cent. He became more professional. He left his comfort zone and did things for himself. Some players hate it and never get used to it. He stepped up.
His first senior appearances came as an emergency striker. Yet Van Dijk’s most troubling days came at Groningen, when he became seriously unwell.
His manager Peter Huistra recalls: ‘It looked like flu at the start. Then he was rushed to hospital. He was in intensive care.’
Van Dijk woke his team-mate Tim Keurntjes in the early hours of the morning and the pair went to hospital. They were sent away. Then a mother’s instincts took over. Ruby drove up from Tilburg and took her son for a second opinion. Van Dijk was suffering from appendicitis, peritonitis and kidney trouble.
Jurgen Klopp was determined to bring Van Dijk to Anfield and made him his No 1 target
Van Dijk said: ‘The worst scenarios were whizzing around your head.”
‘My mum and I prayed to God and discussed possible scenarios. At some point I had to sign some papers. It was a kind of testament.’
The illness altered Van Dijk’s approach to life. Former team-mate Kees Kwakman explains: ‘Some people thought he was a little bit too fat before. He became fitter after the operation. He was a young guy who had never cooked for himself and was now living away from home and maybe eating junk food.
‘The injury was a wake-up call. He thought “If I really want to do something, I can be a real professional”. His mother came to live with him and he really kicked on.’
After impressing at Celtic, Van Dijk made another sensible step, bridging his move to the elite by joining upwardly mobile Southampton and Ronald Koeman.
Nijland smiles: ‘Koeman called me: “Hans, you can drink a good glass of wine with your wife because we have bought Virgil.” Fantastic! We had a 10% sell-on clause at Groningen. From the Liverpool transfer, we took another 1%.’
At each of his clubs, Van Dijk has always been honest about his ambitions to make another leap. He is captain in all but name at Liverpool and wears the armband for his country. Kwakman played alongside him at centre-half.
‘I just kept thinking “He is too good for us.” I never saw somebody go past him in training. Impossible. He could not stand losing. Really bad. He was one of the first to say something in the dressing room. The guys accepted it because he is so good and because he wanted to help us. It was about high standards.
‘I was one of the fighters to get Virgil in the national team. When he was at Celtic, I kept tweeting asking why he wasn’t in the Dutch squad. Holland was struggling in 2014 and 2015 for central defenders. Nobody in Holland is watching Scottish football on television. I am really proud of him.’
At Southampton, his mentality was further challenged when he suffered a broken foot but he has barely missed a beat at Liverpool.
Going from strength to strength, Van Dijk has turned Liverpool into contenders at all levels
He told Sportsmail this week: ‘I really am progressing as a player, becoming more mature and getting consistency. Jurgen works with me closely, improving my game. I am playing almost every game and enjoying every bit of it. I feel I am the fittest so far in my career and hopefully I can stay this way. We are on track.’
For Liverpool, who have already lost Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho to Catalonia in recent years, there can only be one fear.
Kwakman recalls: ‘I remember him saying in an interview at Groningen that Barcelona was his dream. He is 27. He must also be lucky.
‘But if Barcelona sign Matthijs de Ligt, they probably do not need Virgil. If De Ligt does not go and Barcelona have a spare £150m laying around, maybe they can take him!’