BY ALAN TEMPLE – @CCP_Sport
NEIL LENNON believes the disdain showed towards Scottish football by those south of the border ultimately cost Liverpool £75 million as the former Celtic manager described the decision to overlook Virgil van Dijk for so long as ‘embarrassing’.
The 46-year has revealed how he was regularly inundated with enquiries about the towering Dutchman, who starred at Parkhead between 2013 and 2015 following his arrival from Dutch side Groningen.
Despite Lennon offering an honest assessment of a ‘Rolls-Royce defender’, there was a reluctance to pull the trigger on a transfer, which he puts down to a foolish attitude towards the quality of players north of the border.
Southampton did eventually stump up a £12 million fee for van Dijk and he has not looked back. In January he became the most expensive defender of all time when he joined Liverpool, he was recently named captain of the Netherlands and on Saturday he will line up in the Champions League final in Kiev.
And Lennon still laughs disbelievingly when he considers how long it took for the English Premier League to wake up to the talent just across Hadrian’s Wall.
“I thought he would have been snapped up from Celtic well before he was,” said Lennon. “The fact that he played in Scotland maybe slowed the process down a little bit. A lot of scouts and managers should be hanging their heads.
“It’s embarrassing. I got phone calls from big clubs about Van Dijk on a number of occasions. I just could not believe what they were waiting for. Southampton did the right thing. They came in and did the business and it was an absolute no-brainer.
“I’m telling you. Big club scouts rang me and I said ‘what are you thinking about?’ ‘What are you waiting for?’ Some of the answers I got back were absolutely baffling.
“Because of this ‘playing in Scotland’ nonsense, there was this ‘is he good enough for the English Premier League?’ question hanging over him. They used to cast doubt over Henrik Larsson too, and he went to Barcelona!
“Maybe their [English clubs’] perception of the Scottish game has cost them. It has cost Liverpool a lot of money but, in the end, it’s probably money well spent. He has made Liverpool better. I think he has been the missing link really.
“But, they could have had him for £10 to 12 million two or three years ago if they had done their jobs properly.”
While Van Dijk’s aptitude to the Premier League may have taken some by surprise when he joined Southampton, Lennon expected nothing less.
Now Hibernian head coach, and busy trying to unearth more gems for the Easter Road outfit, he recalls being dazzled by the towering, raw defender in a fixture against Ajax – only for Van Dijk to cost his side a goal.
Nevertheless, he already had his chequebook out to finalise ‘the steal of the century’.
“I went over to watch him against Ajax – and he made a mistake,” smiled Lennon “But you only needed to watch 10 minutes and you just knew. People say he’s got better – well, I can tell you, he was like that when he was 22.
“It was a no-brainer. Honestly, he was one of the steals of the century. I don’t know why other clubs weren’t scrambling to sign him.
“We had seen plenty of footage of him playing for Groningen and you’re watching and going ‘wow, is this boy available?’ There must be something wrong with him. He must have one eye or something!
“He has a fantastic temperament, great physique and is technically unbelievable. He was just a Rolls-Royce. He could go through the gears when he wanted to.
“When I saw him playing for Groningen, he used to bring the ball out of defence, hit the ball 40-50 yards on a six-pence to the winger. I thought ‘there must be English Premiership scouts watching this guy’. In the end, we got him for just over two million euros. I couldn’t believe my luck.
“On the first day when we got him into training I said ‘look, enjoy yourself here, you’ll not be here long!’ He was just that good.”
With Andrew Robertson also set to line up for the Reds in Kiev, there will be no shortage of former SPFL stars on show.
“For all the way people outside here talk the game down, they are a great example of the players that can be produced here. If you do the right things, and you nurture your talent in the right way, anything’s possible.”