VIRGIL van Dijk was still at nursery school in Breda when the southern Dutch city’s most famous footballing export, Pierre van Hooijdonk, was attaining cult hero status with Celtic supporters in the mid-1990s.
After completing his own move to the Scottish champions yesterday, van Dijk set his sights on emulating the popularity van Hooijdonk enjoyed during his relatively brief but highly eventful spell in Glasgow.
“I know Pierre came to Celtic from Breda and he still lives nearby the town,” said van Dijk. “I don’t know him personally, but I saw he had posted something on Twitter this week saying nice things about me and saying he has glad to hear I was signing for Celtic. He was a hero as a player here, so I will try to go and talk to him about it.”
While Van Hooijdonk made his reputation as a powerful and prolific striker, scoring 56 goals in 92 appearances for Celtic from 1995 to 1997, central defender Van Dijk has been recruited to strengthen Celtic’s rearguard. He has signed a four-year contract with Neil Lennon’s squad, moving from Dutch Eredevisie club Groningen for an undisclosed performance-related fee which it is believed could be as much as £2.5 million.
Van Dijk, who will celebrate his 22nd birthday on 8 July, has been capped three times at under-21 level by the Netherlands but did not make their squad for the recent European Under-21 Championship finals in Israel.
He made his debut for the young Oranje side during the qualifying campaign when Scotland inflicted a shock 2-1 defeat on the eventual group winners in Nijmegen with goals from Jordan Rhodes and David Wotherspoon in November 2011.
But it was the performance of a player he will now play alongside which caught van Dijk’s eye that evening.
“I remember James Forrest from that game,” said van Dijk. “He is a very good player, an exciting winger and one of the best young Scottish players. I’m just glad James is my team-mate now. I met him at the training ground on Thursday when I arrived. I’m not sure if he remembers playing against me that night, but I’m happy to be on the same side as him now.
“Scotland were a little bit better than us. In the game in Holland, I was pushed into attack for the last ten minutes to try and get an equaliser, but it was a difficult game and we lost it.” Van Dijk says he had other options open to him this summer but believes the move to Celtic can provide him with the platform and exposure to earn senior international recognition.
“I hope to play many games for my country in the future but first of all I want to make things happen here,” he said. “First of all I want to settle down at Celtic and then we will see what happens with the national team.”
Performing in the Champions League will offer van Dijk the best opportunity to catch the eye of Dutch national team boss Louis van Gaal in the season ahead and he is eager to play a part in Celtic’s bid to reach the group stage of the tournament again.
“The draw for the qualifying rounds is on Monday and I’m very excited about it,” added van Dijk. “It will be great to see what opponent we get. It was fantastic for Celtic to do what they did in the Champions League last season and I hope something great can happen again this season.”
Van Dijk is Celtic’s second summer signing, following the capture of Portuguese striker Amido Balde from Vitoria Guimaraes, with the Parkhead club maintaining what has been a successful policy of scouting largely unheralded younger foreign players and trying to develop them into highly saleable assets.
“It’s a big decision for me to come to Scotland at the age of 21 but I think I am ready for it,” said van Dijk. “My girlfriend will come over with me to live in Glasgow and we’ll see how it goes. It will be different to playing for Groningen but I am prepared for it.
“I started out playing amateur football in Breda, then I joined Willem II when I was just eight years old. I was there for ten years before I moved to Groningen. I know it is a big step to now come to Celtic.
“But football has been my life since I was a little boy and it has been my dream to play at a big club. Celtic are the biggest club in Scotland and it is my feeling that it is a warm club with great fans. I have a good feeling about coming here. I’m a defender who enjoys the physical side of the game but I also like to play football. I’m sure I can adapt to Scottish football and I can’t wait to get started.”