IN Scotland, the overseas player is not what he used to be, but there is still a fascination with his predecessors, one that leads us every now and then to ask who was the best of them. Henrik Larsson would be the choice at Celtic, Brian Laudrup at Rangers, but there were other special imports, even outwith the Old Firm.
Just ask Aberdeen. Twenty-five years ago last week, they spent £650,000 on a striker from PSV Eindhoven, a Dutchman who had won the European Cup and made nine appearances for a national side that also called upon Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit. At 26, and entering the peak of his career, Hans Gillhaus made the decision to give up football in his homeland so that he could try his luck in the B&Q League Premier Division.
It seems remarkable now, as does a debut that goes down as one of the most memorable in Scottish football history. The venue was East End Park, the opponents Dunfermline Athletic, the scoreline 3-0 for Aberdeen. If he had been a scout on that dreich November day, as he is now with Sunderland, he would barely have had time get his pen out.
Within 16 minutes of the first whistle, Gillhaus had scored two goals, one a header from six yards, the other a bicycle kick. “I’ll remember it forever,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the best I’ve scored, but it’s definitely the only one that was an overhead kick. I had just arrived, maybe a couple of days earlier. So to score after 12 minutes... it was really exciting.”
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His third Aberdeen goal came just three days later, this time in a 1-0 win against Rangers. Charlie Nicholas fed him 25 yards out, his body leaned to the right and his left foot hit a shot that dipped and swerved beyond Chris Woods. “To score two on your debut plus one in your next game, against Rangers ... the fans are very happy with you. I had a couple of friends over from PSV. It was my home debut, it was Rangers, the big club, the ones to beat. And we did.”
These must have been joyous moments for Alex Smith, the Aberdeen manager, who had been to watch Gillhaus in Holland, and somehow persuaded him to cross the North Sea. The left-sided forward who was quick and clever and able to score goals with his head and his feet was already a player with pedigree.
When PSV received £6 milion from AC Milan for Gullit in 1987, their manager, Guus Hiddink, spent it on Wim Kieft, Soren Lerby and Gillhaus. Together, they joined Ronald Koeman and Hans van Breukelen to win a treble that included victory against Benfica in the European Cup final.
Then they signed Romario. “When the European Cup was won, a little bit of the hunger was maybe gone,” says Gillhaus. “We were never at the same level after that. I was happy there, but there was not enough game time. I was behind Romario. The rest of the world was probably behind Romario. I just needed a fresh start and Aberdeen were very eager. They did a good job of making it interesting to me. They were a good team, but the type of football they played also helped.”
Gillhaus scored 11 goals during his first season in Scotland, the main feature of which was his partnership with Nicholas. “No time was needed to adjust. We just clicked. We were different characters – Charlie was extrovert and outgoing, I was more quiet – but that was also a reason why we combined so well.”
At the end of that campaign, Aberdeen added the Scottish Cup to the League Cup they had won in October. In the final at Hampden, won on penalties, Gillhaus had lumps kicked out of him by Paul Elliott, the Celtic defender. “That was his job. That’s what he was paid for. But I scored a penalty. He did a good job, didn’t he?”
Gillhaus missed the celebrations because he had to travel direct from Glasgow to Holland where the national side were preparing for the World Cup finals. At Italia 90, he would play against England, Ireland and in the last-16 tie against West Germany, when Frank Rijkaard spat on Rudi Voller. “We didn’t play too well, but going out against West Germany, who became world champions, was not a disgrace. Just being part of Holland, with such big players, straight after winning a Scottish Cup final... it was an exciting time.”
On his return to Scotland, Nicholas had gone, but Aberdeen were stronger still, this time pushing Rangers to the final day of the title race. That season, he shared 30 goals with Eoin Jess, the emerging youngster who never quite went on to fulfil his enormous potential.
“Maybe at that time, he should have made the jump to a big English club. We will never know, but he was very talented, that’s for sure. He was a very continental player, technically excellent and very direct. He was a goalscorer with good speed. He had a lot of the qualities required to succeed at a high level.”
How Aberdeen lost 5-0 to St Johnstone that season, of all seasons, remains something of a mystery. Legend has it that there was a bust-up on the team bus beforehand, one involving Gillhaus, but if there was, he is unable to shed any light on the subject. “No, my light is out,” he says. “I’ve no idea what that is about, and it’s 25 years ago, so it doesn’t really matter. I don’t even remember this game. St Johnstone? Was I there?”
If there was a bad time for Gillhaus in Scotland, it was at the end. When his two-and-a-half year contract expired, Aberdeen retained his registration and demanded prohibitive transfer fees from interested clubs, such as Borussia Dortmund and Feyenoord. When he finally moved to Vitesse Arnhem in March 1993, it had been 11 months since he last played. Asked if he was unfairly treated, Gillhaus replies: “I think so. At that time, there was no Bosman. My contract ended, but I was without a club for eight months. I was jobless. It shouldn’t have ended like that.”
After Vitesse, Gillhaus played in Japan and Finland before rounding off his career with Den Bosch, the club where it all began. He still lives in the Dutch town, where he gets his biggest kick from watching his son and daughter, 13 and 15 respectively, play sport. Perhaps they have a future in football? “Maybe as a scout,” he says.
Since 1999, Gillhaus has travelled Europe in that capacity. First, there were six years at PSV, then six at Chelsea and a short spell at Queen’s Park Rangers before he joined Sunderland in March, charged with co-ordinating the club’s international scouting network.
He doesn’t keep up with many from his Aberdeen days, except Alex McLeish, who was the player Gillhaus admired more than any other at Pittodrie. They have remained “very much” in touch, more so now that McLeish, manager of Genk, is just over an hour away.
“He was very important for me on a personal level. He really took me in with his family, which is why we still have contact. That says a lot. Alex had a big influence. I had days with his family, eating dinner, stuff like that. If I had friends over, we were always welcome with Alex and Gill and the kids. That made it easier for me to adjust.”
As for his own post-playing career, Gillhaus seems content enough. Now 51, he had a short stint as director of football with Zulte Waregem, but it didn’t work out, and he has no desire to be either a coach or a manager. “None at all,” he says. “I just enjoy travelling and watching games and meeting and talking with and about players. No coaching, no training. Never. That’s not for me. It’s just not something I enjoy.”
What Gillhaus likes most is scouting, albeit less so than playing. That was the ultimate privilege. As a member of Aberdeen’s former players association, he receives a monthly newsletter, keeping him up to date with all things past and present. He remembers the club fondly, but not half as much as they do him.
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