As Liverpool gear up for their shot at Champions League glory, Neil Lennon has insisted that English football scouts and managers should be hanging their heads in shame, claiming that their dismissive attitude towards the Scottish game has cost them dearly.
The Hibernian boss, who has managed north and south of the border, said that it is “embarrassing” that the likes of Virgil van Dijk and Andrew Robertson, who both served their time in the Scottish leagues and have been lauded as two of the key men in the Anfield club’s advance to Kiev, were not snapped up sooner.
“I got phone calls from big clubs about Van Dijk on a number of occasions [when I was his manager at Celtic],” said Lennon. “I just could not believe what they were waiting on. Southampton did the right thing. They came in and did the business. For me, it was an absolute no-brainer. But because of this ‘playing in Scotland’ nonsense… is he good enough for the English Premier League? It was so apparent from day one that the guy was going to be an absolute superstar.
“They used to cast doubt over Henrik Larsson, who went to Barcelona. There are loads of players here who can go and play in England and have a really good career. Maybe their perception of the Scottish game has cost them. It has definitely cost Liverpool a lot of money but, in the end, it’s probably money well spent. They could have had him for £10-12 million two or three years ago if they had done their jobs properly.”
Instead, after two years with Celtic, who had snapped him up for just £2.7m, the Dutchman moved to Southampton for £14m in 2015. By the time Liverpool came calling at the start of this year, his value had rocketed to £75m.
“It’s embarrassing. I’m telling you, big club scouts rang me and I said: ‘What are you thinking about?’ ‘What are you waiting on?’ Some of the answers I got back were absolutely baffling,” added Lennon.
“But he has made Liverpool better. I think he has been the missing link really. When you see them early on in the Champions League, [Virgil] has come in and made Liverpool far, far better.
“We knew all about them going forward but defensively they are a lot sounder now, to the point where Manchester City only got one against them over two games.”
The contribution the 26-year-old has made since arriving on Merseyside has not surprised Lennon, who jumped at the chance to sign him from FC Groningen while he was in charge at Celtic. Claiming it took him just ten minutes to make up his mind, he dismissed the idea that the captain of the Dutch national side has transformed himself since those days, adamant that his class has always been evident to anyone who cared to take a look.
“People say he’s got better. Well, he was like that when he was 22. You just wonder what they were thinking about,” said Lennon.
“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. Or something missing’. Then you go and watch him, and you’re thinking ‘god, he could play for us no problem’. I was surprised how long he actually did stay at Celtic because I thought he would have been snapped up well before then. 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 because Liverpool have won a watch.
“He had a fantastic temperament, fantastic physique and all-round qualities. He was just a Rolls-Royce. He could go through the gears when he wanted to. Technically unbelievable. When I saw him playing for Groningen, he used to bring the ball out of defence, hit the ball 40-50 yards on a sixpence to the winger. He was attacking the ball in both boxes. I thought ‘there must be English Premiership scouts watching this guy’. In the end, we got him for just over 2m euros. I couldn’t believe my luck really. 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. Honestly, he was one of the steals of the century.”
Delighted to see his former star doing so well, Lennon says the fact that Robertson has also excelled should be a boot up the backside to English clubs who continue to underestimate the quality of footballing fare in Scotland.
“Andy Robertson was playing amateur football six or seven years ago. It’s a great story,” said Lennon. “So, for all the people outside here who talk the game down, they are a great example of the players that can be produced here. It’s a great example to other players here as well. If you do the right things, and you nurture your talent in the right way, anything’s possible.”