Obituary: Fernando Ricksen, Rangers legend whose battling qualities were highlighted again as he faced MND

Fernando Ricksen, football player. Born: 27 July 1976 in Heerlen, Netherlands. Died: 18 September 2019 in Airdrie, aged 43

Fernando Ricksen of Rangers in action in 2000 (Picture: Gary M Prior/Allsport)
Fernando Ricksen of Rangers in action in 2000 (Picture: Gary M Prior/Allsport)

Fernando Ricksen’s body may have failed him in the end, but the fighting spirit that marked the former Rangers captain’s playing career never faltered.

Just as he was feisty and determined on the pitch, the Dutchman maintained a similar outlook as he battled Motor Neurone Disease, the condition which ultimately took his life at the age of just 43.

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He faced his fate head on, bravely setting-up a foundation in his own name to lead the search for a cure that might save others from the ravages of the muscle-wasting disease.

Yet it is not the sight of the frail, wheelchair-using figure that will be remembered by thousands of Rangers supporters, but rather the image of the jubilant midfielder leading the celebrations after skippering the Ibrox side to their most dramatic title win.

Born on 27 July 1976, in Hoensbroek near the Dutch-German border, football ran in Ricksen’s blood.

His grandfather Willem Szymiczek won a Dutch title with Limburgia in 1950, but, had the family elder had his choice, Ricksen would have made his name on the green baize of the billiards table, having watched the youngster finish third in the national championships aged just 12.

But the glamour offered by the footballing world proved too alluring.

“Have you ever heard of a truckload of girls swarming round a billiards player?” wrote Ricksen in his autobiography as he recalled his dilemma over which sport to choose. “No. I made the right choice.” While he was a combative player who regularly pushed the boundaries both on and off the park, Ricksen was quiet as a child.

It was his younger brother Pedro who was the trouble-maker in those days, while Fernando, three years older, was shy and well-behaved.

“It’s strange to say it now, but I was the perfect child,” he later said.

After ditching his billiards cue, he embarked on the football career that would eventually earn him 12 Holland caps, seven major honours with Rangers and Scotland’s Players’ Player of the Year award.

Having started out at Fortuna Sittard and then AZ Alkmaar, his talent was spotted by Dick Advocaat, who lured him to Ibrox in the summer of 2000 for a £3.75 million fee.

Yet life in Glasgow did not get off to the best start. His first taste of Old Firm action lasted just 22 minutes as he was hooked, with Celtic running riot.

The change could not prevent a 6-2 defeat and Ricksen later admitted his derby debut had been “the biggest humiliation” of his life.

But, as he gradually adjusted to the demands of playing for the Light Blues, he grew in stature.

He helped new Gers boss Alex McLeish reclaim the league title in 2003 and had been appointed captain by the time the Ibrox men completed the most remarkable championship triumph in the club’s history two years later – a day forever remembered as “Helicopter Sunday”. Rangers took the crown on goal difference, plus 73 to Celtic’s plus 72.

His form during that season saw him jointly awarded the SPFA player of the year award alongside Celtic striker John Hartson.

However, as his Rangers career progressed, Ricksen began to make the front pages just as regularly as he did the sport sections.

He had a run-in with Celtic midfielder and next-door neighbour Alan Thompson, whom he upset by screaming through his letterbox hours after Gers’ 2003 title win.

The final straw came just weeks after Paul Le Guen had taken over from McLeish in the June 2007. He was banished from the Frenchman’s squad following an “indecent” incident on a flight to their South Africa training camp. He had stripped naked before verbally abusing an air hostess.

It was at that point Ricksen was made to confront his issues as he was sent to the Sporting Chance clinic.

“I had to face it,” he admitted later. “I’d been drunk and disorderly for years. I’d kicked my way through life like a football hooligan with an insatiable thirst. Thanks to that my life was now in tatters.”

With his Gers career over he was moved on to Zenit St Petersburg, where he joined up with Advocaat once more to help the Russians to lift the UEFA Cup months later – after defeating Rangers in the final.

He finished his career back where it all started, with a three-year stint at Fortuna.

But his battling qualities were needed now more than ever as he broke the news on Dutch TV in 2013 that he was terminally ill with MND.

“I know what the outcome will be of this disease, but I’m not going to waste any time or energy worrying about the future,” he said. “I know there is no cure – but I’m not going down without a fight. I’ll never give up.”

Ricksen is survived by his wife Veronika and daughter Isabella.

Andy Newport