Vennegoor of Hesselink misses crazy Old Firm derby

Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink tackles Lee McCulloch in a 2009 Old Firm derby. Picture: Getty
Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink tackles Lee McCulloch in a 2009 Old Firm derby. Picture: Getty
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Dutch striker will be in the stand for a derby he relished as a player, discovers Andrew Smith

THE passion for all things Celtic, and especially the club’s rivalry with Rangers, has never left Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink in the nearly six years since he departed the Glasgow scene. That hundreds of thousands of people share his depth of feeling might account for why the Dutchman needed to pause and respond with a squirm when asked how serious a setback an entirely-against-the-odds defeat in the League Cup semi-final final today would be for Celtic manager Ronny Deila.

“Sometimes certain games can make or break something,” said the 36-year-old.

“I remember Lenny [Neil Lennon] getting in control and he lost a cup semi-final against Ross County. He got a beating from that a little bit, but he came out stronger. But this is a Rangers game. In Holland we have a saying – ‘look through the coffee and you can see black’. When he got thrown out the Champions League, he had quite a difficult time after that.

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“He will be focused on this game because he knows how bad it would get if he didn’t win it. He will enjoy this occasion, but you know how it goes, the pressure from the fans. I read on the internet in Holland now ‘Celtic needs to win’. Yet he can also be a little bit brave. We will see what happens.”

Vennegoor of Hesselink will see what happens from the stands. When he left in 2009 he made a pact with himself that, immediately following his retirement, he would return to see the spectacle – “the noise, the craziness in a good way” – as a spectator. He has had to wait three years. Celtic sponsor Magners was quick to provide an invite. His desperation to accept meant he declined the offer to be a studio analyst for a Dutch television station which is showing the game live.

Meanwhile, browsing the shops before boarding his flight to Scotland on Friday night served to remind him of the indelible mark that his three years in Glasgow has made on his life. “A guy came up to me and said: ‘Aaah, I remember you. You played in Scotland’.” said the 19-times capped Netherlands internationalist. “In Holland they always recognise me as a Celtic player. I played for PSV six years and Twente six years but they always see me for my years at Celtic. That is because everybody knows Celtic.”

And everybody knows about the adversarial nature of their relationship with the club from Ibrox. Celtic had Vennegoor of Hesselink from the moment that the supporters carried their rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone through the whistle sounding on his derby debut – a 2-0 win at Celtic Park in September 2006.

“It made such an impression, with all the scarves and even the Rangers fans at Celtic Park. We played well. It was a sunny day, it was idyllic. The atmosphere never left me. The roars at every tackle were what I remember. Sometimes the games themselves were so bad. We played some of worst games in football terms against Rangers. It was just a battle, 11 men against 11, him or you. But there was never a lame Rangers-Celtic match. Maybe football wise, the level wasn’t always so high. But there was always something going on. Sometimes we played games and the league was already over but prestige was always on the table. It was a game within a game. I really enjoyed every one I played in. Sometimes a week or two weeks after you still had the game going through your head if you lost.”

Vennegoor of Hesselink made his mark on these occasions in the best and worst of ways. In terms of the former, it is undeniable that his added-time winner in a 2-1 victory at Celtic Park in April 2008 proved the pivotal moment in a title run-in wherein Celtic clawed back a seven-point deficit to pip Rangers to the championship. Four months later his arrival as a substitute with his side trailing 4-2 to their rivals at the same ground brought a very different conclusion.

“I got so caught up in it,” the Dutchman recalled. “I think I had also just come back from injury so I thought ‘this is it’ I am going to change everything. There had been a red card for Daniel Cousin, and I remember being so hyped up coming on to the pitch. It was a really small thing happened, I had a tussle with Kirk Broadfoot, some pushing and shoving, and the referee saw a little bit more from me than from him and I got the red card. When I look at it, it was a stupid, stupid thing. But that is what the game does to you.”

As with all football types, Vennegoor of Hesselink is respectful of the fact that massive underdogs – as Kenny McDowall’s men are for the semi – can win cup games. However, the fact that this is not a normal top-flight side versus lower-league team contest militates against the possibilities of an upset.

“It is a cup game so it is a one-off. Normally, if you look at it, Celtic should win it. But you see on the Rangers side some experienced players. I have played First Division teams before and it is always difficult. But the positive for Celtic is the fact that this is the Celtic-Rangers game. They have nothing to hide behind, like they weren’t focused or something. If you look at the players and compare them then normally Celtic should win and I think they will want to go on and win it in good style.” Vennegoor of Hesselink will be cheering all their efforts. Especially any bone-crunching challenges.

Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink was speaking on behalf of Magners, main sponsor of Celtic FC. Follow @MagnersUK for weekly Celtic promotions and exclusive content.