Tom English column: Virgil van Dijk, Rangers and Jim Clark

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland
Virgil van Dijk in action for Celtic
Virgil van Dijk has been a key performer for Celtic since moving from Groningen in 2013

Virgil van Dijk is a physical specimen, a confident ball-playing centre-half who strolls through domestic Scottish football on his own terms.

He's 23 years old and he glides along in this world, rarely having to get himself out of fourth gear no matter what the Premiership throws at him.

He's got pace and class. He mops up in defence and finds time to contribute up front. He has scored seven goals in all competitions this season, including the winner against Aberdeen in November and against Partick Thistle in December.

It's been nine years since Celtic have had a centre-back with such a penchant for finding the net. Stephen McManus got eight in 2005-06, but Van Dijk will surely break that total in quick order.

He is, we understand, being monitored by several clubs from the Premier League. It's hard to get through a conversation about the Dutchman without somebody talking of his imminent departure for England. To Southampton or Arsenal, perhaps. "He's that good," is the gist.

Is he?

When you look at Van Dijk in Scottish football, the temptation is to declare him as the next multi-million pound exit from Celtic Park.

Virgil van Dijk scores against Partick Thistle
Virgil van Dijk has found the net seven times for Celtic this season

His languid style works a treat here. He has time and space to play. And he can play, no question. But put him in Europe against smart attackers with pace and guile and Van Dijk begins to look precisely what he is - a callow defender still learning his art, a player whose anticipation of danger is not what it should be given the loftiness of his reputation.

Van Dijk might turn into a "top player", but he's not there yet. The evidence of Europe this season would suggest that he's got a distance to go.

Celtic have conceded 22 goals in 13 European matches this season, including 10 in their last three. You don't need to be a boffin to realise that a continuation of this trend on Thursday could prove fatal for their chances of pulling off a huge result against Inter Milan.

They have a puncher's chance. They'll be up against a slick attacking team in Inter but one whose vulnerabilities have already been exposed multiple times in this troubled season, not least by Celtic last week.

Ronny Deila's team are making progress. They have a newfound threat going forward and a strength of character that nobody could question.

They are an exciting team to watch, but that's, in part, because, in Europe, they can be a danger to themselves.

Celtic's defensive record with Virgil van Dijk in their team this season
In Europe22 goals conceded in 13 gamesAn average of 1.7 goals per game
In Scotland11 goals conceded in 28 gamesAn average of 0.4 goals per game

Every one of their defenders can defend. The problem is that every one of them is capable of losing concentration at critical times and that's been the problem with so many of the goals they have conceded.

The default setting here is to blame Efe Ambrose. But it's not as simple as that. An analysis of Van Dijk's defending in some of the bigger games in Europe this season shows that he's as culpable as anybody else.

The way he let Xherdan Shaqiri run away from him for Inter's first goal last week. The slowness of his reactions when the ball was spinning over his head for Salzburg's first in their 3-1 win at Celtic Park. His failure to anticipate danger for Salzburg's opener in Austria. His unawareness for Legia Warsaw's second goal at Murrayfield - he actually turns away presuming that Fraser Forster has it covered and then does a near double-take as Michal Kucharczyk appears on the scene - and his slackness for three of the four Legia goals in Warsaw.

Celtic lose a goal against Salzburg in Austria
Van Dijk has found the going far tougher in European competition this season

We're not saying these were all howlers - they were not. And other players carried a bigger burden of guilt for some of them. But there was too much sleepiness about him in too many instances, particularly for a player with such a big reputation.

If Thursday is to be one of those storied nights in Celtic's recent European history - you can have 11-2 with the bookmakers on an away win or, if you're feeling lucky, 500-1 on the 4-4 draw that would take them through without having to win - then the concentration and the discipline needs to be of a much higher order than it has been this season against the better sides.

Deila is getting big performances from many players now, but he needs more from Van Dijk - on Thursday more than ever. He needs the Dutch defender to show that those who are championing him haven't declared his excellence way before time.


Compare and contrast the way Chelsea and West Ham reacted to supporters shaming their club with their untrammelled racism and the way Rangers behaved in the wake of sectarian chanting at Raith Rovers on Friday.

Chelsea issued a statement quickly after the footage was made public of their Neanderthal element refusing to allow a black man on the Paris metro while simultaneously singing of their pride in being racist.

The statement spoke of the club's "disgust" at what they saw on the film. They were "appalled" and they apologised unreservedly to the poor man who was subjected to this filth while committing themselves to their own investigation on top of the one that was being carried by the Metropolitan Police.

They suspended three fans. Later, Jose Mourinho, the Chelsea manager, said he was "ashamed". Through the club's press officer, Roman Abramovich, the owner, said he wanted to make it clear how disgusted and appalled he was. The chairman, Bruce Buck, met with the anti-racism group Kick It Out a few days after the incident.

Rangers fans against Raith Rovers
Rangers fans have found themselves in the spotlight for their singing at Stark's Park on Friday night

West Ham had their own problems over another video that appeared to show some fans racially taunting Spurs supporters en route to the London derby on Sunday. This time it was anti-Semitic abuse.

Like Chelsea before them, West Ham asked their own supporters to pass on any information they had about the guilty. West Ham emailed every one of their fans who had bought a ticket for the game to remind them they were all ambassadors for the club. They came across as a club that was serious about tackling this issue.

Ahead of the match, David Gold, the club's Jewish co-owner, tweeted a link to a powerful interview he did with The Guardian in which he spoke of how anti-Semitism was like a "dagger in the heart". Both of these clubs faced their crisis head-on.

And Rangers?

Not a peep from anybody inside Ibrox on Friday night, or Saturday, or Sunday, or Monday.

Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic revealed his disgust after his club's fan's racism shame in Paris

The club issued a statement on Tuesday and to say it was lacking would be putting it mildly. Where was the acceptance that sectarian chanting from their supporters has made an unwelcome return? Where was the urgency to punish the guilty? Where was the plea to decent Rangers fans for information? Where was the anger and the embarrassment and the contrition? Their statement was from an unnamed spokesperson. It wasn't good enough. Not even close.

The Scottish Professional Football League is looking into this now and the feeling, based on their past record as Scottish Premier League or Scottish Football League, is that it won't be good enough either. And the police? Where are they? Strict liability in football is the only way to proceed, but the clubs are the only ones who can bring it in and the clubs, bar a handful, don't want it.

In voting against it, they in some ways facilitated the scenes of Friday night and all the similar incidents that preceded it.


Jim Clark was the first foreigner in 49 years to win the Indianapolis 500, more than 220,000 people witnessing the Scot destroying the field on the famous banked asphalt oval. That was 50 years ago this May, but in cataloguing Clark's greatness from half a century ago, there is something else to add.

Jim Clark at the British Grand Prix
Scotsman Jim Clark established himself as a motor racing legend across the world

Three months later, in front of 300,000 people, Clark steered his Lotus around the 14-mile, 172-bend Nurburgring, winning the German grand prix and, with it, the world championship. He was the first - and is still the only man - to have won the F1 world title and the Indy 500 in the same year. Truly, Clark was one of Scotland's most colossal sporting talents.

How fitting, then, to hear the news of the Scottish Borders Council's intention to give more than £500,000 to expand and improve the Jim Clark Museum in his native Duns.

The revamp will allow the great man's cars and trophies to be put on display as a permanent tribute to an everlasting great.

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