I’m not proud of any of what I’m about to write.
I’ve decided to write a series, a collection of essays about football players I don’t like. I was a boy when I first felt hatred towards a professional football player. I would like to say that since I’m no longer a boy, but a man rapidly approaching middle age, that I no longer have these irrational feelings. I want to say that I no longer hate football players, I’m no longer as emotionally effected by a game as was I was when I was a boy. I want to say that I’m much more level headed and mature. I want to be able to say these things.
There is a fine line between hatred and jealousy. If there is one player in the Premier League that I’m shamefully jealous of and have a hatred towards it is Virgil Van Dijk. And there are almost too many reasons why.
The undoubted Premier League player of the year last year, the most likely winner of the Ballon D’Or, the rock at the heart of a Champions League winning Liverpool side. Yes. I hate him for all these reasons and more.
Football can be very emotional for me. I once refused to talk to any of my friends or my then girlfriend while on holiday because Roy Keane got sent off against Sunderland. She wasn’t my girlfriend for very long after that. The Roy Keane-inspired silent treatment wasn’t the reason why but it couldn’t have helped.
I once almost made a small boy cry in a shop while he was buying a DVD from me. That was because in the middle of the transaction, a friend had informed me that, having been ahead 3-1 at Goodison Park with only a couple of minutes to go, Manchester United conceded twice and had drawn 3-3 with Everton. I didn’t do anything to the boy but he must have sensed the angry, negative vibes and saw the smoke coming out of the ears of the man who was putting his Spongebob Squarepants DVD in a bag.
There are many examples of my inability to manage my emotions around football. I’m happy to say though, that I am making progress. I no longer allow a football result to affect my mood for longer than the actual football match. During the 90 minutes? All bets are off.
My wife and I moved house a while ago and I bumped into my neighbour shortly after moving in. “You’re a United fan aren’t you?” she asked me. I assumed she had seen jerseys hanging on the line in the back garden or some other tell-tale sign. “I am” I said and asked how she knew. “I heard you celebrating through the wall when they scored”. Anything goes for the 90 minutes.
I want to be a better version of myself, I want to grow.
But my hatred of Virgil is a sign that I haven’t let go of all my childish tendencies, I haven’t matured, I haven’t become more level-headed. I just tell people I am because it makes me seem like a more rounded human being. I dislike a football player because he is successful, talented and worst of all, I hate him for the shirt that he plays in.
He was the last big jigsaw piece in the Liverpool puzzle. His presence, personality and ability brought a new level of confidence to an already rapidly improving Liverpool side which I had very complicated feelings about.
He was signed for a massive fee and everyone outside of Liverpool fans were waiting for his first mistake, his first calamity, to turn to our Reds friends and say “Told you he wasn’t worth it!”
We’re still waiting for that mistake.
I’ve already mentioned that I’m not proud of any of this but there are certain elements of this that I’m less proud of than others and here’s one of them. I have spent full matches, watching Van Dijk, studying him, quietly wishing he would make a mistake just so I could have that Scooby Doo-esque moment of unveiling him to be a sham.
When they concede a goal? It’s never his fault. And believe me, I really want it to be his fault so I could cut him down a peg or two. I mean once or twice it kinda was but we don’t like to talk about those.
So the team that he plays for. That’s the real problem. I should explain my complicated feelings towards them. I’ll start with the basics. They are Liverpool so I don’t like them. That’s a fundamental element of being a Man Utd fan, you hate Liverpool. Now, I mean this in the best possible way, but for most of my life Liverpool were a joke.
When I started paying attention to football, in the early 90s, they had passed their dominant best. I witnessed Graeme Souness usher in the era of mediocrity at Anfield and I loved it. I was too young to understand why I loved it, but I did. Souness, Roy Evans, Gerard Houllier, Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers all came and went. Sure there were trophies, they may have won a European Cup in Istanbul at some point although their fans rarely mention it. But they were never as good as United. In my whole life, they were never as good as them. But, and this is really hard to say, they are miles better than them now.
They have a manager who I have complicated feelings about too. In my mind that Obi-Wan Kenobi meme where he’s shouting “You were the chosen one” is about Jurgen Klopp. We’ll shelve the talk about Klopp for now. I have a feeling I’ll come back to him.
The Liverpool side he inherited and started to build was exciting. It had good players but crucially it had really terrible ones. Over time though he removed the terrible ones and replaced them with better ones and in some cases transformed terrible players who, and I had this on good authority, couldn’t run properly and turned them into excellent players.
They were better than Man Utd before they signed Virgil Van Dijk but, to me, they were so vulnerable defensively that they would never grow into title contenders or Champions League winners. But when the big man joined the band? The band became a whole lot better.
I saw him play for Celtic and noticed how easy it seemed to be for him but I thought when he moved to the Premier League it would be more difficult. It was, at first, but then he adjusted and became a better defender. When he moved to Liverpool though he moved to a new level.
Suddenly he became the best defender of all time. The ball was a magnet to him, it took over a full season for someone to dribble past him and people celebrated when it happened. That’s how good he’s become. We celebrated when someone, anyone, got the better of him. Even if I didn’t actually properly celebrate the fact, I was aware of it and took note of it. “Maybe now, maybe now the cracks will begin to appear”.
Yeah, I know how desperate I seem, why do you ask?
I saw the other day that he was the fastest player in the Champions League last year too. That’s unnecessary. I didn’t need to know that. There are literally no cracks.
But it’s his affiliation with Liverpool at a time when their stock is skyrocketing while Manchester United’s stock certainly isn’t which is the problem. Virgil, his manager, his teammates, his incessant fans who love pointing out his brilliance, they all make me feel terrible.
Terrible because I know I shouldn’t let myself get so angry about it all. Terrible because I should be happy for my friends who are Liverpool fans who are enjoying the best football of their lives. Terrible because when I see him, all I can think about is how Man Utd spent 80 million on a man with a staggeringly massive head. Terrible because I enjoy watching them obliterate teams. Terrible because I kinda half sort of wanted them to win the league last year. Terrible because I openly celebrated Mo Salah scoring against Chelsea.
I hate you Virgil Van Dijk. You are a magnificent footballer.