The memories of a Liverpool victory in the Champions League will be priceless for Anfield fans but Neil Lennon still reckons they could have saved £60 million.
The Hibs boss admits he’s astonished no top English side came to the table with a bid for Virgil van Dijk when he was at the heart of the Celtic defence.
Lennon insists the unwillingness of top six clubs to deal was a symbol of their disdain for Scottish football as a breeding ground for talent with the ability to cut it at the very highest level of the game.
The Dutch defender will be handed a pivotal role by Jurgen Klopp against Real Madrid in Kiev on Saturday night as he bids to put the shackles on Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and lead Liverpool to their sixth European Cup triumph.
Van Dijk’s climb to the very pinnacle of world club football is no surprise to those who have worked closest with the 26-year-old since he first emerged as a kid at Dutch club Willem II almost a decade ago.
He later moved to Groningen and it was there he first caught the eye of then Celtic manager Lennon, who ran the rule over him in person after being tipped off by his club’s scouting department.
He couldn’t believe the potential he saw in the tall, skinny kid who had already been capped at under-21 level for his country, but suitors from the bigger nations were thin on the ground.
Celtic paid £2.3m for his services in the summer of 2013, moved him on to Southampton for £13m two years later and picked up a 10 per cent cut of his £75m move to Anfield earlier this season, a world record fee for a defender.
Lennon said: “It’s embarrassing. I received phone calls from big clubs about Van Dijk on a number of occasions and could not believe what they were waiting on.
“Southampton did the right thing. They came in and completed the business. It was an absolute no-brainer, but because of this ‘playing in Scotland’ nonsense …
“It was so apparent from day one the guy was going to be an absolute superstar but I suppose they used to cast doubt over Henrik Larsson and he eventually went on to Barcelona.
“There are loads of players here who can go and play in England and have a really good career. Maybe the perception of the Scottish game down there has cost them. It has certainly cost Liverpool a lot of money but, in the end, it’s probably cash well spent.
“However, they could have had him for £10-£12m two or three years ago if they had done their job properly.
“I’m telling you. Big club scouts rang me and I said, ‘What are you waiting on?’ Some of the answers I got back were absolutely baffling.
“He has made Liverpool better. He has been the missing link, really. Early on in the Champions League they lost three goals in Seville but, with the exception of Roma in the semi-final, it didn’t happen after that.
“Virgil has made Liverpool far, far better. Defensively they are a lot sounder now, to the point Manchester City only scored once against them over two games in the quarter final.”
Former Celtic chief scout John Park concluded the deal for Van Dijk because chief executive Peter Lawwell was on holiday and fretted about signing off on a salary package that didn’t even amount to five figures a week.
It was the price of a Ford and Lennon knew from the moment he set eyes on Van Dijk he epitomised class in a quality casing, even if he did make an error in the first match his suitor watched.
Lennon added: “I was impressed with Virgil’s fantastic temperament, his physique and his all-round qualities. He was a Rolls-Royce, capable of going through the gears when he wanted.
“Technically, he was unbelievable. When I saw him playing for Groningen he used to bring the ball out of defence and hit a pass 50 yards on a sixpence to their winger.
“He was attacking the ball in both boxes and 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. On the first day when we got him into training I said, ‘Look, enjoy yourself here, you’ll not be here long.’ He was that good.
“It was a no-brainer to sign him. Honestly, he was one of the steals of the century. I did see him make a mistake once, when I watched him against Ajax but you only needed to watch him 10 minutes and you just knew he was a player.
“He hasn’t changed that much. People say he’s got better. Well, he was like that when he was 22 and he’s now captain of his country. You just wonder what they were thinking about.”
Lennon still scratches his head in disbelief at being given a free run for his signature. He signed a defensive Colossus and wondered if he was missing something and signing a Cyclops.
He added: “I don’t know why anyone else didn’t come in for him. We had seen plenty of footage of him playing for Groningen and you’re watching and going, ‘Wow, is this boy available?’
“I thought at first there must be something wrong with him. Did he have one eye or something? Did he have something missing? I went to watch him and thought, ‘God, he could play for us no problem’.
“I was surprised how long he actually did stay at Celtic. Two years? 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. Liverpool have won a watch. Yes, it turned out to be an expensive one, but still a watch they could afford.
“It’s half the money they got from Barcelona for Coutinho and Liverpool are in the Champions League final. He’s halfway to paying his transfer fee back already. Win it, and it might just cover it completely.”
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