Scotland unites in support of divisive figure Fernando Ricksen

For a man who spent his entire playing career in the role of the divisive figure, it must be rather surreal for Fernando Ricksen to see the entire football world unite in support of the former Fortuna Sittard, AZ, Rangers and Zenit St. Petersburg player throughout this difficult time.

The player, who announced live on Dutch TV last October that he had been diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease, was seen as an extremely controversial figure throughout his entire career and there was never a more contentious period in the Dutchman’s career than the six years he spent in Scotland.

As a player, Rangers fans loved him, Celtic fans hated him and neutrals were somewhere in the middle.

But throughout last weekend, Scotland delivered one clear and succinct message to the 37-year-old: the country is wholeheartedly behind you.

On Friday 10th January, he stood in front of a room full of people who chanted his name and cheered him on. It was at the end of an evening in which Ricksen reminisced about his time in Scotland and recounted anecdotes to a supportive crowd extremely relieved to laugh with him and, for a moment, forget the injustice of seeing such a strong young man stricken with a relentless illness and the uncertainty that it brings.

Earlier, former teammates Michael Mols and Andy Goram described him as an incredibly brave figure. Certainly, no one would disagree.

As the chants were bellowed out by fans in that pub in Glasgow, Ricksen seemed taken aback, but it was only the beginning of an incredibly emotional weekend for the former Netherlands international.

At half-time during Rangers’ clash with East Fife at Ibrox on Saturday, Ricksen marched out and onto the field. The crowd of 42,000 rose to their feet, applauded and chanted his name to show their support. It was an expression solidarity from fans with as much passion as the player himself had shown throughout his time at the club.

It was all a bit much for Fernando as the tears quickly began to roll down his cheeks. He wasn’t the only one crying in that stadium and many more would follow as a video of his appearance spread through the internet, lodging a lump in the throat of anyone who watched. The video has spread to the Netherlands and beyond and the reception has been just as emotional.

The next day he would take centre stage once again at another Q&A in East Kilbride. And once again the support was incredible.

It was a three day period which gave Scotland the opportunity to deliver in person the message of unanimous support that it has wanted to give Fernando since his revelation on 30th October 2013.

After he announced to the world that he had the illness on De Wereld Draait Door, there has been nothing but support and good words for Fernando from Scotland. Fans of Rangers, Celtic and everyone in between have united in a way that this writer has never seen before. An extreme and intense rivalry such as that of the Old Firm has been cast aside. Everything put into perspective.

Ricksen’s career is generally remembered in this country as a series of moments. Explosive, deeply controversial moments, of which there are two categories: those on the field and those off of it. In the latter category there are the much publicised night with model Katie Price, taking a taxi to Celtic player Alan Thompson’s house to chap the door (he revealed on Friday he wasn’t the only player in the taxi, but was the only one to get out and go to the door), setting off fireworks at 5am, fighting with a neighbour, throwing chairmen into swimming pools, being banned from the Netherlands national team, drunk driving and a good bit more. Even the standout memories on the park aren’t exactly highlights. Kicking Darren Anderson, getting substituted early in his first Old Firm derby and being sent off in his second one, elbowing Derek Riordan, fighting with teammate and captain Vladislav Radimov and, again, a whole load more.

But to sum up Ricksen’s career in this way is to take a career out of context. Incredibly, it is often forgotten that despite his troubles, alcoholism and general craziness, the Dutchman was always a good player. One with good technical ability, pace and a fantastic shot.

He emerged as a bright 17-year-old at Fortuna Sittard, making two league appearances in the 1993-94 campaign. From then on, though, he would be an integral member of the team, playing a key role as the southerners went on to win the Eerste Divisie with a team which also included Mark van Bommel. In their first season upon returning to the Dutch top flight, the Limburg side finished 13th, with Ricksen once again playing a crucial role. They improved even further the following year. Ricksen played in every league game and scored four goals as the southerners climbed to 11th place.

Despite his success with FSC, Ricksen left to join Willem van Hanegem’s AZ at 21-years-old, who had just been relegated. Again, Ricksen was an important member of the team which bounced straight back up to the Eredivisie and in the following two seasons he’d prove a vital part as they finished 9th ­(one place above Fortuna) and 7th respectively in the league.

After three seasons in Alkmaar, Ricksen was given the opportunity to make a step up when Dick Advocaat came knocking and the defender became one of several Dutchmen to move to Scottish giants Rangers in that era. After winning seven trophies with Rangers over a six year spell, he followed Advocaat to Russia to join Zenit St Petersburg, where, over a three year spell he would win the Russian Premier League, Russian Super Cup, UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup. Again, disciplinary issues were aplenty and it saw his time in Russia come to an end and he soon returned to the Netherlands to end his career with his first club, Fortuna.

As a player, Ricksen was, in every sense, unpredictable. As someone whose fascination with everything Dutch was beginning to blossom, he was a special case for me. The likes of Arthur Numan, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Frank de Boer, Ronald de Boer and Michael Mols were all gifted, elegant and technically proficient players. In a way, typically Dutch. Ricksen, though, was different. He had the technique, awareness and attacking mentality of a Dutchman, but the passion and aggression generally respected by fans in Scotland.

That passion and aggression may have been poorly controlled and saw him commit acts which were generally reckless, malicious and usually indefensible, but it was part of his character. He was a player who played with complete passion. What he did was either instinctive or it was because he felt it was the best thing to do for his team, regardless of the consequences.

He played without any fear of consequences or regret. Based on the stories and reports from those days, he lived like that too. Perhaps it would have been rather hypocritical of him not to have.

Throughout life we hear so many people tell us to “live for the moment”, but Ricksen may be the only person I’ve ever witnessed doing it.

Regardless of his motivation, there is no denying that Ricksen was a better player than most who look back on his career remember.

Advocaat not only saw enough in him to bring him to Glasgow, he, along with Louis van Gaal, thought him deserving of a place in the Dutch national team, not once, but 12 times. Furthermore, the Little General rated him highly enough to bring him to Russia to play for one of the nation’s biggest clubs, Zenit St Petersburg. Despite his troubles, the former PSV boss called upon him in three different jobs. You don’t get that unless you are a very good player.

To put it another way, you don’t spend six years at a club like Rangers during that period without being a very good player.

For a man remembered as being such a strong, combative, fractious personality, it’s simply unfair that he should be suffering from motor neurone disease, it’s flat out cruel that it comes at such a young age.

As ever, though, Fernando looks defiant and bold. As a player he fought for everything, in retirement he has to fight for something much, much more serious.

During his career he was a divisive figure, now this entire country has united behind him.

Our only regret?

We can’t do more.

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