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16 January 2019

Why Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk – yes, that’s his real name – reminds me of my late wife Margaret

He is one of nature’s prefects. It’s hard to imagine him as young and daft and foolish, doing really stupid things.

By Hunter Davies

There’s always a taste thrill, a flavour of the month in football, some player we all lavish unadulterated praise on, till he turns out to be not as good as we said, or a tastier mortal comes along. For about half an hour, Arsenal’s Aubameyang had us drooling, with the Guardian slavering all over him for a whole page – which of course turned out to be the weekend in which he was pretty useless and got substituted.

Liverpool’s Mo Salah has been raved about for two years now, but a few chinks have surfaced, clever clogs are now pointing out that he can disappear in games, and he’s not as brutally focused and totally self-confident as, say, Cristiano Ronaldo.

So far, the one player this season I have seen nobody rubbishing is Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool. He will be their player most responsible if they win the Prem.

I remember drooling about him when he joined Celtic in 2013, not because of his skills, as I had never seen him play, but his name; wow, so brilliant, so clever, naming himself after a top Roman poet – author of three of the greatest poems in Latin – and a top 17th-century Flemish portrait painter who came to England and got knighted. What a combination.

I was sure Virgil van Dijk was his stage name, acquired when he turned professional, in the manner of Cristiano Ronaldo (not many know he was born Kevin Lump). But he really was born van Dijk, one of the most common names in Holland,while his mother comes from Suriname.

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Now, I never think about his name. Just him. He is probably the world’s most-admired, most-valuable defender, not just for his skills on the ball, his passing and defending, but because he has one unusual, stunning, remarkable attribute which you rarely see on the football pitch. He is stately.

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He radiates stateliness, so calm and controlled, steady and strong, wouldn’t Mrs May like half of what he’s got. He spreads his calmness out around him, commanding calm from others, so the whole defence reflects his aristocratic, superior, natural authority. Surely he went to Eton, or perhaps an awfully good grammar school.

Bobby Moore had the same stateliness. So did Alan Hansen – both defenders, not fast or killer tacklers, but always appearing in control. I can’t think of many other defenders who possess such grace under pressure. Declan Rice might have it. John Stones of Man City appeared to be in the same mould when he first emerged, but there is still a raw juvenile lurking inside, whom you suspect might well panic under real pressure. I can’t see Virgil van Dijk ever in a panic, or ever having to put straight his dinky, discreet little ponytail – his man bun – because some bully has disturbed his hair.

He is one of nature’s prefects. It’s hard to imagine him as young and daft and foolish, doing really stupid things. His character must always have been responsible, serious.

He reminds me of my late wife. She was born in a council house – no books, her dad worked in a factory, going there each day on his bike in his boiler suit – yet Margaret, from the moment I met her at school, struck me as middle class and middle-aged, searingly clever, as if she had been born grown up. It took me so long to feel grown up – till, well, about last week.

I have an old friend, a doctor, who has had three amazing careers, yet always had a low profile, unknown to the general public. She has been a top consultant, medical director of two fam0us London hospitals and then head of a large national charity.

Over lunch one day I was marvelling over her career and asked her how she explained it – was it her incredible talent, brains, skills, hard work, luck or what?

“I was always looked upon as sensible, even when I was at school. And it just carried on like that. I still strike people as being very sensible.”

Me, in my head I am still a daft lad, waiting to appear mature, even at 83. Hard working, yes; enthusiastic, oh yes, but I don’t think I will ever strike people as stately. And certainly not sensible. 

This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain