Liverpool's Virgil van Dijk always had 'a lot of potential' - Henk Veldmate
LIVERPOOL -- Adaptability is part of Virgil van Dijk's nature. It was on display during his Liverpool debut when he netted a late winner against Everton and was key in the early part of the defender's career as he quickly forced his way into first-team football at Eredivisie side Groningen.
At the start of the 2010-11 season, a teenage Van Dijk made the 150-mile move to Groningen from Willem II's youth ranks. Expected to develop in Groningen's reserves, before that campaign's end the centre-back was playing for the senior side.
He spent three seasons at Groningen before moving to Celtic in a £2.6 million deal, then cost Southampton £13m in September 2015 before becoming the world's most expensive defender after Liverpool paid £75m for his services earlier this month.
ESPN FC interviewed former Groningen technical director Henk Veldmate, now head of scouting at Ajax, about how he came to sign Van Dijk nearly eight years ago.
Q: Can you tell us about how you first came across Van Dijk?
A: I was in good contact with my network -- a lot of people in clubs, coaches, but also agents. I was in contact with some agents regarding my requests for some younger players in our reserve team, with the possibility to develop into the first-team. I asked: 'If you know any player who would play one or maybe half a year in the reserve team, but has the potential to develop into the first-team in the Netherlands then please let me know'.
His agent, Henk-Maarten Chin, [at that time] told me that I should take a look at Virgil because he was playing at Willem II, but he needed some other place to make the next step. For him, it would be the best idea to move to another club and start all over again and develop his potential from there.
Sometimes you get a bit rusty when you stay too long at a club and every day you hear the same things. You need to be a bit more challenged from the outside -- different environments, different people, different demands, etc.
Q: Acting upon his agent's recommendation, how much did you scout the Willem II youngster?
A: One of our scouts took a look one Saturday in the under-19s team of Willem II. He called me during half-time to tell me this was a guy with a lot of potential who could be very interesting to Groningen. I took that seriously, of course.
The next week I visited one of his Willem II U19s games and I had the same opinion. Of course, there were some things he could develop and improve on. But in total, the development was huge. He had the conditions for a top player, the athletic skills, the body, the strength, the playing qualities.
My colleague watched the first match and I watched the second match. Of course, we saw some other matches, but after these two matches we were convinced that we should take the opportunity to sign him for Groningen.
He was very open for the move. I noticed that he was ready to make a new start, new challenge in a new environment. He also knew that it could help push him to a higher level.
Q: How did he settle in his new environment? It wasn't long before he was in the first team...
A: We signed him and told him the plan was to start him in the reserve team and to see if he would do OK and also to adjust to our way of playing, adjust to the new club and environment. He had to live by himself for the first time, so it was a new step in his life.
Of course, this step needed some time. That took half a year, and then the second half a year he grew up to train with the first-team. At the end of year, he made his debut and his first steps in the first-team.
Q: What's his personality like?
A: He could take things a little too easy sometimes. That's something in his system. But he also noticed that this is in his system and was able to push himself out of these thoughts. He knows himself that sometimes he's the guy that can take things easy. But if you know this from yourself then you push another button and don't think about this and push yourself to a higher level. That's what he has. That's a good combination, at least the second one is a good thing, because you know yourself quite well and you can push yourself to other side.
Q: So after two full seasons in Groningen's first-team, he left for Celtic. Were there any other teams interested?
A: There were a lot of teams interested, but some teams are 50 percent interested, some teams are five percent interested. Interest is just an average word. I think Virgil, for himself, liked to think about England. I think that Celtic was the perfect step for him. It was a higher level, but it prepared him best to go to England afterwards.
It was in his mind -- and I think he was right with it -- that it is a big step to go from the Eredivisie to the Premier League. But to go to Celtic, a big club in Scotland, he got used to playing in Britain. I think it was the best thing for him to do.
Q: You obviously work at Ajax now. Is there any regret that Ajax didn't have this Dutch player on their books once?
A: In football, you don't look back at things that happened or didn't happen. You should ask the people in Ajax, like [current director of football Marc] Overmars, because, at the time, he had the opportunity to sign Virgil. For me, Ajax would have been a good step, but to prepare for England, Celtic was also a very good step for him.
Q: Having worked with Van Dijk during the early part of his career, are you surprised that he's turned out to be the world's most expensive defender?
A: Everything is a surprise. Sometimes you think, because you're long in the business, that you know what could happen. You cannot pronounce anything about this. For sure, I think he had the possibility and potential to reach a very high level, but the amount of money is sometimes not realistic.
Glenn is ESPN FC's Liverpool correspondent. You can follow him on Twitter: @GlennPrice94.