When the whistle sounds
If I’m being honest, as a player, Fernando Ricksen was one of those adversaries who got right on my nerves. He wasn’t annoying in that badge kissing, please love me, I hate the Tims-honest, way Nacho Novo was annoying, but he grated the gears nonetheless. He played on the edge of the rules, clattering into tackles and taking it upon himself to ‘straighten out’ players like Aberdeen’s Darren Young with a Kung-Fu kick Bruce Lee would have been proud of. His elbow on Derek Roirdan of Hibs cost him a ban and £10,000 fine such was its seriousness. His running feud with Alan Thompson had everything from on-field fights to fireworks being set off in the garden in the street they shared. A certain wildness of character led to disciplinary issues throughout his career and his misdemeanours ranged from an on-field fist fight with his own Captain whilst at Zenit St Petersburg to being thrown out the Dutch squad for kicking in a Hotel door when drunk. Paul Le Guen, during his disastrous six months in charge of Rangers, fined him and sent him home from a trip to South Africa after a mid-flight drink fuelled incident with an airline Stewardess. Le Guen stated that Ricksen’s behaviour had been…"inappropriate and unacceptable for the way in which I have asked my players to conduct themselves.’’
Yet in spite of Ricksen’s wilder excesses he always struck me as a man who was somewhat vulnerable. My first sighting of him was during the memorable 6-2 demolition Rangers suffered at Celtic Park in the summer of 2000. Bobby Petta ran him ragged and such was Ricksen’s wild eyed confusion, his Manager substituted him after just 23 minutes. It was one of those times when a player seemed to be totally overawed by the occasion and noise of an Old Firm clash. He looked lost that day and totally out of his depth, it’s to his credit that he recovered and had a good career at Rangers which culminated in him being named joint 2004-05 Player of the year, an award he shared with John Hartson. He could play as his caps for the Dutch national team suggest. No one represents that nation at football unless they have a fair degree of talent.
Fernando is, like all of us, a flawed human being and perhaps as he grew older and moved on from football and all its exaggerated emotions he would have reflected on his wilder moments with some perspective. He made his peace with Alan Thompson after 5 years of feuding and bad blood. Thompson said some years ago…
"Fernando and I are not getting any younger. We might as well put what has gone on before behind us and get on with things now."
For the average Celtic fan, Ricksen was not a figure they had much affection for as a player but there was at least a grudging respect that he never gave less than 100% and fought hard for his club. However, as the years passed and he entered retirement from the game, there was great sympathy at the news he was suffering from that most debilitating disease Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known in the UK as Motor Neuron Disease (MND). We had all become aware of this awful illness when it struck Celtic legend Jimmy Johnstone a decade earlier and the realisation that another ostensibly fit and active person had been struck by it was hard to comprehend. Fernando is currently facing the illness with the same determination he faced opponents on the field of play. It is remarkable to see him fighting so hard against what is surely one of the cruelest conditions known to medical science. His courage is undoubted and his commitment to raising funds and helping others commendable.
I watched footage of his testimonial game at Ibrox recently and only the hardest of hearts could fail to have sympathy for a man going through so much. That game raised £320,000 for charities including MND Scotland and that was a very fitting gesture from Fernando and his former colleagues who flew in to support him. Footballing rivalries are as nothing when we watch a fellow human being suffering and yet still courageously fighting on. The vast majority of Celtic supporters will I’m sure join me in wishing Fernando all the best in the time he has left.
When the whistle sounds and the battle is over, we realise that football and all its glories and disasters, is but a mirror of life. We meet great characters, occasionally see flashes of brilliance and admire the courage of those who fight on against great odds. The stadiums are our theatres, our colosseum where gladiators wearing our colours battle for honours. But when the game is over we should also remember that the heroes and villains are men who go home to wives and families who cherish them as ours cherish us. The common humanity which binds us all is far greater than creed, politics or the colour of shirt our team wears. That is why our hearts go out to Fernando Ricksen at this time. He is going through trials I cannot begin to comprehend and doing so with remarkable courage.
Our thoughts are with you Fernando. God bless and Hail Hail.