Fernando Ricksen meant a little bit more than most players to Rangers fans, so it was hardly surprising that when he passed away this week, the tributes paid to him were so enthusiastic.
But why did he mean so much to them? David Edgar from the Heart and Hand podcast joined the Totally Scottish Football Show this week to explain.
“As a supporter, I love the guys who you’d think if they weren’t on the field they’d be up in the stand with you. Just being one of us. That’s how Fernando played: he played like one of us, the way we’d dream, if we were footballers, we would play.
“He gave you everything – it didn’t matter where it was, where the score was, he’d give you 100%, and he would occasionally make a mistake or get a red card or something, but that’s because he was real. He wasn’t this perfect human being, and the fans loved that even more about him.
“There are players you admire, who have tremendous skill, and while they’re there it’s great, but there are guys that get into your heart, and Fernando Ricksen was one of them.”
Not that it started particularly well for Ricksen: he made his debut in the Old Firm game in 2000 when a Henrik Larsson-inspired Celtic beat Rangers 6-2, and Ricksen was substituted after just 20 minutes.
But the way he bounced back from that was just another reason for his popularity.
“Back then the whole team was falling apart rapidly. In one summer they went from a team that won five trophies out of six, to one that couldn’t beat anybody….
“When you lose 6-2 and you get subbed 20 minutes into an Old Firm match, there’s going to be questions, about whether you’re big enough or have the mentality to play for Rangers. The mental strength required to come back from that, and to say ‘OK, I’ll learn from that’, I think that tells you about the character of the man.
“After a really slow start to his Rangers career, by the end of the season he was playing really well and the next season he got even better. I think that summed him up – a lot of people might have said ‘I’ve made a mistake coming here, can I get a move?’ Remember he was a Dutch international, there would have been clubs after him.”
Arguably Ricksen’s best season was 2004/5, the campaign that ended on ‘Helicopter Sunday’.
“The thing people forget about Helicopter Sunday and all the excitement about it, there were times that season when it was very rocky – in the September, Alex McLeish was about one game away from the sack for about a month, and in one game Ricksen saved his job by scoring the winner in a cup tie at Aberdeen. If Rangers had lost that one I have no doubt McLeish would have been sacked.
“Ricksen was the one constant that season, he drove them over the line, was player of the year. That really goes down as his title triumph, because he was really the man of the match more often than not. He was the heartbeat of that side, a leader. Something else that showed the measure of that man: that summer he gave up the captaincy to Barry Ferguson: he didn’t need to, because he knew how much the club meant to Barry who was a lifelong supporter.”
Ultimately, his legacy will last beyond Rangers.
“Another thing about his illness – his prognosis when he was first diagnosed was six months, and he battled it for six years, during which time he led a campaign which raised hundreds of thousands of pounds when faced with that challenge.
“The courage it took to do that, to not only fight the disease itself but also raise awareness, raise money and maybe play a part in ending it one day. He made a difference to lots of people’s lives, and if one day a cure is found, he’ll have played a part in it.”
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