Neil Lennon: Liverpool's ex-SPFL contingent will give game shot in arm
Neil Lennon believes Scottish football will 'get a shot in the arm' thanks to Andy Robertson and Virgil van Dijk's presence in the Liverpool side which will face Real Madrid in Saturday's Champions League final.
And, insisted the Hibs boss, it should encourage more top clubs to take an interest in football north of the border, pointing to Robertson’s fairytale rise from his days as an amateur with Queen’s Park, while Dutchman van Dijk eventually cost the Anfield outfit £70 million for a defender who cost him less than £2m when he brought him to Celtic.
Lennon admitted to being baffled at the indifference shown by scouts, saying many didn’t bother to come and have a look, revealing how he’d get inquiries about Van Dijk which weren’t followed up until Southampton finally paid £11.5m for him three years ago.
“It’s embarrassing,” claimed Lennon. “I got phone calls from big clubs about Van Dijk on a number of occasions. I just couldn’t believe what they were waiting on. Southampton did the right thing, they came in and did the business.
“For me, it was an absolute no-brainer, but because of this playing in Scotland nonsense ... is he good enough for the English Premier League?
“It was so apparent from day one that the guy was going to be an absolute superstar. They used to cast doubt over Henrik Larsson who went to Barcelona.
“There are loads of players here who can go and play in England and have a really good career. Maybe their perception of the Scottish game as cost them. It has cost Liverpool a lot of money but, in the end, it’s probably money well spent. They could have had him for £10-12m two or three years ago if they had done their jobs properly.
“But big club scouts rang me and I said ‘what are you thinking about? What are you waiting on?’ Some of the answers I got back were absolutely baffling.
“But I think having two boys making the Champions League final who plied their trade here is a great shot in the arm for the game here.
“For all the way people outside here talk the game down, they are a great example of the players that can be produced here. It’s a great example to the players here as well, if you do the right things and you nurture your talent in the right way, anything is possible.”
Celtic youngster Kieran Tierney is another Lennon believes could walk into most Premier League teams, although he believes Robertson, who was released by the Hoops as a kid, is currently the “more rounded” player at the minute. “They are two fantastic players whereas Kieran has got so much in front of him,” said Lennon.
Although Robertson and Tierney are obviously two home-grown talents, Lennon believes the rise of Van Dijk, signed from Dutch side Groningen, also demonstrates how promise can be nurtured within the Scottish game.
Describing the central defender as “one of the steals of the century”, Lennon said: “We had seen plenty of footage of him playing for Groningen and you’re watching and going ‘wow, is this boy available?’ I thought there must be English Premier League scouts watching him.
“You are thinking there must be something wrong with him. Then you go and watch him and you’re thinking, ‘he could play for us, no problem.
“He has a fantastic temperament, fantastic physique and all-round qualities. He was just a Rolls-Royce, he could tgo up through the gears when he wanted to. Technically he was unbelievable, he would bring the ball out of defence, hit it 40 or 50 yards on a sixpence to the winger. He was attacking the ball in both boxes.
“In the end we got him for just over ¤2m. I couldn’t believe my luck. On the first day at training I said, ‘look, enjoy yourself, you’ll not be here long’. He was that good.
“People say he’s got better – and he has made Liverpool better, they are a lot more sound defensively now. But he was like that when he was 22. He’s now captain of his country, you wonder what they were thinking about. I was surprised how long he actually did stay at Celtic. Was it two years? I thought he would have been snapped up well before then. The fact he played in Scotland maybe slowed the process down a little bit.
“A lot of scouts and managers should be hanging their heads but Liverpool have won a watch. An expensive watch, yes, but one they could afford. It was half the money they got for [Philippe] Coutinho and they’re in the Champions League final so he’s halfway to paying that back already. If they win it, it might cover it.”