18 SEPTEMBER 2019 • 10:30 PM
The minute’s silence which will precede Rangers’ Europa League group stage opener against Feyenoord at Ibrox on Thursday night can – despite good intentions – be categorised as a wholly inappropriate tribute to Fernando Ricksen, the former Ibrox captain, who has died after a six-year struggle with motor neurone disease.
Life was rarely silent when Ricksen was around, certainly not in his playing days and categorically not during his spell with Rangers between 2000 and 2006.
This was the man, after all, who was taken off after 21 minutes of his first appearance at celtic Park because of his culpability in what ended as a 6-2 defeat, was sent off before half-time on his second appearance at Parkhead and who was the first player in Scotland to be banned on the basis of video evidence, when the TV cameras caught him aim a reverse karate kick at Aberdeen’s Darren Young, before he was later banned for elbowing Derek Riordan of Hibernian.
Ricksen pushed the then Rangers chairman, John McClelland, who was fully clothed, into a swimming pool in Greece before a European tie with Panathinaikos. He won 12 caps with the Dutch international side before being banned after smashing a door on a night out. He tested positively for cocaine when he played with Zenit St Petersburg, where he twice got into fights with the club captain.
On one occasion, in the press room before an Old Firm match at Ibrox, someone asked if it was true that Ricksen had been named after the eponymous Abba song. Came the reply: “Did Abba release a song called ‘Dirty Fouling B------?’ ”
Despite a rap sheet that would have earned respect from the Peaky Blinders, Ricksen’s struggles with personal demons and ultimately with the devastating effects of motor neurone disease earned him heartfelt tributes from both sides of the Old Firm divide on Wednesday. He had forsworn alcohol when he captained Rangers to the 2004-05 Scottish league title and he was an influential figure when Zenit won the Russian championship in 2007.
The onset of MND in 2013 was the transformational factor. Ricksen had been given 18 months to live but treated the prognosis with characteristic defiance, citing the desire to be available for as long as possible to his daughter, Isabella, now eight years old. Despite his painful and obvious deterioration, he appeared regularly at charitable events and raised close to £1 million for MND research and support funds.
He was a regular visitor to the Rangers training ground at Auchenhowie, where his appearance affected Steven Gerrard. “He was still putting up a fight,” the Ibrox manager said. “It’s sad news but he deserves all the tributes that are coming his way.
“He was the type to play with his heart on his sleeve and that was epitomised when he was taken ill in 2013 and given 18 months to live. He fought ever so well and it summed up his character – a warrior on the pitch as well as off it.
“I saw with my own eyes at the training ground the situation he was in and the suffering he was going through. He deteriorated very much in the last six or seven days and was in a lot of pain and was very stressed, so no one likes to hear that news. We send our condolences to his young family.”
Fate and the fixture calendar have decreed that Thursday night’s opposition should be Dutch. Feyenoord are the top seeds in Group G so, if Rangers are to upset the odds, this looks like their best chance. “We are at home for the opener, which could be important. We have the opportunity to get off to a really good, positive start by trying to take all three points,” Gerrard said.
“If we do, it sets us up for game two. We all sat round the canteen at Auchenhowie waiting for the group stage draw and, when it was made, we spoke about it being a tough group with some good teams in it.
“I was confident we could get there, even if it was tough in the qualifiers and it went to the wire. I had to prepare us for Sunday-Thursday over a longer period.
“That’s the reason we have gone for more volume and extra quality in the squad. You’ve seen what’s happened in the last couple of weeks – we’ve lost two players in the same position in Jordan Jones and Ryan Kent, but we have an answer for that now. That’s the reason why, if you have ambition to compete both domestically and in Europe, you need at least two good players in each position.”
It may be, though, that on an emotionally charged evening, Rangers’ best weapon will be to summon the spirit and biting style of the favourite they have just lost.
Can you hear the drums, Fernando?