SOMETIMES IN FOOTBALL, it’s difficult not to feel sorry for goalkeepers. Yes, in the modern game they may be protected species, but they’re still faced with the answerable putdown of having a ball whizz past their heads and into the net. Goalkeepers at the highest level are forced to have excellent agility and reflexes, able to react in an instant to a shot flying towards them. They’re often up to the task, but sometimes they’re powerless in the face of true power.
There’s nothing a goalkeeper hates more than the unstoppable thunderbolt launched from the boot of a striker, forcing them to lunge despairingly to try and tip the ball to safety. Sometimes they can’t even manage that though. Sometimes they’re rooted to the spot by the sheer perfection of some strikes.
Former Manchester United stopper Raimond van der Gouw can tell you all about it. The date is Saturday 23 September, 2000 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s champions are entertaining Chelsea, managed by Claudio Ranieri for the first time. United have every reason to be bristling with confidence, after negotiating their first six games of the season without defeat, including a 6-0 thumping of Bradford City just a few weeks prior.
Chelsea, on the other hand, endured a tumultuous opening to their campaign, losing to Bradford and Leicester City before dismissing Gianluca Vialli and appointing Ranieri. The Chelsea frontline of Tore André Flo and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink had been inconsistent leading up to their visit to Old Trafford, but they combined extraordinarily for a goal that would leave van der Gouw speechless.
Let us a paint a picture: Graeme Le Saux bombed down the sun-soaked left flank and produced a deep cross for Flo. The pass would have defeated most strikers, but the Norwegian utilised his six foot three inch frame to stretch out an educated right leg and hook the ball back into the danger area, where Hasselbaink was waiting. The Dutchman, who always strictly adhered to a mantra of walloping the ball, controlled the ball on his chest, before unleashing a venomous strike. The ball ripped through the air and whistled straight into the top corner, leaving van der Gouw rooted to the spot, glancing towards his defenders with a wry smile.
It was a look that many goalkeepers wore after facing Hasselbaink: dejected, hopeless, bereft of a reaction. Hasselbaink scored some 250 goals during his career, a majority of which were converted with resounding conviction. Although he was primarily right-footed, Hasselbaink possessed the rare ability of being able to strike the ball cleanly and consistently with his weaker foot.
In his autobiography Jimmy, he tells the story of how he was run down by a woman on a moped after crossing a crowded street. Hasselbaink’s injuries were helped slightly by the fact that the woman on the moped was a nurse. He was taken to the hospital, where was told his leg was broken. He stayed in the hospital for a few days before being released, but that wasn’t the end of the story for him.
Read | Fire and Ice: in celebration of Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen at Chelsea
After Hasselbaink and his family moved to Holland, he went for a check-up. What should have been routine descended into something of a personal nightmare for him when the doctor revealed his leg had grown crooked. Hasselbaink’s memory of the incident is hazy, but his mother would tell him that his propensity for hyperactivity affected his rehabilitation.
The revelation led to Hasselbaink requiring an operation whereby the doctors re-fractured his leg and re-set it into a hard plaster cast. After that, Hasselbaink made a full recovery. His leg healed and it allowed him to train as a young professional footballer. He was lucky, when so many others have been unlucky in such a situation. If Hasselbaink had missed his check-up in Holland, we may never have been treated to watching him in the Premier League. And that’s what it was; a treat.
Jimmy, as he became affectionately known, first exploded onto the Premier League consciousness with Leeds United, in 1997, when George Graham signed him from Portuguese side Boavista. Hasselbaink had built himself a reputation as a prolific forward and he ultimately lived up to the hype at Elland Road. He overcame initial struggles in adapting to the pace of the English game to score 26 goals in all competitions during his first season. It was an excellent return for a transfer fee of £2 million. Hasselbaink’s consistency meant that he attracted admiring glances from further afield, making him one of the hottest properties in European football.
Indeed, his two-year love affair with the Yorkshire club concluded in spectacularly messy circumstances, the player being branded a “greedy son of a bitch” by David O’Leary after Hasselbaink recoiled at Leeds’ new contract offer. The versions of events from manager and player obviously differ enormously but, in the end, Hasselbaink was sold to Atlético Madrid in the summer of 1999, a month or so after he had dealt a killer blow to Arsenal’s title hopes with a diving header in one of the season’s last games handing the momentum to Manchester United.
Hasselbaink claims he never wanted to leave Leeds, but he was to spend the next 12 months in Spain with Atlético, scoring important goals and further enhancing his reputation as one of the continent’s finest finishers. Although his time in the Spanish capital was fleeting, he helped Los Rojiblancos record a historic Madrid derby victory over their rivals Real, winning at the Santiago Bernabéu for the first time in nine years. Hasselbaink bagged himself a brace in that match and although it didn’t quite work out for Claudio Ranieri at the Vicente Calderón, he would reunite with his Dutch forward less than a year later at Stamford Bridge.
It wasn’t Ranieri who signed Hasselbaink for Chelsea, of course. Gianluca Vialli was the man who forked up a club record fee of £15 million to secure the striker’s services. Hasselbaink sparkled on his Blues debut, scoring in the 2-0 Charity Shield defeat of Manchester United. However, just as his return to England got off to the ideal start, Vialli was sacked by Chelsea in a move that deeply affected Hasselbaink.
Chelsea had started the season poorly, lying just one point above the relegation zone when the Italian was dismissed amid rumours of dressing room unrest. Hasselbaink, too, was at the centre of a media storm when he was involved in a bust-up with team-mate Christian Panucci during a defeat to Leicester, when the striker had to be restrained by Winston Bogarde. Hasselbaink admitted that he was “dismayed” at Vialli’s sacking and that the Chelsea squad had to take a long, hard look in the mirror after a string of sub-par performances.
Read | In celebration of Thierry Henry, the striking blueprint
Hasselbaink had let his own performances drop somewhat during Chelsea’s slump but under the stricter fitness training methods of Ranieri, the striker blossomed beautifully at the Bridge and ended his first season at the club with 23 goals, clinching the Premier League Golden Boot in the process. Yes, absence makes the heart grow fonder and Hasselbaink’s year away from the Premier League only boosted his appetite for goals in England’s top division.
Ranieri was perhaps most grateful for the fact that Hasselbaink was a striker entirely comfortable operating alongside a partner, as he showed with Eidur Gudjohnsen. Chelsea had been reliant on Hasselbaink’s goals during Gudjohnsen’s first season, when he was used predominantly from the bench, but in the 01-02 campaign, their partnership developed into a most devastating attacking axis, accumulating 52 goals in all competitions between the pair of them.
It was the partnership that left Sir Alex Ferguson staring glumly into the camera after a 3-0 defeat to Chelsea at Old Trafford and proclaiming, as early as the first day of December: “I don’t think we’ll win the Premier League now.”
Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen duly made a mockery of an error-strewn United side. For Chelsea’s second, United’s £28 million midfielder Juan Sebastián Verón gifted possession to Hasselbaink. The Dutch forward surged towards the penalty area with purpose, sucking in Roy Keane and leaving him for dead after exchanging a neat one-two with Gudjohnsen and cannoning a venomous right-footed strike past Fabien Barthez.
Gudjohnsen and Hasselbaink were fire and ice, polar opposite footballers who gelled seamlessly as the twin spearheads of Chelsea’s attack. Hasselbaink was a powerful, aggressive forward who struck fear into defender’s hearts once he got the ball down and ran at them, while his Icelandic partner in crime was the more meticulous, creative of the two. Crucially, they were both fantastic strikers at the peak of their powers and it gave Chelsea fans something to cheer about in a campaign that saw them finish sixth in the league and lose the FA Cup final to Arsenal.
At times, it was merely about sitting back and marvelling at the sheer brilliance of Hasselbaink. In March 2002,we got to witness peak Jimmy when the striker ruthlessly laid waste to Spurs with a stupendous hat-trick. His first was an exquisite curling effort from 25 yards, going beyond Neil Sullivan and into the corner to take the lead. Hasselbaink wheeled away with his trademark celebration – a beaming smile and arms fully outstretched, waiting to be embraced by his adulating colleagues.
The second was simple but deadly, picking up a perfect position in the box to glance home from Jesper Grønkjær’s cross. Spurs were already defeated, but Hasselbaink wasn’t finished with them yet. His third was a goal of ludicrous technique, defying the laws of physics with a preposterously curled left-footer that probably prompted investigations into the re-designing the Premier League official match ball to ensure the aerodynamics were a little less cartoonish. That’s what Hasselbaink could do though; strike a ball in a way that almost laughed in the face of footballing realism.
It speaks volumes of Hasselbaink’s capacity as a top-class striker that he refused to be deterred by Roman Abramovic’s Chelsea takeover bringing with it the expensive goal-scoring services of Hernán Crespo and Adrian Mutu. In the summer of 2003, when the Russian billionaire ushered in a new era of Premier League uber-wealth, Hasselbaink was, despite his profligacy, considered expendable in the face of such dazzling continental prospects. As it were, he remained on Chelsea’s vast wage bill and even showed up his glamorous new team-mates in plundering 18 goals during the 2003-04 campaign, making him the club’s top-scorer for the third time in four years.
Read | Didier Drogba: a man of peace
Their disparity was portrayed during a tricky trip to the Madejski Stadium to play Reading. It was there, at the home of the Royals, where one of the Premier League’s new crown jewels showed his deficiencies. As Crespo spent the game heading chances over the bar and weakly striking into the side-netting, it was up to Hasselbaink to thrash home the winner and capture three hard-fought points. The contrasting performances was telling, with the Dutch master showing the fumbling Argentine the art of striking in the heat of Premier League battle.
Ultimately, it was not enough to save Hasselbaink. He was 32 and, although he was almost certainly as much of a threat as Mutu or Crespo, the arrival of Didier Drogba brought down the curtain on the career of one Chelsea legend, paving the Ivorian to become another himself. Hasselbaink’s contract was terminated by mutual consent and he was signed by Middlesbrough, to be paired with fellow ex-Leeds United striker Mark Viduka in a formidable attacking partnership designed to propel Steve McClaren’s Teesiders into the Champions League.
With Viduka and Hasselbaink commandeering the frontline, Middlesbrough duly finished seventh and earned a berth in the UEFA Cup for the 2005-06 season, where they would famously reach the final. Heading to the north-east proved to be a shrewd move for Hasselbaink, scoring 34 times in 89 games as he helped bring the club to within touching distance of their greatest triumph. At the Riverside, Hasselbaink rekindled his penchant for gelling with a strike partner, utilising Viduka’s immense ability to hold up play to his own advantage, often running beyond the Australian and finishing off a move with characteristic incision and aplomb.
Hasselbaink saw out his career with a couple of one-year stints at Charlton Athletic and Cardiff City, before retiring in 2008 at the age of 36. However, it comes as no surprise that Hasselbaink has forged himself a budding managerial career, first with Burton Albion and now with QPR, with whom he hopes to guide back to the Premier League.
Hasselbaink always had a clear vision of what he wanted to do as a footballer; hit the ball past the goalkeeper and into the net. Now, he has a different yet equally unblemished image for his managerial career; to learn, progress and succeed. Hasselbaink showed his commitment to being a top-flight manager in tackling the rigours of the UEFA Pro Licence course, which he concluded in June 2016. When he was appointed in December 2015, Hasselbaink became QPR’s fifth manager in as many years but he is striving for stability at Loftus Road. He’s also determined to achieve that with the admirable approach of promoting youth talent from within the club.
He told The Guardian recently: “For me, bringing kids through is a normal thing because I am from Holland, but I’ve been in England for almost 20 years and I feel I’m a little bit British. Three of my four kids were born here and have gone through the English system. They don’t speak Dutch, they speak English. My wife is English. In a way, I feel the obligation to give something back to the FA by trying to bring through young English players.”
Hasselbaink has a tough task ahead of him at QPR, trying to succeed where more experienced managers have faltered in recent years. His drive and devotion to becoming the best manager he can be is refreshing. It remains to be seen how successful he becomes as a coach but, considering how he recovered from a potentially crippling knee injury in his youth to become one of the most lethal strikers the Premier League has ever seen, the prognosis is bright.
By Matt Gault @MattGault11