“He can take that olive branch,” an irate Dave Bassett began, “and stick it up his arse.” A sentence that plenty of others could relate to when it came time to discuss Pierre van Hooijdonk’s time in British football. The Dutchman was as equally adept at putting the ball in the back of the net as he was at annoying managers, teammates and fans alike. Goals were his stock in trade – on the surface his record spoke for itself, yet they only told half of the story.
Petrus Ferdinandus Johannes van Hooijdonk was born on 29 November 1969 in Steenbergen, the Netherlands. His football career began at nearby NAC Breda where, despite impressing during a youth trial, the right-sided midfielder was ultimately rejected and headed home to join VV Steenbergen, where he was soon converted into a striker. It wasn’t long before he again was on the move, this time to RBC Roosendaal and, within two years, Breda returned to acquire his services; an opportunity to prove a point at the club who ruthlessly disposed of him several years earlier was too good to refuse.
During his four seasons at the NAC Stadion, he plundered an imperious 81 goals in 115 games. Aged 25, Van Hooijdonk was approaching his peak and interested parties began to circle around the powerful striker. The Bosman ruling had altered the transfer landscape, not only for players but also clubs, who were now aching to gain an edge over their rivals any way they could. Nowhere was this more the case than in Scotland. Rangers were in the middle of winning nine titles in a row, whilst their Glaswegian neighbours were mired in the depths of despair, on and off the pitch.
Fresh from an embarrassing penalty shootout defeat to Raith Rovers in the Scottish League Cup final and on the verge of going bust, Fergus McCann stepped in to save Celtic and installed former favourite Tommy Burns as manager. With McCann keeping the purse strings tight, Burns and his staff set out to bridge the gap between themselves and the juggernaut operating out of Ibrox.
The USA’s Earnie Stewart was on the shopping list, yet when the video footage of the NAC Breda winger was watched, they couldn’t help but notice the tall, powerful striker latching himself onto the end of every cross. A £1.5m fee was agreed and Van Hooijdonk was soon on his way to Scotland.
Later that summer, German World Cup winner Andreas Thom also arrived at Celtic Park on an unprecedented £10,000-a-week wage, giving the Bhoys a new arsenal in their attempt to overhaul Walter Smith’s Rangers. Van Hooijdonk hit the ground running at the dawn of Celtic’s new era, scoring on his debut in a victory over Hearts and by the end of his first season had helped end the trophy drought.
A towering header was the only goal of the game, with no repeat of the previous year’s upset as Airdrie were dispatched. Hopes were high that Rangers’ run of titles would soon be over. The Dutchman ended the season with 32 goals as Celtic lost only once – to Rangers – yet far too many draws scuppered any hopes of finishing above their rivals.
Van Hooijdonk had adapted well to life in Glasgow, Burns added to his firepower again by bringing in Paolo Di Canio and Jorge Cadete. The trio would come to be known as the Three Amigos by McCann, yet the term was anything but endearing. The additions of the hot-headed Di Canio and aloof Cadete were mere fuel to the fire. After a disappointing defeat, the Italian called for a team meeting where Burns’ four attacking signings split into two camps. Van Hooijdonk and Thom versus Di Canio and Cadete. Meanwhile, the rest of the team looked on bemused.
Van Hooijdonk had begun believing his own hype and, with contract talks on the table, he was set to butt heads with the astute McCann. With the Bosman ruling rearing its head, McCann looked to wrap up proceedings, quickly offering his star striker £7,000 a week to renew his contract. Van Hooijdonk demanded £20,000 and took to his newspaper column to say “£7,000 is enough for a homeless person, but not a top-class footballer.”
Ill-advised may be an understatement: he later blamed the comments on the writer who ghosted his column, yet Van Hooijdonk felt Celtic had reneged on a deal to increase his wages should he deliver, which, a missed Old Firm penalty aside, he had.
He took an unprecedented stand, firstly refusing to take part in club promotional work and charity visits. The disgruntled Dutchman then refused to warm up when named as a substitute during a UEFA Cup game with Hamburg. His days at Celtic Park appeared numbered and, despite all these issues, there would always be another club willing to overlook them if he were able to produce on the pitch.
Nottingham Forest were desperately trying to stave off relegation when, in March 1997, Van Hooijdonk arrived in a £4.5m deal from Celtic. Sadly for them, his signing proved a miscalculation. His arrival proved not to be the miracle cure the Tricky Trees needed; a solitary goal was all he managed as they sank to the bottom of the league and were relegated.
Dropping down a division kickstarted Van Hooijdonk’s City Ground career as, alongside Kevin Campbell, the pair created a lethal duo that helped Forest return to the Premier League at the first time of asking. Van Hooijdonk hit an imperious 34 goals that season while strike partner Campbell helped himself to 23.
The Dutchman’s form had seen him called up to the Netherlands World Cup squad ahead of France 98, whilst, behind the scenes, Forest fended off interest in him from PSV Eindhoven. Van Hooijdonk was interested in a move to the Eredivisie and was under the impression that, should Forest gain promotion, they wouldn’t stand in his way.
Perhaps sensing the fans wouldn’t forgive them should Van Hooijdonk be allowed to leave, Forest instead sold Campbell to Trabzonspor and allowed captain Colin Cooper the opportunity to move back to his native north-east. To Van Hooijdonk, this was unacceptable. The top-class replacements he had been promised failed to materialise. It was a betrayal to the goals he had scored in the promotion season and a complete lack of ambition from the club. Adding to his frustration was his unhappiness with Bassett’s training methods. Matters eventually came to a head as he went AWOL from the club and refused to train and play for Forest.
What he hoped to gain from this is unclear and his stand ultimately contributed to Bassett losing his job as Forest slumped to the bottom of the league during the time he was on strike. Forest refused to sell him and began the season without the two strikers whose goals had helped them get promoted.
Van Hooijdonk returned to the Netherlands and began training with former club NAC to maintain his fitness. It would be national team manager Guus Hiddink who would lure him back to work after stating van Hooijdonk wouldn’t be selected for his squads if he wasn’t playing for a club. His return was met with a frosty reaction from the City Ground faithful, who found themselves celebrating his goals by cheering the player who had supplied the assist.
The return of Ron Atkinson to English management couldn’t save Forest; the infamous moment in which he sat in the wrong dugout before his first game back proving an apt summation of the club’s season in the top flight. Forest finished 20th and were relegated once again.
Van Hooijdonk subsequently returned to his native country and signed for Vitesse, ending his tenure in British football after an eventful five years. There was no doubting his quality yet memories of his goals from distance and bullying of defences soon fade when reminded of his egotistical tantrums. Troublemaker or misunderstood genius? The jury remains out. Either way, Pierre van Hooijdonk was anything but boring.
By Matt Evans @Matt_The_Met