The repackaging of the European Cup and the English First Division at the start of the 1990s had left Scottish football with looming questions on the picturesque horizon. The strength of the division’s stroke to swim with their English counterparts was beginning to weaken amidst the TV deal structure and so the creation of the Scottish Premier League in 1998 had hoped to keep Scotland’s top sides within reach of those south of the border. The new SPL structure allowed the big teams more financial room to spend money abroad, a move that would see Holland become the go-to destination for SPL pocket money, just as it had done since the late 1980s.
A burst of the Oranje in the Granite City under Alex Smith, Scottish football’s proclaimed father figure, had brought success during his four-year stay at Pittodrie. Perhaps Smith had sensed an opportunity in a country that was producing top players at an impressive rate as the Netherlands won Euro ’88 in West Germany. It would be an import stream that other Scottish sides would replicate in the coming years and would leave a significant Dutch imprint in Scottish football’s history of the 1990s – arguably Scotland’s last decade as a top domestic footballing nation, regardless of Rangers lop-sidedness.
Hans Gillhaus was signed in 1989 from PSV Eindhoven and scored 27 goals across four seasons, lifting one Scottish Cup. A forward, his debut brace against Dunfermline, including a superb overhead kick, was an advert of the Dutch flair that would arrive on Scottish shores in the coming years. His inclusion in the Holland team at Italia ’90 brought great pride to the Dons’ supporters.
Willem van der Ark at Aberdeen was conflicting in appreciation. Not many players score a hat-trick at Ibrox for Aberdeen yet are not remembered of fondly; the six-foot-five forward all too often the laughing stock of opposition fans. Then there was Theo ten Caat, a forgettable left midfielder who failed to offer much, five goals in two seasons enough to send him back to Holland. The transfer strategy appearing as hit and miss as the Scottish weather forecast.
The final addition to Aberdeen’s Dutch cluster of the early 1990s was Peter van de Ven, added after Aberdeen won the Twente Enschede pre-season tournament in Holland in 1990, invited perhaps in appreciation for their vested interest in Dutch footballers. Van de Ven would stay in Scotland for four years, the final two in the capital with Hearts.
There is little debate that Aberdeen’s blue-chip Dutch import was goalkeeper Theo Snelders. The goalkeeper arrived for £300,000 from FC Twente a year before Gillhaus and would stay at Aberdeen for eight seasons, making 290 appearances between the sticks. A safe pair of hands, Snelders was a strong base for Smith’s great Aberdeen side that painstakingly finished runners-up in the Scottish Premier Division on a seemingly annual basis. Five out of seven seasons spent at Pittodrie by Snelders saw them finish second best to Rangers.
In 1991, he was unable to take part in the title decider against Rangers after fracturing a cheekbone in a previous collision with Ally McCoist. Aberdeen would lose 2-0 and subsequently lose the league in the cruellest of fashion. His most acclaimed moment in the North East was undoubtedly his save of Anton Rogan’s penalty in the shootout win against Celtic in the 1990 Scottish Cup Final. He moved south to Ibrox in 1996 as a backup, limiting him to just 18 appearances in three campaigns before returning to his native country.
After Celtic’s eventual resurgence to interrupt Rangers’ serial title-winning streak in 1997/98, a change of manager at Ibrox saw Dick Advocaat replace the departing Walter Smith. As the former Netherlands national team manager, it was only fitting that Advocaat would also try his hand in the Dutch haven of Scottish football, becoming Rangers’ first foreign manager. He would bring early success that would gradually diminish in the face of a resurgent Celtic, leaving in December 2001 with Rangers trailing their greatest rivals by a 12-point margin. If Scotland was not already familiar with his fellow countrymen, Advocaat made sure of it with his pending transfers, turning the Greater Govan area of Glasgow into the city’s own Little Amsterdam – excuse the exaggeration.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst was and still is one of the greatest foreign captures that Scottish football has witnessed. Signed by Advocaat in 1998 for £5.5 million, the already capped international was a clear marker of Scottish football’s pulling power for top talent, something that would disintegrate and dissolve throughout the noughties. A versatile player, the majority of his 22 goals in blue came from midfield as he won two Scottish Premier League titles, two Scottish Cups and a Scottish League Cup, including a domestic treble in his first season. Gifted with a superb left foot, his quality on the pitch was always clear to those that idolised him at Ibrox and abroad. Sold to Arsenal in 2001, Gio would go onto win the Champions League alongside Henrik Larsson at Barcelona in 2006 as well as captain Holland in the 2010 World Cup Final.
Arthur Numan also arrived in 1998, from PSV. Another Advocaat addition, he spent the start of his Rangers career on the sidelines with injury. Once fit, his ability shone through as the Dutch international became an ever-present for over 100 appearances with the teddy bears. Wage disputes eventually resulted in his retirement from football after leaving Rangers in 2003. Off the field, he played a key role in Barry Ferguson’s development, offering big brotherly advice to the young talent.
Across the Clyde, Celtic had undergone their own wage disputes years earlier with one of their budding Dutch talents. At the end of the 1996/97 season, a period on the bench over contract issues for Pierre van Hooijdonk was enough for the prolific striker to depart Celtic Park. He would make the unsavoury remark that his proposed offer of a £7,000 per week increase might just be good enough for the homeless. His 52 goals in 84 appearances across two seasons left people wondering what if, although the following season’s title win meant that any Celtic angst over his departure was quickly forgotten.
Then there was Regi Blinker as a Hoop. The outgoing winger that spent three seasons from 1997-2000, his popularity decided after backing out of a tackle in a Champions League Qualifier. Nevertheless, Blinker was part of the title-winning side coached by Wim Jansen, the Feyenoord great who spent a sole season in Scotland. He stopped a Rangers ten-in-a-row while also securing a Scottish League Cup, beating Dundee United in the final. A clash of heads against general manager Jock Brown resulted in his premature departure, leaving in his wake the signing of a certain Henrik Larsson. Although not as synonymous with Scottish football as Rangers’ Dutch portfolio, Celtic’s closing seasons of the century didn’t escape influence from that flat country in north-western Europe.
Fernando Ricksen signed for Rangers in the summer of 2000, at the cost of £3.75 million from AZ Alkmaar. His career at Rangers can be described as turbulent at best. His first two Glasgow derbies resulted in a first-half substitution and then a sending off. His acrobatic kick on Darren Young against Aberdeen in November 2000 was the first time in Scotland that a player had been banned following television evidence. The days of off-the-ball elbows and roughing up opponents behind the referee’s back were over, a staple of Scottish football. Nine goals from midfield in 2004/05 illustrated Ricksen in his finest form for Rangers as they completed the league and league cup double.
Bert Konterman also signed for Rangers in 2000, although his three years in Scotland offered little in comparison to his Dutch counterparts in Glasgow, minus a 30-yard scorcher against Celtic. He would be picked apart by opposition fans for once revealing his mother taught him how to play the beautiful game.
After a below-par season at Barcelona, Frank de Boer was convinced by Advocaat to join him at Rangers. His performances would be instrumental in bringing the domestic treble to Ibrox during the 2002/03 season. His 40 goals from midfield across four seasons saw that the Dutch great ensured his iconic status at Rangers. He would reveal that he sided with Rangers over Manchester United when he completed his £6 million move, a decision that could not be fathomed nowadays but reinforced the extent of Scotland’s once gravitational pull for Europe’s most prized footballers.
As Rangers entered administration in 2012, Advocaat would be forced to defend his millennial shopping bill that had included Gio, Numan, Andrei Kanchelskis and Tore André Flo, all deemed to be detrimental to club finances. Although largely successful during their time at Ibrox, their spells at the club would prove costly in years to come. Their transfer fees apparently pulled from thin air, masqueraded under the new SPL TV sponsorship.
Other honourable mentions for their Dutch influence on the Scottish game include Sieb Dijkstra, the former Motherwell and Dundee United keeper who had two separate spells in the nineties. A cult hero at Fir Park, he was an example of the Dutch influence outside of the traditional big three. Two third-place finishes and a league cup runners-up medal were as close to silverware as he came.
Although the calibre of talent has regressed in Scotland as a whole in recent years, the passion and commitment from fans has not receded in proportion. On a per-capita basis, Scotland boasts of a comfortable top spot in European fan attendances. There is little doubt that the Dutch crusade that swapped the low countries for Scotland’s mountainous terrain in the 1990s and early 2000s were a direct by-product of a competitive league, rich in history and unhindered by financial corporatism. The hotspot location that once existed for foreign footballers has largely become a league driven by self-appreciation, unfazed by outside opinion or measured in star power.
Although the pronunciation of names did not come easy to the abrasive Glaswegian or Aberdonian accents, there is a lengthy chapter of nostalgia with Scottish football when it comes to their game’s Dutch connections, a time when the Oranje became tartan and you couldn’t blink at Scotland’s premier division.