GUEST: Rotterdam or anywhere, Liverpool or… Istanbul: Dirk Kuyt, Cult Hero

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By Joe Harvey

The following is a guest article by the aforementioned author – linked above – and is not necessarily representative of opinions held by anyone at Empire of the Kop…

To score a hattrick is a wonderful thing.

Often, people associate a hat-trick with a display of individual brilliance. An incomparable, indefensible show of extraordinary skill and quality. A transcendent exhibition of football genius. Sometimes, though rarely, players achieve the unthinkable: a perfect hat-trick – right foot, left foot, header. The pinnacle of football prowess. Other times, however, hat-tricks can be grisly, hard-earned feats, not of extraordinary football brilliance but, rather, being in the right place at the right time. Such was the case when Liverpool hosted Manchester United in 2011, and who else but Dirk Kuyt was present to tap in not once, not twice, but thrice from two yards out.  

The coastal village of Katwijk in the province of South Holland, a land of fishermen and sailors, follows two very important religions. Saturdays are for football. Sundays are for the Lord. Indeed, upon signing for FC Utrecht at 18-years-old from local club Quick Boys, Dirk Kuyt often marvelled at the stark differences between life in the village and life in the Eredivisie: ‘I saw guys who lived with their partners, got a child, and only then got married,’ Kuyt remarked. I’m sure today, having delved deeply into the world of European football, playing in the Eredivisie, Premier League and Turkish Super Lig, Kuyt has grown accustomed to the oft-blasphemous behaviour associated with footballers at the highest level.

For a young Katwijkan, however, the transition from amateur to professional football made for countless revelations. Not that Kuyt would let that phase him, of course. Rarely does football meet a man as unwavering as Dirk Kuyt, and that seems important, given that he hails from a village comprised of Dirk Kuyts. As Simon Kuper describes in ‘The Football Men’, his games against Quick Boys in Katwijk would yield an opponent that not only looked like Kuyt, but were built like Kuyt, had the same irreversible ‘Katwijkan’ first touch as Kuyt, and, more often than not, had the surname ‘Kuyt.’ Amidst this sea of Kuyts, however, it was Dirk that emerged from Katwijk into the Eredivisie in 1998, establishing himself quickly as a regular in the first-team. Ever a model of professionalism and athleticism (and that blonde curly blow), Kuyt worked hard and played harder, and soon enough (thirteen years later, to be precise), the Dutchman found himself celebrating in front of the Kop, cementing a win for Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool side against their bitter rivals. 

Amassing a remarkable combined total of six yards, Kuyt put three past fellow Dutch icon Edwin van der Sar to inspire Liverpool to a 3-1 victory over Manchester United. Admittedly, the inspiration may belong with Luis Suarez, who was denied a sensational solo goal by Kuyt’s trusty right boot on the goal-line, before having a free-kick palmed out to set up Kuyt’s third, yet the Dutchman, deservedly, received the plaudits. Such a hat-trick, not least because of its importance in one of England’s most fierce derbies, epitomises the career of Dirk Kuyt. Not necessarily the most technically gifted player (forever battling against the hereditary Katwijkan ball control curse), but a workhorse with an uncanny knack for anticipating where the ball was to land, it is no surprise Kuyt is revered in Liverpool to this day. Cult hero status often develops because of individual brilliance, or sheer artistry, but Dirk Kuyt achieved this status through hard work, loyalty and passion – traits that were not only respected by the Liverpool faithful on the Kop, but made him a perfect match.

Whilst deeming a professional football player to not be the most technically gifted may sound patronising coming from a man who’s yet to ever complete a ‘round the world’, much of Dirk Kuyt’s persona was centred around hard work and, another factor that guaranteed his cult hero status on Merseyside, his ability to step up in big games. Football players are defined by moments. Even today, players are judged in the Premier League on their performances against the ‘Big Six’ above all, rather than across the season as a whole (yes, I’m hinting at a certain Manchester United penalty merchant here). Kuyt, undoubtedly, was a player for the big occasion. Kuyt would always be the first to admit that he did not necessarily have the technique of the likes of Robin Van Persie, with whom he competed for a place in the Dutch national team, yet was quick to recognise his mentality as his greatest asset. His goal in the 2007 Champions League final against AC Milan, though ultimately in vain, provides proof that when Liverpool were supposedly down and out, the Dutchman would never lose faith (a ‘mentality giant’, to quote the current Liverpool manager, Jurgen Klopp). Of course, it was Kuyt himself who had ensured Liverpool were to play in the 2007 Champions League final, scoring the winning penalty against Chelsea in the semi-finals after having a goal disallowed in extra-time.

If that, and becoming the first Liverpool player in twenty-one years to score a hat-trick against Manchester United aren’t enough to prove his nerve, a certain Merseyside Derby in 2007 must be added to his list of credentials. A packed Goodison Park on derby day translates into a cauldron of toxicity and anger. In fact, this effectively describes Goodison on any day. The blue half of Merseyside, never shy to voice their opinion on their neighbours, make it an uphill battle from the get-go, regardless of form or quality. To score a penalty at Goodison is one thing, but to score two in the same game, with the latter coming in the ninetieth minute to ensure a 2-1 victory over the club’s most fierce rivals, is enough to cement a place in Liverpool’s history books. Ever the man for the occasion, if the Reds needed someone to step up, eyes would turn to Dirk Kuyt.  

As with any hero, be it super or cult, Kuyt’s origin story can be found in his homeland. His character arc, including his origins at Quick Boys and Utrecht, took him from Rotterdam, to Liverpool, to Istanbul (if only he’d signed for Roma), and finally back to Rotterdam. His origin story may have begun in Katwijk, but his fairy tale story can be found with Feyenoord. Surprisingly, it was against his beloved Feyenoord, in their own backyard for that matter, that Kuyt’s fledging career began to take shape. The 2003 Dutch Cup final was held, as per tradition, in Feyenoord’s De Kuip stadium in Rotterdam. Utrecht, the only club outside of the traditional ‘big three’ in Holland (Ajax of Amsterdam, PSV of Eindhoven and Feyenoord) to have never been relegated from the Dutch top-flight, the Eredivisie, found themselves in the Dutch Cup final after beating PSV in the semis, and were sets to face the hosts in their own stadium. Kuyt was hardly under the radar at this point, having scored over twenty league goals in an impressive campaign, yet Utrecht went into the final as firm underdogs. Having finished the season in third place compared to Utrecht’s eighth, as well as beating them home and away throughout the league campaign, Feyenoord were expected to claim the trophy on home soil. Utrecht, however, had other plans. Already the clinical, hard-working figure he was to become, Kuyt not only scored in Utrecht’s surprising 4-1 demolition of Feyenoord, but received the Man of the Match award. The day belonged to Utrecht, and the plaudits belonged to Kuyt. Just days later, however, in another of football’s bittersweet ironies, Kuyt was on his way to Rotterdam.  

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Unsurprisingly, Kuyt became an instant fan favourite at Feyenoord. His tenacity, persistence and determination, as well as developing a clinical streak in front of goal that he was never quite able to replicate during his time in England, saw the Dutch winger-come-striker establish himself as one of Holland’s most prolific goal-scorers. His debut season for Feyenoord in 2003/4 yielded a tally of 20 goals, helping Feyenoord to another third-place finish, whilst the following season he took his tally to 29, earning the Eredivisie top scorer award. Marco van Basten rewarded Kuyt’s club form with his first-ever Holland cap in September 2004, replacing veteran strikers Roy Makaay and Patrick Kluivert in the squad. From there, Kuyt remained a regular in Holland’s 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign. At the World Cup itself, Kuyt began the tournament as a substitute, but earned a start against Portugal in the quarter-finals. Holland ultimately lost the game 1-0, but no one cared about that, as everyone was too busy watching the referee produce card after card, adding up to a remarkable 16 yellows and 4 reds. At club level, meanwhile, Kuyt developed a partnership with a pre-Chelsea Salomon Kalou, known affectionately to the Feyenoord supporters as ‘K2’, and Feyenoord established themselves as Eredivisie’s top goal-scorers. Despite this, however, the Rotterdam-based club remained unable to break the Ajax-PSV dynasty at the top of the table.  

Kuyt’s growing influence saw him appointed as club captain at the beginning of the 2005/06 season, a season in which he bagged another 22 league goals, taking his tally to a remarkable 71 in 101 games. Despite such numbers, however, Feyenoord remained far from the Eredivisie title. By the summer, rumours swelled that both members of the beloved ‘K2’ had caught the attention of numerous clubs across Europe, and, hoping to make dreams become reality by playing in the Premier League, it was said both were on the verge of leaving Holland. Kuyt, after receiving the Dutch Footballer of the Year award that year, remained reluctant to leave the adoration of the Feyenoord fans, claiming he’d only sign for a ‘very big club.’ Indeed, by the start of the 2006/7 season, Kuyt’s ‘big club’ came in the form of Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, whilst Kalou had joined Jose Mourinho at Chelsea. In a testimony to both his character and durability, Kuyt had missed just five games over the course of seven seasons between 1999 and 2006 in Dutch football, having played a consecutive 179 games within this period. Such was his nature, a reliable, hard-working, dogged individual with a proven goal-scoring record, that made Kuyt perfect for Benitez’s system at Liverpool. Kuyt’s switch to English football saw his chapter in Rotterdam come to an end, but that particular story was far from over.                                          

Kuyt’s time at Anfield spanned over six years, playing under three different managers (albeit the Hodgson reign did not last very long). Whilst unable to replicate his scintillating goal-scoring form in Holland, Kuyt’s work rate and defensive capabilities somewhat made up for a lack of goals. This certainly became the case in 2007, after Liverpool signed Spanish talisman Fernando Torres from Atletico Madrid, pushing Kuyt out wide to work tirelessly up and down the right-hand side, a role in which he excelled. El Nino’s arrival, and subsequent partnership with Steven Gerrard, spearheaded Liverpool’s title challenge in the 2008/9 season, ultimately finishing in second place, four points behind Manchester United. Between the three of them, Gerrard scored 16 goals, whilst Torres netted 14, with Kuyt adding 12, the Dutchman an integral part of Liverpool’s title challenge. Despite this, it was in Europe that Kuyt truly gained the adoration of the Kop. The aforementioned consolation goal in the 2007 Champions League final, a late goal in a 2-0 win against Inter Milan and a 118th minute winner against Standard Liege at Anfield (to qualify for the Champions League, paving the way for Liverpool’s historical 4-0 rout of Real Madrid later in the competition), each contributed to Kuyt becoming the club’s third-highest goalscorer in European competitions (only Gerrard and Ian Rush at that time had scored more). The Dutchman also scored late on against Chelsea in that ridiculous 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge, as well as scoring a valuable away goal at the Emirates in 2008. For a club such as Liverpool, that place such pride on their European legacy, Kuyt’s European record endeared him further to Liverpool supporters.  

Despite such adoration for Kuyt on Merseyside, however, the one thing lacking from his Anfield career was trophies. Within three seasons, Kuyt had come close to both the Champions League and a Premier League title, ultimately earning a runners-up medal in both. Such heartbreaks were only exacerbated at international level, with Holland losing out to Russia in the quarters of Euro 2008, and then losing 1-0 to Spain in the 2010 World Cup final. Kuyt’s performances at the 2010 World Cup drew praise from Johan Cruyff himself, claiming that a player such as Kuyt is ‘worth his weight in gold’, yet, ultimately, the Dutchman found himself with another unwanted runners-up medal. By 2012, in what was becoming increasingly likely to be his last season at Anfield, it seemed Kuyt’s Liverpool career was on the verge of ending trophy-less. His reputation as a big game player continued to be recertified during his final two seasons, scoring a 102nd minute penalty against Arsenal (cancelling out Van Persie’s 98th minute goal) and scoring the only goal across two legs against Sparta Prague to put Liverpool in the last 16 of the Europa League. Still, the reputation as a big game player meant little without silverware. Two simultaneous cup runs in 2011-12, Kuyt’s last season at Anfield, gave the Dutchman a final opportunity to add a trophy to his cabinet.  

After overcoming Manchester City in the semi-finals (3-2 on aggregate courtesy of a late Craig Bellamy winner), Liverpool faced Cardiff in the Carling Cup final. True to form, Liverpool made hard work of a tie that, realistically, should have been settled long before a penalty was taken. After a 1-1 draw, the game entered extra time. Kuyt replaced club record signing Andy Carroll (haha) in the 103rd minute, and by the 108th had put Liverpool into a 2-1 lead. Again, in true Liverpool fashion, the Reds conceded in the 118th minute from (shock) a set-piece, taking the game to penalties. After both Gerrard and Charlie Adam missed Liverpool’s first two penalties, Kuyt stepped up to tuck his away (of course). Goals from Stuart Downing and Glen Johnson put Liverpool ahead, and the final penalty was rolled wide by Cardiff centre-half Anthony Gerrard (Stevie’s cousin). Finally, Kuyt had added some silverware to his Anfield legacy, and, although probably not the competition of his choice, there are few who could deny he deserved it. Kuyt was unable to add further silverware at the end of the season, coming off the bench as Liverpool succumbed to a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup final. This proved to be Kuyt’s last competitive appearance for the Reds, as Fenerbahce triggered a release clause in his contract. Having played 285 games for Liverpool, Kuyt gave an emotional farewell to Anfield: ‘the club and supporters I will always carry with me in my heart.’ 

After winning over the city of Liverpool wholeheartedly, Kuyt had a similar task ahead of him upon his move to Istanbul. As one of Turkey’s biggest and most successful clubs, winning over the Fenerbahce supporters would take just as much effort as it did in Liverpool. Fortunately, if there was one man up to the task, it was Kuyt. Having signed for the Turkish club at thirty-one years of age, few expected Kuyt to keep up the same relentless work ethic that had took him so far throughout his career. Far from slowing up, however, Kuyt only seemed to work harder, looking ahead to his place at the upcoming 2014 World Cup with Holland. True to form, Kuyt scored two in Fenerbahce’s Champions League qualifier against Romanian club Vaslui, following by a goal on his Turkish Super Lig debut. Over the course of his first season in Turkey, Kuyt amassed the club’s second-highest number of appearances across all competitions, featuring in fifty-six games, whilst scoring Fenerbahce’s second-highest tally of seventeen goals. Already, as always, Kuyt was a favourite.  

Finishing runners-up in the league, pipped to the title by arch-rivals Galatasaray, as well as losing 3-2 on aggregate in the semi-finals of the Europa League to Benfica, placed importance on Fenerbahce’s domestic cup run. Kuyt scored Fenerbahce’s second penalty in their shootout in the semi-final, helping them to progress, before starting in the final against Trabzonspor on the right-hand side, just as he had so often for Liverpool. Moussa Sow scored the only goal of the game in Fenerbahce’s 1-0 win, helping Kuyt to claim just his third domestic trophy. Kuyt continued in similar vein the following season, though this time, after a three-year wait, Fenerbahce went one stop further to claim the Super Lig title, replacing Galatasaray at the top. This was undoubtedly helped by the club’s reduced schedule, having lost to Arsenal in the Champions League qualifying rounds, the club was then banned from the Europa League by UEFA due to a match-fixing scandal. Kuyt’s first-ever league title was cemented in April 2014 with three games to spare. 

The beginning of Kuyt’s final season in Turkey was marked by a Turkish Super Cup win over Galatasaray, in which Kuyt, once again, scored the opening penalty in the shootout after a 0-0 draw. Former Liverpool teammate Raul Meireles also scored his penalty, helping Fenerbahce to a 3-2 win against their bitter rivals. After three seasons in Turkey, Kuyt left with three trophies in his cabinet and had earned himself a place in Holland’s 2014 World Cup squad, despite his age. Of course, for a man like Kuyt, age really is just a number. The 2014 World Cup proved to be Kuyt’s final appearances for Holland, often deployed by new manager Louis van Gaal as either a wing-back, or centre-forward. Even at thirty-three, Kuyt was as versatile as they come. Once again, however, the 2014 World Cup ended in heartbreak for the Dutch. After defeating Mexico in the last 16, then Costa Rica on penalties in the quarters (in which Kuyt scored the final penalty), Holland lost out on penalties to Argentina in the semis (though, inevitably, Kuyt still scored his). Whilst many may have expected Kuyt to hang up his boots come the end of the 2014-15 season, the Dutchman had other plans, announcing to De Telegraaf, ‘I’m coming home after the summer, and I can’t wait to play in De Kuip.’ To the delight of the Feyenoord faithful, Kuyt announced he was to return to Rotterdam, adamant that with his return would come long-awaited silverware. 

Upon leaving Rotterdam in 2006 for Liverpool, Kuyt promised that one day he would return to his beloved Feyenoord. History tells us, however, that the return of lost idols may not necessarily have the desired effect. Just look at Gareth Bale right now, whose long-awaited return to Spurs has not nearly been as successful as anticipated (maybe… Zidane wasn’t the baddy?) However, there are obvious exceptions. Paul Scholes’ resurrection from retirement in January 2012 (which coincided with the much-hyped, yet much ado about nothing return of Thierry Henry to Arsenal), proved to be a revelation, immediately stepping back into the hearts of Manchester United fans far and wide. There was much speculation about Kuyt’s return to Feyenoord, yet there was one man who had no doubt about the Dutchman’s homecoming. Feyenoord manager Giovanni van Bronckhorst, having played alongside Kuyt at a national level, instantly named him as captain upon his arrival to De Kuip, where he was presented to over 50,000 fans eager to watch their hero return. 

Kuyt’s return to Holland in 2015 had an immediate impact, quashing the few doubts about his return, whilst reminding Feyenoord supporters why he was so dearly loved during his first spell in Rotterdam. His debut, inevitably, because that is just how football works, came against Utrecht. In another inevitable turn of events, Kuyt scored against his former club from the penalty spot, and Feyenoord battled to a 3-2 victory. Three games later, Feyenoord had maintained their 100% record, whilst Kuyt had scored a penalty in each game, though his performances down the right-hand side were hardly revelatory. In a show of faith in the ageing Dutchman, van Bronckhorst decided to change things. Instead of down the right, Kuyt was moved further inside, given the freedom to roam in the space behind the striker, taking up the number 10 role. The impact was instant. After suffering a defeat to PSV, Feyenoord went six Eredivisie games unbeaten, and after 10 games, Kuyt had scored 10 goals. Back-to-back hattricks in a 5-2 win against Heerenveen, then in a 3-1 victory over AZ Alkmaar had cemented Kuyt’s place in the hearts of the Feyenoord support, whilst Feyenoord look set to maintain a title challenge. A terrible winter, however, quashed Kuyt’s dreams of a fairy-tale return to Feyenoord, as the club suffered seven straight defeats between late December and mid-February: ‘this is the saddest day of my life, in the field of football… I know it’s not enough, but I will continue to give everything for Feyenoord.’  

Feyenoord did eventually return to form, sustaining a Dutch Cup run, and returning to winning ways in the Eredivisie, though the title challenge was, certainly, over. Kuyt finished the season as Feyenoord’s top scorer with nineteen league goals, his highest return since his first spell at the club. Despite Feyenoord’s failed title challenge, there still remained an opportunity for Kuyt to earn some silverware upon his return to Dutch football, and eyes turned toward the Dutch Cup. Having knocked out Ajax earlier in the competition, Feyenoord then dispatched AZ in the semi-finals with a 3-1 win (obviously, Kuyt scored a late penalty to book Feyenoord’s place in the final. Can I take back my statement about Bruno Fernandes being a penalty merchant, please?) Once again, football had worked one of its ironies, and the only thing standing in the way of a trophy upon Kuyt’s return to Dutch football, was, as I assume you’ve guessed, FC Utrecht – an exact replica of the 2003 Dutch Cup final, only this time, Kuyt was clad in red and white. In a 2-1 win, in which Kuyt did not score, but led his team from the front, Feyenoord had their first trophy since 2008, and Kuyt’s return to Holland had provided him with long-awaited silverware in the Feyenoord colours.  

For most people, that is the fairy-tale completed. Return to Feyenoord. Become captain. Win the cup. However, as this article has continuously stated, Dirk Kuyt is not most people. The Dutch Cup was not enough – Kuyt wanted the title. After performing so inconsistently the year prior, many doubted Feyenoord had enough to sustain a full season-long title challenge. Ajax and PSV were simply too strong, and Feyenoord themselves had not won the league since 1999. Nine games into the season, however, Feyenoord had nine wins under their belt, and, suddenly, the dream became a possibility. Despite Ajax being on their tail the whole way, and a few blips here and there, Feyenoord maintained their first-place position across the entirety of the season. Despite being 35 years of age, Kuyt still managed thirty-nine appearances across all competitions, spearheading Feyenoord’s title push with the passion and determination he had shown throughout his entire career. On top of Feyenoord’s title challenge, Kuyt also managed to stay in the hearts of Liverpool fans far and wide, having been drawn to play Manchester United in the Europa League. In December 2016, Kuyt released a video on Twitter, stating that, following Feyenoord’s clash at Old Trafford,’60,000 supporters shouted against me, and they said “you scouse bastard”, and normally when rivals shout at you it is not the best thing that can happen to you, but actually, it made me proud. I felt proud to be named a scouser, an adopted scouser, because for me, scousers are good people, hard-working people, committed people and people who never give up.’ Who’s chopping onions? 

For his part, Kuyt scored 15 goals across all competitions in his final season at Feyenoord. Following wins against Utrecht and Vitesse, Feyenoord had the opportunity to claim the title with a game to spare, in an away game to Excelsior. Of course, nothing is ever simple, and Feyenoord lost 3-0. Entering the final day of the season, Ajax stood just a point behind Kuyt’s Feyenoord, meaning any further slip-ups against Heracles at De Kuip would lead to a devastating last-day meltdown. Having lost a World Cup final, a Champions League final, an FA Cup final, and finishing runners-up in the Premier League and Turkish Super Lig, Kuyt, surely, somewhere, despite his mentality, despite his drive and level-headedness, must have had some nerves heading into the final day of the season. However, this was a big game. Arguably, in terms of personal meaning, the biggest of games. And Dirk Kuyt loves a big game.  

De Kuip, as ever, was bouncing. On some camera angles, the ball is barely visible amidst the smoke. With just thirty-five seconds on the clock, Kuyt chased a loose ball, harrying the Hercales defender into losing his balance. There was a collective breath as the ball broke free in the box, and, from a tight angle, Kuyt fired into the far top corner. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Feyenoord were 1-0 up inside a minute, and De Kuip had erupted. 10 minutes later, Kuyt added a second with a perfectly executed diving header (every great hattrick to win the league deserves a diving header, doesn’t it?). With the score at 2-0, De Kuip was in full-blown party mood, and Feyenoord were nearly there. A third would guarantee it. In the 83rd minute, Nicolai Jorgensen was dragged to the floor by a Heracles defender, providing Kuyt with an opportunity to complete his hattrick, and cement Feyenoord’s first title win since 1999, from, inevitably, the penalty spot. Cool as you like, Feyenoord’s captain rolled the ball into the bottom corner. If you’d have asked a young Dirk Kuyt, playing week in week out for Quick Boys in Katwijk, how he, 104 international caps later, would have liked to end his career, I doubt even he could have come up with an ending like this. A fitting end to a true fairy-tale story.  

#Ep29 of The Red Nets Podcast: COVID strikes again, who should Liverpool sign in January… and more!

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1 Comment

  1. A great article. I absolutely loved Dirk, think Klopp would have loved his work rate but can’t quite see him getting a game ahead of Mo.

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