PIERRE LOOKING FORWARD TO CELTIC PARK RETURN

Feyenoord take on Celtic tomorrow in a friendly that Pierre van Hooijdonk is looking forward to more than most. Because the Big Man returns to his old stomping ground for the first time since he wore the green and white hoops. ‘It’s a return to one of my old clubs. In this case it’s extra special: Celtic was my first foreign club and it is also the club where I felt the greatest warmth.’

’I’ll try to explain what makes Celtic so special, even if you really have to experience it yourself. It’s a great club that generates such enormous emotions, you wouldn’t believe. People who I’ve told always thought I was exaggerating. Until they went there themselves and got a real shock. ’Celtic is a club of the people like Feyenoord and it’s really one big family. And if you’ve played there you become an automatic member. Doesn’t matter if you were good or bad, you become a part of Celtic. And you feel it all over the world when you meet the supporters. The special thing is that the feeling is instilled in the players, but also the people who just came to visit me in Glasgow. One time two friends came over. They waited while I lunched with the team, as they were used to doing in Holland. The coach noticed and he invited them to lunch with the squad. Ultimately they ended up going back in the players’ bus after the game! Imagine that happening in Holland. We keep to the rules much more. It’s a minor example of how people are treated and one of the reasons why everyone falls in love with the club. ’Celtic is a very big club, but at the same time extremely laidback. Before the game ex-players would come into the dressing room to shake our hands. In Holland that’s inconceivable, but in Scotland it’s much more common. As a footballer I like it and I would like it if things were like that in our country, because ex-players are people you respect. ’The adoration of the fans in Scotland goes to extreme lengths. Once some Dutch friends of mine were walking across the square in front of the stadium. As soon as the fans realised they were Dutch and friends of mine, they asked them to autograph a box-fresh Celtic shirt. As long as it had something to do with a footballer they were happy. And I could tell you a dozen other stories. ’Naturally it did go too far sometimes. In Scotland it’s almost impossible to get away from football, certainly when you look like me. 1.93 metres and coloured, it makes you stick out. And while half of Glasgow is mad about you, the other half hates you. At every light you either got the thumbs up or the finger, there was never a happy medium. It takes a lot out of you. I only went shopping when it rained and I could hide under an umbrella. ’In the end I only played at Celtic for two years. While I don’t regret leaving when I did – a few things happened – I think I could have stayed there a few more years if things had gone differently. But I definitely had a fantastic time there. And what I’m most proud of is that I got my name in the annals. The club got something out of me playing there and that makes me feel good. ‘When I arrived at Celtic in 1995, we were in a dip. It was six years since the last prize and we’d just been knocked out of the League Cup by a first division side. Six months later we’d won the Scottish FA Cup and I scored the winner. It was an enormous relief for the club and for the fans. I’d never experienced anything like it. The following season was great. I was playing with people like Jorge Cadete, Paolo Di Canio and Andreas Thom and we basically laid the foundations for the return to the good times that Celtic went on to realise. ’So Wednesday I’ll return to Celtic Park and I have to say that I’m looking forward to it enormously. If only because I’ve never played there. That sounds crazy, but when I went there the stadium was being renovated. We played at Hampden Park, the national stadium. Then we returned to Celtic Park, but it wasn’t finished. The stands were being dismantled and rebuilt one by one. When I left there was still a massive hole behind one of the goals. So I’ll be playing in a finished Celtic Park for the first time on Wednesday and I expect great things. Because for me Celtic Park is perhaps the best stadium in Europe, with unbelievable supporters. I enjoyed them maybe more than anything during my two years there. And when I heard them chant me name during the Old Firm game last year because I’d scored twice against Rangers it really touched me. ’Wednesday will be a party, I’m sure of that. Celtic and Feyenoord are comparable powers and I think that the supporters get along well. It won’t be a big test for us, because we are missing a few players. We’ll only see where Feyenoord is against FC Twente. Let’s have some fun first.’
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