Surprise as Virgil van Dijk names best player he played with at Celtic

LIVERPOOL’S STAR player and Champions League winner Virgil van Dijk has been conducting a question and answer session on social media this evening and inevitably the conversation turned to Celtic.

It was @paulthetim who was responsible for that, asking the Dutchman who he regarded as the top player he played with at Celtic. That’s an interesting question, one which you’d probably expect the former Celtic Star to sidestep, maybe naming a handful of his former teammates, like his captain Scott Brown, or James Forrest , maybe even Nir Bitton who remains his close friend with both families often holidaying together.

But Big Virgil was asked a straight question and to be fair to him he gave us a straight answer.

“I loved my time at Celtic and played with so many top players but a special mention for Stefan Johansen,” van Dijk replied.

Norwegian midfielder Johansen was perhaps not the first name that you would have thought of when considering who VVD would opt for. He was capable of having brilliant games but was inconsistent and few supporters were really that upset when Brendan Rodgers moved him on shortly after taking over at Celtic in the summer of 2016.

19.08.2015. Glasgow, Scotland. Champions League Qualifying. Celtic versus Malmo FF. Virgil van Dijk has been linked with a move away from Celtic with a ‘priceless’ advert behind him

Celtic went on an amazing undefeated run that lasted a season and a half under Rodgers but started with a 7-0 win on the last day of the previous season under Ronny Deila. And it was his fellow Norwegian who made the error that allowed St Johnstone to claim a 2-1 win over Celtic at McDiarmid Park in the penultimate league match of the 2015-16 season.

19.08.2015. Glasgow, Scotland. Champions League Qualifying. Celtic versus Malmo FF. Celtic player lineup

But it was Stefan Johansen that was the former teammate who Virgil van Dijk named as the best player he played with at Celtic. It’s a funny old game right enough.

We’ve included a couple of the teams that VVD played in during his time at Celtic. Who do you reckon was the best player? Not sure I’d be going for Stefan Johansen!


Stefan Johansen arrived at Celtic with a good pedigree from Norway, with hopes high that Celtic had found a talented midfielder who could help to take the first team’s game forward. The glut of midfielders at Celtic at the time had talent but often in terms of graft ahead of creativity. Fast, aggressive, good finisher, good passer, so lots of ticks against his name.

Stefan Johansen started his first full game v St Mirren in the league in Feb 2014, and hit the ground running, winning plaudits and the man of the match for his performance. Within his first few initial matches he’d already proven to be a fair new addition to the squad. His early days were patchy and it took time to bed in. Under Neil Lennon, the side was slowly receding as Lennon had already decided to step down at the end of the summer.

The entry of fellow countryman Ronny Deila in season 2015-16 was the catalyst to show his talents. Building up, his main form came to the fore in the second half of the season, after Deila dropped of out of favour Commons giving Johansen the chance he needed, in the position he favoured and the opportunity to stake his claim.

From then on in the management found that he was to be a pivotal player for the spine of the team, and Johansen settled in as a mainstay of the side.

Fitting in the centre of midfield, he was central to the creation of the play, and with the players gelling together after a shambolic start to Deila’s reign, the team started to play with more fluidity. Johansen was quite multi talented, comfortable in tackling, defending as well as attack. Not necessarily a starry eyed player, but easily stood out in many games. His value was definitely being noticed with noises rising of interest from the German leagues for his talents.

He went on to score 13 goals for the first team who were on a role, and fair to say that when Johansen was on form then so was the whole first team as many opposition teams domestically were to find out.

As a measure of how far he had come in his time, he was PFA Scotland Player of the Year for 2014-15. A great achievement in the season we had won a league and league cup double. Taking in the competition that season from van Dijk, Denayer and Gordon then that was another wonderful achievement.

Yet then it seemed to go all wrong. 2015-16 was a disaster for Johansen, and a curious collapse. Rumours persisted that he demanded a transfer and on rejection of the demand he then went off in a huff. His form was often poor was and as the midfield was in a shambolic state, he was getting it in the neck as badly as the rest. There were rarely ever again those matches which he led by example and impressed.

Now often seemingly unmotivated or lacking confidence he was a pale shadow of the dynamic player of the past season. Worst was that his worst trait on the pitch was little bettered as he continued to amass unnecessary yellow cards, going into unneeded challenges, with 16 yellow cards in his second season (12 in his first). For someone in his position it was costly for all and showed a lack of maturity & sense.

Some pinned blame on him for the disastrous loss to Malmo in the Champions League playoffs, with one stroppy just prior to their clinching goal in a 3-2 defeat for Celtic denting his reputation.

It was disappointing to see his decline, as many felt he would be a mainstay in the side to develop around. In many ways, an old cliché applies here. One player on the park is said to symbolise the manager’s character, and for Deila it was said to be Johansen. So as Deila’s reign rose then crashed, is it any surprise that it correlated with Johansen’s form? Deila wanted attacking football and so on, and this helped to work for Johansen at first. Yet this emphasis backfired, and often the fare was not entertaining.

Johansen’s form slumped as did Deila’s managerial nous, and the side lurched from one failing to another. Was Deila’s perseverance of Johansen to do with his own realisation that a successful Johansen was necessary for Deila’s plan to be working? Maybe, but it wasn’t working. Was a successful Johansen needed for a successful Deila or the other way around?

Some state Johansen was best suited in a traditional 4-4-2 system, but the old fashioned system was not to Deila’s taste. He had the energy and tenacity to play in a defensive role but maybe lacked the poise or composure required, and on occasion did play a defence splitting pass or produced a good finish but not consistently so he wasn’t ideal as a number 10 type when there were other better suited around.

The Celtic support didn’t help admittedly. With the unending tripping up of the first XI in Deila’s second season, Johansen became an excessively targeted figure. Frustrations were directed at him (as well as one or two others) fuelled by the sharp contrast in his form to the last season. But was this barracking simply compounding the problem? It didn’t help, and Johansen’s loss of form was not the only black mark in the squad.

As Rodgers came in to revitalise the side, Johansen was from early on seen to be a goner (as much from the player as anyone else). He was made captain during a friendly, so showed some confidence in him but played little more for the club as the First Team made it through to the vital Champions League Group stages. He will possibly miss having had the chance to play in that tournament. His heart though was likely no longer at Celtic.

He opted for a move to Fulham (then in the second tier) for an estimated £1.8m in August 2016, just after Celtic won their final playoff matches in the Champions League (he played no part). Rodgers as polite as always publicly said he wished to keep him but the inference from Johansen was he wished to leave with a season left on his contract. As many others had turned their careers around lately at Celtic after initial failings (like Rogic) it was disappointing to see him leave but maybe it was for the best especially as Rodgers was rebuilding the side and had done well so far with the few he had already brought in.

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About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email

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