Fernando Ricksen – the divider who united rivals in his illness battle

FERNANDO Ricksen the player divided many. Loved by Rangers fans, disliked by rival fans, an editors dream for newspapers such was his character on and off the pitch.

Fernando Ricksen the fighter of Motor Neurone Disease united the footballing world. Diagnosed in 2013 and given 18 months to live, he fought bravely against the disease, campaigned to raise awareness in an attempt to be one of the first to beat the disease, even when he lost his ability to talk, walk and get dressed.

Sadly, he lost his battle at the age of 43.

Typically, tributes poured in from the football world. Team mates, managers, opponents, fans who loved him, and even fans who disliked him during his playing days all paid their respects to the man described as a warrior both on and on the pitch.

Whilst Fernando Ricksen is uniting the football world, it’s fair to say he divided opinion during his Ibrox tenure. Most of it was down to his character. Sometimes he was described as a hothead on the park and his loud, partying lifestyle often caused a stir off the park. This often gave journalists plenty to write about on both front and back pages of their newspapers, though his Managers needed a repeat prescription of paracetamol such was the headaches he caused them.

But that was his character. Life was never dull with Ricksen around and why the Rangers fans loved him. It’s also why opposition fans detested the man, though deep down they would have loved to have someone like him in their team.

As an Aberdeen fan, I couldn’t stand Fernando Ricksen!

He was the one who kicked out at Darren Young during a game at Pittodrie in 2000, and goaded afterwards that Young needed sorting out. He was the “dirty bastard” of that Rangers team, and us Dons fans didn’t like him for it.

That said, it didn’t excuse the Aberdeen supporter attacking him on the Pittodrie pitch back in 2003. You can jeer a player as much as you want, within reason, from the stands, but that particular incident was someone overstepping the mark. Ricksen didn’t make a big deal of it and didn’t let it affect his performances, which is testament to his character.

He may have been disliked from a Dons point of view, but there’s no doubt that Aberdeen would’ve liked a player like Fernando Ricksen in their team at that time, and that he was more than just a dirty bastard. After a difficult start to life in Scotland following his move from AZ Alkmaar in 2000, culminating in a disastrous Old Firm debut at Parkhead where he was hooked after just 20 minutes, Ricksen gradually moulded into a solid Rangers right back and his performances improved over time. Under Alex McLeish, who replaced Dick Advocaat in December 2001, his game excelled and helped them to the Cup Double in 2001/02 before the domestic treble the following season.

However, it was season 2004/05 where he reached his peak. Now captain and playing in a central midfield role, he flourished with the responsibility of being a key man at the heart of the Rangers team. He was off the booze, found consistency, added more goals to his game and was even the main set piece taker. His free kick at Pittodrie in the League Cup that season was a cracker, though it sickened me at the time, and helped kickstart Rangers season. Not only did they go onto win that trophy but they also won the title on the final day of the season. To cap things off, Ricksen was named joint Player of the Year by his fellow Professionals, sharing the honour with John Hartson.

The following season saw Ricksen lose the captaincy to Barry Ferguson, who returned to Ibrox in January 2005, and shunted back to right back. From then on, his he didn’t reach the heights of the 2004/05 season and he was also drinking again. He might well have accepted the decision given that Ferguson was captain during the treble winning season, but losing that responsibility that matured him definitely had a negative affect on Ricksen in what turned out to be his final season at Ibrox.

It was during a drunken fuelled pre season flight that his Rangers career ended in the summer of 2006 as new manager Paul Le Guen sold him to Zenit St Petersburg. Critics at the time said Le Guen was doing the right thing but, in a roundabout way, it backfired. Le Guen lasted just six miserable months in Glasgow whilst Ricksen won the UEFA Cup in 2008 with the Russian side, ironically with Dick Advocaat as manager and defeating Rangers in the Final.

Having wound down his career at first club Fortuna Sittard, Fernando Ricksen was just starting to enjoy retirement with new wife Veronika and daughter Isabella when he was given the devastating diagnosis of Motor Neurone Disease in 2013. Given just 18 months to live from a currently incurable muscle wasting illness, Ricksen fought the disease with even more tenacity he showed as a player, raising awareness, defying the odds by lasting six years and raising thousands for research.

It was sad seeing him reduced to a bony, helpless man who needed assistance to eat, but at no point did he complain and kept focusing on trying to become the first person to beat this awful disease. Even when he lost the ability to lose his speech, his brain was sharp enough to communicate via a computer and you could still see, even in his last public interview earlier this year, the determination he had. Veronika and Isabella will no doubt be proud of their husband and father.

Fernando Ricksen’s determination and dignity in fighting Motor Neurone Disease no doubt won him more admirers than he did as a player, and that is without doubt more important. His passing has taught us that rivalry should be confined to the football stadiums and not away from the stadiums. In an era where a minority of rival fans think it’s acceptable to be abusive to others judging by the colour of someone’s strip, it’s refreshing to see that Ricksen brought fans together during his ongoing battle. He might’ve been a dirty bastard to us rival fans, but he was just like the rest of us off the pitch, a guy trying to make the most out of life whilst it’s there in front of us.

At the end of the day, it’s not a rival footballer of a team we don’t like that has been lost. It’s a husband, father, friend and colleague that has passed away. A hero to Rangers fans, a hero to fellow sufferers of long term illnesses in how to fight back in the face of adversity!

Rest in Peace Fernando.

J Bleasdale

I am a football fan with a passion for writing, briefly studied journalism before other priorities got in the way. Enjoy blogging as its my way of expressing my thoughts on Scottish Football. Even though I'm an Aberdeen fan primarily, I'm happy to express my impartial views on other clubs.