“You just cannot explain it,” insists Rangers legend Arthur Numan of the intense rivalry and passion of the Old Firm. Only when you’ve experienced it and lived it, do you truly know what it means.
“When I moved to Scotland I didn’t have a clue what to expect. I had only seen some highlights and knew some players for Celtic, Rangers and Aberdeen. I signed for Rangers and then I went to the World Cup with Holland so I had to try and find out before.”
Following Dick Advocaat from PSV to Glasgow, it was a giant leap of faith from the Dutchman, and he was desperate to know more.
“I asked Pierre Van Hooijdonk who was at Celtic what it was about. ‘I can tell you but I won’t, you have to find out for yourself’, he said.” Numan begged and inquired further. “But he insisted, ‘No no no. You have to experience it yourself’ and I have to admit, he was right because you just can’t explain it. Only the moment you arrive in Glasgow do you realise what it means.”
A risky move into the unknown, he admits boldly pushing his luck with the boss as he flew to Scotland.
“I had the opportunity to sign in 1998 when Advocaat approached me and said ‘I’ve signed for Rangers, nobody knows but I want you to join me.’ If Advocaat goes somewhere and sees the challenge, you go for it.
“So, I thought, this is my time, this is my opportunity!” he laughs, “Me, my Mrs and my agent got picked up in a private jet and flew from Rotterdam to Edinburgh. All of a sudden I pressed the button and Advocaat looked: asked ‘What’s happening?!’ so I said ‘Can I have a tea and sandwich please?’... ‘What are you talking about?’ Advocaat asked sharply with a look of stern confusion.”
Amazingly, his new manager accepted the request and begrudgingly obliged. “After you sign, I’ll get you back,” Advoccat cursed. “I was p****** myself laughing,” says Numan. The move proved the right one.
🗓️ - 10th March 2002
🏆 - SPL
📍 - Ibrox
⚽️ - Arthur Numan
On Sunday, Rangers and Celtic were due to meet at Ibrox for the latest installment of this fierce match-up and Numan has fond memories of his time playing for the Gers against the local enemy.
“You feel it already in the build up to the game,” he tells us in an exclusive interview with The Sportsman. “The whole week people approach you in the street, ‘Come on beat them!’
“As you come out for the warm-up, there’s one big roar. I was nervous because I needed it and focused to give 110%. The good thing was the moment the game started, I felt relaxed,” he says, clicking his fingers to signal any anxiety was gone. “This is is it, we go for it.”
Determined, Numan was ready to go into battle even if it meant taking heat from opposition fans in the pressure cooker of the game. “Hate? Passion? It was both! They were not friendly to you, not frightened to get into you. The interaction, it’s a special game, you would be surprised how many people in Holland ask for tickets to the Old Firm game because they all want to experience it, they know the stories and the atmosphere.
“People sometimes underestimate the pressure. I’ve seen some players come from England and think ‘I can play for Rangers’ but the moment that you’re there, you have to give 100% because if you don't, you get slaughtered by the crowd. Maybe they’ve played for Man City or Chelsea but when you play for Rangers or Celtic it’s completely different.”
As the showreels are aired again and again in the build-up, Numan, now 50, features regularly. It was March 10, 2002, when Numan, possessing a wand of a left foot, saw an opening. This was his time to shine and write his name into Old Firm folklore. From distance, he rolled the ball out and struck a ferocious drive into the corner of the Celtic net to clinch a crucial, bragging-saving equaliser. Cue pandemonium.
“I thought if I score a goal against Celtic, people will always remember!” he laughs. “If I scored a goal against Hamilton Academicals nobody would remember it. Against Celtic, it’s a great memory. I thought if you don't shoot you'll never score, so give it a try and it was like,” Numan pretends to be struck by shock while struggling for air.
Playing in one of Rangers' greatest teams, he scooped three league titles, four Scottish Cups and three Scottish League Cups alongside the likes of Jorg Albertz, Giovanni Van Bronckhorst, Lorenzo Amoruso and Barry Ferguson.
“My only regret is that we didn’t reach the second stage of the Champions League because twice we were close, and we actually gave it away.” he says. “We had a squad that could compete in Europe. When I speak to a lot of other players, everytime they came to Ibrox they would say how hard it was. The Champions League nights were always special, even players from the bigger teams said it.”
Things are slightly different now as the Premiership giants continue to recover from financial ruin and demotion during the 2010s. Only now are they back competing at the top and Numan is mightily impressed with the man at the helm, Steven Gerrard.
“I think he is doing a really good job,” he nods affirmatively when asked about the current Gers’ boss. “When he was appointed, people said ‘He only has experience with Liverpool Under 19s’ but the moment he took over you could see.
“I always liked him as a player, one of my favourite players in England because he was like a leader on and off the park, always gave 110% for the jersey and I think he was the perfect captain for the team, in the dressing room. He’s got that winner’s mentality - there was such a big gap between Celtic and Rangers and since he took over you saw that closing.
“I hope he will stay another two years because it is perfect for him to get experience and he’s also won in Europe. It’s a shame about Rangers current form because they beat Celtic just before the New Year.”
It’s clear Glasgow holds a special place in Numan’s heart and he is still idolised in the city.
“The Scottish people, it’s everywhere you go, they are always open and talk about Rangers; everywhere, even on holiday. It’s very rare, in Holland you don’t have that; they look and stare but don’t say anything but with Rangers or Celtic, it doesn’t matter, it’s the culture there, it’s part of their life. It’s the same with Liverpool and Everton, with a lot of rivalries.”
At Rangers for five years as a player before hanging his boots up in 2003, he spent another seven years living in nearby Hamilton and his two daughters were both born in Scotland. “Everytime I go back it feels like coming home,” he says.
However, it’s not just north of the border that he enjoys frequenting. Liverpool and Matthew Street, made famous by The Beatles, is another of his favourite haunts.
Now a scout for AZ Alkmaar, he is regularly in England watching the next top talent and enjoys going to the iconic city to delve into his other love, music.
Speaking to The Sportsman in Liverpool before he visits the Beatles museum, he’s already been out that morning buying prints for his home and eagerly shows us his latest pieces. A big fan of the sounds of the 50s and 60s, he has a room in house with a Juke Box and even his kids know all of the songs.
“If I had to choose to be a football player or a guitarist (he slowly strums an air guitar mid-conversation) I’d rather be a musician,” he reveals.
While music is a passion, few things compare to playing at the World Cup finals.
Numan captained Holland at France ‘98 but fear the entire nation would turn on him struck when he was sent off in the quarter-finals against Argentina.
“My second yellow card, I thought ‘you cheating b*****d’.” he recalled after brushing Diego Simeone only for the midfielder to collapse to the floor. “It was unbelievable like someone had shot him with a rifle!”
We’re sure David Beckham shared similar sentiments that summer. “Numan couldn’t have closed the refrigerator door with that hip check,’ the Los Angeles Times reported at the time.
However unfortunate, Numan was wary he would still take the blame should Holland go out.
“I was sitting in the dressing room, watching on the screen with two security guys.”
Then Dennis Bergkamp worked his magic, scoring one of the goals of the tournament to fire the Netherlands through and save Numan.
“I hit my head against the ceiling! You can imagine my reaction, I had never been so happy. I had felt like absolutely f****** s***. If you lose now, I pick up the blame for it I was thinking. Well, when we won, I said I’d picked the red card up for the team!” he joked.
Having to sit out of the semi against Brazil because of his suspension, Numan admits he was more nervous than had he been out on the pitch. Twenty-two years on, he still thinks Holland could and should have won the tournament.
“I was more nervous in the stands, it was really strange. You’re focused on the game for ninety minutes when you play. If you don’t play, you have no control over it!
“You can imagine the disappointment when we lost, I was in four tournaments, lost on penalties four times. We had the feeling we could become world champions. The team we had was unbelievable. We had Seedorf, Davids, we had Overmars, Van Der Sar, Cocu…”
Numan has heard that hosts France were more fearful of that great Holland side than the Brazil team they went onto beat in the final. What could have been.
While the defeat to South Americans hurt, Numan played with Samba stars Romario and Ronaldo at club level during his time with Dutch powerhouse PSV.
“Both of them became champions, both were voted Best Player in the World and I played with them,” he recalls with pride, showing his fellow pros the ultimate respect.
Luckily for Numan, he knew from the start that Romario liked him.
“I was a young promising player for Twente. I was on the beach, reading a magazine and Romario said in an interview: ‘PSV would be great if we can get Arthur Numan’. I thought how does he know me?!
“I was playing as an attacking left winger and he saw me as the player to provide him with the assists.”
Numan’s task was simple. Romario, with a slight lisp, told him: “Give me the ball, pass to me, I score goals and I win money for you!”
Such was the admiration Numan had for his team-mate, he even went behind enemy lines during the ‘94 World Cup after Holland again missed out to the Brazilians.
“After the game I knocked on Brazil’s dressing room door,” he explained, an unused substitute that day. “Can you imagine? I wanted Romario’s jersey. The door opened and the kit man was just looking at me and closed the door. Two minutes later, he came back and let me in.
“They’re all dancing, the music is on and I’ve walked in. Everyone is looking and thinking ‘What the f*** Is he doing here?’.
“I'm sitting down next to Romario. Thinking back, how the heck…?” he laughs, failing to believe his own audacity.
“We spoke to each other for a few minutes. He gave me his shirt but said ‘No, give yours to your friends. I thought arrogant b*****d!” he laughed.
As for Ronaldo, sharing the field with him was equally memorable.
“It was special. I still have both jerseys from both players. Ronaldo was a young, promising player. He came to Holland and you could see the potential, a really good striker.
“He was always smiling at everyone. On the park he had this ability to...” he pauses remembering the movement in his head, seemingly thinking back to having to deal with him in training, “You could see him running for the ball and then, as the defender thought ‘I have the ball’, he could accelerate again. It was unbelievable!”
From Romario to Rangers, Numan ‘s football experiences have been rich in success and stardom, even if he did have a sore head thanks to Bergkamp.