Van the man to fan Forest's promotion fires

BEYOND THE PREMIERSHIP: Pierre Van Hooijdonk is aiming to help his new club back into the top flight and the Dutch team into the World Cup final. Phil Shaw spoke to him.

Fifty thousand Celtic supporters once proclaimed Pierre van Hooijdonk's uniqueness in song. Now it is confirmed. Nottingham Forest's towering Dutchman is the only player preparing to start the season against Port Vale at Burslem with realistic hopes of finishing it against Brazil in Paris.

From one of the First Division's less salubrious settings to the World Cup final: some might call it a journey from the ridiculous to the divine. Van Hooijdonk, stalked by image problems over the past year, chooses his words more tactfully.

With a handful of arguable exceptions - Ravanelli, Kinkladze, Merson and Sinclair - the 27-year-old striker is the biggest star in the Football League firmament.

Yet he is anxious not to be seen as arrogant, one of the more polite tags he attracted during the dispute with Celtic that led to his pounds 3.5m defection to Forest in March. He had allegedly said that the pounds 7,000 a week the Glasgow club were offering was "all very well for the homeless but not for an international footballer".

Van Hooijdonk claims he was "set up" by a reporter and never mentioned the homeless. Some mud invariably sticks, however, which may explain why, after stressing that he intends to spend no more than one season outside the Premiership, he says that this is a declaration of ambition on Forest's behalf rather than a prima donna's ultimatum.

As with many players for whom English is not the first language, the nuances of his conversation are open to misinterpretation, wilful or otherwise. It does not take a cynic to see, for instance, how his self-effacing assessment of his role as perpetual substitute for the Netherlands could be portrayed as gross vanity.

"I can't believe I'm not in the starting line-up," he says, sullen-faced. "It's not as if our strikers are the best." Then comes the grin and the punchline: "We only have Kluivert and Bergkamp."

When I mention that tomorrow's opponents, Port Vale, have several of his compatriots in their squad, he wonders whether they will consider him conceited if he does not recognise and address them in Dutch. But if modesty and sensitivity are not attributes one automatically associates with Van Hooijdonk, he leaves them behind when he goes to work.

On the pitch, he projects a self-confidence which is hard to distinguish from arrogance. Indeed, when he first arrived from NAC Breda two and a half years ago, his bravado was exactly what Celtic needed after so long in the shadow of Rangers.

He scored on his debut and in his first Old Firm game. After heading the goal in the 1995 Scottish Cup final that ended Celtic's six years without a trophy, he hit another 32 in his only full campaign. "There's only one Pierre," the green hordes swooned.

"I had a fantastic relationship with the fans and received lots of kind letters after I left," Van Hooijdonk recalls. "But very early on there were contract problems. At first it didn't worry me because I was playing regularly and doing the business."

The souring of the affair, centring on his insistence that Celtic had reneged on an agreement to pay him more if he topped 20 goals, led eventually to his being dropped. "I didn't play for several weeks and I asked the manager [Tommy Burns] if there would be changes in the near future. The answer was no.

"There were two World Cup matches coming up, against San Marino and Turkey. In my position in the Dutch squad, which is usually as a substitute to try and force things late in a game, I couldn't afford to miss them.

"My big target is to get to the finals and when Forest came in it was a chance to play in the Premier League. I explained to Guus Hiddink [the Dutch coach] that I wasn't playing. He didn't say it in so many words, but I needed to be playing."

With Forest struggling to stay up amid uncertainty over whether Stuart Pearce or Dave Bassett was actually manager, the words "frying pan" and "fire" sprung to mind. Van Hooijdonk netted once in nine games and his new team finished bottom.

Contrary to some perceptions, he neither had nor sought an escape clause. He had harboured a desire to play in England since he watched Tottenham win the FA Cup in 1981 on television before charging out in his Spurs shirt ("the Coq Sportif one") to kick a ball around.

"The game here is very open and honest, much better for strikers. In Italy the priority is not to lose. The climate and lifestyle of France or Spain appealed to me but this is the place to play."

Better than Scotland? "Football there is very fast," he says, searching for a diplomatic form of words, "but fast isn't always good." There was too much emphasis on gaining ground - "like rugby" - and it was unhealthy that two clubs might meet six or seven times in a season.

But isn't he the most British of Dutch players? "It annoys me when people say that," comes the retort, softened with a smile. "They see my height [6ft 4in] and stereotype me as a target man. I feel I'm more technical than that."

His volleying is, to take one example, stronger than his heading. The problem is persuading others to recognise it. "My first few weeks at Forest were the same as when I joined Celtic. My team-mates were hitting high balls. In fact I like to get involved in the build-up. I get a similar sensation making a goal as scoring.

"Anyway, there's more to football here than the physical side. Who were the best players last season? Zola, Juninho and Beckham. Not big."

The extent to which Van Hooijdonk's self-analysis fits in with the requirements of Bassett, who is famous for route-one football, will be revealing. As for the City Ground faithful, they must trust that he emulates another attacker with attitude, Stan Collymore, rather than Bryan Roy.

Both were to leave in acrimonious circumstances. But whereas Collymore's marksmanship took Forest back up in 1994, Roy flattered to deceive before flouncing off to Berlin deriding Nottingham as a cultural desert populated by narrow-minded people.

"It's too easy for people to bracket me with Bryan because we're both Dutch," Van Hooijdonk says. "I'm a different type of person. I'll make up my own mind. I believe that if you want to make something work, you will."

After life in the goldfish bowl of Glasgow (where a Celtic player once remarked that half the city hate you while the other half think they own you), Van Hooijdonk is hopeful that the gentler pace of the East Midlands can bring out the best in him.

The greater number of other "dark and tall men", as he puts it, has made it easier to blend in and enjoy a private life. When he and his first, less-than-serious girlfriend in Scotland split, the tabloids had wanted chapter and verse.

On the subject of fine detail, Van Hooijdonk can reel off each of his eight internationals (four goals) and the number of minutes he played: 14 in Wales, 24 in Turkey and so on. Before his most recent cameo, 21 minutes in South Africa, the Dutch trained in searing heat only for the match to be staged in freezing temperatures.

The contrasts promise to be equally extreme as Van Hooijdonk alternates between Forest duty against the likes of Bury and Stockport and the World Cup. All the more so if his Parisian fantasy becomes a reality.

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