As former Celt Joos Valgaeren hits the big Four-Oh on 3 March, our one-time Brussels correspondent, Myles O’Wood, fondly recalls his dealings with the big Belgian…
WHEN A RED DEVIL BLEEDS GREEN AND WHITE
Like most Tims, I didn’t have a clue who Joos Valgaeren was when Martin O’Neill made him his second Celtic signing (after Chris Sutton) back in the summer of 2000. Even though I’d been living in Belgium for over a decade by that stage, and was a keen observer of the country’s football scene, his name meant little or nothing to me. In my defence, Joos was a complete unknown to most Belgians too. He’d spent three years at KV Mechelen in the mid-90s but had been plying his trade with Roda JC in the Netherlands since 1997.
A tough, uncompromising centre-half, JV was never going to win any skills or speed awards, but what he lacked in those departments he more than made up for in terms of his physical stature, positioning and commitment. He quickly settled into O’Neill’s side as part of a three-man defence alongside Dolph and Bobo, and was a mainstay in the first XI as Celtic swept to a domestic treble during MON’s first season in charge.
I first got to know Joos about halfway through that first term. As chairman of the Brussels CSC, I’d noticed a few new faces turning up for televised games in our old haunt, the Sean O’Casey pub (later the Michael Collins) on Avenue Louise/Louizalaan. Quiet, unassuming Flemish lads who slipped in just before kick-off and usually left on the final whistle. After a few games, I got chatting to one of them, Kristof. Turns out he was JV’s best mate and godfather to the big man’s first born, Tom. He told me all his mates back in Mechelen (halfway between Brussels and Antwerp) were now Celtic fans and were closely following JV’s progress in Glasgow. Sure enough, in the weeks that followed, more and more of them started making the journey down to the Belgian capital to watch games with us.
In February 2001, the CSC travelled to Glasgow for a home tie with Hibs, which – unusually (in those days at least) – was a Sunday afternoon fixture for TV. Among our number was a couple of the Mechelen bhoys and when we arrived at our hotel (the Holiday Inn in W. Nile St), who was there to greet us but the big man himself. Modest, self-deprecating and down to earth, he had time for everyone before heading back to his place in the West End with his buddies.
That summer, we decided to repay the Mechelen lads for their dedication to the cause and organised a bus up to their local stomping ground, KV Mechelen’s social club. Sure enough, the first man to greet us on arrival outside the club was big Joos and we spent a great night celebrating the treble ‘a la flamande’.
Season two at Paradise wasn’t a great one for him. Injuries were never too far away and he only made 20 league appearances that term. He did, however, have the honour of scoring his first goal against the Hun, bundling home our first in a 2-1 win at Paradise in November. If that was a highlight of the season for Joos, the lowlight came two months previously when he was adjudged to have fouled Oscar-nominee and all-round high-dive champion, Nicola Amoruso, in the final stages of Celtic’s first-ever Champions League group game, against Juve in Turin. Valgaeren never touched him but the ref was conned into awarding a peno and Celtic lost 3-2 on the night.
Speaking of lowlights, Joos was also one of three fall guys in December of that year when he missed his peno in a UEFA Cup shootout against Valencia at CP. He was, however, in good company as both Henke and Stan missed theirs as well.
The following April (2002), we sat down in O’Casey’s to watch live coverage of a midweek SPL game away to Hearts. With a League Cup final against TFOD coming up the following week, MON had rested most of his first-choice eleven and in came the likes of Simon Lynch, Jamie Smyth, Colin Healy and John Kennedy. On cue, our Mechelen mates walked in just as the game was getting underway. This time, they’d brought a pal: big lad, long nose, blondey-browny spiky hair, straight up to the bar to get a round in. You guessed it: it was JV himself, having been allowed home by the gaffer for a few days R&R.
I’m not giving any state secrets away when I say that fella loved a good pint of Guinness (personally, I blame Lenny and BBJ for leading him astray and introducing him to the dubious charms of Jinty McGinty’s and the Ashton Lane set!).
Anyways, Celtic beat Hertz 4-1 on the night and I remember sitting beside Joos in the pub as he texted Shaun Maloney in the middle of the game, just after the wee man had scored a cracking free kick. For a regular supporter like myself, it was a kind of surreal experience knowing a text alert was going off in Maloney’s bag in the away dressing room in Edinburgh while he was out on the pitch celebrating a wonder strike and we were sitting in an Irish pub 800km away…
The summer of 2001 marked three years since I’d founded the Brussels CSC and it was time to hand over the reins to some other drink-addled Eurocrat. To mark my overthrow departure, the club organised an end-of-season party in the pub at which JV (accompanied by his much better half, Kristel) was the guest of honour. It was a long and emotional night (it also happened to be my birthday), and it must have been about 5am the next morning before the last man (or woman) crawled out of the place. Ah, the memories…
Late that summer, I got an interesting insight into the mind of a pro baller. Belgium were playing Finland in a friendly and Joos wasn’t in the squad. Back in Glasgow, he had no way of following the action so he texted me and asked for score updates (it was on telly in Belgium). As the Finnish goals flew in (they won 4-1 in the end), I sensed JV was delighted. As a supporter, you want your team to win every game, regardless of who’s in or out of the team. That’s not how a player sees it. If they’re not playing and the team loses, that’s actually a good thing for them. The last thing Joos wanted that night was a tidy Belgian win and his competitors for a starting berth doing well.
And so we come to season 2002-‘03, JV’s third at the club and a rollercoaster of a year if ever there was one: Beachball Sunday at Ibrox (we were there – courtesy of tickets from Joos), the heartbreak of Seville and then, almost as bad, Helicopter Sunday. As the BBC match report noted after we beat Killie on the final day: “Celtic ended their most promising season in years without a trophy.” What? How??
Season no. 4 for the big man was like season no. 2 – best forgotten. Yes, we won the League and the Cup but Joos barely played a dozen games all told, as a series of recurring injuries kept him sidelined.
And so to 2004-’05. Doubts surrounded MON’s future as his wife’s illness was finally revealed. A fit-again Valgaeren was back in the fold and made 28 appearances, but we suffered final-day heartache yet again (three words: Fir – Park – McDonald) and our precious league trophy was relinquished to the Govan gougers.
MO’N out, WGS in. Whether it was his dodgy injury record or something else entirely, the writing was on the wall for Joos. He was released on a free and signed a three-year deal with Club Brugge back in his homeland. Yet again, injuries kept him out for long periods and the highlight of his time with the Blauw-en-Zwart (Blue and Black) was a Belgian Cup winner’s medal in 2007.
In 2008, the by-now 32 year-old signed a two-year contract with Emmen in the Dutch second tier, but only played for a season and a bit before being forced to admit defeat and announce his retirement from the professional game.
Joos Valgaeren: a warhorse on the park and a down-to-earth gentle gent with an arid sense of humour off it. Almost 300 pro club appearances and 19 senior Belgian caps in a 15-year career. Most of all, though, a man who really understands just how privileged he was to be able to do what every one of us would give our right gonad for: to make nearly 120 appearances for the Hoops during a golden era in our club’s history.
Gefeliciteerd met uw verjaardag, Joos. Dank u wel, veel geluk in de toekomst en Hail Hail!