Belfast Telegraph

I didn't intend to disrespect so I am sorry, says Ronald Koeman

Koeman (left)
Koeman (left)
Virgil van Dijk

By Julian Taylor

It's official: Ronald Koeman has sent his apologies, albeit slightly guarded. In the weeks following the corresponding Euro 2020 qualifying clash, when the Netherlands head coach had a scare in Rotterdam before emerging with a very late, and crucial, 3-1 victory, frustration across the Northern Ireland squad has rankled at his negative judgments on the style of play undertaken by Michael O'Neill's side.

Koeman had obviously been briefed about how irked tonight's hosts have been ever since the showdown in De Kuip last month, and was expected to offer some clarification.

There is nothing quite like a national side's immense efforts being reduced to glib, if flawed, summaries of "outrageous" and "boring" by an opponent to give someone like O'Neill the needle, in addition to several Northern Ireland players on Thursday during the build-up to the Group C encounter.

Mindful of how his reputation had diminished with everyone connected with Northern Ireland, the Netherlands chief was in a surprising conciliatory mood as he absorbed his surroundings in south Belfast.

"I was not talking about how they played," explained Koeman. "I have a lot of respect for the players - you gave so much against us and were very difficult to beat. In my irritation after the game I used the wrong word, it was about wasting time from the first minute in the game and the referee did nothing.

"They took all the time for corners and free-kicks and throw-ins and the referee allowed that. If I used the wrong word ('outrageous') then I feel sorry about that. I apologise... a little bit," which drew some laughter from both Northern Irish and Netherlands media. "I didn't mean to be disrespectful. If they like to take extra motivations, good luck".

Koeman's captain, Virgil van Dijk, meanwhile, echoed similar thoughts.

"It's taken out of proportion," said the Liverpool defender. "I don't think the manager meant that, like so many things in the media. It's their (Northern Ireland's) way of playing and we all respect that and it's something we have to deal with."

The Dutch, having missed out on the last two major tournaments, are poised to qualify for Euro 2020 if they grab at least a point at Windsor Park. As expected, Van Dijk exuded a figure of relaxed confidence.

He added: "It's a dream as I've missed two (tournaments) but I'm looking forward to what is coming and to do everything that is possible to perform. The reality is we have not been doing very well in those years for loads of reasons, but we are in a good phase and enjoy playing with each other and have a lot of quality. We need to make sure we do it."

When asked about the extent of his anxiety regarding tonight's prospects compared with, for instance, a few months ago, former Everton and Southampton boss Koeman denied this was the case.

"I expect them (Northern Ireland) to be more attacking at home," he noted. That viewpoint is also shared by Pierre van Hooidjonk, the ex-Netherlands and Celtic forward.

"Koeman has done a good job and it was a feeling of relief to come away with that win over Northern Ireland in Rotterdam," admitted Van Hooidjonk, in Belfast working for NOS, the Dutch state broadcaster.

And what of the current oddity of O'Neill's double-jobbing with Northern Ireland and new employers Stoke City?

Koeman said: "No, I don't think so (on the immediate challenge). A short time ago he took over Stoke but in the long-term it's really difficult to do two jobs this season."

Meanwhile, Van Dijk noted his disappointment over some England fans booing Liverpool team-mate Joe Gomez.

The defender came on in the 70th minute during England's 7-0 hammering of Montenegro at Wembley on Thursday.

Gomez was targeted for his part in a clash with Raheem Sterling at England's training base, St George's Park, on Monday, which resulted in the latter being left out by Three Lions manager Gareth Southgate.

"It is disappointing," said Van Dijk. "But it has been dealt with. I think everyone should stop talking about it because it is just a thing that happened and they sorted it out."

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