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Rangers legend Fernando Ricksen is bravely battling his fiercest foe

 

Committed: Fernando Ricksen challenges Celtic’s Henrik Larsson
Committed: Fernando Ricksen challenges Celtic’s Henrik Larsson
Captain fantastic: Fernando Ricksen lifts the SPL trophy in 2005
Going Dutch: Fernando Ricksen (front row, centre) in the Holland team that played Argentina in 2003. The rest of the team was Ronald Waterreus, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mark van Bommel, Jaap Stam, Frank de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Phillip Cocu, Boudewijn Zenden, Edgar Davids and Patrick Kluivert

By Julian Taylor

On the rear wall of the stand named after him at the Fortuna Sittard Stadion, there is an immense, artfully created mural of 'Fernando the Commando'. And the accompanying slogan to this wonderfully detailed portrait, approximately translated, says: "What can happen, spring does not happen," a line from the club song.

The message at the Fortunezen, where he both started and finished his career, epitomises not just the incredible fortitude of debilitated Fernando Ricksen, but it suggests a rather philosophical note too.

Considering that the former Rangers and Netherlands player, married with a six-year-old daughter and in the prime of life, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease in October 2013, it would be prudent for many of us to reflect on how much, in terms of health, we assume each day.

How the sheer, absolute, cruel randomness of MND - a rare, incurable condition - is being dealt with by Ricksen, 42, and his wife Veronika every day is astonishing.

Even as the ex-Ibrox captain spends his last days in a hospice in Airdrie, communicating via voice-computer with both humour and sadness, there remains a desire to 'kick it in the b****', principally for his daughter Isabella.

Such love and devotion, despite his own obvious lack of quality of life remaining.

To label Ricksen courageous in these circumstances feels intensely inadequate.

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Nearly six years on after an initial expert opinion of only having around 18 months to live, he's still here.

His plight was featured on the ITV news on Monday evening, after the revelation that a Glasgow event at the end of this month would be his last "public" appearance, such are the myriad difficulties of bearing MND, of which six people are diagnosed each day in the UK.

Former Hearts and Rangers player David Hagen, ex-Bolton Wanderers and Liverpool defender Stephen Darby and Scotland rugby legend Doddie Weir have all been diagnosed in the last couple of years.

Life can be unspeakably unfair and callous at times and, in light of his charity foundation - set up to help support MND sufferers - Ricksen's absence of self-pity is extraordinary. Looking at a Netherlands team photo, posing alongside Ruud van Nistelrooy, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam from 2003, when at his peak, it is practically impossible to reconcile what has happened to this once effervescent and ultra-determined athlete.

Fighting Spirit, the title of Ricksen's autobiography, is the story of a man who helped unfashionable Dutch sides like Sittard and AZ Alkmaar to Eredivisie titles before sealing a switch to Rangers.

The story of a warrior in every conceivable sense. How many of us could cope as stoically in the now heart-rending circumstances Ricksen finds himself?

Still, given a combative reputation carved out over the years, mainly with Rangers, his tragedy will always be offset, to an extent at least, by the memories of triumph.

On the pitch, Ricksen was a buzzy and occasionally controversial figure.

Signed as a right-back by compatriot Dick Advocaat in 1998 as Ibrox began to resemble a Dutch colony, he had a tricky start to the Scottish game before settling down.

Brutal honesty being a trait we often associate with footballers from the Netherlands, Ricksen's admission that opponent Darren Young needed to be 'straightened out' after his kung-fu style kick at the Aberdeen man fiercely endeared him to Rangers fans. Such incidents were occasional symptoms of an edgy player who eventually had to address anger management issues.

Still, Ricksen especially thrived under the fine man-management of Advocaat's successor, Alex McLeish, who knew how to handle this zany character with care.

In what was an inspired move, 2004/05 proved to be a high water mark, when the Dutchman, as a midfield enforcer, led the Light Blues by example.

Whether it was crunching tackles, killer passes during the chaos of an Old Firm derby, or even the occasional, caressed set piece goal, Ricksen was all over it as Rangers dramatically edged Celtic to the Scottish title on the last day of the season, as well as a League Cup success.

He was joint Player of the Year, alongside Celtic's John Hartson, for his exploits.

The silverware attained that season was due to a considerable feat of personal willpower.

With a previous penchant for hedonism, Ricksen eschewed alcohol for the campaign, no small feat for a man who often went overboard with assorted antics, including setting off fireworks in his Glasgow suburban neighbourhood or throwing his club chairman into a swimming pool on the eve of a Champions League game in Athens.

To succeed at a side with the searing demands of Rangers requires vast reserves of inner steel, and Ricksen, at different stages, extracted the necessary drive to make his presence felt in a dressing room packed with wilful characters such as Barry Ferguson, Ronald de Boer, Arthur Numan, Lorenzo Amoruso, Jorg Albertz, Dado Prso, Alex Rae and Nacho Novo.

Having left Ibrox in 2006 following a fall out with then manager Paul le Guen, the Dutch star reunited with Advocaat at Zenit St Petersburg.

A few more trophies and a 2008 Uefa Cup medal - ironically against Rangers - reflected Ricksen's fiery Russian experience as well as being the place where he eventually met his wife.

For the last few years, the player's stricken condition has touched countless people.

Previous public appearances pitch side at Ibrox have been genuinely emotional affairs, and it's clear Ricksen has felt overwhelmed by how much ordinary people care for him, whether it is, in particular, supporters of Rangers or Fortuna Sittard, or the nurses at St Andrew's hospice.

Unable to travel to the family home in Spain, Scotland is now Ricksen's sanctuary as he, incredibly, copes with MND, painstakingly, and despite obvious tiredness, communicating with ghost writer and close friend Vincent de Vries, loved ones and visitors via the voice technology.

The seven trophies and a place in the club's hall of fame means Ricksen is most noted, of course, at Rangers.

Ibrox is, after all, where he made his name, for better or worse.

And when the dreadful day finally comes a few former team mates may recall an iconic photograph. Fernando Ricksen, lifted shoulder high, in the glorious championship winning bedlam at Easter Road - a sacrificial, beaming gladiator, taking both acclaim and reward.

Remarkably, the man himself says he is "not ready to go" yet.

Ricksen's vechtlust is a poignant credo, for those of us fortunate enough, to try and live our best possible lives.

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