THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT SIEB

A personal pilgrimage in search of a man behind a wonderful moustache.

When I first saw Sieb Dijkstra take the field for my team, Dundee United, late in 1996 I instinctively knew that there was something about him. Something different. It wasn’t the Dutch goalkeeper’s physique as such, that was fairly standard: sturdy tree-trunk limbs and big hands. Sieb’s body was the body of a goalkeeper alright, no disputing that. It was Sieb’s head that made him different. It just wasn’t the kind of head that you expected to find on a footballer’s body.

There was the hair, that blow dried bouffant, a cabaret singer’s hair, not a footballer’s. And what hair it was too: shampoo commercial hair, lustrous, thick, ink black hair. The kind of hair that every wigmaker in the land tries to replicate. But that wasn’t really it, that wasn’t the thing that made Sieb stand out from all of the other players I’d seen before or since.

It was his moustache. The finely groomed pencil moustache rakishly poised above Sieb’s upper lip. Seib’s ‘tache was miraculous, the sheer audacity he had to grow such a thing in the first place. This wasn’t a Village People moustache, it was the moustache of an army general or a dictator. Or a porn star. And that’s how Sieb would be remembered by the majority of Scottish football fans – the doppelganger of every onscreen plumber who laid more than pipes.

I loved Sieb Dijkstra. Not in the way Anthony loved Cleopatra, I was besotted in the way that boys on the cusp of adolescence are with sticker books and toy cars and BB guns. Nobody contributed to the din of the “Sieb, Sieb, Sieb” chant more enthusiastically than me. Nobody greeted the cavalier forays off his goal line as welcomingly as I did. And nobody howled with as much anguish when he failed to intercept a cross on the edge of the box and was left starfished in the air, a look of bewilderment frozen on his face. When Sieb first responded to my email requesting an interview I felt like I was that boy again, whooping and windmilling around my laptop, chanting his name.

Though he was erratic and prone to the odd howler, on his day Sieb could be utterly magnificent. But Dundee United fans like me weren’t the first to realise this. Prior to his spell at Tannadice Sieb enjoyed three successful years with Motherwell, who plucked him from the obscurity of Roda JC’s reserve team. According to Sieb it was his unique goalkeeping methods that charmed the Motherwell supporters: “I think my style of play surely is one of the reasons the Motherwell fans liked me so much,” Sieb says. “I nearly came for every ball in the box and that is what the fans really loved about me.”

As well as his patented kamikaze approach there were other party tricks too. “I had good fun with the crowd during games,” Sieb recalls. “If the ball was out of play or the game was stopped I swung on the bar if the fans would sing for me. Every time I did that the fans would go crazy.”

The brave style and accompanying histrionics soon attracted potential suitors and a move to the English Premiership beckoned. In 1994 Sieb was signed by QPR and immediately installed as the club’s first choice goalkeeper. The eccentric Dutchman looked poised to make his mark on the big stage. But things didn’t quite go according to plan. “Gerry Francis signed me for QPR but after two months he left QPR and signed for Tottenham,” Sieb explains. “By that time I was the first team goalkeeper and also stayed first choice when Ray Wilkins took over as a manager. At the time I was playing really well.”

But after sustaining a slight training ground injury before a league fixture against Arsenal, Sieb was unceremoniously jettisoned to the reserve team. “Just before the game the manager told me that he was playing Tony Roberts (the second choice goalkeeper) because he would not risk me,” he says. “That was a big slap in the face because I felt fit enough to play. The manager never asked me whether I was 100% fit or not, he just decided to play the other goalie.”

Sieb never played for the QPR first team again and was left languishing in the reserves until he was again called upon by his manager at Motherwell, Tommy McLean. McLean had recently taken over at Dundee United and found himself in a bind – the United number one at the time, Lance Key, wasn’t very good. Key was one of those unfortunate flapping goalkeepers who caused fans to retreat behind latticed fingers whenever the ball ventured anywhere near their goal. These precautionary measures were usually justified too. If you peaked out from behind your hands your gaze would settle on the awkward spectacle of Key pinballing around the six yard box before, inevitably, stooping to retrieve the ball from the back of the net.

According to Sieb the main factor in sealing his move to United was the presence of McLean in the dugout: “There were more clubs interested for me when I was at QPR but when the chance came along to work again with Tommy it was an easy decision for me,” he says. “Tommy and I had a love-hate relationship but he brought the best out of my abilities and I will always be grateful to him for that.”

Sieb’s presence between the sticks immediately had an impact on United’s fortunes: the team went on an incredible 13 game undefeated streak, slashing and burning their way to third place and a European spot. A legend was born. But how much of Sieb’s legacy is the result of his goalkeeping skills? It’s hard not to wonder whether his image would be indelibly scorched into Scottish football’s collective consciousness had he not looked like a porn star.

Researching this item I trawled through archive materials, looking for a picture of Sieb sans moustache. I couldn’t find one. Even as a fresh faced youth player at Roda JC he is pictured, the thick bristles of a man’s moustache lurking incongruously beneath his nostrils. Was there ever a time when he didn’t have a moustache? “When I was about 17 I grew my moustache and kept it until I was 34,” he says. “17 years is enough I thought, so I shaved it off. People still say that I look younger now without moustache than when I was a youngster with it.”

Ultimately Sieb puts his popularity with fans down to more than what lay above his upper lip: “I think what made me popular was surely my eccentric style of goalkeeping,” he says. “But the fact I had a moustache probably helped my case!”

Since Sieb left Scottish football in 1999 the league has, to its detriment, been bereft of a moustachioed Dutchman with an insatiable appetite for hurtling off his line and swinging on crossbars. There hasn’t been anyone who so closely resembles a porn star either. Sieb Dikstra, when will we see your likes again?

Possibly sooner than you think. Sieb is currently running a goalkeeping academy in Holland, brewing the next batch of marauding goalkeepers, charging towards the far reaches of the penalty box. “I try to teach my goalkeepers to be courageous,” Sieb explains. “I always tell my goalkeepers how important it is for a goalkeeper to command his area. I tell them that it gives a lot of confidence to the team, the defence in particular. It's a pity that nowadays they are very few goalkeepers who are in command of the penalty box.”

Surely only the most cold hearted football supporters wouldn’t keep their fingers crossed for a second coming of Sieb. A quick word for all of those enrolled in the Dijkstra School of Goalkeeping: Do as Sieb says, and do as Sieb did.

If you would like to read more from Matt please visit his blog.

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