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Ravaged by disease, Ricksen returns with his dignity intact

THE great capers of Fernando Ricksen, the Glasgow years, are faithfully catalogued in the 237-page autobiography he launched at a hotel in the city yesterday.

Fernando Ricken was not universally popular during a colourful spell as a Rangers player. Picture: SNS
Fernando Ricken was not universally popular during a colourful spell as a Rangers player. Picture: SNS

It's all there: the night-time firework display in his garden that had neighbours howling, the naked run down the aisle of a plane while flying to a training camp, the taunts shouted through Alan Thompson's letterbox after winning an Old Firm derby. None of these escapades can be found in temperance society manuals. Whatever people thought of Ricksen - and plenty think about him a whole new way given events of the past few months - let no-one say he hasn't lived a life.

There were no fireworks yesterday. No nudity. No swearing. Even the latter would be a struggle for him now. His voice has been the most noticeable early casualty of the motor neurone disease which is gradually destroying him from within. Last summer he noticed a slurring of his speech, a problem swallowing and constant tiredness. His doctor suspected some sort of muscular problem and tests were done. In October the diagnosis was delivered. Ricksen, 37, learned that he was terminally ill.

Since then he has had to familiarise himself with the language and the chronology of motor neurone disease, this grotesque condition with its muscle weakness and atrophy, its stiffness and its cramping, its slow, merciless erosion of the sufferer's faculties. Whatever he is losing, Ricksen's dignity is growing. With all that boozing, womanising and partying he behaved like an insatiable adolescent. A few pages of his life story are devoted to his well-publicised night of acrobatics with Jordan ("the white mini skirt, the tight leather belt, the e-nor-mous jugs"). That Ricksen is history. He is a man now, recently remarried and a father to little Isabella. He spoke fondly about the wild years yesterday, but he has a fight on his hands which leaves no further time for nonsense.

Physically he looked pretty good in jeans, a black T-shirt and a black jacket. He walked around freely. But the slurring of his speech was unmistakable. How was he? "I'm not getting better but I'm not getting worse. I feel physically good, only my talking is poor."

Motor neurone disease dulls the ability to speak. The thought processes are unaffected. Yesterday was draining but he handled it well. There were plenty of funny asides and he kept the tone as light as he could given the darkness of the circumstances. The book, "Fighting Spirit - The Autobiography of Fernando Ricksen" has flown off the shelves in the Netherlands. Over 70,000 copies have been sold and the numbers will be high in Scotland now that it is on release here. Warmth and affection came at him in waves from the Rangers support when he came on to the Ibrox pitch at half-time of a game in January.

"I got an incredible reaction when I came back to Glasgow. Going on to the pitch that day will stay with me. I was feeling good and happy, there was no problem. Then when I saw the fans I became really emotional. From the moment I came to Rangers [in 2000] until the moment I left [in 2006], that was the best time."

Naturally he was asked yesterday about the fall of his old club. "I cannot understand what has happened at Rangers. But Rangers will be back. It's going to take a few years but in that time Rangers will be where they were before." Someone asked for his views on the current Ibrox board of directors. He gave the answer of a man with other matters on his mind. "I'm fighting another battle, not that one."

When he looks at his book he is proud. "It is great to see my life in print. A lot of what is here was on the newspaper front pages so a lot of people already know what I've done in my life. A lot of people have asked me 'how do you remember if you were always drunk?' But I do remember . . . that is me. But I don't want to hurt other people. We left out most of the names in the book. At least, those names who have family lives. We didn't want to cause any divorces!"

Ricksen was far more than a tabloid cartoon figure. The Netherlands picked him a dozen times, he was a successful Rangers captain and Scotland's joint player of the year in 2005. "Fighting Spirit" is pacy and entertaining. There are countless anecdotes, like the time he pushed Rangers chairman John McClelland into a swimming pool, ruining his £20,000 Rolex watch. It was a limited edition: "Only six of them in the world; five dry ones, one soaked one."

The final chapter concludes with an upbeat one-in-the-eye to all those who had criticised his lifestyle or his football: "Look at me now! Look at what I've gathered, apart from all the silverware. I have a lovely wife, a beautiful daughter, a caring family, supportive friends and loyal supporters from Sittard to Glasgow."

And then the sledgehammer Epilogue, a page-and-a-half that could be a book in itself. Just as the finishing touches were being applied to "Fighting Spirit" motor neurone disease entered the story. A second ending.

"The scientists don't know everything about the disease yet," Ricksen writes. "And one day somebody will be the first person to beat it. Let me be that first person."

Fighting Spirit - The Autobiography of Fernando Ricksen, with Vincent de Vries, £16.99, Arena Sport.

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