Sepp van den Berg: the Liverpool defender aiming to beat his own club
As Mohamed Salah stuck away Liverpool’s fifth goal at Old Trafford on Sunday, completing his hat-trick with more than 40 minutes to play, it is conceivable that Sepp van den Berg was the only person with Liverpool ties to consider the moment a little bittersweet, given he will line up against his parent club for Preston in the Carabao Cup fourth round on Wednesday.
“It is a little bit scary to see how good they are doing,” he says. “When the draw came out, the first thing that came into my mind was: ‘Am I allowed to play?’”
After receiving written permission on Tuesday to play the question in his mind is: how will he celebrate if he scores? “I really don’t know how I would react. I might as well just go straight inside the tunnel and ask the manager to change me. I have no idea. Maybe I would be doing knee slides or maybe I would just keep quiet. I’m not thinking too much about it otherwise my head will go crazy.”
It is a nice quandary to have. “I hope I do score. I hope Preston do win. It would be a massive shock and hopefully it will be a very good game. It will be a weird game but I’m going to make the best of it and enjoy it.”
Van den Berg joined Preston on loan for a second spell in the summer but is still in what, after a historic victory against Manchester United, is an upbeat Liverpool group chat. “They are all happy and they should be as well,” he says. “I’m not the type of guy who puts much in [the chat] anyway.
“To beat United 5-0 at Old Trafford is a massive achievement. I wasn’t even shocked. I’ve trained with them so I know what they’re capable of. Seeing Sadio Mané not starting the other day makes me a bit scared he might start. It will be good to see some familiar faces.”
Van den Berg, who made his Holland Under-21s debut this month, talks particularly fondly of the influence of his countryman Virgil van Dijk when he arrived at Liverpool as a 17-year-old from PEC Zwolle. Van den Berg’s English is flawless but being able to converse in Dutch with Georginio Wijnaldum and Van Dijk helped him settle two years ago.
“When I came, he just made me feel at home straight away,” he says of Van Dijk. “He talked to me straight away and it was the same with Wijnaldum. He [Van Dijk] made sure I was fine. Sitting next to him in the dressing room and stuff – those little things were very important for me.”
Van den Berg has primarily played as a right wing-back for Preston but can also operate at centre-back. For him and many others, Van Dijk is the best in class.
“He was when I came and he is still is. He had a horrible injury but you see him coming back now and he’s doing brilliantly again. Especially when I came, to be able to train with him and watch his game up close and as a young guy – actually, no matter what age you are – it is very helpful. Seeing him train and do things that are just unreal makes you a better player straight away. It’s not easy, but he just makes it look that way.”
Van den Berg, whose father, TJ, has flown over from the Netherlands for the game, has made four Liverpool appearances, the most recent against Shrewsbury in the FA Cup last year, and given his relationship with the Liverpool squad, he knows he could be an unofficial fixer for his Preston teammates after the game.
“There are going to be lots of people asking me to [help them] swap shirts,” he says, laughing. “Everyone wants the shirt of Mo Salah, Mané or Van Dijk. They [his Preston teammates] assume I have the biggest contacts’ book. If they really want a shirt, I might give it a try. At the end they can ask themselves as well.”
A place in the quarter-finals is at stake but Preston know they have just played the juiciest game of their season. On Saturday, they lost at rivals Blackpool. “For Preston, that is the biggest game of the season We are still frustrated about losing but I feel the game against Liverpool is a nice way to bounce back.”
Van den Berg hopes it is not too long until he pulls on a Liverpool shirt again. Perhaps one day he could be the best Dutch defender at the club? He chuckles. “If we’re talking long-term, that’s one of the goals,” he says. “Hopefully, I will be playing in the Liverpool team in a few years, or even next year – you never know. That is the goal, to play there.
“For this season, it is about doing well here and then going back in the summer and showing them how much I have improved.”