While he's produced many memorable performances down the years, there's a strong case for Feyenoord's title-winning match against Heracles being Dirk Kuyt's definitive showing. Already a legend at De Kuip owing to a three-year stint between 2003 and 2006 in which he first earned the captaincy and fan favourite status, Kuyt returned in 2015 having decided to finish his career with the Rotterdam club. Though he no longer possesses the same agility and pace that helped him to score 83 times in his first stint with Feyenoord, he has nonetheless managed to add a further 38 goals to his tally in the two seasons since. That would be an impressive total for a footballer in his prime, let alone one who turns 37 in July.
Feyenoord have sealed their first Eredivisie title since 1999 this season, following up on the KNVB Cup last term. In their final league game, with Ajax still firmly in contention for top spot, Kuyt proved himself as reliable as ever with a trio of goals that consigned the Amsterdammers to second place. It was a hat-trick which epitomised Kuyt as a player in that, despite the momentous circumstances, there was nothing particularly flash about his efforts. For the first goal he capitalised on a clumsy defensive error, the second was a leaping header from five yards, while the third came from the penalty area and saw Kuyt roll home with the minimum of fuss. The start of the game was obscured by the fog of flares and smoke bombs from the stands, and it was through that fog that Kuyt came barrelling towards the goalmouth over and over, lolloping tirelessly and tenaciously onwards like a straw-maned warhorse, giving another of those 'big game' performances with which he has become synonymous both at home and abroad.
Though the title celebrations on the streets of Rotterdam have been suitably raucous, Kuyt's matchwinning performance has been greeted with similar acclaim on these shores. Naturally, the acclaim has been loudest on the stretch of shore around the mouth of the river Mersey, and on the streets of the city built on its heavily urbanised banks. Five years after he left the club, Dirk Kuyt is still loved by Liverpool supporters with a fervour that few of his contemporaries are capable of eliciting, with many fans following his fortunes from afar and continuing to champion his cause. Local papers like The Liverpool Echo have lavished superlatives on his title-winning exploits, as have popular blogs like Empire of the Kop and This Is Anfield. Indeed, it is owing to their mutual appreciation for Kuyt that many Liverpool fans have also found themselves celebrating Feyenoord's title, strengthening the footballing bonds between two predominantly working-class port cities divided by almost 400 miles of land and sea.
On the face of it, the veneration of Kuyt on Merseyside seems disproportionate to his achievements at Liverpool. Though he was a fairly reliable goalscorer in the Premier League, few would have described him as prolific, and his modest return was something of a drawback even if there was much more to his all-round game. He scored 71 times in 286 appearance for the Reds, giving him a ratio of almost exactly a goal every four matches. For a club expected to finish in the top four every season, that ratio could be seen as a touch underwhelming.
Liverpool failed to qualify for the Champions League in Kuyt's last three seasons at Anfield, a barren spell that caused much introspection among the fans and led some commentators to herald the club's irreversible decline. In the six seasons the Dutchman spent at Liverpool from 2006 onwards, Liverpool lost their status as the most successful top flight club to arch-enemies Manchester United, while their only silverware came via a solitary League Cup win in 2012. Though this malaise was caused by a multitude of factors including managerial turbulence, erratic recruitment and the chaotic legacy of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, the team of which Kuyt was a part often found itself the target of excoriating criticism. So, unlike so many other players who were recruited with mixed success by Rafa Benitez, how has Kuyt managed to shake off his association with a side that drove so many onlookers to distraction and despair?
The first clue to Kuyt's enduring popularity can be found in his reputation as a 'big game' player. While this might sound like an idle cliche, Kuyt certainly had the knack of making decisive interventions long before his latest heroics at De Kuip. This is exemplified perfectly by the 2012 League Cup Final when, having scored one of the goals that took the game to penalties, the Dutchman slotted Liverpool's third spot-kick home when both Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam had missed. Liverpool went on to win the shootout but, had it not been for Kuyt, they would almost certainly have suffered an ignominious defeat to Cardiff and missed out on their only trophy of the last 11 years.
Though he never managed more than 13 league goals for Liverpool over the course of a single season, Kuyt was remarkably prolific against the club's fiercest rivals. He scored five goals against Everton during his time on Merseyside, as well as a hat-trick against Manchester United in 2011, a feat that made him the first Liverpool player to score a trio of league goals against United in over two decades. Even more so than his hat-trick against Heracles, his three-goal haul against Alex Ferguson's men was the conceptual opposite of flash. It was generally estimated that his goals had come from an accumulative distance of five yards, making it surely one of the least glamorous hat-tricks of all time.
While that would be more than enough to make a cult hero of even the most ineffective striker, there is far more to Kuyt's cult of personality than his sense of occasion and unpretentious finishing. As a forward whose tackling technique was little short of insane and who often seemed to relish his defensive duties more than Liverpool's actual defenders, he had all the necessary ingredients to enamour himself to those with an old-school vision of the game. In a team that was often criticised for its lack of mental fortitude and competitiveness, Kuyt stood out as a player who nobody could accuse of giving less than he was capable. That attitude is what won him so many hearts and minds on Merseyside, and he has capitalised on that goodwill and affection by making his reciprocal feelings known.
In regards to Kuyt's work ethic and attitude, there is a reason that he has found a natural home in both Liverpool and Rotterdam. In urban heartlands with an industrial heritage, there are few attributes valued above those of resilience, commitment and hard graft. More so than stories about Kuyt sinking pints with fans and singing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' with tens of thousands of Rotterdammers, he is beloved of Liverpool because he seems to have a genuine affinity with the city. In the aftermath of a Europa League trip to Old Trafford with Feyenoord earlier on in the season, Kuyt said it best when he described his reaction to being called a 'Scouse bastard' by Manchester United fans. "Normally when your rivals shout at you it's not the best thing that can happen to you, but actually it made me proud because I felt proud to be named a Scouser – an adopted Scouser," he said. "For me Scousers are good people, hard-working people, committed people and people who never give up."