Are Feyenoord finally the real deal?

Feyenoord captain, Dirk Kuyt thumped the ball past the club’s former goalkeeper, Erwin Mulder, to put the Rotterdam giants 5-0 up against a hapless Heerenveen side; in the process, adding another hat trick in an already bountiful goal-scoring career. Just 39 minutes of the first half had elapsed at the Abe Lenstra Stadion on 18 October 2015, as Kuyt wheeled away to receive the congratulations of his jubilant team mates, in front of a disbelieving home crowd writes Steven Davies.

After the match, a resounding 5-2 victory for De Stadionclub, which left Feyenoord lying second behind rivals, Ajax on goal difference after nine matches, the 35-year-old, Kuyt was bullish when questioned by the media about the club’s title chances, telling De Telegraaf, “Of course we want to be successful. We fight hard every week and will see at the end of the journey how real the chance of a prize is.”

“We are in good shape after nine matches, but this is just the beginning. We are joined with Ajax at the top and it is wonderful to see how the team handles it. This is a totally new situation for the club. It’s been quite a long time since Feyenoord was top.”

The veteran marksman avoided referencing the burden of expectancy that weighs heavily upon the shoulders of everyone associated with the third most successful club in the Netherlands; Feyenoord having been crowned national champions on fourteen occasions, trailing only PSV (22) and Ajax (33) in this regard. Yet, notwithstanding their illustrious history, 16 years have elapsed since the Rotterdam giants’ last lifted the Eredivisie title in 1999 and, as such, pressure and unrealistic expectations have become a fact of life at De Kuip.

Surprisingly, Feyenoord are actually the last Dutch team to achieve continental success; Bert van Marwijk’s side having secured the UEFA Cup by overcoming Borussia Dortmund on a famous night in De Kuip in 2002. During those heady days around the turn of the century, you would have been hard pressed to find anybody associated with the Rotterdam club who could have envisioned then the remarkable drought (save for a lone KNVB Beker triumph in 2008) that would ensue thereafter.

Yet it was this ‘golden period’ of success that very nearly set the club on the road to ruin.

In 1998, with the club well on their way to securing its’ fourteenth national championship, the FIOD-ECD (Fiscal Information and Investigation Service/Economic Investigation Service) visited Feyenoord because of suspected fraud associated with the signings of Aurelio Vidmar, Christian Gyan and Patrick Allotey. This became an ongoing scandal with Chairman, Jorien van den Herik, the main suspect. Both Feyenoord and van den Herik were found to be not guilty in 2002 and, despite a later appeal, after three years of investigations, the initial ruling was upheld in 2005.

This off-field turmoil would prove to be only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The following year, the club’s supporters saw their two star players leave De Kuip for Chelsea (Salomon Kalou) and Liverpool (Dirk Kuyt) respectively. Meanwhile, it was revealed that Feyenoord were teetering on the brink of financial oblivion despite earlier claims to the contrary by van den Herik. Supporters’ unrest quickly turned to anger and, following continued and vociferous protests, van den Herik resigned.

Following the departure of van den Herik, a new board set up Youth Investment Funds which encouraged investors to effectively purchase a stake in the talent being developed at the club. However, initially, most players failed to live up to their early promise and left De Kuip as free agents while others were sold for far less than the club had initially hoped which left the Rotterdam giants owing even greater debts to the investors. The scheme would only bear fruit some years later with the sales of the likes of Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi and Luc Castaignos, after all players in the Academy, from U15’s up to the U19’s had become included in the initiative which generated millions of euros in investment in a succession of talented generations of players, from the transfer of which, investors received a cut of 18.33%.

On the field meanwhile, by the summer of 2007, the club, having hired and fired both Ruud Gullit and Erwin Koeman following the departure of Bert van Marwijk to Borussia Dortmund in 2004, had parachuted in legendary coach, Leo Beenhakker, in its time of need towards the end of the 2006-07 campaign. However, despite the efforts of the man who had helmed the club to its fourteenth and last national championship in 1999, it was all for nought as Feyenoord missed out on European qualification for the first time in 16 years following an unthinkable 7th place finish. The club also suffered the ignominy of having been thrown out of the UEFA Cup following hooliganism prior to and during a match with AS Nancy earlier in the year. Would-be last 16 opponents, Tottenham, received a bye after the Court of Arbitration upheld UEFA’s decision to eject Feyenoord from the tournament and fined the club £40,000.

The return of van Marwijk the following season, heralded a renewed optimism at the club as Feyenoord also made a number of high-profile signings, including Dutch internationals, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Roy Makaay. However, despite keeping pace with eventual champions PSV at the top of the table until a crucial showdown at De Kuip just prior to the winter break went the visitors way, the New Year brought little cheer as Feyenoord’s form dipped alarmingly resulting in an eventual sixth place finish as the 2007-08 campaign proved to be a false dawn.

The pain was mitigated somewhat as the club collected its first prize in six years: 100 years after the foundation of the club, Feyenoord managed to win the KNVB Beker, beating Roda JC 2-0 at a jubilant, De Kuip.

However, any thoughts of continuity were dashed soon after the KNVB Beker triumph when van Marwijk accepted the role of Bondscoach. Forced once more in a new direction, Feyenoord appointed the highly regarded, Gertjan Verbeek as their manager for the following season.

However, following a disastrous first half of the 2008-09 campaign and a mid-season player revolt, the hapless Verbeek was sacked with assistant, Leon Vlemmings, tasked with saving the Rotterdam giant’s season. Although results improved slightly thereafter, the best the club could manage was to secure a spot in the playoffs for the final Dutch Europa League slot in which the team inexplicably fell flat.

The following season saw the club turn to its former assistant manager and player, Mario Been to lead the club out of the doldrums. Been, after achieving minor European successes with NEC Nijmegen, was considered to be the ideal man for the job. Former manager, Leo Beenhakker, at that time manager of the Polish national team, assumed the role of Technical Director.

A fourth place finish secured a crucial Europa League place, meaning that Feyenoord would take part in continental club competition for the first time in two years, while an inspiring run to the final of the KNVB Beker added to an air of renewed self-belief around De Kuip.

In the summer of 2010, some even considered Been’s men dark horses for the Eredivisie crown in 2010-11.

How wrong they were.

After tumbling out of the Europa League in the qualifying rounds to Gent, the club also suffered a humiliating exit in the third round of the KNVB Beker at the hands of Roda JC following a penalty shootout at De Kuip.

However, much worse was to follow.

On 24 October 2010, Been’s charges were humiliated at the hands of a ruthless PSV Eindhoven who hit the Rotterdam giants for ten for no reply.

Prior to that day that many dubbed the worst in the club’s history, the club had opened talks with a group of fans united under the name Varkenoordgroep, after the Academy offices they regularly met in and a group of investors, known as the Vrienden van Feyenoord (“Friends of Feyenoord”). But in the aftermath of the mauling in Eindhoven and with the club on the brink of bankruptcy, talks were stepped up until, following an uplifting 3-0 victory over VVV Venlo at De Kuip in the match immediately after the PSV humiliation which saw fans pack the stands in solidarity holding aloft banners that read ‘Unconditional love, unconditional support’, the club and investors reached an agreement on the huge debt the club owed, calculated somewhere between 35 and 40 million euros, with the investors receiving 49 percent of the stocks of the club for around 30 million euros.

Yet this resolution of the club’s financial issues did not bring an end to the turmoil.

In mid-January 2011, Leo Beenhakker resigned after multiple clashes with the Feyenoord Directors who replaced him with former Feyenoord player, Martin van Geel, previously the Technical Director at Roda JC.

An unacceptable tenth place finish meant that the club would once again have to operate without the added income generated from involvement in European competition in 2011-12. The writing was on the wall for Mario Been and, in July 2011 he stepped down; player power having done for Been as it had previously for Verbeek.

Following Louis van Gaal’s refusal of the managerial role at De Kuip, the club sought out legendary former Barcelona defender Ronald Koeman, who had played for Feyenoord during the late 1990s. Upon acceptance, Koeman became the first man to serve as both player and head coach at each of the so-called “traditional big three” of Dutch football: (AFC Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord).

Following the loss of key players: Leroy Fer, Georginio Wijnaldum and André Bahia to FC Twente, PSV Eindhoven and Samsunspor respectively, the club turned to youth to revive its ailing fortunes, with the likes of: Jordy Clasie, Miquel Nelom, Guyon Fernandez and Kaj Ramsteijn promoted to the first team.

Although compensated financially for their services, the loss of the likes of Fer and especially Wijnaldum, not, as had become progressively commonplace in the modern game and clubs, irrespective of their size or stature in the Eredivisie, to a club from the cashed up leagues of England, Germany, Italy and Spain, but to their own domestic rivals?

Had Feyenoord actually become a feeder club?

Unthinkable.

To little fanfare, two other players were drafted in on loan: Swedish starlet, John Guidetti from Manchester City and Otman Bakkal from PSV. Both would prove influential over the course of the 2011-12 campaign, but it was marksman, Guidetti whose goal-scoring exploits would capture the hearts of Feyenoord’s devoted fan-base with a remarkable 20 goals in 23 appearances as the club emerged as unlikely title contenders, finishing just six points behind eventual champions, Ajax and in the process securing a place in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.

It wasn’t just on the field that things were showing signs of improvement.

On 16 December 2011, it was revealed that Feyenoord had been placed in the more favourable second category (Category 2), meaning that Feyenoord, in the eyes of the KNVB, were no longer in debt. This was owed, in part, to accumulated transfer revenue but also to a large capital injection made by the organisation VVF (Friends of Feyenoord, Vrienden Van Feyenoord).

On 13 April 2012 Feyenoord’s status was officially confirmed. Club chairman, Eric Gudde stated that the re-categorisation came earlier than anticipated, congratulated the fans and promised to maintain the same policy until Feyenoord was completely healthy, while insisting that the club would never again fall back into the first category.

The policy of frugality continued as the club recruited ahead of the 2012-13 Eredivisie campaign promoting more of its young starlets to the first team while supplementing this youthful injection with a number of experienced heads on free transfers: John Goossens, Ruud Vormer and Daryl Janmaat. The only expenditure came in the form of ADO Den Haag’s Lex Immers and Vålerenga’s Harmeet Singh.

Despite an early exit from European competition and losing both Karim El Ahmadi and captain, Ron Vlaar to Aston Villa in July 2012, Koeman’s charges were once more back in the title picture as the 2012-13 Eredivisie campaign reached its climax.

In the absence of Vlaar and El Ahmadi, it fell to Dutch youngsters, Stefan de Vrij (who assumed the captaincy) and Jordy Clasie (who became vice-captain) to take up leadership roles within what became an increasingly youthful line-up.

An eventual third place finish secured UEFA Europa League football for 2013-14 while the successful loan of Parma’s, Graziano Pelle (who netted a remarkable 27 goals in 29 appearances) resulted in the Italian striker’s move becoming a permanent one.

Despite enduring the club’s worst start in its illustrious history, in spite of maintaining all of its key men the following season, (Feyenoord opening with loses to: PEC Zwolle, FC Twente and Ajax respectively), the Rotterdam giants recovered and capitalised on the inconsistency of those at the top of the table to eventually feature in the race for the title, finishing just 4 points behind eventual champions, Ajax, who collected their fourth successive title.

Although having secured a place in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League for the second time in three years, the club and its supporters’ optimism was mitigated somewhat by the announcement in February 2014 that coach, Ronald Koeman would be leaving the club at the end of the 2013-14 campaign.

Fred Rutten was revealed as Koeman’s successor on 3 March 2014 but the new man at the helm would endure a turbulent summer where Feyenoord lost four of its best players, not to mention most of its defence: Daryl Janmaat to Newcastle United, Stefan de Vrij to Lazio, Bruno Martins Indi to FC Porto, and Graziano Pelle to Southampton – Koeman’s new club.

In spite of its recent seasons of frugality in the transfer market Feyenoord appeared to revert to type in the wake of this exodus of high profile names. The club suffered elimination from the UEFA Champions League at the third qualifying round stage at the hands of Besiktas, 5-2 on aggregate, but did, at long last, manage to reach the lucrative group stages of the UEFA Europa League (defeating FC Zorya Luhansk in the final qualifying round 5-4 on aggregate) as its hectic recruitment drive continued throughout August 2014 with experienced Aussie, Luke Wilkshire arriving from Dynamo Moscow, veteran Dutch international, Khalid Boulahrouz from Brøndby IF, Bilal Başaçıkoğlu from SC Heerenveen, the much travelled, Colin Kazim-Richards on loan from Bursaspor, Jens Toornstra from FC Utrecht, Kenneth Vermeer, controversially from Ajax while Karim El Ahmadi also returned to De Kuip from Aston Villa.

Unsurprisingly, with a substantial influx of new players as well as a new coach, Feyenoord endured a disappointing start to the season taking just 5 points from 4 matches.

However, the club would surprise everyone with their exploits on the continent, opening with a 2-1 victory against Standard Liège in their first home match in Group G of the UEFA Europa League (the club’s first victory in the competition’s group stage in 8 years). Feyenoord also beat HNK Rijeka (2-0) and defending champion Sevilla FC (2-0) at De Kuip to reach the knock-out stage for the first time in 10 years before eventually being eliminated at the hands of AS Roma, 3-2 on aggregate despite having drawn the away leg impressively at the Stadio Olympico in Rome, 1-1.

After their European elimination, Feyenoord didn’t recover. Even though a spot for next season’s Europa League qualification rounds was almost secure, the team failed to win any of their last 5 games, ending in the season in a disappointing fourth place, behind AZ Alkmaar on the last day of the season.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst presided over the final few weeks of the campaign in the Feyenoord hot-seat having stepped up from his previous role as assistant manager earlier than planned to replace Fred Rutten who was fired on 17 May 2015 following a 3-0 loss at PEC Zwolle. Previously, on 2 March 2015, the club had announced that Rutten had decided not to extend his 1-year contract and would leave the club at the end of the season. But the club’s hierarchy believed that, following the costly defeat against Zwolle which left Feyenoord 4th in the Eredivisie and consequently out of the automatic UEFA Europa League qualification place that came with 3rd, they had to act to somehow save their season.

However, their efforts were in vein as, during the end-of-season play-offs to gain a ticket for the UEFA Europa League, Feyenoord were surprisingly eliminated at the hands of Heerenveen, leaving the club devoid of European competition and its associated revenue for 2015-16.

A dispiriting summer followed in which the inevitable departure of young captain and talisman, Jordy Clasie to ex-coach, Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, became a reality. Meanwhile, the recruitment of an aging Dirk Kuyt, the permanent signing of Colin Kazim-Richards, Groningen’s defensive lynchpin, Eric Botteghin, unheralded Swede, Simon Gustafson, Vitesse Arnhem’s midfield maestro, Marko Vejinovic, the much travelled Dutch international who had seemingly fallen off everybody’s radar, Eljero Elia, free agent, Jan-Arie van der Heijden and ADO’s gangly, goal-machine, Michiel Kramer continued throughout a disrupted and calamitous pre-season in which the Rotterdam giants were humiliated 3-0 at the hands of Koeman’s Southampton side in front of their own fans at De Kuip, while also suffering embarrassing reversals at the hands of both Olympiakos and VVV Venlo.

One could have forgiven even the staunchest of Feyenoord supporter for harbouring some grave reservations about their club’s chances as the 2015-16 Eredivisie campaign dawned.

Yet, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s charges surprised all as they raced to three successive victories from the opening three games, dispatching both Cambuur away and Vitesse at home after an opening day win over Utrecht at De Kuip.

Despite notching nine pints from a possible nine, many believed that these victories had been both unconvincing and undeserved. Those same naysayers, feeling subsequently vindicated after seeing Feyenoord swept aside by a clinical PSV on 30 August 2015, believed the Rotterdam outfit would now reset their expectations to the previously anticipated quest for third place.

Unwilling to be consigned to another season of mediocrity, the club won five of their next six fixtures off the back of not only the 35-year-old, Kuyt, who rolled back the years with 6 goals in as many matches, but Elia, who notched three goals and put in a number of sparkling displays which recalled his early years at FC Twente, while new arrival, Kramer, having wrestled the central striking role away from Kazim-Richards, had hit three goals of his own.

Meanwhile, Vejinovic was beginning to pull the strings in the heart of the Feyenoord midfield alongside the previously unknown Gustafson, who not only helped himself to a goal at Heerenveen but also set up three of the other four Feyenoord goals at the Abe Lenstra Stadion on 18 October 2015.

A week removed from hitting Heerenveen for five and having bagged a treble of his own, Kuyt was at it again scoring his second hat-trick in a week during Feyenoord’s 3-1 win over AZ Alkmaar at De Kuip putting the Rotterdam club level on points with leaders Ajax once again.

The former Liverpool forward opened the scoring on 13 minutes before AZ equalised through Joris van Overeem, who slotted home from close range.

But Kuyt was on hand again just before the hour to get the final touch on Bart Nieuwkoop’s shot and deflect the ball past Gino Coutinho to put Feyenoord back in the ascendancy before sealing the win in the 77th minute when Coutinho cut down Gustafson in the area, prompting the referee to award the home side a penalty, which Kuyt duly slammed home.

With the victory came a defiant cry from 47,500 jubilant Rotterdammers. Even with the looming inevitability of a mid-season collapse and concession of a thirty fourth title to their fierce rivals from Amsterdam following the departure (for a second time) of their inspirational captain, (As Kuyt, basking in an unexpected Indian summer of his career with 12 goals in 11 appearances in all competitions in 2015-16, was suddenly linked with a shock switch to Barcelona as a short term fix for the Catalan club’s coach, Luis Enrique in the January transfer window), at the back of their minds.

All this, of course, is typical Feyenoord.

Many have attempted to pinpoint the reason for the enigma that Feyenoord as a club have become over the course of the last 16 years.

  • Those in charge of the club.
  • An aging line-up.
  • Operating with a ridiculously inflated wage bill to pay for the aforementioned aging line-up in an attempt to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’.
  • An inexperienced line-up (As a result of aforementioned over-spending, lack of involvement in lucrative European club competition, nose-dive into financial black hole and resultant near bankruptcy). ‘You’ll win nothing with kids…’
  • A lack of experienced leaders on the field when it comes to the crunch.
  • A lack of money.
  • A tendency to waste what little money is available to spend.
  • A lack of consistency.
  • The propensity to inexplicably lose their collective ‘heads’ in a pressure situation.
  • The predilection to metaphorically ‘shoot themselves in the foot’ when things seem to be going well.
  • ‘Player power’ in the dressing room.
  • The revolving door to the manager’s office at De Kuip (Often as a result of the aforementioned ‘player power’).
  • Selling key players (A necessity in terms of pulling the club out of the aforementioned financial black hole).
  • A resultant lack of any sort of clear vision or plan for the future (Both on and off the field).
  • The history of the club, the expectancy of the fans and the overwhelming pressure that comes with this.

Bearing all this mind and while factoring in a poor performance in the club’s only true test of its title credentials (a 3-1 defeat to PSV in Eindhoven on 30 August 2015), few truly envisioned Feyenoord being crowned national champions for the fifteenth time in the club’s illustrious history in May 2016.

In addition, a home tie against arch rivals Ajax in the 3rd round of the KNVB Beker on 28 October 2015 appeared just the sort of fixture which would have, in previous years, comprehensively dashed any delusions of grandeur harboured by the Rotterdam giants’ passionate and vociferous fan-base.

Yet, with the game locked at nil-nil and deep into injury time it was Kuyt, or more precisely, the veteran Dutch marksman’s presence that proved to be the difference once more, as Ajax’s Joel Veltman, with his hands full marking Kuyt as a Feyenoord free kick was lofted towards Jasper Cillessen’s far post, miscued his attempted clearance past the unsuspecting goalkeeper and into the back of his own net.

The emotional outpouring of joy and adulation that ensued thereafter on that Wednesday night at De Kuip not only acclaimed a victory over Feyenoord’s despised rivals from Amsterdam, progression in a cup competition at a fellow contender’s expense as well as the late and dramatic nature of the game-winning goal itself, but also reiterated the club’s defiance in the face of the doubters and proclaimed, at long last, it’s belief.

Name-StevenDavies

Click on Steven’s name above to follow him on Twitter

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