Sunday 19 November 2017

Dutch Delight

I stand behind the goal as the players are running onto the pitch to the sound of 'You'll Never Walk Alone', with those same words written on the red scarf purchased earlier from a stall outside the stadium, but Liverpool this is not! This is FC Twente in the city of Enschede. It's a Friday night and Excelsior from Rotterdam are the opposition, game one of a four game Dutch 'voetbal' weekend. Two matches in Zwolle and a game in Arnhem will follow as I travel across the very flat and partly man made Dutch countryside with it's neat symmetrical patches of farmland separated by straight uniform dykes, to visit two delightful cities, one charming town, four football grounds, and see more bicycles in one weekend than I've probably seen in my whole entire life! Welcome to the Netherlands. 

I flew into Amsterdam Schiphol on a Friday morning and got straight onto a train heading for the city of Enschede. My brother teaches in Cologne, Germany, and a visit to see him during his half term week was the original purpose for me travelling abroad. But having looked at all the different flight options from Newcastle Airport, fixture lists from various European leagues, and various public transport options across the continent, I was convinced that I could attach a football weekend to my trip and that the Netherlands was the perfect destination.

For the first night of my trip I checked into the exceptional €70 B&B Oekepoek, right in the heart of the old city centre of Enschede and only a six minute walk from the main train station. After a quiet look around the centre, admiring the two main churches amongst other things; a rock bar and two Irish bars were where I ended up before heading to my first match of the weekend. Beer I generally found stronger in Holland than the stuff brewed back home but it was often served in smaller glasses. I've always been a bit partial to strong European beer anyway so no harm done there. Enschede is the home of the Groslch brewery with various styles of beer brewed there and all of which regularly available in bars throughout the city. I however arrived too late for the factory tour which from what I'd heard was meant to be an enjoyable few hours.

Named De Grolsch Veste, FC Twente's home stadium is a little way out of town but situated next to the main railway line and one stop before the main Enschede station, making it very easy to get to. It is an enclosed ground with two rather steep tiers on three sides and one on the other. Similar to Parkhead, Glasgow, it is however much smaller with a capacity of 30,205, and about 23,000 were in attendance for the Excelsior match. The usual card/token system you often find in parts of the continent was in force here for buying drinks inside the stadium, and pint in hand I went into the stands to await kick-off, having entered the stadium with the e-ticket I'd bought online a few weeks earlier.

I was stood in the second tier above the 'ultra' supporters who along with a few fans in my section managed to sing for most of the match, with probably at least half of the chants starting with 'Ole, ole, ole', and even a few in English. Chants were accompanied by a drummer who barely seemed to stop for the whole 90 minutes. 

As mentioned earlier 'You'll Never Walk Alone' was sang before kick-off and it was followed by an early goal for the hosts when a Fredrik Jensen assist saw a left footed shot from Tom Boere find the net. Twente dominated and had most of the possession but Excelsior found themselves level on 41 minutes when a Hicham Faik free-kick found the top left corner. 

Twente continued to dominate in the second half but never posed too much of a threat in front of goal and a Milan Massop header saw Excelsior 2-1 up after 74 minutes. Khalid Karami found the bottom right corner for a third in the 80th minute, and Excelsior who had scored three goals but done very little else had somehow won a game they had no right to. Despite the desperate result however, the Twente players surprisingly did a lap of honour at full time and unbelievably some fans stayed behind to applaud them. Would never happen where I come from!

After the game I headed back into the centre for a few more drinks and a visit to Enschede's 'Holland Casino' where unfortunately I left a loser as opposed to a winner.

Saturday morning saw me head to my next destination, the delightful town of Zwolle, where the inhabitants are interestingly known as the 'Blauwvingers' (Bluefingers). The story is as follows: Many years ago one of the local churches sold their church bells to a nearby town, whom unhappy with the quality of the said bells paid for them in copper. The locals from the church in Zwolle then saw their hands turn blue from touching all that copper when counting the coins, and that is apparently where the name Bluefingers comes from! Speaking of churches, there are two in centre of Zwolle and I had an enjoyable look around Our Lady's Basilica whilst spending some time reading the free English language booklet I was given detailing the church's fascinating history.

Zwolle town centre is surrounded by a large moat meaning the actual town centre is basically an island. One major feature when you walk into the centre from the station is Sassenpoort, a medieval tower with an archway underneath. Sassenpoort was once the main entrance into the city and is worth stopping to photograph. According to tripadvisor you can do tours of the tower, which must be relatively small inside, but it seemed to be closed when I arrived.

Saturday afternoon saw me visit the MAC³PARK Stadion which has its own casino, hotel, and various shops and restaurant as part of it. I had a ticket reserved for that nights game between PEC Zwolle and ADO Den Haag but with the ticket office closed I'd have to come back later. Never mind, it was onto game two of my trip and essentially the undercard for tonight's main event. 

There are several football pitches near the stadium, and a 5 minute walk further out from those and hidden out of view you will find a small ground which is home to VV Berkum. Berkum are members of the Hoofdklasse which is level 5 in the Dutch league system and they play in section B of Zatertag (Saturday) league. There is also a Sunday league of the Hoofdklasse and the reason Dutch amateur and semi professional football is split into Saturday and Sunday divisions dates back many years to an era when religion dominated the country's daily life. Traditionally Protestants would play football on a Saturday and Catholics on a Sunday, and although nowadays Christianity probably has little or no relevance in Dutch football, even in 2017 the leagues are still split this way.

Once I'd paid an off memory €6 to enter the ground I was handed a free programme which was a very basic affair similar to what you get in the lower echelons of English non league football. Based on my experiences this weekend all Dutch programmes at best have very little content and are 80%+ adverts, even in the Eeredivisie this is the case. The programmes in the two following games were no better than Berkum's basic offering, whilst at Twente all I got was a four sided folded leaflet. PEC Zwolle at €1 were however the only team to charge me for a programme, the others all being free of charge, so I shouldn't complain too much.

Berkum's ground consists of a main stand with a few rows of terracing next to it, and also two bars, one situated at the back of the stand and one in a separate clubhouse building next door. The benches on grandstand were packed but only a small number of people were standing around the edges of the pitch. The game itself finished 2-2 with the visitors SDC Putten scoring a stoppage time equaliser, and a few of their fans dotted around the grandstand celebrating the late goal. 

A half time trip into one of bars saw me come across a tv screen with teletext on. Yes in 2017 the Dutch still use teletext. In the UK teletext or ceefax as it was called on the BBC, is seen as something of a relic from years gone by which people mostly remember for being relatively primitive compared to today's modern technology. The Germans I later discovered still use teletext as well. Unbelievable.
It was roughly a 45 minute walk from Berkum back to the station, and having picked up my bag from the station lockers I got a taxi to my accommodation, B&B 'Aan de IJssel'. Surrounded by fields in a picturesque setting, at €40 it was definitely much cheaper than the previous nights place, but being a little way out from the centre, several taxi rides later and I hadn't really saved any euros.

My taxi driver agreed to pick my up in a hours time and before long I found myself in a queue waiting for the ticket office/club shop to open. Once I had my ticket it was round the corner to the fans bar and after a few drinks I wandered my way past the Bluefinger restaurant (interestingly spelt in English) and into the stadium. The ground is rather small and you feel right on top of the action, three of the stands are set slightly above pitch level with the other side having a few extra rows of what seem to be  temporary uncovered seating situated below the stand, this was where I was sat and due to rain I got a little bit wet. 

Zwolle beat ADO Den Haag 2-0 in front of an almost full house of over 13,000 spectators. The quality of the football wasn't overly high with quite a few misplaced passes, but Zwolle were definitely the better of the two teams. The two goals came early on with Khalid Karami scoring on 7 minutes after hitting the ball high into the net and Younes Namli finding the bottom right corner on the 12 minute mark. This was followed by chants 'Zwolle! Zwolle!' (Swollerrrr! Swollerrrr!) from supporters around the stadium. Behind the goal to my right it was a noisy affair with plenty of singing, and as with Twente a soundtrack of drumming to accompany the vocals.

After the match I watched hordes of cyclists pour out from the stadium and away into the night, before myself heading into town for a pint in Sally O'Brien's Irish bar, and along the way walking past a beautiful old dutch windmill I'd spotted earlier. In the pub several friendly locals wanted to discuss with me the various Dutchmen to have played for my home town team Newcastle United over the years. To be honest all the Dutch people I came across during my trip were extremely friendly and helpful. Real good folk. 

After leaving the pub I nearly got ran over by a cyclist and was told off by some young Dutch woman for not paying attention to where I was walking. Cyclists are everywhere in the Netherlands, and just like they say there are more sheep than people in New Zealand, I firmly believe that there has to be more bicycles than people in Holland. Cycling everywhere really is such a massive part of their culture.

The following morning started with the dreaded bus replacement service. However having used the Tyne and Wear Metro rail system many a time over the years I am well used to parts of the line being closed. For this expedition I had to get a replacement bus to Deventer which took a good half hour, before rejoining the train line for the rest of my journey to the city of Arnhem. At Arnhem rail station I was able to get a bus straight to the Gelredome, home of Vitesse Arnhem, for that days visit of PSV Eindhoven. 

The Gelredome has not only a retractable roof but also a retractable pitch. The pitch can be wheeled outside onto big railway style sleepers behind of one of the stands. The stadium is mostly surrounded by a car park, and of course the obligatory bicycle racks. There is a McDonald's across the road but not much else. I entered the stadium using another e-ticket purchased earlier, and inside a fan card was purchased with money put onto it so I could could get myself some beer. I then headed off to find a seat in the stand behind the goal, and without a seat number on my ticket I could apparently sit or stand wherever I wanted (most people stood for the full 90 minutes). Only 18,232 were in attendance for the match, roughly 7-8,000 short of full capacity, but the stand where I stood was rather full and the attendance was still slightly above last season's average.

Behind the goal where I stood, there were plenty of flags of varying sizes being waved before kick-off and even a was flare set off. Hirving Lozano gave PSV the lead when he found the bottom right corner on 18 minutes but Vitesse however held their own for most of the first half and a Jürgen Locadia own goal just before half-time saw them level at the break. 

Locadia made amends for the own goal just after half time, scoring with a fantastic strike from well outside the box, cue wild scenes in the away section on the right behind the opposite goal. Jürgen Locadia then got a second on 56 minutes with a shot from the left side of the box finding the bottom right corner. Hirving Lozano who had assisted the third goal, scored his second from close range 3 minutes later to put the visitors 4-1 up whilst 4 minutes later Vitesse pulled one back when Mason Mount found the top right corner. This second goal for Vitesse spurred on the home fans even more, who to be fair even at 4-1 had put in a decent effort. No more goals were to follow however and the home fans cycled away from the stadium a little disappointed.

After the match I headed along to John Frost bridge of Battle of Arnhem World War Two fame. Along from the Bridge is the free Airborne museum which details an interesting history of the battle itself. Museum visited, I then headed into town to sample another Irish bar before heading back to the train station and boarding a train to Germany for the second part of my adventure, leaving behind some great memories in a country of cyclists, windmills, and very passionate football supporters.

As published in Issue 30 (February 2018) of Football Weekends Magazine