Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Magical Mechelen and the Cup Winners' Cup Heroes of '88

'Ajax is a washing powder,' they chanted, mocking the opposition by using the fact that they shared their name with a household washing detergent. KV Mechelen had just beaten one of the continent's biggest names in a European final and boy were they loving it. It was a remarkable feat for the team from a small Belgian town with around 60,000 inhabitants situated between Brussels and Antwerp. Even more so when you considered that the club had entered European competition for the very first time in their history just some eight months earlier.

1986-87 had been an impressive season for Mechelen. Having finished eleventh in the Belgian First Division the previous year no one had expected much different but a stunning set of results saw them face Club Brugge away from home in the final day of the season with a chance of winning the title. Club Brugge won 3-1, however, and it was Anderlecht who were crowned champions. For a club who only four years earlier had won the Second Division championship, it was nonetheless still a remarkable achievement and not only that but they still had a domestic cup final to look forward to.

Mechelen's route to the Belgian Cup final was easier than would often be the case and facing KSK Beveren who would finish fifth in the top flight that year had been their only real test. Their opponents in the final RFC de Liège, meanwhile, had beaten three top flight rivals in Anderlecht and the two Bruges clubs Cercle and Club Brugge en route to the final. Mechelen had never won the cup before but in the final they took the lead on 30 minutes as Piet den Boer slotted a low drive home from a through ball. There were chances aplenty for both sides but no further goals and KV Mechelen had won the cup. 

Whilst the Mechelen players were sat in the dressing room celebrating and drinking champagne out of the cup they'd just been presented they could not have anticipated the further success that would follow for the small town club. For those involved with KV Mechelen, the following season would end up being even more special than the one that had just finished. That Belgian Cup triumph brought European football to Mechelen for the first time in the club's history in the form of a UEFA Cup Winners' Cup place and oh how they made the most of it.

That 1986-87 league campaign had seen Mechelen concede fewer goals than anyone else in the division and this was in part down to Belgium's number one goalkeeper Michel Preud'homme who had joined the club in 1986. That season Preud'homme won the First Division 'golden shoe' player of the year award and would go on to keep clean sheets in each of the club's first five European matches. He was one of many signings made thanks to chairman John Cordier and the money he'd made from telecoms. Experienced German manager Ernest Kunnecke had joined from Basel in 1985 and along with Cordier, he brought in players such as defender Graeme Rutjes and midfielder Erwin Koeman (brother of the more famous Ronald) from Dutch sides Excelsior Rotterdam and FC Groningen respectively. The team was slowly beginning to take shape ready for the successes that would follow but there would more signings to complete the line up. Kunnecke, however, was not around for what would follow, he would not oversee the European run or even the Belgian Cup triumph.

Kunnecke had been sacked after the eleventh placed 1985-86 finish and was replaced by Aad de Mos a young manager who had already won the Dutch Eredivisie title twice with Ajax before they got rid of him in 1985. It was de Mos who brought in Preud'homme and the goalkeeper was joined the same year by Belgian international defender Lei Clijsters from Thor Waterschei (they later merged with KFC Winterslag to become KRC Genk). A mainstay in the clubs defence, Clijsters would captain the club and help Preud'homme keep those clean sheets. Also joining was Marc Emmers a midfielder signed also from Thor Waterschei and Wim Hofkens who arrived from Beerschot. A year later in 1987, meanwhile, Israeli Eli Ohana was signed from Beitar Jerusalem and was joined by Pascal de Wilde who left KRC Harelbeke. Alongside forward Den Boer who'd been at the club since 1982 these new arrivals under Kunnecke and De Mos would play a key role in the 1987-88 Cup Winners' Cup campaign.

Yes, if anyone thought the 1986-87 second placed finish and cup success was a fluke they were to be very much mistaken. Midway through following 1987-88 season Mechelen had won 13 of the 19 league games they'd played before the new year and found themselves second behind Royal Antwerp whilst in Europe, they'd made it through to the quarter finals of the Cup Winners' Cup. The route to the quarter finals saw trips to Bucharest and Scotland and also saw the first four of those five clean sheets. 

Den Boer scored in both legs of the Cup Winner's Cup first round tie as Mechelen defeated Dinamo Bucureşti 3-0 on aggregate. There had been a full house of over 12000 spectators in attendance at Mechelen's Achter de Kazerne ground for the club's first ever European match where Den Boer's first goal of the tie as described one newspaper was a 'Bang To Kill An Elephant'. Den Boer latched onto a long range header to smash the ball home inside the box. That goal settled the opening match which saw the visitors end the game with ten men. A 2-0 second leg victory away in Bucharest ended with exuberant supporters celebrating winning their maiden European tie by getting drunk on beer and champagne on the flight home. Some fans it seems may have spent a large amount of time with their heads stuck in a toilet bowl. For the first of those two second leg goals, a scuffed shot from Hofkens had somehow found the net with the goal scored from just outside the box after the defence failed to clear. The second was a diving header from Den Boer just inside the box which looped over the keeper almost like a chipped shot. 

In round Two St Mirren of Scotland were the opposition and one member of the Mechelen backroom staff arrived in Scotland wearing a kilt much to the delight of the locals. St Mirren were defeated 2-0 on aggregate with Ohana scoring both goals away from home in the second leg after a disappointing goalless draw at home. He fired home from twelve yards out for his first having swerved around several defenders whilst moving the ball into the box and he tapped home after Mechelen had hit the post to claim his second. What was worn underneath the kilt remains disputed.

Mechelen were still going strong in the First Division when Dinamo Minsk visited in March for the quarter final first leg and a late goal from De Wilde saw the home side win 1-0. De Wilde smashed the ball home from a good twelve yards out after the Minsk defence failed to clear the ball properly. In contrast to Mechelen's compact ground, some 50000 spectators were present in a cold and rather snowy Minsk for the second leg. Ohana put Mechelen 2-0 up on aggregate in sub zero temperatures. A long ball found him and when the keeper came out to try and collect the orange ball from his feet he hit it over him to find the net. Although the home side pulled one back it wasn't enough to stop Mechelen and they held on to make their way through to the semi finals. The fairytale continued.

In six matches Mechelen had conceded only once and that came from a long range effort whilst they'd scored twice as many on the road as they had at home. They were proving to be a fearless team who could win even in hostile environments such as those often found in Eastern Europe and they did so against some of the continent's tougher opposition. Quarter Final opponents Dinamo Minsk, for example, finished fifth in the 1987 Soviet Top League and were runners up in the Soviet Cup that year. Several of their players were also part of the Soviet Union squad that would reach the Euro 88 final in Munich. Earlier opponents Dinamo Bucureşti, meanwhile, had finished runners up in Romania's Divizia A to very strong city rivals in the form of a Steaua side who had defeated FC Barcelona in the European Cup final only two years previous.

Coppa Italia runners up Atalanta took the place of winners Napoli in that season's Cup Winners' Cup as Napoli having done the double entered the European Cup instead. Atalanta as well as losing the cup final were also relegated and faced Mechelen in the semi finals as a second tier Serie B side. A bumper crowd of over 12000 were again in attendance for the first leg at Mechelen in what was arguably the biggest game in the club's history. Ohana made it 1-0 after 5 minutes scoring on the half volley after a mêlée inside the box but a minute later Swede Glenn Stromberg scored a precious away goal to make it 1-1. Den Boer, scorer of so many goals, made it 2-1 Mechelen, however, firing home on 82 minutes. A shot from an indirect free-kick was punched away by the keeper and after the scramble in the box that followed Den Boer scored what turned out to be the winner.

In the Bergamo for the second leg, De Mos and several players managed to get stuck in a hotel lift for over an hour and reportedly De Mos thought it may have been done on purpose to disrupt his team's preparations. In the match at a packed Stadio Atleti Azzurri d’Italia, a questionable penalty decision saw the home side score from the spot six minutes before half-time much to the delight of most of the 40000 in attendance. The referee had claimed handball and was quickly surrounded by Preud'homme and others, all to no avail. The hosts were winning the tie on the away goals rule but Mechelen would never give up that easily, however. In the second half, a free-kick into the box was headed clear only as far as Rutjes who turned and scored a stunning goal on the volley from fifteen yards out. A goal that drew the visitors level, saw their players celebrating wildly, and put them back in the driving seat. Later, a beautiful through ball saw Emmers turn, swerve past one defender, and make it 2-1 to Mechelen with a straight low drive from the edge of the box that found it's way into the corner of the net. That second goal came with ten minutes to go and was enough to secure Mechelen's place in the final.

Celebrations at the end of the match were if anything a little muted, I don't think it had quite sunk in. Little unfancied Mecehelen had somehow made it to a European final. Win, lose, or draw, that final was bound to end up the most famous moment in the club's history. Their opponents meanwhile would be AFC Ajax of Amsterdam, a team who were regulars in European competition, had won the European Cup three years running a decade and a half earlier, and had actually won the Cup Winners' Cup final itself the previous season. Ajax who were massive favourites for the final were also, remember, the former club of Mechelen manager de Mos. 
The Stade de la Meinau in Strasbourg was to be the venue for the final and some 12000 Mechelen fans crossed the border into France to watch their team. Back in domestic football, Mechelen still had an outside chance of pipping Club Brugge to the First Division title but it was difficult for this sleepy Belgian town to think of anything other than that historic European final bearing down upon them.

Emmers, through on goal, is brought down by Danny Blind on 16 minutes, Blind is sent off, Ajax are down to ten men. The game was still at 0-0, there was still 74 minutes to go, but what a monumental moment for Mechelen it was. If no one gave the Belgians a chance before kick-off then due to thar straight red card they surely had at least half a chance now! Blind was one of Ajax's star players and to lose him without a replacement would be tough. The Amsterdammers, mind, were still a top side and Mechelen would still have at least some sort of fight on their hands even if they did now feel like they were in a great position.

Despite the sending off Ajax looked the better side for large parts of what was left of the first half but Mechelen had the best chance to score, however, when a downward header from De Wilde was saved by Stanley Menzo in the Ajax goal. And then in the second half, the goal came...  Ohana after teasing and taunting Ajax's Frank Verlaat crossed the ball into the box where a Den Boer downward header put the Belgians in front after 53 minutes. KV Mechelen 1-0 AFC Ajax. A goal that stunned Europe. The supporters in the stands were going berserk but the players had to hold their nerve, the game was far from over.

1-0 down, Ajax had chances, a free-kick swung into the box saw a John Bosman header saved by Preud'Homme whilst an excellent strike again from Bossman was hit brilliantly on the volley just inside the box to force another outstanding save from Preud'Homme. At times it felt like Mechelen were struggling to hang onto their lead, but then Mechelen themselves also had further chances too with an Ohana header saved in between those two Ajax near misses. Aron Winter had a late header saved for Ajax and the Dutch side who'd earlier brought a 17 year old Dennis Bergkamp to try and save the game found themselves on the losing side when the full-time whistle blew.

Aad de Mos ran onto the pitch, he was jumping for joy and hugging his players. In the stands, exuberant Mechelen supporters were going crazy. The unimaginable had happened and Mechelen, underdogs all the way through the competition, had somehow reached the final and beaten the mighty Ajax. Captain Clijsters kissed the Cup Winners' Cup trophy and lifted it high into the air, if anyone had any doubts prior to that moment they could no longer be mistaken, they were not dreaming, KV Mechelen had won a European trophy! 

Those Mechelen supporters going wild in the stands would later be celebrating all the way home. Goalscorer Den Boer's father was spotted on a train from Strasbourg back to Belgium and was promptly doused in champagne as fans turned the carriages into one big party. No doubt they were all still singing that washing powder chant too... The party continued when the players got back to Mechelen, the town square was rammed with celebrating fans and the players joined them with the trophy. This quiet Belgian town had been well and truly brought to life, their football team - the 1988 Cup Winners' Cup champions!

Winning the Cup Winners' Cup, however, was not the end of the Mechelen story. The club unluckily finished second in the First Division again with but would have a go at both competitions again the following season with the outcomes essentially reversed. They would also defeat European Cup winners PSV Eindhoven to win the UEFA Super Cup.

In round two of the 1988-89 Cup Winners' Cup, Mechelen who had entered the competition as holders faced Belgian rivals Anderlecht who had entered as Belgian Cup winners. Mechelen played the first leg at home and the visitors went down to ten men early on but despite the man advantage, it wasn't until 89 minutes when Mechelen found the net. 19 year old Marc Wilmots recently signed from Sint-Truiden scored to give the hosts a slender 1-0 lead going into the second leg at Anderlecht's Constant Vanden Stock home. Goals from Koeman and Ohana saw Mechelen win that second leg and if they hadn't already thought it then Anderlecht a club for many years the dominant force in Belgian football surely now assumed they had a real contender for their crown as the country's number one. Things are not always as they seem, however.

Mechelen would eventually go on to lose to Sampdoria in the semi finals and with chairman Cordier who had bankrolled the clubs success finding himself in financial trouble things would begin to turn sour and Mechelen would never actually have the dominance Anderlecht and others might have feared. However, before their demise, they did have one last moment of glory up their sleeves...

Having finished second in the First Division two seasons running Mechelen were determined to go one better and despite losing to nearest challengers Anderlecht in their sixth from last game the then league leaders held their nerve to win their first league title for 41 years finishing four points ahead of Anderlecht. John Bosman, on the opposing side in Strasbourg, had been signed at the beginning of the season and scored 18 league goals that term. But it was Mechelen's defence that had the biggest impact once again as they conceded fewer league goals than anyone else in the league, this for the third campaign running. Mechelen conceded only 20 times all season and although third placed RFC de Liège (some 11 points behind in league still using two points for a win) conceded on only 22 occasions, the next best defence after those two was Anderlecht's who had let in 36. The stature of the club's defence was emphasised by the fact that goalkeeper Preud'homme having won the First Division player of the season award two seasons previously won it again for a second time to make it three in a row for the club with defender Lei Clijsters having picked up the accolade for the year in between.

The following season in their to date one and only European Cup campaign Mechelen lost to Milan in the quarter finals, a result which arguably signalled an end to the short lived glory years. Mechelen would hang around at the top end of the table for a few more seasons but never really challenging for honours and eventually they began to struggle. Things hit rock bottom when the club were finally relegated in 1997. 

Manager De Mos joined rivals Anderlecht in 1989, they were a club who unlike Mechelen remained a force to be reckoned with. Rutjes left to join De Mos there in 1990 and Emmers also joined the club two years later. Emmers arrival at Anderlecht, however, came just after de Mos had left the club having helped them finish runners up in the Cup Winner's Cup, win one league title, and one Belgian Cup during a three year spell with Brussels based side. Den Boer left for Bordeaux in 1989, whilst in 1990 Koeman joined PSV before becoming a successful head coach at several clubs and then in recent years acting as his brother's assistant at Southampton and Everton. 1990 also saw Ohana join Braga in Portugal. De Wilde, drink driving, was seriously injured in a car crash in 1991. After he recovered and completing a short jail term he ended up playing in France and then the Belgian lower leagues before retiring. Clijsters retired a year after leaving the club in 1992, his daughter Kim would go on to become a world no.1 four time Grand Slam winning tennis champion, but sadly Clijsters Snr died in 2009 after a long battle with cancer and only saw his daughter win one of those titles. Preud'homme the other key player remained Belgian's number one keeper for many years and hung about at Mechelen until 1994 when he also joined a Portguese side in Benfica before himself going into management. 

Mechelen had out of nowhere suddenly rose to the top of Belgian football and strutted their way to European glory. But as quickly as they rose they soon started to fall back down and in the years since the best they've been able to describe themselves is as also rans. The club did, however, for the second time in their history win the Belgian Cup earlier this year, doing so from the second tier where they finished as champions and gained promotion back to the top flight for the current 2019-20 season. Mechelen fans can only dream that the long road back to the top starts here!

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