Former England coach Steve McClaren has taken Twente to the brink of their first league title
For a long time, Twente’s club song, “One day we will be champions”, seemed an absurd and unrealistic theme. Now, 36 years after it was recorded, that sentiment looks set to be realised.
The Enschede club were top of the table with five games to go, four points clear of Ajax and with PSV five behind.
After AZ clinched the title last year, the Dutch league could have another unexpected champion, but Twente have much more solid foundations than the club from Alkmaar.
AZ, who depended mainly on the financial backing of Dirk Scheringa, couldn’t survive when the chairman’s DSB Bank and insurance holdings collapsed amid the credit crunch and the club are now in administration.
Twente, on the other hand, have many different sponsors and chairman Joop Munsterman, who is chief executive of Holland’s biggest print-media company, Wegener, hasn’t put any private money into the club.
On the pitch, the big difference is that at AZ Ronald Koeman undid much of the good work of Bayern Munich-bound Louis Van Gaal. At Twente, however, Steve McClaren has continued where Fred Rutten left off.
Twente’s success has revived memories of the 1970s when the club, formed by a merger of Enschedese Boys and Sportclub Enschede in 1965, reached the 1975 UEFA Cup Final and won the 1977 Dutch Cup.
After a fallow period, which included relegation in 1983, Twente are back. It started three seasons ago when Rutten built a team around Ismail Aissati, Otman Bakkal (both on loan from PSV) and Orlando Engelaar. They finished runners-up but nobody thought the success would continue, especially when Rutten and Engelaar joined Schalke, and Aissati and Bakkal returned to Eindhoven.
But Munsterman pulled off a masterstroke. After a failed attempt to hire Frank Rijkaard, he turned his attention to McClaren. A return to a Premier League club would have been most unlikely for the man who was made the scapegoat for England’s failure to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals so the Yorkshireman was looking for a job abroad. After a chat with Bobby Robson, who coached PSV twice, he decided to give it a go.
McClaren began brightly with Twente finishing runners-up, but there were doubts he could repeat the success after wingers Eljero Elia and Marko Arnautovic left for Hamburg and Internazionale respectively.
But Twente have done even better. While last year they couldn’t cope with playing twice a week, losing valuable points after returning from midweek European duties, now they are winning even when not playing well.
McClaren, who learned a few tricks as Alex Ferguson’s No2 at Manchester United, has played a major role in transforming the team’s mentality.
He has given inexperienced players the confidence to perform at the highest level and built a solid, attack-minded side who are hard to beat.
With no real stars, the backbone of the team is formed by Brazil-born Douglas, arguably the best defender in the league, Theo Janssen and Bryan Ruiz. Enfant terrible Janssen is playing the best, most disciplined football of his career, despite being banned by the club for two months at the end of last year after smashing his car into a tree in a drink-driving accident which left a passenger in a coma.
Up front, nobody is talking about Elia and Arnautovic any more because Costa Rica winger Ruiz has been a hit since arriving from Gent, with 19 goals to date and numerous assists.
Many believe attacking right-back Ronnie Stam is due an international call-up. Industrious midfielder Wout Brama has already won a cap, while Kenneth Perez, after failures at Ajax and PSV, is having an Indian summer.
Swiss-Congolese striker Blaise Nkufo, who used to wander from club to club but has called Twente home since 2003, has broken Jan Jeuring’s club record of 103 goals. And in goal is the reliable Sander Boschker, 39, the sole survivor of the 2001 Dutch Cup win.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before players like Ruiz leave, while Nkufo has already agreed to join Seattle Sounders this summer to finish his career. However, youngsters such as Luuk De Jong, Slovak striker Andrej Rendla and Ghana’s Ransford Osei are already knocking on the door.
On the commercial front, the club have ambitious plans to attract new fans. The Grolsch Veste stadium, built in 1998, could be expanded from 24,000 to 42,000 seats if Holland’s bid to stage the 2018 or 2022 World Cup is successful.
The future looks bright and if Twente can handle the pressure and write themselves into the history books the club song will need to be rewritten as well.
Elsewhere, it is all over for Haarlem. The club where Ruud Gullit began his career folded in January after being declared bankrupt. Founded in1889, Haarlem were Holland’s second-oldest professional club. Champions in 1946, their most recent success came in 1982 when, inspired by 19-year-old Gullit, they finished fourth, straight after promotion from the second division.
Haarlem’s 1982 UEFA Cup tie against Spartak Moscow, on a freezing night in the Luzhniki, led to one of Europe’s biggest stadium tragedies. With five minutes to go and their side 1-0 up, Spartak fans began to leave, only for news of a second goal to spark a bid to return to the stands. But, with only a few entrances open and the stairs icy, many slipped and were crushed. Official reports spoke of 66 deaths, but other estimates put the total as high as 340.
In 1990 Haarlem were relegated. With little cash and a small fan base, building a new stadium was to have been their lifeline but those plans evaporated amid the credit crunch, leaving them £2million in debt. Not even contributions from Gullit and many other former players could save the club.