GOING DUTCH; A TRIP TO EREDIVISIE’S GREEN AND YELLOW ARMY

17/02/17

Ffion Thomas takes a trip to the Netherlands to take in a game at the Eredivisie's green and yellow army; ADO Den Haag and a date with Ricky Van Wolfswinkel

I think it's a habit shared by most Norwich fans that should you give us a choice of colours in anything in life - highlighter pens, board game counters, Excel spreadsheet column shading - we'll always pick yellow. Or green. Preferably both.

Of course, the appeal of those colours becomes ever stronger in a football context. And when you have such a lesser-seen combination as ours, seeing another team or set of fans wearing yellow and green can stir feelings of both intrigue and disgust. If it's a Manchester United fan combining a 'green and gold' anti-Glazer scarf with the latest lb60 club shop replica shirt, definitely the latter.

But there are a few clubs that do legitimately wear these glorious colours, and in recent years I've made a bit of a habit of ticking them off. There's our fellow Canaries Hitchin Town, of course, who hosted Norwich in pre-season 2015 - but I've also visited and cheered on such yellow and green non-league behemoths as Abingdon Town, Horsham, Godalming Town, Rayners Lane, Thurrock, Bedworth United and Holmesdale.

Further afield, there's a few that continue to elude: Esh Winning in County Durham, Caernarfon Town in north Wales, FC Nantes in western France. Recently, however, I had the chance to visit a side whose colours, fans and story have always caught my eye - ADO Den Haag of the Netherlands.

De Ooievaars - The Storks - were formed in 1905 in a caf'e in The Hague. In the mid-1920s they rose to the country's top division, and their two national championship titles both came during the war. Storied coach Ernst Happel cut his managerial teeth at the club in the 1960s, leading them to three Dutch Cup finals before they finally won it in 1968. They lifted the trophy again in 1975, and the next year reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners Cup.

These are heights that the club have failed to emulate since. In parallel with the state of affairs in England, Dutch football in the 1980s was blighted by frequent and intense clashes between organised hooligan groups. The nefarious reputation of Den Haag's 'Midden Noord' section during this period was the root cause of a series of subsequent financial crises at the club, as attendances dropped and sponsors disassociated themselves. As the home of the International Criminal Court, the Dutch Parliament and the country's royal family The Hague might seem like a fairly staid city, but the followers of its club have historically been anything but.

In November 1981, the team were languishing near the bottom of the Eredivisie, and it's safe to say the fans were not happy. One match at their Zuiderpark home ground was abandoned after two home-made bombs - actual bombs - were thrown from the stands, leaving craters in the pitch. The larger of the two devices was inscribed with the words 'Den Haag - We Love You'. The anonymous perpetrators agreed to a newspaper interview, saying that "The board will not listen to us, so we have no choice." Ominously, they threatened that should the club be relegated from the top division for the first time, "You can guarantee the management that very little of Zuiderpark will remain."

They weren't bluffing. The club went on to only win four games that season, and did indeed go down to the second tier. In April 1982, when a 4-0 home defeat confirmed relegation, a group of admittedly inebriated fans burnt the stadium's wooden main stand to the ground overnight. Once the embers had cooled (and several arrests made), fans stood in the wreckage posing with their club scarves. Norwich fans might be prone to expressing their dissatisfaction with the board on social media, but I think we've some way to go before we're throwing 'City til I die'-inscribed bombs on the pitch and performatively burning down the City Stand.

The authorities eventually stepped in, and nationwide measures were taken to create a more family-friendly environment under the banner of Voetbaltheater - football theatre. The high fences were removed, terraces replaced with seats, and family areas designated. English football fans successfully fought Thatcher's attempted introduction of ID cards, but things are stricter in the Eredivisie, where even now for high-profile games tickets are strictly linked to individual membership cards. Zuiderpark was chosen as a pilot for the scheme in 1985. The night before the new technology was to be used for the first time a group of Den Haag fans broke in and filled all the card slots with sand, rendering useless lb200,000 worth of government-funded turnstiles.

Attendances dwindled during 11 consecutive seasons in the second tier between 1992 and 2003, and with their home becoming increasingly dilapidated and expensive to maintain, plans were made to kickstart the club's fortunes by moving to a new, purpose-built stadium. Back in the Eredivisie, 2006/07 was the Zuiderpark's heavily marketed Farewell Season, but facing relegation once again, the Den Haag fans weren't prepared to acquiesce to the club's stage-management of the emotional final game. As they went 3-0 down the crowd threw fireworks at the linesman, prompting, inevitably, the abandonment of the match. It was a typically dysfunctional end for the Zuiderpark.

In 2016/17, Den Haag are Eredivisie regulars and in their tenth season at the Kyocera Stadium, an all-seater with a capacity of 15,000. Located in a nondescript industrial area outside the city centre, it was designed with safety as paramount - away fans have a designated access road from the motorway, surveillance cameras are prominent throughout, and the stands and pitch are separated by a wall and moat to prevent invasions.

While the stadium architecture might feel quite sterile and lacking in character, the passion expressed by the fans inside more than makes up for it. Den Haag's supporters are renowned for their positive vocal backing and vibrant displays of yellow and green flags, banners, streamers, and pyro. In September last year, hundreds of missiles were thrown from the away section as they visited hated rivals Feyenoord - except these were cuddly toys, thrown into a lower tier populated with young patients from the Rotterdam children's hospital. Footage of the stunt was shared worldwide, and the fans were collectively recognised with a FIFA Fan Award nomination.

Certainly, then, things have changed since the 80s - but their support retains a certain edge. This is evident in the stadium concourse, where colourful murals depicting shady, quasi-hooligan figures celebrate Vriendschapsband (fan friendship) affiliations with Legia Warsaw, Juventus, Club Brugge, and Swansea City. The latter came about when a teenage Den Haag fan seeking to improve his English put a request for pen-pals in the Swansea match programme in 1979. These days, John van Zweden is a director at Swansea, and fans of the two clubs regularly attend each other's games. What's been lost in the mists of time, however, is that years before this, a similar connection was founded with Norwich City.

Back in the 1960s, a Den Haag fan named Rudi Vermeer was on holiday in East Anglia. Passing by Carrow Road, and presumably with his interest piqued by the club colours, he happened to encounter and share a brief conversation with the Norwich manager at the time - exactly which year it was, and hence which manager, remains unclear. It was Vermeer's first real contact with English football, but it clearly had a lasting impact, as he began to regularly travel from The Hague to follow Norwich and was pivotal in the establishment of the London supporters' group, the Capital Canaries, from 1975 onwards. Indeed, in 1985, by which time he was secretary of the extremely intriguing Netherlands-based organisation, 'The Continental Society For People Interested In British Football', Vermeer became officially recognised as the first Dutchman to join 'the 92 club' - no mean feat, given it is an achievement that continues to elude most of us this side of the channel.

Time to return the favour, then. The game I'd picked for my first experience of the Eredivisie saw a Den Haag side seeking to pull away from the relegation places up against Vitesse Arnhem, familiar as Norwich's first opponents in Europe and having a decent season, boosted by a number of youthful loanees from Chelsea. I was very keen to scout Vitesse's number 13 - a promising and prolific striker with a very respectable season's return of 10 goals in 22 games. You might have heard of him - Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Of course, I was there to support Den Haag - but I had my fingers crossed that Ricky would score too. God knows he owes me a few.

Having arrived early for the Friday night 8pm kick-off to purchase a ticket (EUR21, with unreserved seating) and have my ID obligatorily photocopied at the ticket office, I had plenty of time to exercise extreme restraint in the club shop and pop into the supporters' club bar, a roomy, wood-panelled construction with a vast array of yellow and green shirts, scarves and even hats and football boots hanging off the rafters. Close by, there are reminders of a proud history; the ornate stadium gates from the Zuiderpark have been moved across town, while a statue of club hero Aad Mansveld stands in the car park. And then into the stadium, where the concourses were a hive of activity as members of the 'Fan Support' group set up their flags and banners, which are stored permanently at the stadium, with collection tins rattled and merchandise sold to raise funds for future displays.

The territory of the club's most vocal fans has historically been on the halfway line. Such was the power of the Midden Noord that when the Zuiderpark was made all-seater, they - to put it mildly - were able to 'persuade' the club to leave their section as a standing terrace. They retain this position in the new stadium, while Fan Support are behind the goal, creating two distinct areas of vocal and visual support. It was an awesome sight to see the fan-made yellow and green flags waving all around - something I'd love to see at Carrow Road. And despite the stadium's stringent security measures - or perhaps because of them - the stewards and police, although visible, kept to the periphery and allowed the fans to self-police themselves, even when the plastic beer cups started flying across the moat from the Midden Noord in reaction to some of the linesman's decisions.

As for the game itself...I can't sugarcoat this - it was absolutely awful. Perhaps the standard is better in the higher reaches of the Eredivisie, currently topped by Feyenoord, but this was like watching Ipswich: hoofball, with an occasional attempt at some neat passing play that would be swiftly ended by players either putting a pass out for a throw-in, or being offside. On 29 minutes there was a rare moment of quality, as Vitesse's Adnane Tighadouini collected a pass from our man Ricky just outside the area and hit a curling finish into the bottom left corner to give the away side the lead.

Two minutes later, Vitesse took the Den Haag defence apart again and, with the keeper stranded, the ball was squared to Ricky van Wolfswinkel. He was all alone, six yards out, in front of an invitingly empty and extremely aesthetically pleasing green and yellow striped goal net.

Believe it or not, he scored - and in the home end, I just about managed to hold in my delight.

I hoped that this two-goal salvo would spark Den Haag into life, but the game petered out in the second half and there was to be no further score. I spent most of it tracking Ricky, who was getting enthusiastically stuck into tackles all over the pitch. Perhaps he has found his level.

It might not have been the greatest advert for the Eredivisie in terms of on-field action, but I can strongly recommend ADO Den Haag as a European football trip. The Hague is a pleasant city that's both easy to get to and get around; match tickets can generally be bought on the day; the fans are friendly, welcoming and vocal; and, of course, there's yellow and green everywhere.

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