THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

AZ were so close to breaking the big three clubs’ dominance of the Dutch championship. Derek Brookman looks back at a dramatic afternoon in the Eredivisie

The tightest title race ever in the Netherlands, or maybe anywhere for that matter, produced an enthralling and surprising finale, although it was a familiar name etched on to the winners’ plaque.

There was a joke doing the rounds in Eindhoven in February. PSV were so far ahead in the league that they would be parading the trophy through the town while it was still winter. The club would therefore need snow chains on the tyres of the open-top bus, and were going to ask Ajax to foot the bill because the Amsterdam side had failed to mount a serious challenge.

Going into the last day of the season, Sunday April 29, it was hard to find many people associated with Ronald Koeman’s side still smiling. Since the winter break PSV had managed to squander an 11-point lead and there were three teams – AZ, Ajax and PSV – with the same points total. AZ’s goal difference was six better than that of Ajax, who were one ahead of PSV. Any kind of victory for AZ, barring freak scorelines involving the other two sides, would see the title go to a team other than PSV, Ajax or Feyenoord for the first time since 1981, when AZ themselves won it.

Koeman outlined the fickleness of the football world in a press conference leading up to the final game. “On Sunday, with five minutes to go, we could be winning 3-0, and it’s 1-0 to both Ajax and AZ. Excelsior (AZ’s opponents) hit the inside of the post, the ball doesn’t cross the line, AZ win and take the title. I’m a bad coach. Or, the ball hits the inside of the post and does cross the line, AZ draw, we are champions and I’m then a good coach. That’s football.”

As it turned out he is, evidently, a good coach. AZ never really recovered from the early dismissal of their keeper, Boy Waterman, for a professional foul. Excelsior, already doomed to the relegation play-offs, played out of their skins to win 3-2. Ajax, away at the lowly Willem II, did win 2-0, each goal making them virtual champions at that moment by dint of the scores in the other games. But PSV ended up beating Vitesse 5-1 to take the title by a single goal. That goal, scored by Phillip Cocu 13 minutes before time, would be his last for the club; the 36-year-old announced directly after the game that he would not be renewing his contract and was considering retiring altogether.

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for AZ. They have consistently played the most attractive football in the Dutch league this season and were also top scorers in the UEFA Cup until their quarter-final elimination by Werder Bremen. Louis van Gaal has put together a squad of relatively young, unknown and predominantly Dutch players and coached them as few others can.

On the day of the home game against Bremen, he suddenly rounded on his captain. “Arveladze!” he boomed. “You’ve done nothing right all afternoon! Unbelievable.” The Georgian striker shuffled away with the browbeaten look of a schoolboy caught smoking, but Shota got the message; there are no passengers when Louis is around, even in training. It seems like every single player in the squad has improved under Van Gaal’s tutelage. If only AZ had done what everyone expected of them on the final day, the supporter who somewhat prematurely had “AZ champions 29-4-07” tattooed in large Gothic letters on his leg may not have thrown all his shorts in the bin.

With the cup final, AZ against Ajax, and play-offs for the second Champions League place yet to take place, it is hard to say what the lasting impact of this season will be. Ajax coach Henk ten Cate has certainly steadied the ship – the club finished a distant fourth last season, 24 points behind champions PSV – but is unlikely to be permitted two trophy-free campaigns in a row. As for PSV, some big issues still have to be resolved. Considerable friction between Koeman and his chairman, Frits Schuitema, could yet see the coach depart, despite the title. And if he stays, his task next year will be all the more difficult given the absence of Cocu and the seemingly imminent loss of talismanic defender Alex to Chelsea. PSV fans may be laughing now, but for them the future looks somewhat uncertain.

From WSC 244 June 2007. What was happening this month

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