The old alliance

Neil White describes the unique football relationship between FC Twente and Stranraer

In 1981, Frans Thijssen was just about as good a midfielder as there was in Europe. He won the UEFA Cup with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town and was named Player of the Year in England. He remembers the European trophy that is now the totemic achievement of Robson’s team appearing as a mere consolation after late-season injuries exposed a lack of depth, costing Ipswich a First Division championship and a place in the FA Cup final.

Thijssen was also the first footballer I ever full-on idolised. I was a six-year-old Ipswich supporter living in Stamford, Lincolnshire. My dad somehow discovered that Robson stopped the team bus for lunch at the George Hotel in our town whenever they played away games in the north-east and he used to take me and my brother down to meet them whenever they did. Thijssen was my hero and whenever I played during those years, I played midfield and nobody got to his No 4 shirt before me.

Thirty years later, I heard Thijssen was coming to Stranraer to run a coaching clinic. I got a number from the press office at Twente, where he coaches the beloften or reserve team, and shortly afterwards was speaking to him for the first time since I was in short trousers, asking not for a picture or an autograph, but for an interview. “I think I am coming to Scotland, but I don’t know what it’s about. I don’t know the programme. Call me again next week.”

When we met, and after the interview I had arranged for a Scottish newspaper, we talked about what he was doing in Stranraer, a port town in the south-west corner of Scotland and home to a part-time team in the bottom tier of the Scottish Football League. Thijssen was part of a 100-strong party from Enschede, home to last year’s Dutch champions and the new money of the Champions League. Also present were Theo Snelders, who kept goal for Aberdeen and Rangers, the Twente chairman, Joop Munsterman, and a large group of supporters.

Thijssen explained that he was at the end of his first season back at Twente and when we had spoken on the phone he was unaware of the history between the supporters of the two clubs, a bond that started with one dying man. In 2006, Jim McKie, a Stranraer supporter, was asked by a Dutch friend if he could get his hands on a pair of Old Firm tickets. A friend of that friend, Dennis van Unen, had terminal cancer and wanted to see that great Glaswegian theatre before his life ended. Jim and his friend, James Hilton, got the tickets and watched the game with Dennis and his wife, Mirjam.

A return trip took place, with Jim and James seeing Enschede and saying a last goodbye to Dennis before he lost his fight with illness. For four years, these trips went back and forth, with the numbers and the bond between the two sets of supporters growing each time, until Munsterman helped McKie set up the inaugural FC Twente Festival of Football at Stair Park, Stranraer.

Over two days, a group of Twente coaches ran some sessions and small-sided tournaments with primary school kids. There was a former players’ match and much socialising. There is even talk of a lasting link-up between the clubs, with the possibility of players and coaches moving between the two – surely a better deal for the Irn Bru Third Division team than the Champions League club.

As I drove back up the road from Stranraer I found myself thinking less about my meeting with the player I had grown up worshipping, and what Thijssen called “the good old days” of a wonderful Ipswich team, and more about the capacity of football and football supporters to forge the most unexpected bonds. Van Unen and McKie would certainly not have been in each other’s orbit without that idea of a wider football community and, without that act of generosity, neither would Twente and Stranraer.

Twente are that rare club, one which has broken into its domestic Champions League establishment, gaining access to the executive bathroom of European football. Their chairman, coaches and supporters will not see many venues like Stair Park. They did not have to be there at the end of a slug-fest of an Eredivisie season that saw them lose their title to Ajax on the final day, while keeping their noses in UEFA’s big trough. But there they were, and it is hard to imagine now that this will be the last FC Twente Festival of Football in Stranraer.

For that reason, I have a new favourite team to follow in a tournament that usually bores the hell out of me. Once again, I’m following Frans.

From WSC 293 July 2011