A Dutchman in the north-east

Owen Amos on why losing can be fun with BJ Heijman

Brandon United are bottom of the Arngrove Northern League Second Division, five divisions from the Football League. They’ve won one match all season and, after 14 games, their goal difference is minus 52. So why do their players go for trials at PSV Eindhoven? Why do rival coaches watch their training sessions on cold Thursday nights? And why, at those sessions, do almost 30 players turn out, twice a week?

The answer is BJ Heijmans, a professional Dutch coach, who, by a series of happy accidents, found his home in deepest County Durham. Elsewhere, they call it serendipity.

BJ’s road to Brandon began 11 years ago, when his wife became professor of psychology at the University of Teesside. BJ, a semi-pro for 15 years in Holland, started to coach at Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Durham University, among others.Two years ago, he was helping Brandon’s juniors when first-team managers Alan Shoulder, ex-Newcastle, and Steve Howey, ex-Newcastle and England, packed in. The club was close to extinction when BJ became manager.

Now, the junior sections thrive and the first team – average age 19 – play 4-3-3, winning plaudits if not points. Even the club website, brandonunited.co.uk, is entitled “Brandon United Football Academy”. There’s posh.

“We play the Dutch way, from the back,” says BJ, while directing a training session. “We have conceded 63 goals this season, and 50 were from individual mistakes. But we are young, and that will improve.”

BJ – it stands for Bert Jan – is the only foreign manager in north-east senior football. Until November, there was Argentine Gus Di Lella – formerly at Darlington, Hartlepool and Scarborough – but he was sacked by Horden, in Brandon’s division. On a cold Thursday night, Di Lella has turned up to study BJ’s 90-minute session. He asks where, in 4-3-3, your right-back goes when the opposition right-back attacks. BJ explains how, in training, Arrigo Sacchi tied a rope to his back four, left-back to right. A Dutchman discussing Italian coaching with an Argentine: Brandon is only Andy Roxburgh away from a UEFA technical conference.

With Di Lella is Foli Shekoni, a Durham University student released by Sunderland after a recent two-month trial. He wants BJ – who scouts for PSV, Willem II and Den Bosch, among others – to find him a club.

The Pied Piper of Brandon has already sent Josh Fowler, 16, for a trial at PSV. They wanted another look at Fowler, an ex-Middlesbrough trainee, at Christmas. A young Brandon keeper may follow. In Eindhoven, they’ll soon think Brandon is England’s own Clairefontaine.

The session is squeezed into a corner of Brandon’s ground, high on a hill four miles from Durham City. They would use the whole pitch, but half the floodlights are broken. The next game, Crook Town at home, has been switched.

“When I first came, it was unbelievable,” he says. “How could they work in these conditions? No pitches, no lights, no room. Unbelievable! I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something.’”

The training is ball-intensive: left-foot, right-foot, quick, slow, short, long. The players love it. Perhaps the website is right. So what, I ask, is wrong with the rest of English football? “Do you want a list?” asks BJ. “The big difference is the win-at-all-costs mentality. I like to win, but the main thing, at this level, is to say ‘Did they improve?’” The facilities are much better in Holland, too. Clubs have 25 teams with ten pitches. “I have more respect for an English youth coach than one in Holland: they have to work harder. But sometimes, they run out of ideas and think, ‘We ran when I was young, we ran, so we’ll run now.’ In my sessions, they always have the ball. And not once do they complain. It is fun.” The bottom of the Northern League, safe to say, has never been this fun.

From WSC 252 February 2008