Run on the banks

Last season's Dutch champions are having a radically different campaign this year. Derek Brookman looks at an economic crisis

When PSV hammered Ajax 6-2 on April 19 this year, AZ Alkmaar became Dutch champions by default; the Amsterdam side could no longer catch AZ at the top of the table. They were many reasons for this monumental event – the first title not to go to Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV for 28 years – but without doubt the biggest was Dick Scheringa.

To say Scheringa was closely linked to the club may be slightly understating the issue. He was chairman, sole shareholder and owner of the main sponsors DSB Bank (and yes, the D and S are his initials). AZ played in the DSB stadium, owned by Scheringa. On becoming chairman in 1993 he gradually set about transforming them from provincial has-beens into serious title contenders. Toon Gerbrands, AZ’s general director, remembers his first conversation with the man in 2002: “At the time the club played in a rickety, small stadium, was struggling to keep its professional licence and was fighting relegation. Scheringa said to me: ‘We’re going for the Champions League’.”

Continual improvement under trainer Co Adriaanse saw them reach the UEFA Cup semi-finals in 2004-05 and finish third in the league. Two years later, by now under the stewardship of Louis van Gaal, they came excruciatingly close to winning the title, missing out on the very last day by losing to already relegated Excelsior. Finally, almost three decades after their previous and only other league triumph in 1981, AZ took last year’s championship at a canter, securing that precious Champions League ticket and fulfilling Scheringa’s prophecy.

How ironic then, that on October 20, when AZ hosted Arsenal, Scheringa was not there to witness this crowning moment. Instead he was at home watching on TV, a broken man. The day before DSB Bank had been declared bankrupt and he had reportedly lost much of his personal fortune.

This came essentially through the actions of Pieter Lakeman, chairman of Stichting Hypotheekleed (Mortgage Grievances Foundation). This organisation prepared a massive claim against DSB because of what were perceived as punitive mortgage rates and over-aggressive selling of insurance policies, some of which earned the bank commissions in the region of 80 per cent.

Lakeman, appearing on national TV, urged savers to withdraw their money en masse to create a run on the bank, and that’s exactly what happened. In just less than three weeks, DSB went from being an apparently robust and financially sound institution into oblivion.

To compound matters, things had already been going downhill on the pitch. Louis van Gaal departed to Munich after securing the title but Scheringa found what seemed to be an able replacement in Ronald Koeman. However, results indicated otherwise. Going into the Arsenal match AZ had lost five out of their eight previous games, and a subsequent 4-2 defeat by Ajax at home
saw them slip to eighth, already 14 points behind leaders PSV. They have no realistic hope of retaining their title and only an extremely slim chance of the second place that will get them into the Champions League qualifying rounds.

Koeman is less of a disciplinarian than Van Gaal and some players are reportedly having difficulty adapting having been used to their previous coach’s strict but clear instructions. The new man at the helm is also more cautious by nature, which goes against what many saw as AZ’s trademark commitment to attack. He has also tinkered with selection and a defence that only conceded 22 goals last season has already let in 15 after only 11 games this time round.

Of course, if the problem is the coach you can always go looking for a new one. But with Scheringa’s spectacular fall from grace, the entire short and even medium-term future looks bleak for the club. They now have no sponsor, no money to spend in the January transfer window and greatly diminished appeal for current and potential new players. Worse still, the company that owns them (DSB Beheer, another of Scheringa’s creations) is now being run by receivers. They could conceivably decide to put the club into liquidation and sell off all the players, although this is unlikely.

Scheringa would be well advised to attend his team’s next Champions League home game against Olympiakos; it could well be a long, long wait until the next one.

From WSC 274 December 2009