The view from the Netherlands

Verbeek's route to success

April 2, 2012
By Ernst Bouwes
(Archive)

His team were cruising - 3-0 up with half an hour to go and on the verge of reclaiming the top position in the league that weekend, but AZ coach Gert-Jan Verbeek nevertheless managed to get himself sent off after an altercation with the fourth official.

Gert-Jan Verbeek
GettyImagesGert-Jan Verbeek's AZ side are battling with Ajax and FC Twente at the top of the table

AZ did not get a penalty, conceded one themselves and saw a defender red carded. Verbeek went mad in front of 17,000 spectators, was sent to the stands and then made a song and dance about his punishment and the alleged "dishonesty" of the officials until deep in the night, giving the press a field day. Verbeek was then suspended for three games and, though he appealed and had it cut down to two, he still missed the cup semi-final against Heracles. From the stands, he had to watch his team go out after an energy-consuming extra-time spectacle.

Gert-Jan Verbeek, now 49, was a stylish amateur boxer when, at the age of 24, he decided to take his football career seriously. He had already completed his qualifications with the CIOS, a school for sporting instructors, and while there had impressed teacher and Heerenveen coach Foppe de Haan with his mentality.

Verbeek joined Heerenveen as a young left-back during a time when they were hovering around the bottom of the Eerste Divisie. Some fans cringed at his awkward technique, but others loved his mentality. During an Easter weekend featuring two games, he was sent off in both. Meanwhile, Verbeek was coaching youth teams and held licences to teach judo, boxing, athletics and handball. In 1994, a year after reaching the cup final with Heerenveen, and with the club firmly established in the Eredivisie, Verbeek made the switch from the pitch to the dugout to become an assistant to De Haan.

Heerenveen reached the Champions League in 2000. Having savoured that experience, Verbeek accepted an offer to become head coach of Heracles Almelo, perennial strugglers in the Eerste Divisie. Within three years, he had guided the team into the play-offs twice, and then returned to Heerenveen to take over from the legendary De Haan. As though there were nothing to it, Verbeek continued to keep Heerenveen in the upper reaches of the Eredivisie, competing for European football each season.

In 2008, his contract was up, and it was time to spread his wings. Although Feyenoord had twice finished behind Heerenveen, Verbeek's switch to De Kuip was considered a step up. By then, Verbeek had almost finished building his own mansion in the Northern town of Jubbega, where he also ran a gym. He spent his holidays in a monastery in Spain, on a farm in France or cruising Route 66 on a bike with some buddies. In the remaining spare time, he read about sports psychology and innovative training methods; the implementation of these ideas on the training ground at Feyenoord would prove to be his downfall.

The year before, Feyenoord had spent the money they earned from Royston Drenthe's transfer to Real Madrid on bringing in some ageing Netherlands internationals from abroad. Players like Roy Makaay, Kevin Hofland, Gio van Bronckhorst, Michael Mols, Tim de Cler and Theo Lucius should have brought Feyenoord back to where they belonged, but their pedigree only won them the cup. Verbeek seemed to be the man to bring Champions League football back to De Kuip - the board especially liked the income from that tournament. Without that money, they were walking a financial tightrope, as maintaining the high salaries of their big-name stars threatened to be too much to bear the following season.

Verbeek was able to win over the hearts of the Feyenoord supporters when they saw him squeeze every last breath out of every member of the squad to get them fit for the new season. He introduced new training methods, and the idea of mental coaching, but the club's ageing contingent had other ideas. They had gone to Rotterdam to quietly see out their careers, to bask in the honorary rounds of applause as they used their experience to win games. The old dogs didn't like the scientific approach - the shuttle runs and vitamin drinks and extra hours in the gym to add an extra millimetre to their jump.

Roy Makaay, Kevin Hofland
GettyImagesFeyenoord signed the likes of Roy Makaay and Kevin Hofland in 2007

By Christmas, Feyenoord were only five points above the relegation zone, while their four UEFA Cup group games all ended in defeat. Although the fans rallied behind Verbeek, the board had no choice but to dismiss their coach in the face of open revolt from the players.

The next summer, Verbeek returned to Heracles Almelo, who had been battling relegation ever since their 2005 promotion. After one season, he took them to sixth place and almost secured a European place. His reputation restored, Verbeek was approached by AZ, the 2009 champions, who had been having trouble finding a successor to Louis van Gaal. They were also battling to survive the bankruptcy of their sponsor, DSB Bank, and chairman-benefactor, Dirk Scheringa. They had undergone similar before: after winning the title in 1981, AZ plummeted, a fall halted when they hit 13th position in the Eerste Divisie in 1992.

It was a difficult situation for Verbeek. Should he fail, the club were facing the prospect of fans and sponsors walking away, with the squad potentially dismantled in a fire sale before the creditors swooped for the final time.

In his first season, Verbeek had a mixed start, with his first win not coming until the end of September, but he was saved by the goals of young Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and they eventually finished fourth to secure Europa League qualification. During the summer, the Icelandic striker left for Ajax, while Stijn Schaars and Hector Moreno - other mainstays of the team - also departed. The transfer money was used to pay off the debts.

Yet, despite all the setbacks, here they are again: AZ have been top of the league for most of the season, they reached the semi-finals of the cup, and they are now the first team to beat Valencia in the Europa League this year. No team appears to have fitter players than Verbeek's. Although 17 matches in the last 63 days have robbed them of a little of their spark, the coach vehemently denies there is any tiredness and gets angry with any reporter making that suggestion. Fitness tests have shown the opposite, he claims. AZ have been the best team this Eredivisie season, which Johan Cruyff admitted in his column this week.

And Verbeek has shown progress as well. Asked what he thought of the two yellows that led to Brett Holman's dismissal at Vitesse and two dropped points in Arnhem on Sunday, he said: "The second yellow was harsh, as was the first. However, it did not change the result. If we'd wanted to win here, we should have taken our chances." When the red card was shown, he produced only a wry smile.