A labour of love and hope
I have crossed the line. As a columnist and journalist I am supposed to be impartial and keep a reflective and critical eye on the footballing world around me, but when I opened my window to enroll a banner with the colors of NEC Nijmegen, my pundit' s hat disappeared into the crisp morning breeze to be replaced by the supporter's cap. It's Udinese at home tomorrow!
Six months ago I already dedicated a column to the incredible rise of my club. From deadbeats in the Eredivisie to UEFA Cup participants in less than four months. Summer came and before we knew it half of our squad had gone. The sensational Jermaine Lens returned to AZ after his loan spell, taking Australian Brett Holman with him for a small fee. Both have hardly played since.
Jonas Olsson fulfilled a dream by signing for West Bromwich Albion, although his stay in the Premier League might be short-lived. Left winger Kevin Bobson also decided to go abroad. His club Salzburg is flying high in the Austrian league again, but without him; he's only had a couple of games for their reserves. Right-back Muslu went to play for Kayserispor in his homeland of Turkey, but returned last month. Finally, midfield star Kristian Vadocz was lured to Osasuna. The Hungarian recently scored his first goal, which happened in their first and only win in the Primera Liga so far.
Our former heroes must look in amazement at how the club has fared since their departure. Even the most ardent supporters believed our fifteen minutes of fame were over after that team had disbanded.
Lasse Schöne from de Graafschap was the only signing with deadline day in August approaching. Finally, technical director Carlos Aalbers took his chances on a couple of has-beens,who had hardly kicked a ball last season. Collins John returned to Holland, probably bored of the nightlife in London, while Rachid Bouaouzan only watched the Premier League on Sky in Wigan.
Both needed months to get in shape, but meanwhile we were facing a UEFA Cup first round fixture against the might of Dinamo Bucharest. "Please, have mercy with us," was the initial thought as fans climbed the stairs to get to their seats.
Alongside the burly Jhon van Beukering the diminutive Saidi, a refugee from Burundi, seemed a midget between towering Rumanian defenders. After three years at the club he was still waiting for his first goal. Quite extraordinary for a forward. He did not score, but his marker Pulhac never got a touch of the ball. Only one goal separated the teams, but suddenly our confidence was brimming, even more after we beat Feyenoord in de Kuip and Saidi finally found the net.
So off we went to Bucharest a fortnight later. I happened to be on a plane with the more rowdy elements of our club, but apart from some overly enthusiastic reactions to the stewardesses all went well.
A draw would be enough to propel us into the nirvana of the provincial clubs all over Europe: the group stage of the UEFA Cup. Only a draw. No goals.
Having travelled 1500 miles and spent hundreds of euros my immediate thought after the kick-off was: "I wish it was over." Scoring a goal ourselves seemed a pipedream. Not only Saidi played, but also Tshibamba, another refugee, from the Congo this time.
He had been the second NEC player within a month to receive his marching orders for his second yellow card, when he pulled off his shirt after scoring. He oozes talent, but it was his first start ever in the first team. Scoring in Bucharest seemed impossible, so digging a trench in front of the goal seemed the only option.
But as the game unfolded our team was less fearful than its support. They grabbed the initiative and managed to reach half-time with the scores goalless. At least we were not slaughtered. In the second half the minutes crept by and suddenly we were in injury-time. A last-gasp attack by the hometeam put Tamas in for an open goal, but to everyone's amazement he put the ball over the bar.
Then it was all over. We made it! Into the hat of the second round with four more matches. The draw sent us to Eastern Europe again. Away to Dinamo Zagreb to start with, which I watched in a bar in Nijmegen. Within three minutes we were behind and we seemed on our way to becoming Europe's whipping boys. Then Zagreb scored a silly own goal and with ten minutes to go our most expensive player, striker Tim Janssen, scored his fourth goal in little than fifteen months at the club. Mayhem in the bar where all of us felt this just might be the right time for the world to come to an end. It could not get any better for us. Five minutes and two goals later we were brought back to earth, but at least we knew we would not be blown away.
Some people even thought that there was something to take from the home game against Tottenham Hotspur. We had beaten PSV convincingly, so why not the troubled North Londoners? Unfortunately Harry Redknapp had just reorganized their defence and we went down without a chance.
No points halfway with a trip to Spartak Moscow coming up. Not enthralled by the freezing winter in the Russian capital and even less by a probable roasting I decided to stay home. Or chicken out as others had it.
After another early goal, even earlier than in Zagreb, the home team left possession to NEC, who initially could not exploit it. With twenty minutes to go Collins John lumbered unto the pitch after months of injuries and fitness training. His header found Jhon van Beukering for the equalizer and only a minute later our single summer signing Lasse Schone scored with his weak left foot from outside the box. Somewhere on Youtube you can find footage of the travelling fans going mad as the second goal is scored. Victory in Russia!
A year ago we were at the foot of the table. Though our coach Mario Been was not fired. No, his contract was extended. At the same time he must have found a magic wand somewhere and now we will face Udinese in a head-crunching finale of our group. With every goal in the games at Spurs and in Nijmegen the group table will probably change.
Even Dinamo Zagreb, with three points from four games, can go through. And it does not seem improbable that NEC will enter the draw of the third round of the UEFA Cup on Friday. I'll stop now. My head has started spinning again.