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Wednesday, May 13, 2009
AZ upset the established order

Ernst Bouwes

"This club deserves better than having me as a coach" and " I don't fulfil the demands Ajax asks of its managers" were some lines of his extraordinary farewell speech. Marco van Basten quit of his own accord as the man at the helm in Amsterdam last week and presented the board with a lucky break. No compensation to be paid and no difficult discussions over what to do with Van Basten next year. When the former striking legend handed in his resignation it was received with blank faces. No one tried to change his mind. Having lost 4-0 at Sparta Rotterdam and seeing his team resigned to their fate during the game, instead of fighting back, Van Basten might have sensed that leading the troops may not be his thing. If he did not know how to turn a game against a relegation threatened opponent now, how would he manage next year? Another shopping spree? Almost forty million euros were spent last summer, but he could not build a real team. There were some good games, despite Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's departure during the winter break, but overall there were few excuses with which to explain their third placed finish at the end of this season. Another season without Champions League football. However, this will not be played at the grounds of the other parts of the traditional Dutch triumvirate either. Feyenoord hoped to enter the era of modern football by appointing trainer Gert-Jan Verbeek, but an opposition of stalwarts in the club, players as well as ground staff, nipped this in the bud. Verbeek had to go in January, taking technical director Peter Bosz down in his fall. Thanks to the appealing form of several mid-table outfits, the Kuip team stumbled into the play-offs in the end and are still in with a chance of Europa League football. In the long run though, their budget is going down and this will continue until their new stadium is ready, which is not expected before 2016. New coach Mario Been is hailed as the saviour, but you wonder whether he'll be able to bend this iron with his bare hands. PSV finished in fourth, which was their worst position since 1981. They started the season with their dream coach Huub Stevens on the bench, who himself had always hoped to land this job one day. It did not click though and Stevens left after Christmas, a disillusioned man. The decision to kick a major player's agent out of the club, because of his growing influence, returned as a boomerang. This seemingly nineteenth-century, Corinthians-like approach might have suited some unrevealed club policy, but it certainly did not elevate the quality of the squad. Insiders at PSV have acknowledged this as a big mistake recently. For the first time since 1959 none of the 'Top Three' are in the Eredivisie top two. AZ are the new champions and have qualified for the Champions League for the first time. Second place FC Twente go into the qualifiers, but unfortunately for them they have to go through two rounds instead of the one that proved insurmountable last year. Tough opposition can be expected in August, however Steve McClaren might be just the man to succeed. When he started, the club had just lost their mainstays in midfield, Orlando Engelaar and Karim El Ahmadi, but the former England coach rebuilt a winning team with the material that was given. When his captain Rob Wielaert was taken by Ajax during the winter break, he brought in Peter Wisgerhof from NEC. The team became stronger and the club even made a profit with the transfers. With their modernised, new stadium the club makes millions, while their fan base is growing almost every day. This success story is a blueprint for Heerenveen and FC Groningen who are in the ascendency too. All well-structured organisations with long-term strategies, trusted by the supporters. There is much less pressure at these clubs than at the traditional top three, who might see that noun replaced by 'antiquated' if they don't change their policies soon. The big winners of the season are AZ of Alkmaar and coach Louis van Gaal. They dominated the league for most of the season, except for the first two games, with realistic football. After a nightmare year, the coach changed tactics to a more defensive strategy. Not always pretty to watch, but the fans did not care. After several failed attempts they badly needed a trophy to lay their hands on and van Gaal finished the season in style. After a recent row in the mixed-zone he has now blacklisted most TV networks, but on the chances of AZ in the Champions League he said that all depended on the transfers in the summer: "When you win a title, other clubs are always interested in your players. If we can keep the squad together, I believe we really stand a chance." However, in the meantime the word is out that van Gaal will sign for Bayern München and he may hope to keep his chairman to his promise that he would be allowed to go after he had won a title - although his contract only expires in 2010. After firing him a year ago and then re-appointing him after a plea from some of the players, AZ's millionaire chairman Dirk Scheringa has to decide whether he keeps his trainer to his contract or takes the exit fee and looks for another coach. It shows the darker side of football for a small club: with the right strategy you can definitely reach the top, but staying there is almost impossible. You just have to cherish the moment.

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