Tucked away in the south-east corner of the Netherlands, in the Limburg region, lies the city of Venlo. Near the German border and 35km from Eindhoven, the city boasts a rich blend of heritage and contemporary cultural flair.
Few institutions encapsulate the city’s civic harmony better than its football club. Venlose Voetbal Vereniging, or VVV as they are more commonly known, were founded in 1903 and have built a reputation for being a yo-yo team, flitting between the first and second tiers ever since.
Nevertheless, VVV-Venlo essentially define their city. “The club is the city,” Dutch football expert James Rowe explains. There is a notion that Venlo’s culture can be seen through the lens of its charming club. De Koel, their stadium, was built in 1972 and houses 8,000 fans who have always been loyal and continue to play an enormous role in the club’s fortunes.
Indeed, some of Venlo’s inhabitants choose to support nearby PSV Eindhoven or teams across the border in Germany such as Borussia Dortmund and Borussia Mönchengladbach. As a result, the club retains its “big family”, working-class feel, according to lifelong VVV fan, Marc Lamberts.
This sentiment is central to the appeal of the Venlo. “It’s comfortable and enjoyable to be part of the family as it were. The core is small in comparison to other clubs, but they are very loyal,” Lamberts says. The fact that De Koel houses just a few thousand adds to the unique aura around the club. The Yellow-Black Army is underpinned by an ethos of inclusivity, something steeped in tradition. If you’re there, you’re one of them. no matter your race, religion or background.
Indeed, as long as manager Maurice Steijn is in charge, the wishes of the club’s fans are likely to be granted. Steijn was appointed in July 2014 with the objective of guiding the club back to the Eredivisie. He had been sacked by ADO Den Haag despite finishes of 15th and ninth in his first two full seasons in charge of the Eredivisie side.
At the same time, VVV had endured a tumultuous period when various managers didn’t fit the club’s ethos. “When Steijn arrived, he saw characters that were not yet conducive to winning so he began to collectively build a team as a unit,” Rowe points out. Steijn’s work in restructuring the squad would be crucial if the team were to push for promotion to the Eredivisie.
Steijn adopted a patient approach and got the best out of his players. “When I look for new players, I always emphasise the need for good characters who are prepared to work hard and improve every day,” Steijn told Rowe for Football Oranje in 2017. Despite VVV finding themselves in financial difficulty in 2014, the manager masterfully worked with the resources at his disposal to turn their fortunes around. After three seasons in charge, the Dutchman’s objective to get Venlo promoted finally came to fruition – and in dramatic circumstances.
Venlo were promoted to the Eredivisie in April 2017 after an enthralling last-minute victory at RKC Waalwijk. Clint Leemans opened the scoring for VVV but they were pegged back when veteran defender Jerold Promes gave away a penalty. Johan Voskamp stepped up and converted the penalty for RKC, setting up a tense second half.
What happened in the dying embers of the game has gone down in local legend. Leemans stood over a free-kick in the 90th minute, the fate of Venlo at his young feet. He whipped the ball with his left foot over the wall and away from the helpless Tamati Williams into the bottom right corner. The strike ignited euphoria in the away section. It was official: VVV-Venlo were returning to the big-time.
Lamberts was among the jubilant away fans that day and remembers the day with fondness. “It was amazing. I saw promotion before, but this was so heartfelt and emotional,” Lamberts says. “It was special because the club endured financial difficulties and, after cutting the budget, we only had the 10th biggest in the league. It was also special because we clinched promotion in 2007 against RKC and we did it again, a decade later.”
Above all else, it was Steijn’s work to galvanise his squad that won Venlo promotion. The coach fostered an incredible spirit within his squad, something that has remained in the Eredivisie. “If you can win the league with a small budget in the second tier and have a great set of players who are loyal to the club and fans, that makes the togetherness so big,” Lamberts explains.
Steijn won the 2016/17 Rinus Michels Award for the Jupiler League Manager of the Season. There was widespread recognition of his remarkable achievement, and financial stringency remains a key policy at the club today. “Steijn built a club with prudence and loan deals with a limited budget,” Rowe explains. If we are to look at Venlo’s formation and line-up, it becomes clear what kind of identity Steijn has stamped on the team.
The togetherness at the club endures for a start. Stalwarts of the promotion campaign, Danny Prost, Ralf Seuntjens and Jerold Promes, are all important members of Steijn’s current squad. Nils Röseler, Moreno Rutten and Jonathan Opoku also feature regularly from the promotion-winning side. Steijn told Rowe that many of his players were inexperienced in Eredivisie football ahead of their first season back in the top-flight: “My squad has not even played 100 games at Eredivisie level so naturally people view us a the number one relegation candidate.”
Nevertheless, Venlo once again defied the odds, finishing 15th in the 2017/18 season, four points above the relegation zone. Yet, had it not been for a relatively strong season up until the new year, they would have gone down. Steijn’s side went 13 matches without a win towards the end of the campaign, with five straight defeats rounding off a year of spectacular contrasts.
The slump towards the end of the season could have been a consequence of rumours linking Steijn with a move to Championship side Ipswich. “It provided a bad context and an uncertain mood,” Rowe points out. It is feasible that there was a correlation between Venlo’s form and the rumours surrounding Steijn’s position at the club. This is particularly pertinent when considering how well Venlo are currently playing in the Eredivisie now that Steijn has expressed his commitment for the long-term.
With an experienced back line of Rutten, Promes, Röseler and Roel Janssen, VVV have established a compact defence. Steijn’s midfield comprises of club captain Prost and Tino-Sven Sušić in holding roles, with Seuntjens in a more advanced position. In attack, the 45-year-old manager has sprinkled the team with creativity courtesy of some shrewd loan deals.
First-choice striker, Peniel Mlapa, on loan from Dynamo Dresden, has shown he’s capable at this level. Jay-Roy Grot, Patrick Joosten and Martin Samuelson have also impressed in wide areas for the club. Despite that, Steijn doesn’t pretend that his team are striving to emulate the wonderful attacking football of the league’s best. Instead, Venlo’s defensive approach is underpinned by a belief that competing as a small club in the Eredivisie requires pragmatism.
This is perhaps why the most vital loanee in the squad this season has been goalkeeper Lars Unnerstall. On loan from PSV Eindhoven, Unnerstall has been integral to Venlo’s positive start. Stellar performances against early on this season have won the team points in matches they may have lost last season.
Against the league’s better opposition, VVV were valiant in their 1-0 home loss to Ajax and drew 1-1 to Heerenveen and Utrecht in their following two matches. In the same fixtures last season, home to Heerenveen and away to Utrecht, Venlo lost both. Therefore, the draws they recorded this season demonstrate a notable improvement under Steijn. Furthermore, a 2-0 home victory over Den Haag was a better result than Venlo recorded in the same fixture last season, when they lost 2-0.
Not only is there a sense that the club are going from strength to strength, but there is statistical evidence of their upward trajectory in securing Eredivisie consolidation. I asked Lamberts what he believes to be the key ingredient to VVV’s success under Steijn: “I think it’s in the belief in playing defensively in a world where we are obsessed with playing attacking football. Steijn plays to our strengths. We are not Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord. We are VVV.”
Venlo currently sit in mid-table, a short hop from the Europa League spots. However, if they were to qualify for Europe, the impact of the extra matches on a small squad may have an adverse effect. “The example of Burnley this season in England is good – that’s something we don’t want,” Lamberts assesses. “We have also seen a club like Twente who were champions a few years ago and they overspent, now in the second tier.”
It may make more sense for VVV to follow the model of another team in the Eredivisie. “I think we should strive for the example of Heracles,” Lamberts says. The club from Almelo have been in the Eredivisie since the 2005/06 season and have started this season brilliantly, sitting currently in the European places. Being introspective is exactly the approach that Venlo needs moving forward.
“We need to make sure we grow in financial terms, sell some players, invest in the youth system, and renovate the stadium. These things must improve before we can make the step to getting higher places in the table,” Lamberts explains. Now that Venlo have returned to the Eredivisie, they can feasibly see this list of objectives come to fruition. It is clear that there is a common goal at the club, which is developing off the pitch as well as on it.
The story of VVV-Venlo is a refreshing and endearing one. Within a city built upon a tight-knit community, the club began to dream in July 2014 when Steijn was appointed. It took time, but he eventually led Venlose Trots back to the Eredivisie, where they undoubtedly belong. Venlo have, significantly, also offered a blueprint for teams striving for Eredivisie promotion and consolidation in the future.
Those within the club want to see evolution before anything else. They are aware that their progress has required patience, so there is no risk of acting impatiently in the future. Venlo want to be sustainable and set a precedent for future years, avoiding the pitfalls of short-term thinking. As long as Maurice Steijn is at the helm, the man who best encapsulates the philosophy of this unheralded club, there is no doubt that VVV-Venlo will compete in the Eredivisie for many years to come.
By Charlie Pritchard @CPritchard96