How Louis van Gaal took an unfancied AZ Alkmaar to the pinnacle of Dutch football

How Louis van Gaal took an unfancied AZ Alkmaar to the pinnacle of Dutch football

Upon opening a local cheese festival in the summer of 2008, Louis van Gaal was told by a fortune teller that he would win the Eredivisie title with AZ Alkmaar the following April, on the 19th to be precise. The season just gone had seen the Dutch side finish 11th, with Van Gaal stating that he’d quit his post as head coach.

When the league fixtures were scheduled, AZ weren’t even down to play on 19 April, so not even Van Gaal, who isn’t one to doubt his own abilities, made much of this prophecy. After all, AZ hadn’t won the league title in 37 years.

When the egotistic, opinion-divider Van Gaal was appointed AZ boss in January 2005, even he was in need of a confidence boost. His outstanding achievements with Ajax and Barcelona in the 1990s had been blotted by a catastrophic spell in charge of the national team and an unhappy return to the Camp Nou. He’d already been back in the Netherlands for a while, but his time as technical director at Ajax had ended in him tendering his resignation after falling out with coach Ronald Koeman.

Dutch football was crying out for characters, people with names that were known right across the world. In the eight years since Van Gaal had left the Ajax dugout, only once had a Dutch team made the knockout stages of the Champions League. Like an evacuation of Hollywood, all the stars seemed to be moving away. The bright lights of the big leagues were too enticing for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie to turn down.

AZ were struggling too. After years of mediocre finishes, relegations and promotions, their fans would nostalgically hark back to the good old days of 1981. It was the year that brought their only previous Eredivisie title and a stunning run to the UEFA Cup final, where they were beaten by Bobby Robson’s Ipswich over two legs.

The KNVB Cup also came to Alkmaar that year, and it was defended the following season. Eddy Treijtel, Hugo Hovenkamp, Peter Arntz anrd Pier Tol: these were the names that every AZ supporter worshipped. They were their Boys of ‘66, their fearless Foxes of 2016, their Greek gods of 2004. For them, it was the pinnacle. Nothing had come close since.

When AZ replaced Co Adriaanse with Van Gaal in January 2005, they weren’t just bringing in a revered, slightly feared manager, but a former player and coach of their own. Van Gaal spent his final playing days in the red and white of the Cheeseheads and his fixation with control meant that he often took charge of the team when head coach Hans Eijkenbroek was unavailable with health issues.

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Fast-forward 30 years and his reputation as a know-it-all was still there, pinned to him like a badge of honour, but this time he had the medals to back it up. He’d won everything there is to win as a club boss, both domestically and abroad, but toppling the top three teams back home represented his biggest challenge yet.

Since AZ’s title in 1981, the Dutch top-flight had gone to either Ajax, PSV or Feyenoord. Winning the league was so unrealistic, so far-fetched that the only talk of it at clubs like AZ were in the form of jokes. You may finish above one of the big three, you might even come second, but barging your way past all of them … well, don’t be silly.

Van Gaal guided AZ to a hugely respectable third – the club’s highest finish in 23 years – behind PSV and Ajax in his first few months. They reached the UEFA Cup semi-final too, and were only denied a place in the final by Miguel Garcia’s stoppage-time sickener in their second leg with Sporting.

The summer stimulated change in Alkmaar as the club brought in midfielders Stijn Schaars and Demy de Zeeuw from Vitesse and Go Ahead Eagles, 32-year-old striker Shota Arveladze from Rangers and right-back Gretar Steinsson from Young Boys. Steinsson joined up with Kew Jaliens, who was the stalwart in an improving defence. Schaars began to dictate games from midfield alongside Denny Landzaat while Arveladze bashed in 18 league goals that season as AZ climbed up above Ajax into second.

Despite that, Guus Hiddink’s PSV boasted talents like Phillip Cocu, Alex, Ibrahim Afellay and Jefferson Farfan among others and became champions again, finishing ten points clear at the top.

Having finished as runner-up, AZ had the chance to secure Champions League football for the following campaign in a four-team playoff with Feyenoord, Ajax and Groningen. With plans to move into their new 17,000-capacity home that summer, it seemed fitting that AZ would deliver Europe’s premier club competition as a welcoming gift. But it wasn’t too be. Groningen dumped them out in the semi-final and the AZ Stadion had to settle with the UEFA Cup, signalling the end of the line for some key figures within Van Gaal’s squad.

AZ set out to lower the average age of their side that summer and, with Hendrick Timmer, Denny Landzaat and Kenneth Perez moving on, fresh-faced youngsters like Moussa Dembélé, Ryan Donk and Maarten Martens took their pegs in the dressing room. If these sly recruits didn’t warn the rest of the competition, an 8-1 battering of NAC Breda on the opening day of the season did.

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By the time PSV rocked up in Alkmaar in late October, AZ were still unbeaten and setting the pace at the top. Van Gaal and newly-appointed PSV boss Koeman locked horns again, this time in opposing dugouts rather than in the Ajax offices. Koeman planted his flag at the AZ Stadion that afternoon with a 3-1 win which provided a harsh reality check for AZ, but one that didn’t dent any dreamers’ hopes.

A strike partnership of Arveladze and Danny Koevermans saw AZ shed their underdog skin and transform into a goalscoring beast capable of blowing any team away. The pair were supplemented by a 19-year-old Dembélé, who turned out more as a tricky frontman in the early stages of his career. A teenage Jeremain Lens was also an exciting prospect out wide and was contributing as a senior player at AZ for the first time.

It was Koevermans who hooked in a late winner at PSV in February in the fourth game of a 15-match unbeaten run which saw them catapult past PSV and Ajax to go into the final day of the season with the Eredivisie title in their hands. Leading PSV and Ajax on goal difference alone, all AZ had to do to secure their first title in 36 years was beat lowly Excelsior in Rotterdam.

In what was the ultimate nightmare finish to this cautious fairytale, AZ fell to a shock 3-2 defeat. The visitors trudged through the last 70 minutes of the clash with ten-men after goalkeeper Boy Waterman had received his marching orders after giving away a 19th-minute penalty. An outnumbered AZ equalised twice over the course of the afternoon, and despite Excelsior also going down to ten men, they conceded again stoppage-time.

Such was the general expectation on AZ to clinch the crown, the original Eredivisie shield was in Rotterdam that day, with eventual champions PSV, who’d beaten Ajax to the title by a single goal, lifting a replica trophy instead. With immortality having evaded Van Gaal and his team, there was a chance to restore some pride shortly after.

AZ would face Ajax in the KNVB Cup final a week later back in Rotterdam, across the city at De Kuip. It was Van Gaal against his old club, with Jaap Stam playing the final game before retirement. Both were sides in desperate need of a consolation prize after missing out on the title a week earlier. There wasn’t a shortage of storylines.

It was the Cheeseheads who struck first when Dembélé waltzed inside and buried his shot into the bottom corner after just four minutes, beating Marten Stekelenburg at his near post. Donk thought he’d doubled AZ’s lead minutes later but his scrappy finish was rightly ruled out for handball.

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Klaas-Jan Huntelaar spanked past Khalid Sinouh to haul Ajax level shortly after the break as the weight of history began to press down on AZ’s shoulders again. That defended KNVB Cup in 1982 was the club’s last major trophy. Other than the second-tier triumphs in 1996 and 1998, that was quite literally the bottom line on AZ’s honours list.

Ajax’s Gabri was sent off as the final headed for extra-time and, with a man advantage in the added period, AZ piled forward in search of a winner. Julian Jenner somehow missed the target from six yards out before Arveladze struck the bar with a heroic diving header in the second half. All fans will tell you these missed opportunities make defeats hurt more; they fuel the feeling of what could have been.

Plenty of tears flowed that evening, with the first coming from Donk on the halfway line after his missed penalty cost AZ. Van Gaal and his team thought they’d sunk to their lowest point – until they were denied a Champions League spot by Ajax in the Dutch playoffs as well. A whole campaign unravelled in the space of days and weeks.

Falling at the final hurdles won’t have pleased Van Gaal, a coach who prides himself on fitness and building a team able to deal with the longevity of a season. During his modest playing days, the Iron Tulip would teach PE in schools and attended the Dutch Academy of Physical Education. Forty years on, he turned up at one of the Academy’s reunions and, without the need to impress as a Champions League-winning coach, decided to attempt a pole vault demonstration anyway. At the age of 56, he wasn’t quite as nimble as before, but he hadn’t lost any confidence in his own ability.

The act ended in the AZ boss breaking both his ankle and fibula on landing, a moment that is recounted in Marten Meijer’s biography of Van Gaal: “According to his own interpretation, he perfectly completed the exercise, but slipped on the smooth soles of his shoes because he was wearing footwear that was ill-suited for such daring physical performances. Thus, the 56-year-old coach landed awkwardly on the gymnasium floor and ended up with a double leg break,” he writes.

After having six pins put into his leg during surgery, Van Gaal attended AZ’s game with NEC the following day in a wheelchair. Normally, patients who suffer this kind of injury are kept on anaesthetic in hospital for three days, but try telling that to Louis van Gaal, the man who insists he’s never missed a day of work in his life. “Just to make sure, I swallowed a substantial dose of painkillers on the way to the stadium,” he said. “I wanted to be there no matter what. But I didn’t want them (the players) to see me suffering.”

And there he was, being wheeled into the dugout before kick-off, with his leg up in a cast – he’d end up using a golf buggy to get around the training ground. AZ won 4-0, but that would be the high point of the season. A disastrous couple of winter months saw the team freeze, losing seven out of nine matches between January and February, including a 6-1 drubbing at Ajax.

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Without Arveladze and Koevermans up front, AZ weren’t as potent as before. They’d picked up 22-year-old Graziano Pellè after he’d left Lecce, but he hadn’t hit the ground running in Holland. Brazilian striker Ari was the main source of goals, but he wasn’t able to break into double figures by the end of the Eredivisie season.

AZ were put out of their mediocre misery as the campaign finished with them slumped in 11th. Van Gaal threatened to step down as coach but was eventually coaxed back into the dugout by his players.

Having led the club as close to a trophy as they have been or could possibly have been in the last three decades, it seemed more like destiny than unfinished business for the boss to stay for another season. AZ backed him in the transfer market too, bringing in the likes of Gill Swerts, Niklas Moisander, Ragnar Klavan and Brett Holman. Waterman made his exit, leaving Sergio Romero as the team’s undisputed number one between the sticks.

A team was assembled with the hopeful aspirations of aiming for the European places again, but that target was retracted after two defeats in their opening two fixtures against NAC and Den Haag. Then everything changed. There were landmark wins over PSV, Ajax and Feyenoord, not to mention an outrageous run of 23 victories in 25 games stretching as far as March. No one could catch them.

The AZ team started to resemble their manager too: rigid, efficient and relentless in their strive for glory. Dembélé and Mounir El Hamdaoui picked apart opposing defences at will, scoring 33 goals between them during the campaign. But after what happened last time, no one was popping champagne corks yet.

With AZ just nine points away from the title with five matches to play, triumphs over Den Haag and NAC – the two clubs they were beaten by in August – were momentous milestones. It left Van Gaal’s men with the chance to clinch their first title in 38 years at home to mid-table Vitesse. But this was AZ. Goals from Alex Buttner and Ricky van Wolfswinkel saw the written-off visitors steal the hosts’ thunder. But, the next day, on 19 April, Ajax went down 6-2 at PSV, handing AZ the league and a slice of history, just as the fortune teller at the cheese festival had predicted.

Amongst the madness of Louis van Gaal’s four-and-a-half years in Alkmaar, he’d managed to restore his reputation. His time in charge of the Cheeseheads paved the way for successful spells at Bayern Munich and with the Netherlands, placing him firmly back within the top coaches in world football. The glamour of Champions League triumphs, Camp Nou nights, World Cup ties and the Theatre of Dreams often define the Iron Tulip’s career, but his achievements as AZ boss are amongst his greatest.

By Billy Munday @billymunday08

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