Pre Season Holland
Ronald Koeman’s legacy to the 2016/17 season was an American and Dutch pre-season, with the transatlantic element played behind closed doors. It wasn’t much better for the opening game – against Eredivisie club PEC Zwolle, but played up country with visiting fans clearly not welcome at a non-league ground. Stay away messages were never going to be enacted, and no doubt the editor is attempting to procure a report on what seems to be an impressive 4-0 success that featured a goal from Pierre-Emile Høberg.
With the £ struggling against the €, the whole week option was discarded as an option by a couple of pensioners in your editor and his scribe, but we flew to Eindhoven at an extremely unsocial hour to arrive in good time for the first of four games in four days; this being Saints against F.C. Twente, but in the small town of Oldenzaal, home to KVV Quick ’20 whom we beat 10-0 last year. Twente were made of sterner stuff, but goals from Van Dijk and Gallagher seemed to be sending Saints to a comfortable win before an error by youth team ‘keeper Harry Lewis made the end game interesting. The idea of an early night to continue our ambitious schedule never stood a chance: a couple of sexagenarians bashing around the Dutch rail network and drinking some of the strongest beers on the planet… a lot could have gone wrong, but thankfully didn’t.
‘Twente’ is the name of the region over by the German border comprising the former textile towns of Enschede, Almelo and Hengelo, plus some clearly profitable farmland. F.C. Twente have traditionally been the major team, but it seems they are lucky to be still in business following a major financial scandal. Not surprisingly their position has been usurped by rivals Heracles Almelo, who were preparing for their first European competition, drawn against Portuguese side F.C. Aruca. That was the next fixture for us, with our accommodation extremely rural, but a bus ride, a visit to an excellent village hostelry and quite a bit of walking got us there, and then on to Almelo where Mick and Gill were waiting with the match tickets. This was the only competitive game, but no great shakes as Heracles wasted a number of opportunities before seeing a one goal advantage wiped out in added time – that away strike was to decide the tie after a goal-less second leg.
If it’s Friday, it must be Nijmegen, but not before an unexpected return to Arnhem for a transfer to that bane of the public transport traveller, the rail replacement bus. Nijmegen Eendracht Combinatie (NEC) are another Eredivisie side, but they were second best in the friendly against Real Sociedad. A missed penalty at 0-1 didn’t do them any favours, but the Spaniards sealed the win early in the second half with a goal that we later discovered was scored by ex-Saint Juanmi.
Saturday now, and the long (in Dutch terms) trek north for a return visit to the attractive city of Groningen, up by the Freisian Islands. This is Koeman country, with father Martin having played for the club, as well as Ronald and Erwin – no wonder they named a stand after them. This was another logistical nightmare for Saints fans, with our allocation only confirmed a few days before the game and with supporters having to find members of the Saints backroom staff to claim their tickets. We weren’t alone in managing a 360° tour of the stadium with varying assistance from Groningen officials (useless) and security staff (as helpful as they could possibly be) in a bid to get in but eventually our contacts were located, wearing predominantly black training tops. I asked why they couldn’t have worn stripes, but it seems they didn’t want to be mistaken for regular fans. Well, there weren’t that many of us, and those who expected a repeat of last year’s excellent 3-0 win were disappointed. Groningen were clearly on top but then their right back was sent off just before half time for one too many rash challenges and that changed the game’s dynamic. Saints were hardly fluent against the ten men, though, and they had to wait for a neat 75th minute header by Austin to break the deadlock with what proved to be the only goal.
Four days, four games, none of them any good – in fact mostly lousy. Never mind, there are some splendid bars in Groningen, which is well worth a visit for many reasons, and is easily reached from the unlikely travel hub of Southend airport. SFC didn’t choose that route, and once home, Claude Puel professed himself happy with the performances – well, he didn’t look it at pitch-side!