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Red and White return

Sparta Rotterdam has finally returned to the Dutch Eredivisie. A player in the top league since its foundation at the end of the nineteenth century the club left its traditional stamping ground after the relegation play-offs of 2002, after a few seasons flirting with the drop.

It took three years before an equalizer ten minutes from time in Helmond sent the six-times Dutch champions back to where they belong - at least that's what the romantics think.

It is as traditional as you can get at 'Het Kasteel' (the castle), the oldest club ground in Dutch professional football. Although the ground was rebuilt recently, the even older pavilion of 1906 was left intact. And as the pitch was turned 45 degrees to make extra room for new stands, it earned an even more central place in the stadium.

But the club is more than just the bricks and mortar.

Sparta were in fact the first to invite a foreign team; In March 1893 the Harwich & Parkeston FC boarded for Rotterdam and beat their hosts 8-0. It was the start of a tradition of various Sparta-trips between Harwich, Felixstowe, Saxmundham and Rotterdam.

Their next innovative step was to field foreigners. In 1895 two English defenders frequented the night-boat from Harwich to play in the red-and-white stripes. Meanwhile, Sparta had introduced goal-nets in Holland and were the first to print posters to announce their upcoming home games.

They reached their pinnacle with five championships between 1909 and 1915, and while Feyenoord would later usurp them as Rotterdam's footballing success story, Sparta's special place in Dutch football has never been challenged: Queen Wilhelmina was the first royalty to watch a game; she obviously picked one at Het Kasteel.

In the process she also kissed Sparta-skipper and centre half Rinus Terlouw firmly on the cheek, probably helping DOS to an emphatic 1-7 victory.

Another famous visitor was Jayne Mansfield who came to promote her latest movie by doing the kick-off before Sparta versus DOS Utrecht. In the process she also kissed Sparta-skipper and centre half Rinus Terlouw firmly on the cheek, probably helping DOS to an emphatic 1-7 victory.

Those were the days that the club would swear by a British manager. Dennis Neville and Bill Thomson helped Sparta to another title in 1959 and three cups in the 1960s.

But tradition and heritage alone do not pay the bills and in recent times the club found it increasingly difficult to maintain the high standards of play set by previous generations.

Over the few last years Sparta's famous youth programme has struggled to produce enough talent to balance the books, and the impact of the Bosman ruling hasn't helped either.

Having escaped twice in relegation play-offs around the turn of the Millennium their third brush with the drop was not so lucky. To add insult to injury their place in the top flight was taken by local rivals Excelsior, which at the time was a sort of Feyenoord-reserves side.

It almost seems inevitable that a such a big club will bounce back from relegation, largely because seeing the name of a fallen giant in the new fixture list makes for such strange reading.

However, halfway through the 2002-03 season Sparta found themselves way back in 12th position and play-off spot proved elusive. And although they reached the play-offs the following season a penalty shoot-out ultimately did for Sparta.

Nevertheless, the club's wilderness years did show that they can still count on a fair amount of public support in the stands, with an average of more than 5,000.

But those faithful fans were made to travel to hell and back again this season.

Sparta only won nine games at home and lost 3-0 near the end of the season against bottom team Fortuna in front of the biggest travelling support in the club's history. Instead of a home draw against promotion rivals Heracles Almelo; now they needed a win for promotion.

The board was so disappointed in manager Mike Snoei they were about to fire him immediately until the squad convinced them otherwise. The next day his designated successor, and then coach of the reserves Rob Kiebert was killed in a road accident. The club faced its darkest hours ever.

He came, he saw and he conquered. Five times. Sparta were back.

After a dramatic week the clincher against Heracles ended in a stalemate, which left the emotionally exhausted squad with another six hectic play-off encounters.

Earlier in the season Sparta were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons when the talented Rachid Bouazouan broke the leg of Niels Kokmeijer of Go Ahead Eagles with a tackle so reckless it bordered on the criminal; doubts still remain as to whether Kokmeijer will ever walk properly again.

The continuous TV replays of the incident and the overwhelming media-attention for the victim and his assailant made the club walk on a tight-rope. The return of that match on the last day of the season re-opened all the figurative wounds.

Their play-off campaign started with a disastrous home loss against Helmond Sport which served to underline the traditional failure of the title challenger, who cannot find the puff for an extra six games after the disappointment of the second place in the league.

In a desperate move the board removed the complete technical staff overnight and replaced them by former international and European Champion Adri van Tiggelen; a man who'd never been in charge of a professional team before.

He came, he saw and he conquered. Five times. Sparta were back.

Next season Sparta will be managed by Wiljan Vloet, who joins from Roda JC. He will certainly miss two of the three topscorers that made 66 goals between them; as Danny Koevermans is heading for AZ and Mustapha Riga to Levante. Even third ace Ricky van de Bergh may walk off.

Although most people have a soft spot for the 'old red-and-white stripes' because of the club's traditional values, they know that points are not awarded for sympathy in football.

The grim reality is that now Sparta are back in the big time they will automatically join the Eredivisie's list of 'usual suspects' in the struggle to avoid being shoved out of football's Paternoster lift as it travels between the first and second divisions next season.

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