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Jan 4, 2006

Huntelaar to show his Klaas?

When the Dutch nation woke up on the penultimate day of 2005, the radio news on their alarm clocks advised them to stay at home. A blizzard was closing in on the south-western coast and was bound to cover the whole nation in snow as the day progressed.

People reclined comfortably in their beds as, at the end of the year, the Dutch economy takes a break by closing most offices. So when weather reports issued a warning for treacherous conditions few really cared. Thanks to the raised alarm, road congestion stayed to a minimum, while most trains were not running in the afternoon anyway. Everyone could spend a great, warm evening around the fireplace. Well, not everyone. If you happened to be involved in football, you did not.

For the first time in thirty years the Dutch FA scheduled a matchday at Christmas and another before New Year's Eve, hoping to avoid fixture congestion during the run-in to the World Cup, but also to introduce that fine British tradition of playing in the festive season.

Games on Thursday went on as planned as PSV dropped two points at home against FC Twente and Feyenoord crushed poor Willem II 6-1. Then the weather took a turn for the worse and the whole of western Europe grinded to a halt the next day.

In their parallel universe apparently the Dutch FA stick to this idiom; when the players won't get hurt, the game is on! Whatever happens to the supporters, well, who cares. That is their responsibility, so tough luck.

Two matches were postponed, but Roda JC vs Groningen was on. Only a handful of supporters managed the 400-mile round-trip to see their team earn a rare away victory. In Almelo, Heracles and Vitesse met on artificial turf. The home team took a surprise three-goal lead. During the break the blizzard arrived, which made normal play impossible. However, it was not dangerous, so the referee had to continue.

The remaining forty-five minutes were quite a spectacle, hugely enjoyed by the crowd. Snow on artificial turf would have been a great feature in 'It's a Knock-Out'. We can hear Stuart Hall laughing already, but in terms of professional sport it was a complete nonsense. Vitesse could pull only one goal back and afterwards complained about losing to an 'amateur team'.

The third game on the night was the most interesting. Accustomed to icy conditions in the north, Heerenveen do not bother much about snow.

In fact, they were determined to let the game against Ajax go on. For two reasons. First, history has showed how Ajax have been left exposed on several occasions in wintry conditions with their game just not being suited to it.

Famously in 1969, Eusebio caught his first ever sight of snow, coming to Holland for the quarter-final of the European Cup. Contrary to belief in Holland, the Portuguese dealt well with the conditions and ripped Cruyff & co apart with a 3-1 win in the Olympic Stadium.

In 1986, Ajax fell victim to the arctic opportunism of VVV Venlo for a 3-0 league deficit. No wonder they built a roof over the Amsterdam Arena. So the groundsmen in Heerenveen did all they could to keep the game on.

And, secondly, then there was Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Top scorer in the league with 16 goals in 14 games for Heerenveen, there were rumours for months where he would go when the transfer window opened. After lengthy negotiatons Ajax signed him for nine million euros.

Ironically his last match for Heerenveen would be against his new employer, if, of course, the game was on. Should it be postponed, he would probably play for the other side. A second reason for Heerenveen to let the game definitely go on. And it did. In freezing conditions and a terrible snowstorm the fragile Ajax players were completely blown away by the willpower of the Friesians.

Huntelaar played as if there had never been any contact with his new club, while Heerenveen's second striker Georgios Samaras stormed throught the Ajax defence as if it was not there. With two goals in injury-time Ajax escaped a rout and their biggest league defeat in five years, which came at the same venue.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored the second of Heerenveen's goals in their 4-2 win, started in the PSV youth system, but never played more than fifteen first-team minutes for the club.

In the winter of 2003 he joined De Graafschap on loan, but couldn't make the first team, despite them being rooted to the bottom of the league and in dire need of goals. His subsequent move to new professional club AGOVV Apeldoorn was far happier as he became top scorer of the first division with 26 goals.

But still PSV did not see a future for him at the club and exchanged Huntelaar for Heerenveen's Gerald Sibon, also paying more than half a million euros to the Friesians. Sibon spends most of his Eindhoven days in the stands, while Huntelaar helped Heerenveen to a UEFA Cup spot with his 17 goals.

Within 18 months his transfer price exploded from 100,000 to 9m euros. Thanks to new FIFA rules, PSV cashed about 15% of the latter sum after his formative years at the club. And while Ajax have forked out millions for another striker, all three of Steven Pienaar, Hatem Trabelsi and Nigel de Jong have told Ajax they will leave the club this summer when their contracts expire.

Whether Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is Ajax material remains to be seen. As mentioned in an earlier column, imported strikers usually find it very difficult to accommodate in Amsterdam. But in the last month, Markus Rosenberg and Angelos Charisteas have started scoring after coach Danny Blind changed tactics from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2.

Although this flies in the face of everything the club stands for, there was little uproar as four league wins and an away draw at Arsenal halted the downslide of the team, especially in the league. Defeat at Heerenveen has been largely attributed to that blizzard in the north.

For the remainder of the season, Blind may now have to return to his old system to accommodate this new signing. Huntelaar plays best with two wingers at his side and could become an ideal link-up for Wesley Sneijder in midfield.

That would direct relegate Rosenberg and Charisteas to the bench again and open new opportunities for players like Ryan Babel and Mauro Rosales, who did not impress in the first half of the season. With the winter break lasting only one weekend, Blind has no time to practice which strikeforce works the best so must rely on his instincts if he is to continue his Ajax revival.

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