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The loan challengers

Talk about total football all you like, but even in Holland clubs outside the 'big three' needs a mad millionaire to keep up with the big boys. At tiny AZ Alkmaar they know all about it.

Dirk Scheringa, their tycoon chairman, was once a policeman who helped family and friends with their financial affairs. Over the years this evolved into a personal loans empire which was successfully floated on the stockmarket.

So Scheringa is loaded. His image diversifies from being a ruthless loan shark whose firms tempt people with dim-witted commercials for easy money, leaving behind a trail of personal bankrupcies, to a philantropist, funding the Frisia museum which preserves Dutch art for generations to come.

His sporting passion is ice-skating so his banks are the sponsors of not only popular Dutch speed skaters, but also of several opponents from all over the globe in an attempt to keep the sport interesting.

His highest claim to fame, however, is returning the sinking ship of AZ to the top. Chairman and benefactor since 1993, he took ten years to find the right management.

With sporting directors Martin van Geel and Toon Gerbrands already on borad, the club finally took off with the appointment of coach Co Adriaanse. Adriaanse turned a squad of mid-table underachievers into European challengers within two years but then announced his departure.

His surprise successor was Louis van Gaal. Not an easy job to step into, as the team that Adriaanse left behind had seemed squeezed out like a lemon at the end of last season, having missed out on several prizes at the death. But Louis is not a former Champions League winner for nothing and has managed to take the team to an even higher level.

In continental football these days a surprise package of one year is usually relegation fodder of the next as the defining players are snapped up by the big boys.

AZ, however, have managed to agree good deals with their main protagonists and, thanks to Scheringa, are not in need of transfer money. Olaf Lindenbergh and Jan Kromkamp were the only ones to leave in the summer and were both replaced quite rapidly. Dutch U21-international Stijn Schaars came on a free from Vitesse, while Van Gaal found absolute bargains in Demy de Zeeuw from Go Ahead Eagles and Gretar Steinsson, who did not even have a club.

Another free transfer arrival was Shota Arveladze from Glasgow Rangers, who had worked with Van Gaal at Ajax. He may earn a nice salary but he has been just the poaching striker AZ missed last season. His goals keep AZ within close distance of leaders PSV and took them comfortably to the last 32 in the UEFA Cup.

These achievements are all the more amazing as the Alkmaarder Hout, the home of the club, would not be out of place in England's League One or even League Two, being a ramshackle building hosting about 7,500 viewers.

Louis van Gaal plans his masterstrokes from the refined housing of a portakabin as there is no room for him inside the main stand, a romantic relic from the sixties.

Outsiders may wonder why an ambitious chairman still puts up with these surroundings. In fact, Scheringa's plans for a new ground, combined with offices, a shopping mall, a casino and a cinema, go way back into the last century. However, the entrepreneurs of Alkmaar's high streets were not keen to add a large leisure complex with easy access so close to their doors.

They succesfully appealed against the building licences for several years, driving Scheringa to the limit of his patience. Last year AZ received the go-ahead and the site was immediately crowded with construction workers. The new DSB-Stadion (which stands for Dirk Scheringa Bank) should be ready this summer and will hold 13,500 spectators.

So only good news from Alkmaar then? No. When Valencia and FC Porto were interested in Jan Kromkamp this summer, the deal fell through when Scheringa demanded a ridiculous price, which went against earlier verbal agreements with the defender. Later the club caved in and Kromkamp was eventually allowed to join Villareal.

Then technical director Martin van Geel was lured to the Amsterdam Arena to take the vacant job Louis van Gaal left last year. A nice step up, but Scheringa went ape when he heard about it. Apparently Van Geel taking the club from a position of perennial midtable has-beens to title contenders within a few years accounted for nothing.

Having betrayed the club to join the enemy, as Ajax is to Alkmaar, Scheringa put a ban on Van Geel visiting the premises of his former club for some time to come.

Within two hours after he had announced his departure, all traces of the technical director were wiped away from the Alkmaarder Hout. Within weeks AZ found an apt replacement in Marcel Brands, very succesful at RKC Waalwijk, who continued where Van Geel left off and no harm was done.

However, Scheringa kept being furious about the 'betrayal' of his former director. When Ajax announced their interest in young international Ron Vlaar the chairman made it clear that the 20-year old could go anywhere except to the Arena. It was another strange twist in the rollercoaster career of Vlaar.

He made his debut for AZ only last April in Lisbon, during the UEFA Cup semi-final against Sporting. With six official games under his belt he was invited by Marco van Basten to join the Dutch squad in June for the World Cup qualifiers. Having stayed on the bench he subsequently played in the U21 championships.

This season he spent most time on the bench at AZ, but made a succesful debut for Holland as a sub against the Czech Republic. Then, in a friendly against Italy, he failed miserably, only a month after a sending-off in an important game for AZ against PSV which had been lost 3-0.

At that time Van Gaal made the choice to use his more experienced defenders, who are internationals as well. Then Ajax made their interest in Vlaar clear and, thanks to his youth contract, money could be no problem.

But Scheringa snubbed the big neighbour out of spite and denied the youngster the chance to play for the club he supported as a youth. Vlaar then gained the impression that Van Gaal ignored him because of his flirts with Van Geel. With everyone at loggerheads, Spurs and Feyenoord intervened.

Vlaar visited White Hart Lane and Martin Jol, but decided Rotterdam would be better before going abroad in the future. Off he went for a rather small fee.

In the end this was probably a case of breaking eggs to bake an omelette. But Scheringa and his fellow tycons never made their millions by being nice and easy going. If a wagon is going at full speed, some people will fall off or get crushed along the way.

In the meantime, AZ might become a Dutch title challenger on a regular basis. We may even start talking about 'the big four'.

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