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Emerging from the shadows

Before the Dutch season started I hailed the top four in Holland and how it all would be so very exciting with those teams challenging for the 2008 title. Little did I know that in fact six teams would still be in contention and they may huddle together even more over the next week.

There are two Super Sundays coming up in which the top clubs meet and will drop points. The Super Sundays were coined for the meetings of the top four: Ajax, AZ, Feyenoord and PSV. One of these days had to be postponed for security reasons.

Now Ajax will host PSV on Wednesday and Feyenoord next Sunday. AZ go to Rotterdam first, then play PSV at home. But apart from the money, the history and the fan base there is little left of our designated top four.

PSV recently struggled to a draw in Venlo - promoted VVV playing with ten men for about an hour. Ajax and Feyenoord had already underwhelmed there just before Christmas.

At least both came away with a point, which was more than their visits to Woudenstein, where Excelsior reside. The black sheep of the Eredivisie, with their 4,000 capacity ground, beat both convincingly.

Of all the clubs lurking behind these three, AZ is not among them. Champions-to-be just months ago, they still haven't managed to break into the top half of the table.

They have spent millions on strikers but still cannot score and have another fortune lined up for last-season's top scorer, Afonso Alves of Heerenveen.

The Brazilian is a bit of an enigma. Last summer he went on strike for a couple of weeks when his club would not sell him to AZ because the bid was too low. In December he signed a contract with Alkmaar, but then refused to go as he disputed the validity of the arrangement.

Alves is now eager to go to Middlesbrough instead, but first the status of 'deal' with AZ has to be settled in court.

In the meantime, AZ keep dropping points and the 'Van Gaal out' chant roared into the night sky of Alkmaar when his team gave away three points in the dying seconds against NAC Breda last Wednesday.

Two clubs are wearing smiles this season and both are from the north. Heerenveen and FC Groningen have shown how a good scouting system can take you places.

Heerenveen had no choice. The only top player from their pastures was Abe Lenstra - a star from the fifties.

Heerenveen played in the championship play-offs when he was there but when professional football arrived Lenstra tried his luck at Sportclub Enschede and his former team plummeted into the second division.

Only in the nineties did the combination of cunning chairman Riemer van der Velde and the skilful coach Foppe de Haan return the club to the Eredivisie.

They play in a village of 20,000 and as a result worked hard to become the main team of the region. They succeeded as their image is now the best in the country.

The top teams have more supporters, but a large contignent of adversaries as well.

Heerenveen, third in the table, have managed to present itself as a friendly, sympathetic, James Stewart-type of club for those who don't like the brouhaha around the top three. But image alone does not score goals.

The club set up an efficient network of Scandinavian scouts and became a springboard for Northern European youngsters to go on to bigger leagues, especially strikers.

Jon-Dahl Tommasson was the first to storm the Dutch top scorers chart followed by Marcus Allbäck, Lasse Nilsson and now Afonso Alves.

In between they nurtured the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Gerald Sibon, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Georgios Samaras. They are all players who thrived in the style of play Heerenveen adopted and were able to score many goals. Every single one was sold for millions of euros.

Another perk is their stickiness to their coaches. Foppe de Haan was in charge for eleven years. His precessor Gert-Jan Verbeek is now in his fourth season. Although this will be his last, the picture is clear.

The club puts some thought into the appointment of a new coach and that works.

If they can sell Afonso Alves for about 20million euros, then they look a better contender to join the top three then AZ.

Neighbours FC Groningen have taken a similar path to Heerenveen. Just over ten years ago they spent two seasons in the First Division, but since coach Ron Jans joined in 2003 the club have made steady progress.

Utilising the money recieved from Arjen Robben's transfer to PSV, FC Groningen set up a very efficient scouting system abroad.

With the arrival of goalscorer Erik Nevland from Viking FK, and the opening of the new Euroborg Stadium in 2005, they made a big step towards the top.

In the first year of play-offs in the Eredivisie, FC Groningen made it into the final and were only minutes away from keeping Ajax out of the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.

They confirmed their status last season with a victory in the lesser play-offs for a UEFA Cup ticket.

At the moment Ron Jans' team has climbed into fifth spot and have been the Eredivisie's strongest over the last ten games. And now they can financially reap the benefits from their scouting network as well.

Their Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez was sold to Ajax in the summer for 8million euros and during the winter break fellow countryman and rightback Bruno Silva followed in his footsteps for another 4million euros.

FC Groningen have their replacements already lined up. Marcus Berg has taken Suarez's position effortlessly and this month Sepp de Roover was bought for less than a million from Sparta to play in Silva's position.

A dating show for farmers is the most popular television programme in Holland at present with almost half of the population glued to their sets during the show.

Apparently viewers love to idolise the quiet and supposedly simple country life with its friendly and somewhat naïve natives, the green fields and the wide horizons.

Yet between the mud, the everblowing winds and the oinking pigs groups of very smart people are working on the future of Dutch football.

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