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May 22, 2008

Phoenix from the flames

With Ajax failing to reach the Champions League and ADO Den Haag returning to the top fligth in a haze of crowd violence, it seemed just another ordinary day in Dutch football last weekend.

Meanwhile, on the sidelines NEC Nijmegen qualified for the UEFA Cup. So what, you might say, except that the team were firmly rooted to the bottom of the league in January after a series of eleven games without victory.

Once in bed, I hardly caught a wink of sleep as my mind worked feverishly. Who was to blame and what would happen on Sunday with Ajax as the visitors?
I was there as a fan on that winter night when second division FC Zwolle outplayed NEC in the third round of the cup and left town with a 2-0 win. During the second half as this disastrous result was played out some neutral friends asked me whether I would sleep that night as my team had not managed a decent attack all evening.

A cup run should have been the final straw to save the season, but even that proved too much. 'Ha!', I laughed merrily. 'There's no way I'll let this sorry lot affect my own life. Those days are over. As a sports reporter it is easy for me to take a step back. No problem at all.'

Or so I thought. Once in bed, I hardly caught a wink of sleep as my mind worked feverishly. Who was to blame and what would happen on Sunday with Ajax as the visitors? But little did I know of the incidents that happened after the game.

While I was keeping a brave face with my guests at home, having a drink before they left, some supporters insulted the red-carded Jermaine Lens at the main entrance of the stadium and some others found their way to the NEC dressing room. Coach Mario Been confronted them at the door and managed to quiet the partizans down. 'I can understand them,' he later said of the siege.

With trembling legs we climbed the stairs for the Ajax game but our nerves were soon calmed when Lens, on loan from AZ, opened the scoring early in the game and then subsequently made the Ajax defenders look like schoolboys as they tried to stop him. Unfortunately Lens could not add another goal, and of course, one defensive error was enough for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to rob us of a victory.

Away at FC Groningen Been could only watch as his tactical plan failed, his captain Peter Wisgerhof received a red card and NEC end up on the wrong side of a 5-1 scoreline. At the end of the night the team shared the last place with Excelsior from Rotterdam, causing another sleepless night.

In November the club had disclosed plans for a sensational second tier on the stadium which will nicely disappear in the park around it, but relegation would make this a pipedream. And with just three months of the season left to play and a measly tally of just three wins and four away goals this doom scenario seemed very likely.

The club did manage to bring in four players, but all of them had spent most of the first half of the season on bench-warming elsewhere. Yet Been, impersonating the captain of the Titanic, insisted that everything would be alright.

The next home game was a dreary spectacle but at least NEC came away with three points and the following week our relegation rivals Heracles Almelo were despatched thanks to two goals from Lens.

When the game was won with an offside goal (with a twist of handball) in injury time it dawned on us that no-one was able to stop NEC.

Then struggling AZ came to visit and both teams knew that the winner could still go places, while the loser would end up in trouble. Louis van Gaal's team started in possession, but NEC soon had the ball back at their feet, albeit on the centre spot for the restart after going 1-0 down just three minutes into the match.

NEC had not turned a score around for ages, but they somehow equalised within five minutes and subsequently capitalised on the AZ's lethargic defence. After 21 minutes they were 4-1 ahead and went on to finish the game 5-2 after an afternoon of wonderful football.

When NEC let Excelsior escape with the three points in the next game the result against AZ seemed like a fluke. The team was still only two points from the relegation play-offs and had some difficult away games ahead. Fans calculated that 10 points from nine games were needed for safety, which still looked to be quite difficult.

Over the next eight weeks NEC gathered not 10 but 25 points with only PSV keeper Gomes able to boast a clean sheet against NEC, and even then he needed a to pull off several point blank saves.

Eventually we celebrated safety as every opponent was brushed aside, but when the game at VVV Venlo was won with an offside goal (with a twist of handball) deep in injury time it dawned on us that no-one was able to stop NEC.

On the final matchday the team secured a play-off place with the sixth away win in a row. UEFA Cup football loomed on the horizon.

What was the key to this turnaround? There are more reasons, but prominent was the fitness of the team. While other squads were exhausted at the start of the play-offs, NEC was fresh and fit, thanks to improved training methods.

The man in possession sometimes had two or three options to pass forward, which made NEC's game fluent and dangerous. Striker Jhon van Beukering was the holding man with his back to the goal, enabling midfielders like Australian Brett Holman to run into the box while winger Lens made exciting forward runs and was a constant menace.

Hungarian Kristian Vadocz, signed on account of some footage on a DVD, proved to be an intelligent and pivotal midfielder, who formed a great partnership with dynamo Bas Sibum. None of them ever had been in the limelight before, but together they were invincible.

The six play-off games went by in a rush. While the opponents faded away, NEC got better and better and finished the sequence by humiliating the team which had finished third in the league, NAC Breda, 6-0, making the return leg redundant.

So there we were: from the bottom of the table to UEFA Cup qualification in four months. How can I describe this as a supporter?

On the final matchday the team secured a play-off place with the sixth away win in a row. UEFA Cup football loomed on the horizon.

Fans of NEC are not used to a winning streak, so we always believed it would not last. Although the team played brilliantly we kept thinking that by the next game it could all be over. Gradually we understood that rules change once you are in a flow.

Scoring deep in injury time, seeing goals disallowed that would have stood in the first half of the season, while eagle-eyed linesmen kept their flag down to be justified by the replays, but which seemed clear offside positions in real time. All of course at crucial moments in the game and all in favour of us.

At one point coach Been brought on 35-year old central defender Pothuizen as a targetman in the closing minutes of the game against Sparta in a last effort to turn the score around. In no time he scored twice and set-up a third goal to be taken off again, just for the fun of it.

It is just too bad that this season is over.


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