As a follow-up to his feature on the turbulent history of PEC Zwolle, Ryan Ferguson presents an exclusive interview with club President Adriaan Visser.

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zwolle dknIn late August, PEC Zwolle will take to the field against Sparta Prague in the first European tie in club history. For President Adriaan Visser, the proposition is new and exciting, but will be approached in much the same manner which led his humble club here. “It’s a new adventure,” says the man in charge of day-to-day operations at the IJsseldelta Stadion. “We will play every match to win and if you win every match in the Europa League you’re in the final and you win the Europa League and that will be a dream. But the ambition is let’s start playing there and see how far we will go.”

A similar sentiment has permeated the turbulent history of a club condemned to liquidation just twenty-five years ago; this free-spirited, almost dreamy willingness to believe in the improbable characterising Zwolle’s rise from second tier also-rans to chief Eredivisie party-poopers. “I always think, a little bit, in realistic terms and about what is possible,” Visser explains. “What the organisation can do, what wage limit you are living with, what interest there is in football in Zwolle…but we want to be, from a financial point of view, very healthy. We want to develop out young player development program even further. We would like a budget roughly 50% higher than it is now.”

This burning ambition for continual progress is another hallmark trait which defines PEC, and which has provided grist for its rapid development in recent years. Visser remembers the darker days, and uses the clubs subsequent growth as inspiration to keep advancing. “I was already a long time supporter of the club during the difficulties in the beginning of the 90s,” says the 63-year old executive. “But, when I took over as president of the club in the middle of 2009, we were entering a new stadium so that also helped with the development of the club.”

“We have grown from a very, very, very small club to still a small club on the world scale, but we are making progress, not only from a technical point of view but also from a financial point of view and from an organisational point of view, and we hope there is still room for improvement and for further development.”

In order for a club of PEC’s size to continue expanding, and competing with mightier, wealthier opponents such as Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, chief decision-makers, led by Visser, must stay one step ahead of the curve, searching for new ways to remain competitive despite obvious budgetary shortcoming. So, how exactly have they managed to find and exploit these unique advantages for so long?

“First of all, you need to be a bit lucky,” Visser expounds. “Don’t forget that luck is an important part of all successes in life, not only football but all successes.”

“Secondly, I think it’s also the result of a clear vision, you need to know your limitations and the positive points you can add to a process. I think we can put that up to a good group of staff and good staffing organisation, good organisation in general. We have been very successful at finding the right people for the right job, but there is also a sense that it is something that will not happen every season for this club.”

According to Visser, Art Langeler, the progressive coach who steered PEC back to the top tier and instituted many of the core principles driving the present halcyon period, fit this criteria perfectly. “Art was the right man at the right moment. He was someone who came from within the club, he was training our young players in the education program. We needed a new head coach and we said ‘Okay let’s give the opportunity to a trainer from our own staff.’ We made accommodation for him and [assistant] Jaap Stam. Under them the team functioned fantastically and in those three years, the team went up to the Eredivisie and the first year in the top league was a pretty good success I would say.”

“When Jaap and Art wanted to take another move in their career, we found Ron Jans and, don’t forget, René Hake as assistant,” Visser continues, charting the club’s transition from lovable Eredivisie newcomers to serious contenders for silverware. “We found a fantastic team again. Everybody adds something to the club’s development in their own period of time and Art was very successful, together with Jaap, and now Ron and René are successful and we hope they will be successful in the coming years.”

Of course, Jans’ biggest continuation was in orchestrating the club’s unprecedented 5-1 KNVB Cup victory over the mighty Ajax last season, a result which sent shockwaves through football and, ultimately, catapulted PEC into the European limelight.

“For a small club as we are, that was a fantastic add-on to the season result,” recalls Visser mawkishly. “This club had never won a prize at that level in Dutch competition and we’re now close to being a 105 years old so it was a really fantastic result.”

“There were a lot of people from Zwolle visiting the stadium but also in the one or two days after that match it was party time here in the city, so it was fantastic to be the President of this club and to have added my contribution over the last six years.”

On the field that day, we saw the fruition of an innovative transfer policy which, despite fiscal restraints, allows PEC to find obscure diamonds in the rough; players like two-goal hero Ryan Thomas, midfield anchor Kamohelo Mokotjo and centre forward Guyon Fernandez tearing Ajax asunder en route to ultimate glory.

Visser outlines the club’s recruitment ethos like this: “There are two things. There are talents coming out of our own young players education programme, Mustafa Seymak and Jesper Drost are an example of that; they’re very talented young players. There are also players who come from worldwide, that is the way Ryan Thomas came into the club.”

Visser continues, explaining how PEC attempt to find treasure in the big boys’ garbage, trawling the Eredivisie scrap heap for discarded spare parts which may improve the team: “Our scouting organisation found, in the second team of Feyenoord, Kamohelo Mokotjo, who was not interesting to Feyenoord anymore. They had chosen Clasie and others in midfield. Kamohelo is now another we’ve sold on to Twente, as well as Youness Mokhtar and Daryll Lachman.”

“Lachman came from Groningen, Mokhtar came from PSV, so I think it’s a very important part of the club, we’re very successful in developing, ‘second chance’ players or players out of our own young players education program. We do very well in developing those kinds of players and helping them into the next phase of their career.”

“I also think the Dutch competition is very well suited for that, and our way of playing is very well suited for that, and the organisation is thinking about how we can make players better, enabling them to move on to a higher level.”

In the near future, many Zwolle executives hope that these renaissance players can ascend to a higher level whilst staying at PEC. With the greater financial flexibility derived from success at home and abroad, the club may soon find itself in a better position to keep hold of star players and maintain a squad nucleus capable of regularly challenging the elite. Whilst this vision is tempting to Visser, he understands that PEC was burned by over zealous ambition in the past. Accordingly, the President likes to take the view of a pragmatic optimist, stating that “our next milestone is 2017. Then we want to have a rather stable position in the league, somewhere around 8, 7, 6, 9, 10. Then we’ll think about what could be a realistic goal in, say, 2020. But first, let’s make the first step 2017.”

This legislated ambition, this honest yearning for success controlled by a dexterous sense of history and realistic business acumen, is what drives PEC Zwolle, the humble club wedged between three tranquil rivers in Overijssel, onward to glory. From the ruins of liquidation just twenty-five years ago, PEC is set to play in Europe. The vision, hunger and care of patriarchs like Adriaan Visser gives this club a chance not only to survive, but thrive. It’s a simply stunning fairytale; a fairytale about to unfurl before the gaze of new audiences across the world.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)