The latest entry into the Football-Oranje hall of fame is NAC Breda legend Antoon ‘Rat’ Verlegh.

  • By M.Joseph Valler

Antoon VerleghOne club, 48 years. 19 years as a player, 295 matches and scoring 125 times; from a black shirt to a white shirt to a yellow shirt, Antoon Verlegh was and is ‘Mister NAC’.

Each and every club with a history longer than a decade has a player, manager or owner who is synonymous with its name; a mythical figure alive or dead. If it is the latter, proof of their existence may be preserved in a statue, a black and white photograph or even moving slowly behind a grainy film stock. Regardless of their form, their names alone conjure up an image of a crest, stadium or team at a certain time. Those who deal at the top end of a football league can usually call on more than one. Ajax, for example; could call upon a handful of past XI’s, four managers and / or a coach. As you slide down the leagues, the quantity of these figureheads per club reduce and we are often left with a single name. This name may be a local boy, a player who never left the club or who later became a successful manager. Unless you have an affection for this particular club, this name will be lost on you despite walking a street, holding a ticket or sat in a stand bearing their name.

Antoon Verlegh played for NAC Breda and his involvement in this football club began on the very day it was founded and lasted until his premature death in 1960. At different times in between, Verlegh was a player, trainer, programme editor, secretary, member of the board, vice chairman and then finally, Chairman of Honour. From a black shirt to a white shirt to a yellow shirt, Antoon Verlegh was and is ‘Mister NAC’ in the same way that Abe Lendstra is ‘Mister Heerenveen’ or Johan Cruyff is ‘Mister Ajax’ (amongst numerous other candidates).

Antoon Verlegh was born Antonius Wilhelmus Verlegh on 29 March 1896 in Ginneken (now Ginnekenweg and also now a part of Breda). Clearly, the young Antoon had a vision of his chosen path in life and ten years after that date, Antoon founded with friends, his first football club; the Ginnekensche Voetbal Vereniging aka GVV or Ginneken Football Club. With each of the ten to fourteen year olds contributing 5 cents each week, the boys would play on the open space beside Baronie Horsetrain every Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Despite having to make do with a self made ball and wood battens for goal posts, Antoon’s subtlety and deceptiveness in evading the tackles of charging centre backs would soon quickly gain him the nickname that the midfielder would carry all his life and onwards; “The Rat”.

In contrast to this nickname, the eleven year old Verlegh quickly began to exhibit the philanthropic traits which would later define his time at NAC by arranging a tournament to celebrate the anniversary of GVV and which would involve several small Breda clubs and local school teams.

In 1908 Verlegh moved on to join NOAD (Nooit Opgeven, Altijd Doorzetten or ‘never give up, always persevere’) and four years later, on September 20, 1912 the club merged with ADVENDO (Aangenaam Door Vermaak En Nuttig Door Ontspanning or ‘Pleasant for its entertainment and useful for its relaxation’) to form NAC (NOAD ADVENDO Combinatie). After an initially refusing to allow NAC to play association football, the KNVB relented on October 28, 1912 and at the age of 17, Antoon Verlegh took his place in NAC’s first 2nd Southern Division fixture. For three seasons beginning in 1913, NAC played at grounds north of the Wilhelmina Park of Breda, in an area known as Achter de Watertoren or ‘Behind the watertower’.

During NAC’s time in the shadow of the watertower, the club popularity began to increase and a move was a necessity to meet the increase in support. Following this relocation to t’Ploegske, results began to slowly improve and by 1919, NAC were crowned champions of the Southern Division. This success meant that NAC could play in the Dutch champion’s competition, a small tournament in which regional champions would compete for the Dutch national title. In that competition debut, NAC could only manage to finish in third place but such was their progression that by 1921 they were crowned champions; defeating Ajax, Be Quick 1887 and Go Ahead Eagles on their way to first place.

Throughout the next decade, NAC continued to play at the top level of Dutch football; winning six Southern Division titles and as a result, invited to play numerous friendlies. One notable friendly was against Real Madrid, with the match resulting in a 4-0 win to NAC and the Spanish press to herald the Dutch as ‘Los muchacos del Breda, maestros del futbol’ or ‘The boys from Breda, masters in football’ .

In 1920, at the age of 24, Verlegh received an invitation from Fred Warburton, an Englishman who at that time was national coach. Warburton wanted Verlegh to make his debut for the Netherlands in an upcoming away fixture against Switzerland in Basel. On the 16th May, despite starting the match as a substitute, Verlegh finally made his debut for his country in the 20th minute by replacing Willem II’s Harry Mommers. Two years later, Verlegh played his second international match, once again against Switzerland in Amsterdam’s Oude Stadion, this time scoring two goals.

On April 26, 1925, whilst playing for NAC against Sparta, Antoon Verlegh sustained a serious injury that would leave him out of action for almost seven months. Despite recovery, this injury would continued to plague him for the rest of his career and greatly hamper his chances of playing in the National side.

On 22 April, 1928, prior to what would have been his 9th match for the Netherlands against Denmark, he was first selected for the squad but was then deemed not fit to play. Verlegh would be replaced by his NAC teammate Cor Kools and his International career brought to an abrupt close. Ever present for NAC throughout this time, Verlegh was considered to be one of the most technically gifted players of his generation and due to his progressive views on football; by the end of this decade, Verleghs role as an opinion maker in Dutch football began to emerge. In 1928, at just 33 and whilst still playing regularly for NAC, he became first a member and then Secretary of the Southern Division commission.

On 11th October 1931, Antoon Verlegh played what would be his last match for NAC against MVV Maastricht. At the final whistle, NAC emerged victors by three goals to one and The Rat’s 1919 year playing career came to a close. To much fanfare and following a pitch side presentation by Honorary President Asselbergs; Verlegh signed off, playing a total of 295 matches and scoring 125 times.

Following his retirement, Verlegh continued to remain active fulfilling several roles within NAC. At different times over the next twenty years, The Rat would be NAC’s manager, a member of the selection committee, secretary, a member of the board and vice chairman. If this wasn’t enough, the multi-tasking Verlegh was also an editor for the NAC match programme ‘De Klok’. These were leaner years than the club were used to but whilst NAC drifted between the Eredivisie and Eerste Klasse, life at NAC was not without event. In the very year of Verleghs retirement, the club had a dispute with the City of Breda concerning the location of the stadium.

The club were informed by the city that ‘t Ploegske was zoned as a residential area which meant that NAC would be forced to leave these grounds. Due to no other land being readily available in Breda, not only were NAC forced to leave ‘t Ploegske, they would be forced to leave the city and take up residence in a new stadium built in the nearby town of Princenhage. This unforeseen exile would last just under a decade until the city’s council zoned a large piece of land at the Beatrixstraat as a stadium area and through Verlegh’s taking up this cause, NAC finally returned to the city of Breda in 1940. With this mission complete, The Rat strode into the wartime period with former club NOAD’s motto ‘Never give up, always persevere’ seemingly at the forefront of his mind.

Verlegh and NAC showed it’s gratitude to the city of Breda by initiating what would be the beginning of the clubs belief in performing a strong social function by organizing regular sport events, theatre and fairs for the benefit of Breda’s community.

Despite only playing eight times for the Netherlands, Antoon Verleghs talents for the administrative side of football did not go unnoticed by the KNVB and in 1943 he joined the KNVB’s committee on youth football. This was followed by a further appointment three years later, on the technical and selection committees for the national team and his progression culminated in the KNVB appointing him chairman in 1950. This role was short-lived, however; as Verlegh resigned from this post and all other activities for the KNVB in 1953, citing a conflict of interests.

Once again, the KNVBs loss was NACs gain and following his resignation, The Rat reverted back to working full-time at NAC in an unpaid position. At the close of the decade, Chairman of Honour C.J. Asselbergs passed away and along with the demise of a number of other club founders, it appeared as if a chapter in the clubs history was beginning to close. In 1951, possibly conscious of this fading out, the NAC board demonstrated their thanks for Verleghs devotion by making him Chairman of Honour. Whilst in this position, Verlegh would finally see professional football introduced in the Netherlands in 1954, NAC enter the 1A League and become champions in 1955.

At 10:15am on March 12th 1960, Antoon Verlegh left Den Haag after visiting friends. Despite reportedly feeling unwell, Verlegh decided to make the journey by car to Breda. The following day, NAC played at home against SC Enschede. Verleghs seat remained empty for the duration of the 2-1 defeat. Later that evening, when Verlegh had still not returned home and it was apparent that something was wrong; he was reported missing by loved ones. In the late morning of March 14th 1960, a car bearing the number plate AP-11-18 was found by Seargent Jac van de Blom in an 8 foot pit filled with water near the village of Prinsenbeek. The body of the 63 year old attacking midfielder was found behind the wheel; his cause of death found to be from heart attack whilst driving.

Three days later, he was laid to rest at the Kerkhofweg by the Breda Community, the KNVB and his NAC family. In 1962, two years following Antoon Verleghs death, NAC celebrated its 50th anniversary and used this celebration to commemorate their former everything. Its training pitches were renamed ‘Rat Verlegh Fields’ and fittingly, an annual tournament for Dutch and Belgian youth sides was announced bearing his name.

The years following Antoon Verleghs passing, were not always kind to NAC; in 1965 the club was relegated for the first time in its existence and such a catastrophe meant that the resignation of the board was required in order to reform the club’s management structure. Despite a few high points in the 1970’s (including a historic win in the KNVB cup) the club never maintained the same form or dominance they had achieved during Antoon Verlegh’s tenure. In the 1980’s, NAC were relegated twice, with the second relegation leading the club to the brink of bankruptcy. In the midst of this turmoil, the board would make one of the few key decisions to benefit the club from that time; in 1975 the board decided to play home matches on a Saturday evening.

This decision led to a group of fanatical NAC fans coming together and slowly, with the support of younger fans an intimidating atmosphere was born. These evening matches became notorious and known as ‘Avondje NAC’ or Evening NAC. Throughout those turbulent years, the name Antoon Verlegh appeared to have been largely forgotten by the club; the fans however, never ceased to lose sight of the former glories personified by Verlegh. Bad times or good, such heroes always remain – giving pride in the past and guidance for the future.

One of the characteristics that defines Dutch football is the strong links between a Football Club and its Fans. Whilst not always a harmonious relationship, both parties recognise the others importance and are vigilant in meeting each other’s expectations. In 1996 the new NAC stadium was opened and despite the names of the stadium passing from the Fujifilm to the Mycom Stadium, the NAC fans lead the charge to name the stadium after the man who had done so much for them.

To coincide with the construction of the new stadium, the NAC fans also dedicated a fanzine to him; NAC Fanzine De Rat. The fanzine was the first of its kind in the Netherlands and still remains the oldest one in publication. NAC continue to carry on the most important part of Antoon Verleghs legacy, promoting street leagues and football tournament for the disenfranchised and disadvantaged in the local community.

Matthew Valler (7 Posts)