Dutch football legend Rob Rensenbrink is the latest player to enter the Football-Oranje hall of fame.

  • By M. Joseph Valler

rob-rensenbrinkThe hit-man went by many nicknames. At various times they called him ‘the snake man’, ‘the serpent’ and ‘the contortionist’ but today, those names are a distant memory. To those he worked alongside, he was one of the all time greats. Today, either due to the short memories of others or possibly his own efforts of evasion; he has been forgotten. Since his retirement, he has kept a low profile; spending the last twenty years, fishing or tending to his garden. The hitman insists that he is not haunted by his past – by that one miss that has defined him in the minds of his countrymen. He still lives in Oostzaan, a small town north of Amsterdam. It is the same house that he purchased with his wages in 1970. The house is supposedly difficult to locate – which is probably just the way he likes it. Even at his peak, this man was seen as an outsider; back then, he invested his money wisely and can now afford to live a life away from his former profession.He is rarely interviewed, is never a pundit and has no desire to be a coach.

As left wingers usually are, he is a loner; a man of few words.  His name is Rob Rensenbrink and his take on it?

“I prefer to be quiet”

Pieter Robert Rensenbrink was born in Amsterdam on 3rd of July 1947.Little is known about his formative years but it is understood that his footballing apprenticeship (learning the basics of ‘Dutch geometry’ – position of figures and the properties of space) was served in the streets which separated one tenement block from another.

As expected, Rensenbrink emerged quietly into the light and the first sighting of him was at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, the home of DWS (Amsterdamsche Football Club Door Wilskracht Sterk or ‘Amsterdam Football Club Strong Through Willpower’). The exact date of Rensenbrink joining DWS is uncertain but the year believed to be 1964, a season after the club were crowned Eredivisie champions. Today, DWS are an amateur side once more, but at the time of Robbie’s entrance, they were a genuine city rival to Ajax.

In the year following that arrival, AFC DWS reached the quarter finals of the 1964-65 European Cup. At 17, Rensenbrink was already ever present but as expected, his reputation grew slowly and quietly (not scoring regularly until his third season). The third season garnered ten goals, a call up by Georg Kessler for the national team for the first time (a goal-less draw against Scotland in 1968) and meant that suddenly Robbie was now in the shop window – probably not something he enjoyed.

Numerous clubs expressed interest in Rensenbrink with Ajax seen as the most logical step-up. This was everyone but Robbie, however; as a DWS lad, he could not be disloyal. Other deciding factors were that, at that time Piet Keizer played for Ajax at the position of left winger and it was unlikely that he would be displaced. It was Ajax’ rivals Feyenoord, that made the most ​​opportunity to attract his signature and despite regular contact between the Rotterdammers and Rensenbrink, the latter turned them down. In a similar situation to the one at Ajax, Feyenoord had their own club legend, Coen Moulijn established in his position.

Instead, to the surprise of many, in 1969 Robbie Rensenbrink crossed the border to join Belgian side Club Brugge for 450,000 guilders (about € 205,000). The reasons behind this move were straightforward, Rensenbrink knew, like many Dutch players back then, that he wanted a financially independent future and as Belgian clubs paid more than the Dutch at that time; Club Brugge seemed the obvious choice. At the time of his arrival, the Belgian club had only won the championship once in its entire 78 year history. Despite this, there were aspirations there to loosen the 10 year stranglehold of Anderlecht and Standard Liege on the title; in particular, from an ambitious board member named Constant Vanden Stock.

At that time, Club Brugge were coached by the former Dutch International Frans de Munck and following Rob Rensenbrink into blue-black was fellow compatriot Henk Houwaart. The Dutch were joining a team which already included Belgian Internationals such as Pierre Carteus , Raoul Lambert , Fons Bastijns and Erwin Vanden Daele; Rensenbrinks impact on this group of players was instantaneous and in his first season the club won the Belgium Cup.

By 1971, Robbie had a 2:1 goal scoring ratio and had propelled Club Brugge to the runners-up spot in both 1970 and 1971. Inevitably, Rensenbrink once again received attention from coaches at home and abroad (receiving his nickname from the Hungarian coach Lajos Baróti). Leaving his position on the board at Club Brugge, Constant Vanden Stock became President of RSC Anderlecht in 1971. The coach in charge of les Mauves was the man who had given Robbie his International debut; German coach Georg Kessler. Both Stock and Kessler immediately set about bringing a player they both knew well to the capital.

Expecting a move back to his native Holland, Rensenbrink surprised everyone once more by signing for Anderlecht in exchange for Wilfried Puis and Johnny Velkeneers. It would be at the Parc Astrid where Robbie would stay for the next nine seasons, scoring 143 goals in 262 games and becoming a legend in the process. Rensenbrinks success in Belgium would come at the expense of a reputation in his homeland, however.

At the close of his International career, Rensenbrink would not have 50 caps to commemorate his time in the national team. Following his international debut in 1968, Rob picked up relatively few caps due to competition for the forward positions with Johan Cruyff & Piet Keizer. The KNVB were not completely ignorant of his talents, however; Rinus Michels included him for the 1974 FIFA World Cup squad and despite being around for just under ten years as a player, the World Cup in West Germany would be Rensenbrink’s first international tournament appearance.

The Dutch side that took part in the 1974 World Cup was one dominated by players from AFC Ajax and Feyenoord in quantity as well as personality. Rensenbrink was an outsider and was unfamiliar with playing the system. He wasn’t alone in feeling apart from the rest; PSV players van der Kuijlen and van Beveren also found themselves ostracised for frequent clashes with their Eredivisie rivals.

Today, Rensenbrink admits that he never played at the same level internationally that he played domestically; that it took him time to adapt to total football – tactics did not interest him and he didn’t enjoy learning it. Whilst it was not difficult to come back to defend mentally, it was physically. Rensenbrink admits that he played better in 1978 due to Cruyff not being there, but in 1974 Cruyff was a coach on the field and Rensenbrink was an introvert. So, Cruyff talks and Rensenbrink listens with head down.

Up until that tournament Rensenbrink had been understudy to Piet Keizer; Cruyff’s strike partner both domestically and internationally. By 1974 this relationship has turned sour and the two forwards, who had formerly had such a fruitful relationship, were now barely speaking. With this thorny issue at the forefront of his mind, Rinus Michels decided that rather than pair-up the two forwards, he instead would play Rensenbrink and young Ajax striker Johnny Rep alongside Cruyff. The trio were such a success that Rensenbrink missed one game in the tournament (when Keizer played instead). Despite picking up a leg injury during the semi-final against Brazil, Michels refused to change this winning formula and after some intensive physio, he took a gamble and played Rensenbrink from the start. Unfortunately, Robbie would struggle with the injury throughout the game and had to be replaced at half-time by Rene van de Kerkhof; meaning that he would watch the Germans lift the trophy from the bench.

Rensenbrinks performances at the World Cup had led to numeorus overtures from top European clubs but despite this interest, Rensenbrink agreed to stay at Anderlecht. This decision would mean that he would become a legend for les Mauves, forming almost telepathic partnerships with the players supporting him. Assisted by Belgian midfield duo Ludo Coeck and Paul Van Himst as well as Hungarian striker Attila Ladynski, Rensenbrink brought the title back to Brussels at the end of his first season there and then once again two years later.

Around this time, teammates described watching the silent Rensenbrink during training sessions and describing his movement and skill as art. More beautiful, in fact; more precise. By all accounts, watching Robbie in these sessions were akin to peering into the Leonardo’s sketch books; the smooth, elegant way of releasing the ball or his dribbling technique when he retained it. When not in possession; quick acceleration, his movement off the ball and ability to find space met with comparisons to George Best.

Despite the comparisons, however; the way he touched the ball was his own and no one else’s. It was like handwriting, and Robbie had beautiful handwriting.

As if following his lead, fellow compatriots Jan Mulder, Jan Ruiter, Leen Barth and later Arie Haan, Peter Ressel and Ronny van Poucke joined the Belgian Champions. The Dutch contingent were very successful in Anderlecht and with talented home grown youngsters such as Franky Vercauteren and Francois Van der Elst, Anderlecht would appear in three consecutive Cup Winners Cup finals; winning two of them (in 1976 and 1978). European Super Cup triumphs also followed over peak Bayern Munich and Liverpool sides in 1976 & 1978. Rensenbrink scored goals in all four of these finals as well as scoring 30 in 43 European appearances for Anderlecht.

Despite the 1978 edition of the Netherlands featuring Neeskens, Haan, Rep, Jansen, Jongbloed, Krol and Van der Kerkhof; by the time of the World Cup in Argentina, it was reckoned that the golden age of Dutch football had now passed. Maybe whether vane Cruyff knew this; as he chose not to take part and was joined in his absence by Keizer, van Hanegem and Michels – the latter replaced by former European Cup winning Feyenoord coach, Ernst Happel.

The Dutch went into the tournament arguing over formations, money, and how many stripes they were prepared to wear on their shirts but despite this now time-honoured unrest; again, they reached the final. Regardless of the chaos surrounding him; with the slight but imposing shadow of Cruyff gone from the dressing room, the serene Resenbrink produced some of the greatest football of his career playing on the left-hand side of a front three alongside Johnny Rep and René van de Kerkhof. During the final against Argentina; with the score at 1-1, Rensenbrink – played though by Ruud Krol in the last 30 seconds of normal time, shot from a narrow angle which was deflected on to the post and bounced clear. It would remain in the minds of many of his countrymen for years to come. In extra time, Argentina’s Mario Kempes and then Daniel Bertoni closed this chapter of Dutch football history once and for all.

Rensenbrink finished the tournament as the 2nd highest scorer with 5, behind Kempes on 6. Rensenbrink played some of the qualifiers for Euro 80, but following a 2–0 defeat by Poland in a qualifier for Euro 80, he retired from international football at the age of 32, having scored 14 times for his country and accumulating 46 caps.

In 1980, he left Anderlecht after nine years and wound down his career with a spell at Portland Timbers in the NASL. Rensenbrink returned to Europe for a short spell, in 1981. Whilst at French Ligue 2 club Toulouse, Rob helped them gain promotion back to Ligue 1 for the first time since the club was re-formed back in 1970. Despite this final glory, by comparison to the earlier years it was a relatively unassuming way to end a career. Or maybe this was what he wanted. Rensenbrink was a humble and modest man; in personality there appear to be parallels with Dennis Bergkamp in that both were reputedly an understated and calm presence in the dressing room. Robbie missed two penalties in his entire career, and often enjoyed telling the keeper beforehand where he was going to place the ball, and then still beating him there. Like The Iceman (or non-flying Dutchman), Rensenbrink could also score unbelievable goals from technically impossible angles.

The comparisons with the younger man end there, however; a common complaint was that whilst Bergkamp was able to score goals like a silent assassin, he did not display that killer instinct enough. So whereas Bergkamp was not ‘a killer’; with 208 goals in 467 matches, Rob Rensenbrink was.

“Robbie Rensenbrink was as good as Cruyff, only in his mind was he not”

  • Jan Mulder

Matthew Valler (7 Posts)