As PEC Zwolle prepare for a maiden voyage into Europe, Ryan Ferguson traces the troubled history of the intriguing club, from financial ruin to cup glory.

  • By Ryan Ferguson
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pec skfhjfNineteen-eighty-nine was a difficult year in Zwolle, a small municipal city wedged quietly between three tranquil rivers in the Overijssel district of Holland. PEC, the region’s predominant football club, teetered on the brink of oblivion following years of chronic mismanagement, financial impropriety and mounting indifference from commercial partners. A clutch of bailiffs chased the club for debts, as staff went unpaid and it slipped tragically from the Eredivisie. PEC was on its knees; skint, battered and threatened at every turn. There was no turning back.

Somewhat ironically, the turmoil had its genesis in much happier times. During the 1970s, PEC experienced a real halcyon period, with promotion into the top tier and a run to the KNVB Cup Final punctuating the history of a modest club. However, this success was achieved with significant help from Slavenburg’s Bank which, at that time, was led by Zwolle chairman Jan Willem van der Wal. The bank provided funds which, in a rather reckless manner, PEC used to purchase a strong squad of players. Whilst the club rose to semi-prominence, even beating PSV at the Philips Stadion during the 1978/79 season, a financial black hole emerged. By the early 1980s, a blend of dire administration and blatant naivete left PEC with near-fatal debts of 6 million guilders. The club needed a miracle to survive.

Marten Eibrink, a successful real estate developer, set about delivering one shortly after taking charge in 1982. With the spectre of bankruptcy looming, Eibrink revolutionized the club, repaying all debts as a matter of principle before adopting a new hierarchy and setting it on a course to prosperity. Indeed, such was Eibrink’s determination to start afresh and build for a bright future, he even changed the name to reinforce his message; PEC Zwolle ’82 held aloft as the slogan of a new era, with a new club ethos and a new operative prudence.

However, Eibrink arguably did too much. Quickly, he became possessed with deleterious ambition, purchasing players and dreaming dreams at a rate threatening to the continued existence of his modest club. When Co Adriaanse steered PEC to promotion in 1986, Eibrink, out of nothing more than love for his club, wanted growth, expansion, and domination from a small organisation unaccustomed to such pressure.

Soon, sponsors and local authorities began to spy the inevitable implosion and withdraw support for PEC. Eibrink, a man with tremendous passion for football, accused the defecting partners of not loving the club, and left amid his own cloud in 1988.

In a saddening twist, it subsequently emerged that Eibrink presided over similar bureaucratic chaos to that which endangered his club in the first place; an outstanding debt to Slavenburg’s somehow going overlooked by his board for almost a decade. The bank demanded payment in 1989, confounding a financial earthquake which, precipitated by the loss of commercial revenue, crippled PEC and left the club with little hope of survival.

Even large clubs would struggle to endure amid such managerial irresponsibility; amid the oppressive barrage of external demands; amid fiscal chaos of this magnitude. For a club averaging barely 4,000 fans, the task is near-impossible. Inevitably, PEC buckled. In March 1990, the club was declared bankrupt and, soon thereafter, unceremoniously liquidated. The nadir had arrived.

Patrick Jansen, a 43-year old Zwolle fan, suffered through it all. He attended his first match in 1975, with just 1,544 present at the old Oosterenkstadion, and would watch the team train three or four times per week as a kid. Those fond memories are eternal, but the crisis which enveloped PEC remains a sore point. “There was a lot of people involved,” Patrick concludes. “Wrong investments, wrong bookkeeping, paying players too much; the problems a lot of club have now. The best lesson PEC learnt was that we don’t want that to happen ever again.”

Such optimism and resilience festered deep within the hardy legion of Zwolle fans, with many deciding to view the rubble of their beloved club as an opportunity for change. In July 1990, shortly after the terminal bankruptcy, a new club was formed; a club which had no ties to the financial ruin of yore, and which represented a fresh start. The transformation came with a new name, FC Zwolle, and it’s organisational structure underwent a swift metamorphosis. Similarly, the club designed a new crest, adopted blue-and-white home shirts instead of green, and attracted all-important support from local spheres of commerce.

From the very start, this burgeoning club was endowed with new perspective, new morals, new DNA. Finally, there was a pragmatic realisation, from everyone concerned, that FC Zwolle was a small club with finite resources. At long last, decision-makers embraced the club for what it actually was: a pleasant hub of a prideful community. In the founding footprints of this new team, a conscious effort was made to honour that distinction, with plans initiated to insure FC Zwolle lived within its means, evolved in a manageable fashion, and stayed true to the values of quiet sophistication which so distinguished its eponymous city.

If success was derived from this new outlook; great! If not, the club would maintain a deep pride in its own identity, remain faithful in its chosen course, and survive evermore.

The early years were often arduous; the phoenix club rummaging around the Eerste Divisie basement in successive seasons whilst attempting to acclimatise to new surroundings, new methods and new dreams. Soon, however, a bright and attractive team was assembled with impressive acumen and sagacious foresight. Jaap Stam was plucked from amateur football and became a cornerstone, as did Beet Konterman, his central defensive partner. Zwolle, finding innovative ways to compete on a minuscule budget, narrowly missed-out on promotion in 1993, finishing 6th in the second tier.

This fresh model, relying heavily on the acquisition of inexpensive youngsters, helped deliver additional quality into the Zwolle first team, but the club quickly discovered a new problem: keeping hold of these rising rising stars long enough to maintaining a settled squad and ascend through the divisions. Stam, for instance, departed for Cambuur after just one season, succinctly exemplifying the uphill battle.

Accordingly, Zwolle slumped to 14th-place finishes in 1994/95 and 1995/96, achievements which, though constructive in such nascent times, left a lot to be desired.

Naturally for an organisation previously burned by injurious aspiration, this period was particularly challenging for Zwolle associates. Nevertheless, the club stuck admirably to its promise of organic growth, and didn’t pursue a quick-fix to the early teething pains. Between 1996 and 2001, the club fruitlessly competed in the promotion playoffs, which pit the best Eerste Divisie teams against the worst Eredivisie teams, on five consecutive occasions, yet still maintained faith in its founding strategy. The temptation to spend big and finally blow through the opposition loomed large, but Zwolle relented. Even as bigger clubs retooled annually for the fight, Zwolle kept plodding along. Even as foreign clubs, such as Rapid Wien, pillage their best players, such as potent goal scorer Dirk Jan Derksen, Zwolle kept plugging away. Even as the years passed without a crowning glory, Zwolle kept believing.

In 2001/02, under infectious coach Paul Krabbe and with Arne Slot scoring goals, the relentless knocking on the door finally yielded an answer for FC Zwolle. The club dispensed of any need for agonising playoffs by winning the Eerste Divisie outright, returning to the Eredivisie after thirteen years away and for the first time in its newly-adopted guise. Zwolle had, with steely resolve and boundless versatility, triumphed through adversity to reach the Promised Land on their own terms. After years of being the runner-up, the lovable loser, the beautiful bridesmaid, Zwolle celebrated at long last.

They narrowly escaped immediate demotion in 2002/03, surviving, somewhat ironically, in the playoffs following a 16th-place finish. Zwolle took four points off Twente, and managed to beat AZ 5-1 in a colourful campaign, yet never seemed to transplant the dense consistency which distinguished its existence as an Eerste Divisie force.

In 2003/04, the team made an awful start, managing to accumulate just seven points in the entire first half of a season which seemed eminently doomed to failure. A second half surge, including wins over Heerenveen and AZ, counted for little when, on the final day, a 7-1 drubbing away to Feyenoord, coupled with positive results for rivals Vitesse and Volendam, condemned Zwolle to direct relegation.

The club came crashing down to Earth with a mighty thud.

In the succeeding years, Zwolle struggled to gain any traction, as new identity crises threatened to derail the hard labour of many men. When the club failed in the promotion playoffs in 2004/05, and again just twelve months after, disgruntled fans, perhaps still intoxicated from the heady run to glory, protested vociferously. They wanted the best of both worlds: Eredivisie football and a club inoculated from the perils of excess.

The club grappled with both poles, attempting to keep everybody happy with relatively little success either way. Some fans and executives fought for greater investment, referencing the changing economic landscape of Dutch football; whilst many hard-line activists yearned for the club to embrace anew it’s once-defining philosophy.

Jan Everse, who inherited fresh financial uncertainty as manager in 2006, was obviously the most persuasive in espousing a new course for FC Zwolle. The club went back to basics, signing promising players discarded by larger teams, encouraging greater productivity from its own youth system, and forming a highly-competitive squad with typical imagination. Derk Boerigter signed from Ajax and was an instant hit. Anton Jongsma, a Groningen reject, flourished in midfield. Niklas Moisander, similarly of Ajax, joined as a raw prodigy. But still, Zwolle couldn’t find a formula to overcome that final, excruciating hurdle; the club falling in the playoffs in a further five consecutive campaigns as the budget and fanbase grew.

By 2010, Zwolle’s plan of natural progression was an evident success. The club owned the fourth-largest Eerste Divisie stadium and operated on its fifth-highest annual budget, at €3.5m. In essence, Zwolle became a rather large club within the second tier, and promotion, whilst seeming somewhat inevitable, felt more like a necessity with each passing season.

The man who finally delivered it was Art Langeler, a young, sophisticated scholar who, fresh from directing the club’s academy, ascended to overall control as coach of the burgeoning Eerste Divisie superpower. Langeler advocated the beautiful brand of attacking, pass-and-move football which has morphed into Zwolle’s defining philosophy in recent years; his subtle tweaks in style, substance and attitude delivering the second division championship in 2012.

The club had only won the title outright on two previous occasions and, to celebrate its return to the big time, re-instituted the retro ‘PEC’ prefix to its name. Finally, after years of tears, trauma and turmoil trying to scale the heights of Dutch football, PEC Zwolle, in its truest spiritual form, had reached the Eredivisie. Nothing would stop them now.

Langeler, ably assisted by budding coach Jaap Stam, recruited incredibly-well during the off-season, squeezing every last drop from the €8m budget provided by a cautious Zwolle board. Youness Mokhtar, a mercurial winger often overlooked at larger clubs, was signed from PSV for a minuscule fee; and Mateusz Klich, a dynamic midfield playmaker, joined on-loan from German giants Wolfsburg. Langeler, who knew no bounds in striving to conceive ever-inventive ways to construct a competitive squad, quickly moulded the team in his ethos of free-flowing football. Before long, wee PEC Zwolle illuminated the Dutch game, blazing a trail through the Eredivisie with swashbuckling play and an infectious joy de vivre.

Langeler’s men beat Feyenoord, thumped PSV in Eindhoven, and provided a harbinger of magnificence to come with a stupendous cup run. After beating Roda, RKC, Go Ahead Eagles and Heracles in the KNVB Beker, Zwolle again met PSV in an evocative semi-final. A partisan crowd of 11,324 crammed into the IJsseldelta Stadion for arguably the biggest match in PEC’s troubled history. An awesome hat-trick from Jurgen Locadia saw PSV progress, but, in enabling Zwolle to regularly fight with the biggest teams on the largest stage, Langeler had clearly steered the club into uncharted waters.

PEC Zwolle, with its microscopic budget, comparatively small stadium and squad of misfits, rejects and cast-offs, had again overcome a gauntlet of hurdles to succeed against all odds. In 2012/13, the club finished 11th in the Eredivisie, it’s best performance in thirty-five years. A performance, quite frankly, which even its most ardent admirer could nary have envisaged just a decade earlier.

Zwolle never had it so good.

Thus, when Langeler was inevitable poached by PSV to direct it’s revamped academy, PEC faced a daunting decision. It was absolutely imperative that the club identify and appoint the correct coach to continue Langeler’s exceptional work; a coach who’d seamlessly embrace the club’s contrarian vitality and enrich it anew. Ron Jans, who began his playing career with Zwolle before proceeding to coach Groningen, Heerenveen and Standard Liege, was The Chosen One, signing a short-term deal in July 2013.

The rotund boss quickly got down to business, honouring the charming principles of technical football left by Langeler, yet also trying to put his own fingerprints on the team. If at all possible, Jans may have out-performed his predecessor in the transfer market. Klich, a phenomenally influential ball-player, was signed permanently for just €200,000; Stefan Nijland, a promising young striker within the PSV youth setup, was mined like a diamond in the rough; and experienced centre-forward Guyon Fernandez was lured on-loan from Feyenoord. Similarly, Jans found a way to acquire South African international Kamohelo Mokotjo, who became the glue in a tremendous midfield, and Ryan Thomas, an obscure New Zealander who joined from Waikato FC and became its chief creative force.

Simply put, this was inspired transfer business, with Jans essentially erecting a whole new core which, in the coming months, carried PEC Zwolle to the zenith of its emotional journey.

The new players gelled with a satisfying harmony and played as if sensing destiny awaiting round the corner. Jans imbued the team with even more freedom to attack and, consequently, his team roared out of the traps, beating Feyenoord with goals from Klich and Fernenadez, and setting the pace atop the Eredivisie for the seasons first six weeks.

Naturally, PEC came a little unstuck against the daunting might of Ajax and Vitesse Arnhem in September, but continued to perform way beyond expectations. Throughout the 2013/14 season, they ticked along at a respectful rate, picking-up regular points and choreographing shock results every couple of months. For instance, PEC drew with PSV in December and Ajax in February; achievements sandwiched between the impressive 4-1 demolition of IJsselmeer rivals Go Ahead in December.

Ultimately, Zwolle managed its second successive 11th-place finish, finally mastering the art of consistent and sustainable success at the highest level.

However, it was in the domestic cup that Jans’ men met their true destiny, successfully negotiating a series of favourable draws en route to the single biggest moment in the city’s history. PEC’s mystical KNVB Beker adventure began with a 2-0 triumph at home to Fortuna Sittard in the second round, before Wilhelmina ’08 and Excelsior were dispatched, 4-0 and 4-1, respectively. Zwolle faced third division outfit JVC Quijk in a promising Quarter-Final and, after powering through by a 5-1 margin, finally allowed fans to commence dreaming.

Again, PEC was fortunate to avoid giants such as Ajax and AZ at the semi-final stage, instead hosting NEC Nijmegen on an enchanting spring eve. A partisan crowd of almost 11,000 saw Zwolle surge into an early lead; Jesper Drost steering a seemingly weak shot under an unsuspecting goalkeeper and igniting geysers of jubilation on the terraces. NEC fought back and levelled through Kevin Conboy, before Thanasis Karagounis sent PEC to the Final with an eighty-first minute strike which again befuddled the Nijmegen stopper.

After decades of strife, Zwolle would finally have its moment in the sun.

Thousands of denizens made the 90-mile pilgrimage to Rotterdam, whose De Kuip stadium provided the amphitheatrical setting for a titanic David versus Goliath duel. AFC Ajax Amsterdam, in all it’s cultured lustre and mammoth might, lay in waiting for this wee provincial club only two decades removed from a troublesome rebirth. Ron Jans and PEC Zwolle had every right to be petrified.

When, after three minutes, Ajax right-back Ricardo van Rhijn walloped a long range shot in off the underside of Diederik Boer’s crossbar, firing the Amsterdammers into an ominous early lead, the seemingly-impossible task became ever more difficult. However, in a neat microcosm of club history, PEC refused to die. Just five minutes after falling behind, Zwolle broke away and coaxed the ball into Ryan Thomas who, after teasing back onto his favoured right foot, fired a shot which cannoned off Moisander and beyond Vermeer for an unlikely equaliser.

Rather than rest on their laurels, PEC kept pouring forward, asking questions of an Ajax defence increasingly short on answers. On twelve minutes, Thomas reacted first to ram home his second after an initial free-kick caromed off a post. The footballing world was stunned, as Zwolle took charge.

When smaller teams upset the odds in major cup games, they invariably do so by mastering the darker arts of football; by digging deep, rolling up their sleeves and kicking lumps out of the opposition. But, in the case of PEC Zwolle, such a statement could not be further from the truth. Jans’ men began to tease Ajax, playing the kind of artistic football so lauded in the Amsterdam annals. Midway rough the first half, a wonderfully intricate passing triangle released Fernandez on goal and, after gathering an incisive through pass, the big striker jolted the ball through Vermeer’s legs for PEC’s third.

Quite inexplicably, a fourth came soon after, when Fernandez leapt highest to rattle home a hopeful Bram van Polen cross misplayed by a statuesque Ajax rearguard. At the break, news of Zwolle’s shocking, bemusing, brilliantly-deserved lead sent tremors through this multi-million pound industry. The paupers from PEC had blown away the Ajax aristocracy, and it was decidedly marvelous to watch. Just five minutes after the restart, van Polen added a goal of his own, reflexively plundering home a ricocheting ball from a corner as Ajax begged for mercy.

“We were deadly efficient,” beamed Jans in a post-match champagne shower. “We could have scored even more, but I’m not unhappy.”

kupzwAs the PEC players strolled exultantly around the pitch, dragging the club’s first piece of significant silverware along with them, thoughts finally turned to the future, rather than the past. “I hope we play AC Milan,” Jans declared, referring to his teams forthcoming involvement in the Europa League as domestic cup winners. And, just like that, the journey from rags to riches was complete.

Early this season, PEC, showing itself to be unperturbed by an impending cup draw featuring Tottenham, Internazionale, Villareal, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Lokomotiv Moscow as potential opponents, went out and beat Ajax yet again; Jans orchestrating another remarkable victory as Zwolle triumphed 1-0 in the prestigious Johan Cruyff Shield at the Amsterdam Arena.

European football will undoubtedly prove a novel challenge for PEC. Any other club tasked with the additional responsibility would invest heavily to inject quality and depth into a squad, but they do things differently in Zwolle. No, PEC won’t panic; they’ll run things there own way and play in their own style.

They’ll stay true to the ethics which got them here, from the ruins of destruction just twenty-five years ago.

Ryan Ferguson (23 Posts)