Great pretenders Heerenveen seek to climb back into contention
ThereÃ¢ÂÂs something special about Heerenveen. For one, they're from Friesland Ã¢ÂÂ the only one of the dozen Dutch regions to have its own dialect (West Frisian). And their stadium is the only one in the top flight to be named after a club legend: Abe Lenstra.
Regarded as one of the greatest Dutch footballers, local lad Lenstra cemented his place in club history on May 7th 1950, when Heerenveen hosted Ajax. An hour in, they were 5-1 down when Lenstra pulled a goal back Ã¢ÂÂ his second of the game. Twenty minutes later they were level through Marten Brandsma, Henny Jonkman and Gerben Hofma; five minutes before time Brandsma sealed the most improbable of victories.
Ajax goalkeeper Bep Leentvaar couldnÃ¢ÂÂt hold back his tears as he trudged off the pitch: he knew his time between the sticks may have be over. He was proven correct: it was his last game for the club. Rinus Michels, who scored a brace for Ajax, was left dumbfounded.
That game elevated Lenstra to talisman. One of the first real football celebrities, he enjoyed enormous popularity across Friesland and beyond. At a time before the Dutch game was professional, he attracted interest from Fiorentina and Internazionale; the former were rumoured to have offered him a blank cheque, but he declined, staying at Heerenveen for 17 years before moving to Enschede for a decade, finally retiring at 42.
Those halcyon days are often reminisced about in Heerenveen, even though they never won the national championship with him Ã¢ÂÂ or indeed since. And the last two seasons have brought disappointing lower-midtable finishing positions.
However, until 2009 Heerenveen had been a solid "there or thereabouts" club, finishing every campaign bar one since 1996 in the top seven. Indeed, before the recent emergence of AZ and FC Twente this was the club many felt could finally disrupt the stranglehold of the traditional big three: Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV.
Renowned for excellent scouting, the club has developed players like Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Afonso Alves, Miralem Sulejmani and Danijel Pranjic bÃ¢ÂÂ following earlier stars like Jon Dahl Tomasson, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Marcus AllbÃÂ¤ck.
Although Heerenveen are currently in 12th Ã¢ÂÂ the position in which they finished last season Ã¢ÂÂ coach Ron Jans believes a return to those recent heights is possible. And true to their recent history another crop of exceptional talents have emerged, from their academy and beyond, to give themselves a fighting chance to fulfil their manager's assertion in a highly competitive league.
The season didn't start too promisingly when a 2-2 home draw against NEC Nijmegen was followed by back-to-back 5-1 hidings at Ajax and at home to FC Twente, casting a shadow over Jans for the first time since his controversial move from rivals FC Groningen the previous summer.
Jans argued that taking anything from games against last season's top two would have been a bonus, and to his credit, Heerenveen have bounced back since with a six-match unbeaten run. Still Jans remains unsatisfied, particularly as the last three of those games have all been 1-1 draws.
In the first of them, at home to Heracles, they failed to push on after Ousama Assaidi Ã¢ÂÂ one of the current stars Ã¢ÂÂ had given them the lead. Conversely, the following week at Vitesse it took a Jeffrey Gouweleeuw goal in stoppage time to salvage a point.
Still, leading scorer Assaidi produced one of the moments of the entire Eredivisie season so far Ã¢ÂÂ and it couldnÃ¢ÂÂt have come against better opposition, with Heerenveen well on the way to a 3-0 win against rivals FC Groningen. Though the whistle had gone for offside, the Moroccan's delightful skill earned rightful acclaim from the fans.
Evidently not lacking in confidence, the left-winger has already attracted plenty of suitors and he could leave in the winter transfer window, which would be an obvious blow to Heerenveen. Even a side with such successful scouts can't afford to keep losing key players.
They lost speedy right-winger Roy Beerens to AZ in the summer, but in truth he had already been pushed out by the performances of Luciano Narsingh. Having joined Heerenveen from the Ajax academy aged 18 in 2008, the Amsterdammer of Surinamese descent made his breakthrough under Jans last season and has continued what heÃ¢ÂÂs started.
Narsingh and Assaidi have been Heerenveen's heroes this season: Narsingh has three goals and three assists while the Moroccan has bagged five goals and two assists. It was the same last season, when Assaidi's 31 games produced nine goals and 12 assists while Narsingh scored five and made 12 goals in 24 games.
Another player linked with a move away is Bas Dost. Having signed from Heracles in summer 2010 for Ã¢ÂÂ¬2.5m despite interest from Ajax and Twente, the club's main striker ended his first Heerenveen campaign with 13 goals in 32 games. The 6'4" 22-year-old might feel a tad unfortunate not to have received a full international call-up, but he's from a strong generation.
At one stage it looked as if Dost was ahead of Luuk de Jong but the FC Twente forward has stolen a march. However, time is on Dost's side and if he continues his development then he may well get the phone call.
Dost, Narsingh and Assaidi have been the engine of JansÃ¢ÂÂ machine: since the humbling by FC Twente theyÃ¢ÂÂve been responsible for eight of the 11 goals the side have scored.
At home to De Graafschap last weekend, the triumvirate looked to have made the difference once more when AssaidiÃ¢ÂÂs run set up Sven Kums' goal Ã¢ÂÂ but as against Heracles they couldnÃ¢ÂÂt push on and a minute later Michael de Leeuw equalised.
Before the game Jans had spoken about the importance of not squandering more points, especially at home. Understandably, he was disappointed after the game: Ã¢ÂÂWe lost two points. Everyone was disappointed in the dressing room, it was dead quiet. We have now gone six games without defeat, but there are too many draws. We should have won this game.Ã¢ÂÂ
In truth, his side were sloppy, despite their second-half dominance: Dost and Assaidi were guilty on more than one occasion of not putting the game to bed. Heerenveen will need to turn those draws into victories if they are to once more start punching above their weight.