Alec Cordolcini

10 years ago, Dutch club Willem II were labelled 'Little Ajax'. The team from Tilburg, a city in the southern province of Noord Brabant, played and acted almost like a miniature version of the Amsterdam giants. And just like Ajax they discovered and developed stars of the future too, in Jaap Stam, Marc Overmars, Tomas Galasek and Sami Hyypia.

With the arrival of disciplinarian coach Co Adriaanse, Willem II enjoyed the spotlight of European competition in 1998/99, while having their best league season since their formation. Adriaanse led the club to second place in the Eredivisie, playing stylish and attacking football, in the process qualifying the Tricolores for their first ever Champions League campaign. While Willem II didn't survive the first stage in a group containing Spartak Moscow, Sparta Prague and Bordeaux, only managing two points and hearing quips like “Attacking football? In Europe Willem II are playing suicide football” from pundits like ex-Dutch international Johnny Rep, no-one in Tilburg cared. To simply be in the Champions League was enough, and Adriaanse had delivered it.

Adriaanse trained his team with an iron hand. Once, after a poor performance in a friendly against Belgian side Gent, the coach sneakily took the players' car keys out of their jackets, so all of them had to walk home, a 40 kilometre journey. In spite of tricks like these though, in Tilburg Adriaanse is still called “King Co”, and his reign is remembered as one of the greatest in the club's history.

Today, at Willem II, the nickname of Little Ajax seems a pale imitation of its previous meaning. In the 10 years since Adriaanse bid farewell to Tilburg, the club have had 11 coaches, but all have failed to stop their slide from a solid mid-table outfit to relegation battlers. The one bright spot has been reaching the final of the domestic cup in 2005, however PSV Eindhoven proved too strong and saw off the upstarts 4-0.

The Tricolores have also struggled to develop players as they used to. In the past five years only midfielder Danny Landzaat and strikers Moussa Dembele and Mounir El Hamdaoui have been good enough to start a trek towards stardom. The latter especially, as he has rediscovered his potential following a disappointing time in England with Tottenham Hotspur and Derby County. Indeed, last year El Hamdaoui won the Dutch title with AZ Alkmaar and finished Eredivisie top scorer.

This season has proved to be the worst ever in Willem II's history. Since the creation of the Eredivisie in 1956, the club had never lost 24 games in a single season, as they have in the current campaign. With just one game to go, and the club sitting second bottom in the league, they cannot avoid the end of season Nacompetitie (the promotion/relegation playoff) which includes the 16th and 17th placed Eredivisie sides and eight from the division below.

Willem II's turbulent season began under Alfons Groenendijk, who was finally sacked in February. After a single match under interim boss Mark Schenning, the board opted for Arno Pijpers as the club's new head coach. Pijpers had made a name for himself in Eastern Europe, winning the Estonian league three times with Flora Tallin and the Kazakhstani title with FC Astana. He also had a brief spell in charge of the Kazakhstan national team, with impressive wins over Serbia and Armenia, and a surprising draw away to Belgium.

“I'm used to coaching low level teams”, said Pijpers soon after he landed in Tilburg, “and I know the tricks to survive against stronger opponents.” And Willem II did have a good start under the 51-year-old, defeating VVV Venlo 2-1 and Sparta Rotterdam 3-1. But the impetus provided by Pijpers didn't last long, and six defeats in a row condemned the Tricolores to the Nacompetitie. This week Pijpers handed in his resignation due to poor health however, and Willem II will have to hope their fourth coach of the season can help them avoid the ignominy of relegation to the Eerste Divisie.  

Despite performances some way below their best, last season Willem II finished in 12th, mainly thanks to striker Frank Demouge who netted 14 goals. Demouge has not been able to repeat the trick this time around though, with just half his total of last season at the time of writing. Other players like PSV-loanee Stef Nijland, winger Gerson Sheotahul and Ajax loan pair Jan-Arie van der Heijden and Mitchell Donald, have lacked the needed experience for a relegation battle. On top of that, skilled midfielder Said Boutahar (Arsenal striker Robin van Persie's best friend from their time together in the youth team of Excelsior Rotterdam) has missed, for the umpteenth time, the chance to show he is good enough to play at Eredivisie level.

A fall into the Eerste Divisie would be humiliating for one of the oldest clubs in Dutch football. Founded in 1896 as Tilburgia, two years later the club changed their name to Willem II, in honour of Dutch king William II of the Netherlands, who, as Prince of Orange and commander of the Dutch army, had his headquarters in Tilburg during the Belgian uprising of 1830.

Willem II play in red, white and blue, the colours of the Dutch flag, and this is the source of their nickname the Tricolores. The club have won three national titles, the last being in 1955, and two Dutch cups, but in today's game it takes more than carrying the name of a king and having a proud history to survive.


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