AZ 2 Excelsior 1

Alkmaar Zaanstreek ’67 2 Excelsior 1 (15th December 2018)

I’ve been to Alkmaar before to watch a game, but the previous time was way back in 2001, at Alkmaar’s old Alkmaardehout ground, a 9000 seater place that wouldn’t have looked at home in England’s lower divisions. I didn’t own a camera back then, so I have no pictures of the ground, but my strongest memories of it, other than a kind of shoebox charm, was the club selling tickets from a trestle table outside, and the tiny urinal, which was just a metre-long section of drainpipe fixed to a wall.

Of the town of Alkmaar itself, we (I went with a mate and his brother) saw nothing. Not realising there was anything to see we just took a direct route to the stadium, missing the fine city centre entirely.

This time I made a day of it, not only having a good look round the centre, plus trying a couple of pubs, but I also spent the earlier part of the day in the nearby Zaandam region. Here I saw the utterly bizarre reworking of Zaandam’s area near the station, as well as visiting the very touristy Zaanse Schans riverside area of windmills and cute wooden houses (also home to a cocoa factory, which gives the whole place the odd whiff rather like chocolate, cheese, and Shreddies).

Directly on the other side of Zaanse Schans railway station is the home of Kooger FC, one of the two clubs (the other being Alkmaar ’54) involved in the merger that formed AZ ’67. Kooger FC decided to remain amateur, but split to form FC Zaanstreek (streek means region in Dutch), and it was Zaanstreek, playing at the same ground, that in 1967 became half of “Alkmaar Zaanstreek ’67”.

Alas little remains of the ground to give any indication that this was once a professional venue. Even the substantial old main stand has now gone, knocked down a few years ago after a fire, although KFC do play on, on the same pitch, albeit now an artificial one.

Pictures of this stand, and the ground, can be found here…

At least the pitch is still there. Nothing at all remains of Alkmaardehout, now under apartment blocks, but at least they didn’t move too far, just about a kilometre down the road.

AZ’s new AFAS Stadium, as it is currently known due to a sponsorship deal with a Dutch software company, certainly looks the part, especially when approached at night, with the angled floodlights shining light into the stadium below. Holding 17000 in a single tier, unimaginative design could easily have seen it be a dull bowl, but the curves and the sweeps of the roof make it rather more interesting than many similar sized new builds.

No trestle table selling tickets outside either, although buying tickets online is not as easy as it could be for those outside Holland, as the site only accepts a payment option called iDeal, which only works with Dutch banks. I had to go through the mild pain of a bank transfer, although I did bump into an English couple outside on the way back to the station, who managed to get their tickets reserved.

You also couldn’t use Visa debit cards inside the ground either. The contactless payment which worked fine everywhere else in Holland that weekend, didn’t work for me when I tried to buy a beer and chips in the well-appointed “Barry van Galen bar”. Barry “Barrygoal” van Galen was a star for the club in nearly 250 games from 1997, and the girl behind the counter was also a star for accepting my cash, even though she wasn’t supposed to. That said, the beer was tiny, although with this being Holland, the chips came in a cardboard holder with a section filled with mayonnaise. Tomato sauce or salt may have been an option, but mayonnaise rules in this part of the world.

As well as having a nice bar, the concourses were also very smart, properly decorated, including many pictures of Alkmaardehout, and welcomingly on this night, indoors and heated. Welcome because not only had the temperate this evening dipped to freezing point, a very strong wind apparently gave enough of a windchill to make it feel -11C. I can well believe it. It was absolutely freezing. The couple behind me were wrapped up in a blanket.

One of the reasons I went through the effort of the bank transfer to get a ticket was that I wanted a seat on the back row, as that means I can’t block anybody’s view if I take pictures. The whole of the top of the stand though was like a wind tunnel, despite the place being sealed in. The wind seemed to whip round the top rim like a ball being cast into a roulette wheel, requiring me to reassess the coldest I’ve ever been at a football match. The players, in t-shirts and shorts, would be earning their money this evening.

Not quite so impressive was the traveling support of Excelsior. They might only squeeze 4000 into their tiny ground, but a count of fans in the away showed just 67 had made the trip up from Rotterdam. One banner in the end stated simply “Few but loyal”, which was certainly honest.

I can only think the extreme cold subdued the fans of both clubs, as despite the game being quite lively, there was very little singing from either set of supporters. The odd chant of “Come on AZ” was about the limit, although that’s not to say it was quiet. There was a buzz about the place, but just not many songs.

Both sets of players went for it too. Having seen Jaap Stam try to impose a Dutch football style upon Reading for a couple of years, it’s fair to say the problem was the implementation rather than the idea itself, that failed. The ball was pinging about here, with both keepers kept very busy. It has to be said though, that if either side could have played a decent dead ball, the game would have been a goal-fest. As it was, the keepers were being made to look very good, but it was a lively game.

Well, the keepers looked good up to a point. After half an hour an Excelsior shot from outside the box, and out of the blue, completely caught out the AZ keeper, beating him at the near post for a shot that would be earmarked “he’ll be disappointed with that” for the post-match analysis. Cracking shot though, it has to be said, curling just inside that near post.

It was so cold that I’d temporarily given up trying to take pictures at that point, to give my fingers a chance to defrost, so it was doubly unfortunate from that point of view that AZ equalised soon after. A low cross was cut out by a defender, and looked to be going out for a corner. Another AZ player was there though to chip the ball back in on the volley. This caught the Excelsior defence out completely, allowing the ball to be simply nodded in at the far post for 1-1.

After a very welcome defrost in the warmth of the concourse, I found a lower and slightly less windy seat to watch the second half from. It was still stupidly cold though, and my camera therefore spent more time in my pocket than out of it. When I did take pictures, most seemed to feature the Excelsior keeper taking a catch from another disappointing final ball, although that doesn’t really tell the story. AZ did have a number of good chances, and there was some manful defending on Excelsior’s part to keep the home side at bay.

Deep into the 4th minute of four added minutes, it was all in vain for the visitors though. A good deep cross from the left found the head of an AZ forward. Despite two defenders being close by, he got in a flicked header which angled in just inside the near post. Delight for the home fans and players, in contrast to the Excelsior keeper, punching the ground in frustration.

Barely eleven seconds were played after the restart, before the whistle blew to hail the well-deserved, but dramatic victory. Enough to warm the hearts of the home fans making their way out the ground to their bikes, buses and cars, and on a night this cold, anything that can warm any part of you is very welcome indeed.

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