SC Heerenveen: Unashamed Idealism

SC Heerenveen is a club from a fantasy land. They have achieved things that most teams dream of, with a philosophy that most fans dream of – while at one stage even doing better than their coach wanted them to. Heerenveen is a club that football can be proud of.

You can run down what SC Heerenveen represents and easily come to the conclusion that they wouldn’t last. Yet, somehow, the small provincial side has lasted nearly 25 years in the Dutch top flight. They are built on being style over substance but have found success regardless. They have cultivated a reputation as a selling club but have continued to create top players anyway. While that does sound a lot like Arsenal, Heerenveen managed it without any real history of success.

90% of owners in the Premier League would look at the Frisian club and consider it a dream. Young, talented players want to be a part of Heerenveen and fans want to watch, while at the same time there is next to no threat of relegation from the Eredivisie.

The rise of SC Heerenveen began in the 1980s under chairman Riemer van der Velde. A Frisian, himself, van der Velde took over the debt-ridden team in 1983 when they languished in the second division. Part of his rebuilding process was the take a chance on a fellow Friesland-born coach called Foppe de Haan. De Haan was certainly a risk: he had only ever coached amateur sides before, and his philosophy on football sounds fantastic for about five minutes before you wonder how it could ever possibly work.

“Winning is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to play a good game.”

Foppe de Haan

Those sound like the words of someone who will enjoy a decent start to the season but ultimately struggle and be replaced by someone more practical in order to save the team from relegation, or Brendan Rodgers after winning back-to-back games – but Foppe de Haan’s second spell as Heerenveen manager lasted 12 years.

De Haan achieved promotion in 1993 (they had previously done the same in 1990 under German manager Fritz Korbach, but were promptly relegated in their first season), as well as somehow reaching the KNVB Cup final that year as a second division team, and continued to establish Heerenveen season after season – they’ve been a top division side ever since.

This was all happening at a time when Ajax continued their resurgence under Louis van Gaal. It was that Ajax side that defeated Heerenveen in the cup final, and the contrasting philosophies created something of a rivalry.

Anyone who witnessed van Gaal’s recent tenure at Manchester United probably won’t find it the most shocking thing in the world to hear that his Ajax side was accused of being overly mechanical and uncreative. Yes, they had success – incredible success even – but they weren’t the free-flowing attacking side that many wanted. Meanwhile, the small side from Friesland that had never won anything major was playing for entertainment and finding themselves wonderfully likable.

As with everything in Dutch football, both Ajax and Heerenveen can be traced back to the Dutch 1974 World Cup team. That team brought about two things: there was the intense tactical focus that inspired van Gaal at Ajax, and there was the heralding of attacking style that de Haan strongly believed in. With all the criticism of the high-flying Ajax side’s robotic football, Heerenveen offered the absolute opposite. Here was a team that wasn’t about success at all costs, that wasn’t about statistics and probability, but instead believed in creativity and entertainment.

“We want to be a nice club, playing nice football. In the future we want to be not really at the top, but about fourth of fifth place.”

Foppe de Haan

Some managers would be sacked if it was believed they even might have thought that for a bit, yet de Haan and Heerveneen managed to thrive on it. In fact, in a very strange case of a team doing better than they wanted to, by 2000, they had surpassed that – a second placed finish put them in the Champions League.

De Haan left Heerenveen in 2004, becoming the coach of the Dutch U-21 team where he won the European U-21 Championships in both 2006 and 2007. It was a natural job for a coach of a team with a reputation for developing young talent.

Strikers have flourished at Heerenveen in particular, with the club forging a reputation as a finishing school for strikers before selling them on to bigger clubs. Ruud van Nistelrooy to PSV, Klaas Jan Huntelaar to Ajax, Afonso Alves to Middlesbrough – admittedly one of these is unlike the others (Alves genuinely did score 45 goals in 39 games there), but it doesn’t change the fact that prolific Eredivisie scorers went through Heerenveen.

It doesn’t stop there either: Bas Dost won the top scorer award, as did Alfreð Finnbogason, Jon Dahl Tomasson won the best young player award, Georgios Samaras built a nice reputation there before his move to Manchester City, and current Ajax midfielders Lasse Schöne and Hakim Ziyech developed in Friesland.

All of these players, and many more, quickly left after finding success, but Heerenveen replaced them and continued to steadily carry on. There’s rarely if ever a threat of relegation, and in recent years European qualification has been on the agenda far more often. They lifted the KNVB Cup in 2009 – their first ever major trophy.

SC Heerenveen grew with a philosophy that simply wouldn’t be accepted by many people these days, yet their idealism has given them a greater standing than most. A top flight team that plays nice football, loves the game, and unashamedly likes where they stand. What’s not to love?