The Big 3 and the Best of the Rest
It's a definite Big 3 scenario in Holland, and unless one of them goes bust, or some Russian oligarchs fancy getting involved with a small Dutch city, then we doubt it will ever change. In reality, such is the dominance of the Big 3 that there aren't really any sleeping giants in the same way there are in say Germany or England. So we've gone for the next level down, the best of the rest, those clubs who can occasionally challenge and split the big 3, and who have the potential to be significantly bigger than the majority of other Dutch clubs.
The Big Three
4 European Cups, 2 Intercontinental Cups, 1 UEFA Cup, 1 Cup Winners Cup, and more domestic trophies than you could shake a stick at, Ajax aren't just big in Dutch terms, but also globally. The famous Ajax youth academy (it's a cliché, but what the hell - it's true) regularly churns out a conveyor belt of talent like no other club, and whilst the top talent always moves on to the biggest leagues, they're still capable of attracting decent players and occasionally challenging at European level. As for their support, well it's strange for a city the size of Amsterdam to have only one football team, but that's the case, so their support base in not in question, with over 50,000 cramming into the Amsterdam Arena for the majority of home matches.
With a huge, passionate fan base from the working class city of Rotterdam, Feyenoord may not be Holland's most successful side but many forget that they did the business in Europe before Ajax, winning the European Cup in 1970, having beaten Celtic 2-1 in the San Siro. It's often said that Feyenoord are often so obsessed with getting one over Ajax that they fall short against the lesser lights of the Eredivisie, and indeed their domestic record is now behind PSV's as well as Ajax's. Ok, they're never going to be portrayed as a glamorous team in the same way as Ajax are, but then their fans wouldn't want them to be. And any team that plays in the glorious atmosphere of De Kuip is always going to have a head start over other teams.
Philips Sport Vereniging (Philips Sport Union) Eindhoven, as the name suggests, is the sports club of electrical giant Philips, massive employers in the city. With the companies backing, the club managed to break the monopoly of the traditional big city teams of Ajax and Feyenoord in the 70's and 80's and have been a dominant force ever since, to such an extent that they have won well over half the league titles since the mid 80's. However, Forbes still have Ajax ahead of them in their rich list. Their success peaked in 1988 when Eric Gerets lifted the European Cup after they beat Benfica on penalties in Stuttgart, an amazing feat for a club from a city the size of Eindhoven. As you'd expect from a club dominated by a corporate giant, PSV is run extremely professionally, their list of managers reads like a who's who of top gaffers, and they've had great success in bringing in top young talent (Romario, Ronaldo, Farfan) to the club. Off the pitch PSV are catching up with the other 2 as well, the Philips Stadion has grown over the years, and whilst at 35,000 it's capacity is still only two thirds that of De Kuip and the Amsterdam Arena, there has been recent talk of increasing it to 40,000.
The Best of the Rest
Getting anywhere near the big 3 and being the best of the rest is often seen as the holy-grail for the other Dutch teams. Here's the low-down on the potential challengers for that coveted '4th team' tag.
AZ (AZ67 until 1986)
By winning the Eredivisie title back in 1981, AZ Alkmaar became the first (and subsequently only) club since DWS to have prised the championship away from the greedy clutches of the big 3. With the financial clout of 2 local millionaire brothers (the Molenaar's), AZ came from absolutely nowhere to the very forefront of Dutch football, winning the cup 3 times, the league once, and nearly capping it with the UEFA Cup before losing out to a Muhren-Thijssen inspired Ipswich in 1981. With Alkmaar being only a tiny city in the NW of the country, its fan-base is not traditionally as strong as some of the other challengers, and for years the club made do with the cosy 9,000 Alkmaarderhout. But this meant that without someone pumping in the cash it was unable to sustain a long stint at the top, and when the Molenaar brothers' investment suddenly stopped in 1985, so did the team's success, and it soon dropped back into the 2nd tier. However, a cash injection in the 90's from another football sugar daddy, this time Dirk Scheringa, lifted the club into the higher reaches of the Eredivisie yet again, and the appointment of the great Louis van Gaal in 2005 signalled a step up in ambition. To match his intentions on the pitch, Scheringa also oversaw the construction of a new ground off it, the DSB Stadion, with a capacity of 17,000 but with the option of increasing it to nearly 30,000.
ADO Den Haag
One thing Den Haag has always suffered from is that the city is better known for being the home of the Dutch Royal family and the Houses of Parliament, rather than the home of a great football club. The 3rd largest city in Holland after Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Den Haag has been unable to produce a team to really rival Ajax or Feyenoord. Not that they haven't tried - various mergers over the years have attempted to create a single, big, Den Haag club, with the latest incarnation being ADO Den Haag, but they have yet to produce a team that can get anywhere near the big 3, or even the best of the other challengers. However, it's always had more potential than most, and despite spending periods in the 2nd division the club maintains a big rivalry with Ajax and Feyenoord, particularly amongst the fans. Another club that has suffered from the limitations of a small ground, they eventually swapped the infamous Zuiderpark for the larger, 15000 seater Den Haag Stadion, although one thing that still remains is their fanatical (often too fanatical) support.
The 7th biggest city in Holland, it's also the largest in the north of the country, which lends itself to the club's nickname 'the Pride of the North'. Groningen's natives are known as 'Stadjers' and are classed as some of the most loyal and passionate fans in the country. A real people's club, FC Groningen were only form in 1971 and achieved little until the 80's when their team, including the likes of the Koeman brothers, gained promotion to the Eredivisie and then qualified for Europe. By the late 80's they'd established themselves in the Eredivisie and managed to reach the Cup final in 1989 and finished 3rd in the league in 1991, helped by the the likes of Houtman, Roossien, van Dijk (no, not that one), and the legendary strike partnership of Milko Djurovski and Hennie Meijer. However, the late 90's saw FC suffer the same fate as so many other clubs of the time - financial meltdown. With the club chairman involved in a tax scandal, they were forced to sell their top players, resulting in relegation. But with club legend Jan van Dijk at the helm and backed by the fanatical support at the old Oosterpark stadium they were soon promoted back to the top flight. Since then the club has stabilised again in the Eredivisie and 2005-06 saw them finish 5th. And they now have the advantage of a bigger venue, as 2006 saw them move into the glorious Euroborg stadium. A fitting home for their supporters, it's been nicknamed 'the Green Hell' due to the club's (and stadium) colour and it's vociferous support. Holding 20,000 and with the option to expand further, it has taken them clear of traditional rivals Twente and put them on a par with regional rivals Heerenveen, whilst also meaning they can compete with the other clubs battling to bridge the gap to the big 3.
A relative newcomer to the challengers list, SC Heerenveen has a different kind of potential because it has the backing of not just a town or a city, but an entire region. Heerenveen itself is just a small town in the north of the country, and it's ground, the 26800 capacity Abe Lenstra Stadion, is bizarrely about the same size as the town's population. But the club is known as 'the Pride of Friesland', and almost all of the region follows the club, packing the ground for every home game and blasting out the Frisian anthem. Up until 1990 the club had never even played in the top level, but since then it has grown and grown, reaching Cup finals, consistently qualifying for Europe, and then, in 2000, topping both Ajax and Feyenoord to reach the dizzy height of 2nd place in the Eredivisie. The club's fans are renowned as the friendliest in Holland, and the club is generally regarded as being one of the most stable and well run in the country. Like many Dutch clubs, it has an excellent youth set-up, but what sets it apart from the rest is a scouting system that is the envy of many, with Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Georgios Samaras and Jon Dahl Tomasson amongst those who have been snared by their excellent scouts and then transferred off for large fees.
Despite their status as one of Holland's yo-yo teams, NAC Breda deserve their place in this list due to the level of their support, especially away from home, where they often travel in impressive numbers. It's this backing that has often earned them the tag of 'the best fans in Holland' and helped coin the phrase 'Een Avondje NAC' (an NAC night), a reference to the atmosphere at their old Beatrixstraat stadium, when the matches were played on Saturday evenings. NAC have won the Dutch Championship, but that was way back in 1921, since then success has been hard to come by, and apart from a Cup win in 1973, the club became better known for cycles of rapid relegation and promotion than for a bursting trophy cabinet. In 1996 the club moved into a smart new 17,000 capacity stadium, the fantastically named Rat Verlegh (named after one the legends from the Championship winning side), but like many other Dutch clubs around this time it was in financial turmoil thanks to the irresponsibility of chairman Roelant Oltmans. It was left to the city's council to step in and help sort the mess out, and to resolve the problem they took ownership of the stadium and also insisted in the city's name being incorporated into the clubs (previously they'd just been called NAC). The deal seemed to work, and with the fans now settled in their new home, NAC Breda have the potential to challenge alongside the other contenders.
'The Tukkers', as this team from Enschede are known, were really strong in the 70's, consistently challenging for the title and almost winning the UEFA Cup (they lost the 1975 final to that great Borussia Monchengladbach side). At the time their brand of attacking, stylish football was almost on a par with their more celebrated rivals, and they could quite rightly claim to be the 4th team in Holland, indeed for a while it almost became a Big 4. However, they nosedived in the 80's and suffered the humiliation of relegation to the 2nd tier. However, with the help of one of Holland's finest youth set-ups, they dragged themselves back into the Eredivisie and by 1997 they had finished in 3rd place, and also won the KNVB Cup. Despite more financial problems in 2002 they have again established themselves as a force, finishing 2006-07 in 4th slot and with a solution to one of the problems that has held them back in recent years - their stadium. Their old ground, the Diekman Stadion, was replaced in 1998 by the Arke Stadion, but with a capacity of only 13,250 it was almost half the size of the Diekman. However, with the Tukkers packing out the Arke every other week proposals were drawn up to nearly double the capacity so that the club can at least keep pace with the likes of Utrecht and Vitesse. For the 2008-09 season Twente hired ex-England boss Steve Mclaren as their manager, a somewhat bizarre match-up many thought - especially the media in England who were pretty much unaware of Twente. The appointment was a master-stroke for both Twente and Mclaren - he guided them to a remarkable 2nd place in his first season and then, incredibly, went on and won the league in his 2nd season. His managerial reputation restored he then left for German club Wolfsburg in May 2010.
Formed in 1970 following the merger of 3 Utrecht clubs, FC Utrecht are a proud club with one of the most passionate followings in Dutch football. Apart from the big 3, they are the only club that has never been relegated from the top division of Dutch football. This, along with the large support base, makes them one of the main challengers to the big 3. Their large support is drawn from Holland's 4th largest city, and they have few problems regularly filling their 24,000 capacity Galgenwaard Stadium. The club and fans thrive on its reputation for tough football, and its tough fans, and the trip to Utrecht has never been an easy one. This reputation began in the 80's, when the club were marshalled by Dutch legend Jan Wouters, and continued into the 90's despite the club struggling to reach the heights their fanatical support demanded, regularly flirting with relegation and financial troubles. Despite nearly going bust in the early 2000's the club had their most successful spell in their history, reaching the cup final 3 years in a row and winning it twice. This doesn't mean that the club can hold on to their top stars though, with the pull of the big 3 being too much for star players like Dirk Kuyt.
Originally formed as a cricket club, Vitesse hardly registered in the Dutch league until the 90's. Until that point they'd only spent a handful of seasons in the top-flight. However, when local millionaire "King" Karel Aalbers saved them from folding in the early 80's, he declared his attention to make them the '4th' club in Holland, much to the amusement of the rest of Dutch football. However, they were left munching on humble pie as Aalbers kept his word - building Vitesse the fantastic Gelredome stadium (retractable roof and all) and a team to compliment it. All of a sudden Vitesse were the 4th team. 25000+ crowds, top 5 finishes and a regular UEFA Cup competitor, they almost looked like they could close the gap further. But when Aalbers got implicated in a tax fraud case at the turn of the century things went pear-shaped and the club again came close to folding. It was left to the city's council to step in and set up a rescue deal which involved them buying the ground. However, with their space-age stadium and one of the best followings in the country (approx 20,000 average each season), Vitesse are firmly established as a club who can potentially challenge for that coveted 4th spot.