Europe's worst top flight team? Plenty of contenders, but Willem II from the Dutch Eredivisie are doing their bit for unwanted recognition. Here's Mark Critchley.
“Congratulations, I believe, are in order. It's simply the least you deserve. You sir, are an exemplary in the field, a paramount of pathetic performance. Without you and your annual six-point charity giveaway, this league right here might even be worth winning. You have set a new record; a new record, for futility. You are the best at being useless. Feel free to crack open a bottle of celebratory champagne – unless of course, you need a hand with that?”
Now I’m a young man who is used to condescension, but from a football management simulation? Twelve games without winning, a round nothing under the ‘W’ column for my Willem II team, and I received a message akin to the one above that was apparently celebrating the fact I’m not good enough to stay inside and play with assorted ones and zeroes anymore. Naturally, I obliterated my desk tidy towards the floor, violently slammed the laptop shut and returned to cruel reality. A reality however, that could be so much crueller. Poor Gert Heerkes. His life imitates my art; every day another kick in the Jackson Pollocks.
This weekend marked the halfway point in the Dutch football season; a time to lay back and celebrate a job part done. Not for Heerkes. For him and his real-life, respiring outdoors version of Willem II, no wins and four draws in 17 games means the last thing needed is an even further recline. Tilburg, their municipality hometown and the Netherlands’ sixth city, had only witnessed home defeats until two weeks ago. On tour, their record carries two further points thanks to a stalemate at Vitesse Arnhem and last minute salvage against Roda on Halloween. That result was no omen. Not only are they winless, witless and definitively bottom of the Eredivisie, there's also a case to say that Willem II are, on current form, the worst team in Europe.
And so after such a sweeping generalisation, come the caveats. Of course, Willem are arguably better than half the sides in the Eerste Divisie, the league tier below them. Stretch as far as the Serbian, Israeli and Cypriot top divisions and then you will certainly find a gang of downtrodden sods who produce equal levels of weekly refuse. None of it however, is quite as rotten as this. Turn to the back pages of the sports paper and Willem aren’t simply bottom of the league, they’re in a different one. Flick through past they’re classifieds and you still won’t find them. They’re down. Way down. They’re so far down, they’re in the 3:20 at Bangor.
Relegation, then? It’s a safe bet, but then it was equally sound in the summer. Willem’s doom has been coming. By virtue of defeating Go Ahead Eagles in extra time on May 17th this year, the club protected their top division status through the least credible method possible: the relegation playoff. Sparta Rotterdam, three points and one place better than Willem in the Eredivisie, weren’t so lucky and failed to surpass Excelsior in their inter-tier tussle. Thus created was a kind of secession sandwich – Willem making up the rather unripe filling. Come May 18th, the club was but peanuts.
Debts of up to €5 million, a €1 million liquidity shortage and hence bankruptcy were announced, raising the question of footballing oblivion no sooner than that of its meek cousin relegation had been answered. With salaries of several months potentially going unpaid, Willem II had to look to Tilburg itself for relief. Car-boot sales, rock shows and the inevitable moulting of staff contributed, but it was the action of the municipality itself that proved ultimately invaluable. Rental payments on the Koning Willem II Stadion were reduced by the local government, who furthered their philanthropy this October with a €1.2 million subsidy payment.
Heerkes’ summer commerce was consequently restrained. Only frees and loan signings were considered, with the money recouped from striker Frank Demouge’s transfer to FC Utrecht used to service the debt. Evgeniy Levchenko, Andreas Landgren, Jan-Arie van der Heijden; these are probably the three most established individuals in a gang of fledgling upstarts and geriatric sloggers to have moved to Tilburg. One name many may be familiar with however is Maceo Rigters, on temporary leave from Blackburn and of Under-21 Championships fame. Willem took him on after the Dutch striker failed a trial at Southend United, and if that isn’t a damning enough indictment...
Perhaps however, fans are just thankful there is still a Willem II shirt for Rigters to wear, no matter how po-faced and righteous that sounds. This weekend, Tilburg welcomed the victims of 2010/11’s most celebrated discomfiture, Feyenoord. With the score seemingly settled at 1-0 to the visitors, the Rotterdam club’s defender Ricky van Haaren neatly tucked a header past his own keeper, like so many of those you’ll witness on gratuitous gaff videos over eggnog and stale farts this coming holiday season. Willem therefore scraped a 1-1 draw and what d’ya know, seeing as that’s two points in two, a bit of form to boot. Should they keep such good luck up, there might not be another 10-0 this season, but if Willem II finish winless, the Eredivisie will rarely have seen a greater embarrassment.
To read more from Mark, please visit his ‘Spotter’s Badge’ blog. You can also follow Mark on twitter @markcritchley.