John Dobson takes a closer look at Heerenveen, a club at the crossroads.
Heerenveen are in a strange place, geographically and in the football pantheon. Not a big club, not a particularly small one either, they have become an established Eredivisie side over the last twenty years and have had their moments, not least winning the KNVB Beker in 2009 after a penalty shoot-out against FC Twente. Instead of their place in the footnote of history for their achievements on the field, they will instead occupy a space marked 'expensive striking failures'.
The need to balance the books - and in the Netherlands, this has been a source of extreme concern recently - has seen Heerenveen sell on their best talent on a regular basis. Ruud van Nistelrooy and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar both had their big breaks at the Abe Lenstra and went on to fame and riches. Plenty of other good players emerged through their clever scouting and development systems, but it's the failures that they will always be remembered for.
Jon-Dahl Tomasson started the trend. 32 goals in two seasons in Friesland persuaded Newcastle to fork out £2.2m for the Dane - not an insignificant amount back in 1996 - where he got injured and barely registered on the scoresheet. Heerenveen converted Danijel Pranjic into a regular goal-scorer and he ended his final season with them with 20 before his move to FC Bayern. There, he was shifted between left-midfield and left-back, criminally underused, bafflingly denied a transfer to Everton and now playing with the reserves in Munich. Marcus Allback got a goal at a rate of better than one every two games in his two seasons with the club, but flopped after his £2m transfer to Aston Villa. Only a return to Scandinavia and FC København saw him get back to anything like that early promise. But these are peanuts compared to the 'big two'.
Afonso Alves arrived in Friesland from Sweden where he'd played with Örgryte and Malmo FF after leaving Atlético Mineiro. With a good goal-scoring record at both clubs, he surpassed that during his Heerenveen career, repaying the club record €4.5m with 34 goals in 31 games in his first season. In his second game of the 2007/8 season, he put seven past Heracles setting a Dutch record and forced his way into the Brazil side. That was when the rot set in with his illustrious team-mates in the national side allegedly teasing him about playing for such a small club and he began to miss training. With an unhappy player on their hands, the club wanted rid and his headline-grabbing goal-scoring feats caught many an eye. Middlesbrough blinked first and paid £12.7m for the Brazilian. Instantly, his form deserted him. He had issues with his weight and his lack of goals saw the fans get on his back. Boro were relegated at the end of his second season, one in which he scored just four times. With his mammoth wages unsustainable for a second-tier side, he was offloaded to Al Sadd in Qatar and he's currently scoring plenty for Al Rayyan in that same country.
And yet even he looks like a success compared to Miralem Sulejmani. His transfer from FK Partizan was controversial enough, the Belgrade club unwilling to let one of their most promising youngsters leave after just one first-team appearance. Replacing Alves in the Heerenveen side, he was tasked with picking up the burden of goals the Brazilian's departure had created, and he did alright with 15 in 34 games. That attracted interest elsewhere in the Dutch game and Marco van Basten, then head coach at Ajax, was persuaded to cough up a Dutch record €16.25m for his services. That first season was a disaster and after missing out on Champions League football, van Basten left. Sulejmani had bagged 10 goals - not a bad return - but new gaffer Martin Jol clearly didn't fancy him much and he was reduced to a bit-part player. That caused the breakdown of a proposed move to West Ham as he failed to secure a work permit for the UK. His reduced role at Ajax also saw him fail to be selected for Serbian national duty and players must have played in 75% of national team matches they have been available for in order to get a permit automatically.
Sulejmani fell short by some way and his Ajax nightmare continued. He accused Jol of trying to destroy his career. Frank de Boer took over after Jol quit Ajax citing interference from the board and with transfer funds limited - in part due to the excessive amount paid for Sulejmani - he's begun to have more of a look-in. At least he was until a knee injury ended his season.
Heerenveen clearly look kindly on van Basten for his generosity in the Sulejmani transfer and he will take over the coaching reins in Friesland at the start of next season, presumably as a big 'thank you' for the mega-bucks in the sc Heerenveen bank account. At this moment, the top scorer in the Eredivisie is Heerenveen's Bas Dost with his haul including all five in a 5-0 win against Excelsior early in the season. He cost €2.5m two seasons ago when he moved from Heracles and had a modest record prior to this, his breakthrough year. The 22-year old's efforts have not gone unnoticed and chances are he will move on in the summer. Will he be a Huntelaar or an Alves though? Dare any club take that chance?
John can be found on Twitter @dobsonjp.