Fred Tickell is currently in the middle an epic journey around Europe, visiting each of the 54 UEFA member countries.
Work, perhaps unwisely, packed me off to Amsterdam and the thought of seeing the legendary Ajax provided a brief moment of elation before discovering they were away to VVV of Venlo.
I had only the Sunday and serious decisions had to be made. Twente – Utrecht was of little interest both for geographic and sporting reasons. The trip to Venlo was tempting but the town was some distance from Amsterdam and looked unattractive. That left Willem II of Tilburg versus former European Cup winners Feyenoord of Rotterdam. Tilburg looked a pleasant enough town and a friend who plays piano for a living spoke well of it.
After ascertaining that one could indeed take a train from Amsterdam to Tilburg I took on Willem II’s website. It was a nightmare and so I gambled on a Facebook message to the official club page. Delightfully a reply soon landed in my inbox instructing me to email their ticket office. Kim van Baal was mightily helpful and in just four emails a ticket on the halfway line was arranged and would be awaiting me on match day.
Had I arrived on the Saturday I would’ve made the trip to Eindhoven and watched PSV put seven past Den Haag. However, it was a good friend’s birthday the night before and I was obliged to attend. A bottle of Campari to the good I stumbled home, collected my suitcase and took various night buses to Victoria coach station before boarding a National Express service to the Airport. Having managed no more than ninety minutes of sleep I arrived at Schiapol airport dishevelled, half drunk, half hungover and incredibly irate.
The airport’s security took one look at me and decided I was trouble. Taken aside he rifled through my bag and enquired about the nature of my visit. The truthful explanation surprised him a bit and having ascertained my innocence he simply stated, “you don’t look well”. “I’m not, I’ve been up all night drinking,” I replied to his amusement. “Well go and get some sleep then!” he said with a smile. I almost told him to fuck himself.
Arriving at such an early hour meant the hotel could not offer a few sweet hours of napping and so I sat on a bench on Haarlemstraat feeling like I had lost a fight to a bear. I pondered whether to make the trip to Tilburg and generally what I was doing with my life.
Strolling through the charming back streets of central Amsterdam as gangs of lads from small towns near Manchester looking for overpriced hashish passed me by a strange sense of duty to Kim van Baal overcame me. The ticket had not been paid for but the thought of letting down the lovely Kim down was unbearable. I was going to Tilburg.
Shortly I was eye to eye with an elderly Dutchman staring disapprovingly at me. “Return to Tilburg please.” He nodded, he tapped away at his computer, he offered a price that was very reasonable and continued tapping. I swayed back and forth.
Having paid for two tickets and a sheet of A4 was placed in front of me. “You must take the train to Breda leaving at 1049 from platform 3. At 1230 you will arrive at Hertogenbosch. They you must get off, wait 17 minutes and get on the train to Eindhoven, the next stop will be Tilburg.” All of this was written on down. His helpfulness moved me immensely.
Following his instructions I safely made it to Tilburg and explored as a light drizzle irritated me mildly and a biting cold annoyed me immeasurably. Charming two storey buildings flanked brick streets, shops were either achingly pragmatic or bafflingly quirky and the vibrant youth gave life to an otherwise tiresome town stuck beneath a grey sky.
After visiting an underwhelming church and shopping mall I gave up on sightseeing and picked one of Tilburg’s hundred or so bar-restaurant hybrids, Slagroom’s. Enquiring what to eat I was recommended a cheese toastie with assurances of its national importance and all round quality. It was a standard cheese toastie with tomato pizza sauce for dipping. It was adequate, the Hooegaarden went down better.
Cold, miserable and tired there was nothing left but to head to the stadium. The Koning Willem II Stadion is a drab, unremarkable 15,000 all seater affair which looked particularly unappealing on the day. Thankfully the ticket collection point was unavoidable on the crossroads of the main road in front of the stadium. It was two hours before kick off but there was already a splattering of burly, grumpy Dutchmen all wearing the Tricolor of their team in some shape or form. I took my place in the queue looking every bit the foreigner. The most cursory of interest was shown towards me.
Arriving at the front I greeted the affable woman with broadest smile and friendliest hello I could muster. “I have a ticket waiting for me, under Fred Tickell” She registered what had been said to her and turned around to rifle through a wad of envelopes. The first attempt brought no joy and she returned to me. Armed with my passport she went in for round two and found a likely suspect but was clearly uncertain.
After a short conference with a colleague she came over and showed me the name on the envelope. It read Freg Dickl. We agreed that I likely was Freg Dickl.
Finding the gate was a monumental task mostly due to my incompetence. I followed one chap only to end up among a crowd of ultras drinking heavily. Heading back I was castigated by a police officer who sent me the other way. After taking a lengthy detour to the opposite side the ground I was at last triumphantly staring at Gate F. The stadium was practically empty except for the bored Feyenoord ultras. The home allotment was tiny yet was only half full, clearly the 45 miles journey was too far.
Willem II were rooted to the bottom of the table and would indeed finish bottom that season while Feyenoord would miss out on Champions League qualification on goal difference. Victory was unlikely for the home side. Despite this there was nary a single empty seat in view. The crowd was as jolly as the Dutch are capable of being and greetings were morosely exchanged around me.
A father and son next to me were in lively discussion and the elder turned to me suddenly, evidently demanding my opinion on the topic of conversation. I pleasantly informed him that I was English, a fact that delighted him. He lent forwards and yelled towards a moustachioed man who had caught my attention earlier as even with the language barrier I could tell he was a large character. He was equally delighted and he vigorously shook my hand while a multitude of Dutch smiles emanated from various faces in the crowd.
After this brief moment of excitement there was still forty minutes until kick off. The Dutch had returned to their gloomy way and I chain-smoked and the cold sank into my skin.
When the game began the Tilburg Tifosi, who had proudly unfurled their banners pre-game, were disappointingly tame. There were no flags, no flares, just a crowd of angry men on their feet. The handful of Feyenoord fans were far more vocal and, somewhat surprisingly, their chants were the same as on would hear from the terraces in England.
Feyenoord took an early lead thanks to some classically awful Dutch defending but a penalty to Willem II evened it up and the crowd roared in appreciation. Spirits were high at the half and a shot of alcohol similar to but definitely not Jaegermeister was forced down me.
Willem II, to be frank, were dreadful and Feyenoord dominated the second half with young Vilhena netting two. The referee did not have the best game and he was mercilessly booed and jeered by the Willem II faithful. The crowd condemned the most blatant of fouls noisily and the sarcastic applause that greeted a beneficial decision was deafening.
By the end of the game I was beginning to accept that the cold may be the death of me but at the final whistle I trudged homewards with the glum residents of Tilburg until I had warmed up.
After mistakenly heading south and finding myself in Eindhoven I successfully boarded a train back to Amsterdam where I fell asleep within minutes. A cleaning lady awoke me in the capital with the business end of a broom, she clearly didn’t care for me.