AZ

Dutch champions in 2009 and cup winners four years later, AZ are enjoying their best period since the Keßler-Kist era of the early 1980s. Back then the combination of coach George Keßler and lethal striker Kees Kist took The Cheeseheads to a league title and a European final. The current purple patch dates back a decade, encompassing Alkmaar’s second Dutch crown and the opening of a new ground, today called the AFAS Stadion.

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AZ Fancentrum/Peterjon Cresswell

Only one of two sides to break the Ajax-Feyenoord-PSV monopoly on Dutch football since DWS Amsterdam in 1964, AZ don’t have anything like the history of Holland’s major clubs to fall back on.

In fact, when AZ were formed in 1967, from a merger between Alkmaar ’54 and FC Zaanstreek, it was the most ambitious attempt at establishing a football club in this historic city. Behind it were the brothers Molenaar, Klaas and Cees, who had played for FC Zaanstreek’s forebears, the Kooger Football Club. Like FCZ, KFC came from the area just north of Amsterdam, the other side of the North Sea Canal.

Having made their money in electrical goods, the Molenaars had propped up FCZ – now they would heavily invest in AZ, not only once but twice, when the newly merged club nearly went under in 1972.

Promoted to the Eredivisie in 1971-72, AZ soared under motivational coach Cor van der Hart, a former tough-tackling defender whose one season in charge saw the club win the Dutch Cup and qualify for Europe in 1978. His achievements having caught the eye of FC Amsterdam, AZ brought in George Keßler. A product of the famous Cologne coaching institute, Keßler had been a journeyman player at Fortuna Sittard and a surprise choice of coach for the Dutch national team, giving Johan Cruyff his first cap.

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AZ mural/Peterjon Cresswell

It was 1979 that Kees Kist came into his own. Scoring 34 goals and earning himself the Golden Boot, the international striker spearheaded a team that also featured later Real Madrid defender Johnny Metgod and attacking midfielder Jan Peters.

A year later, AZ finished domestic runners-up, Kees again top league scorer. By 1980-81, AZ were simply dominant, losing only one game, scoring more than 100 goals and winning the league by a whopping 12 points.

Having bowed out to Ipswich in 1978-79, AZ again faced Bobby Robson’s team in Europe – only this time in a final, the two-leg UEFA Cup showdown of 1981. Stomped 3-0 at Portman Road, AZ conceded an early goal in the home leg – played at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, not the Alkamaarderhout in Alkmaar. An eventual 4-2 win wasn’t enough to claw back the aggregate deficit.

Keßler, Kist, Metgod and Peters all went abroad in 1982 – after running Liverpool awfully close in the European Cup, a late Alan Hansen strike at Anfield sealing the tie 5-4.

With the departure of the Molenaar brothers, AZ tumbled out of the Eredivisie. It took the arrival of an art-collecting financier, Dirk Scheringa, to turn things around. From 1993, backed by Scheringa’s own DSB Bank, AZ regained top-flight status and returned to Europe. With coach Co Adriaanse and Dutch international Denny Landzaat, both steals from Willem II, AZ were seconds away from another European final, losing out to Sporting Lisbon in the 122nd minute at the Alkamaarderhout.

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AFAS Stadion/Peterjon Cresswell

His club hosting European opposition such as Villarreal (surprisingly beaten in the quarter-final in 2005) and the travelling support of Rangers and Middlesbrough, Scheringa turned his attention to replacing the outdated, 8,000-capacity Alkamaarderhout.

In 2006, he unveiled a new stadium, south of the Alkamaarderhout on the outskirts of town. Built at a cost of €38 million, the DSB Stadion matched the ambitions of well supported Dutch club trying to break into the Big Three.

His timing couldn’t have been better – or worse. On the pitch, Adriaanse’s successor, Louis van Gaal, was achieving impressive results, finishing runners-up in league and cup. Off it, the economic crisis of 2008 hit DSB Bank hard.

The turning point came in 2009. Van Gaal’s side, spearheaded by high-scoring Moroccan international Mounir El Hamdaoui, pipped Ajax to the title. Months later, there was a run on Scheringa’s bank and DSB lost sponsorship of both club and stadium. Van Gaal left for Bayern, El Hamdaoui for Ajax.

AFAS Stadion/Sander Jansen

With a spirited display in their debut Champions League campaign, drawing at home to Arsenal, Liège and Olympiacos, AZ maintained good form with a string of big-name if short-lived managers. Ronald Koeman, Dick Advocaat and Marco van Basten struggled with tight budgets to keep AZ in the hunt. Regular European qualification, a Dutch Cup win in 2013 and two Europa League quarter-finals have kept the club in the Dutch elite.

Current coach is John van den Brom, who led Anderlecht to the Belgian title. His side features returning centre-back Ron Vlaar of Aston Villa fame though Vincent Janssen, whose near goal-a-game record led AZ to further European participation in 2016, was snapped up by Spurs.

A runners-up spot in the Europa League group stage brought AZ head-to-head with a rampant Lyon. Hatfuls of goals, some of them spectacular, by Iranian international Alireza Jahanbakhsh then propelled AZ to another European place in 2017-18, though the Alkmaar side failed to ignite in two consecutive Dutch Cup finals.

With Brighton signing Jahanbakhsh, it may be down to fast flank players Thomas Ouwejan and Oussama Idrissi, both Dutch young internationals, to keep AZ in European contention. A shock defeat at the hands of an Andrei Arshavin-inspired Kairat Almaty put paid to Euro hopes in 2018-19, though AZ qualified for another Europa League campaign that May.

Playing the home leg in Enschede after the roof collapsed at the AFAS Stadion, AZ overcame Antwerp thanks to a late strike from bright young prospect Calvin Stengs, before three extra-time goals settled the tie.

AFAS Stadion/Rudi Jansen

Stadium

Opened in 2006, the AFAS Stadion was built by former AZ owner Dirk Scheringa, frustrated with the limitations of the venerable, modest Alkamaarderhout.

About 1km further away, the then-named DSB Stadion is set on the ring road south of Alkmaar, directly linked with Amsterdam on the A9 motorway. Unveiled with a friendly against Arsenal, the stadium holds 17,000, just below the typical overall average for Holland’s Eredivisie.

At the time, with regular European football and AZ challenging for honours, a plan to nearly double capacity seemed realistic. But the collapse of Dirk Scheringa’s DSB Bank in 2009, forcing the club to seek a new sponsor – AFAS is a software company – shelved such a move.

Usually, AZ play in front of a full house, or close to it, meaning that tickets are at a premium.

Home fans gather in the Van der Ben-tribune, aka Ben-Side end. Away supporters are allocated sectors K and L of the Alkamaarder Hout-tribune, in one corner of the opposite goal. The main stand, Victorie-tribune, houses the club offices while behind the facing sideline, the Molenaar-tribune honours the brothers whose commitment, generosity and business savvy created the modern-day club.

In August 2019, part of the roof collapsed at the stadium, causing solar panels to rain down onto the empty seating below. While repairs took place, most home games were switched to Den Haag.

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AZ transport/Peterjon Cresswell

Transport

The stadium is in the south of town and too far to walk. On match days, a free shuttle, a Hellingman Pendelbus, runs from Alkmaar station to the stadium from two hours before kick-off, then back again after the game – naturally, it is in heavy demand.

The stadium is otherwise very poorly served for regular city buses. From Alkmaar station, the hourly No.163 (direction Uitgeest) runs to Stadionweg and the half-hourly No.4 to Rhijnvis Feithlaan, just behind the Golden Tulip Hotel near the stadium. Each journey is 10-12min, 8-9 stops each.

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AZ Fancentrum/Peterjon Cresswell

Tickets

Ticket purchase at AZ is complex. In theory, tickets are sold at the Fancentrum (Mon 1pm-5pm, Tue-Sat 10am-5pm) at the stadium and online. In practice, given the limited capacity of the AFAS Stadion, you need a Clubkaart to do so, giving you priority for any match over the course of the season. The Clubkaart is free but can only be ordered by filling out a form on the club’s Dutch-only website – it cannot be arranged in person at the Fancentrum.

If you get as far as being able to buy a ticket, the pricing system is similarly byzantine, with five categories of matches. The cheapest tickets are in sectors K and M, either side of the away supporters, with prices set at €20, rising to €30 for Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. A decent seat in sectors P, Q and R in the Molenaar-tribune runs between €30 and €40, according to the opposition.

Children up to 17 are charged at around two-thirds of the adult price.

With capacity at 17,000 and an average gate of 15,000, availability is limited.

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AZ Fancentrum/Peterjon Cresswell

Shop & Museum

The Fancentrum (Mon 1pm-5pm, Tue-Sat 10am-5pm, match days) through the main entrance of the stadium purveys match scarves, frilly pennants, a DVD history of the club and copies of Tom van Hulsen’s polemic on the UEFA Cup defeat of 1981, ‘Het Geheim van Ipswich’ (‘The Secret of Ipswich’), how Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen changed English football.

Just by the shop is a modest display of vintage shirts, archive photos and souvenirs from AZ’s European travels.

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Truffels/Peterjon Cresswell

Bars

The only venue near the ground is the rather smart café/restaurant by the lobby of the Golden Tulip Hotel, Truffels – well behaved, reasonably dressed supporters do gather here for a pre-match drink.

At the ground, the Grand Café Van Gaal overlooking the pitch is open Mon-Fri 8.30am-5.30pm, offering breakfast and lunch. On match days, though, it’s reservation-only.


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