Cult club from the rural east, the Super Farmers of De Graafschap gained promoted to the Eredivisie in 2018. Four times this century, the boys from Doetinchem have bounced back up to the top flight after a season or two of scrapping in the Eerste – but that’s not the real story here.
This is the kind of club where if the advertising hoardings collapse during play, there’s a spontaneous communal effort to put them back, all dutifully snapped, filmed and spread around social media. It’s the kind of club whose fans can say a loud ‘no!’ to a major global sports brand proposing to change the revered shirts of blue-and-white hoops. And it’s the kind of club whose supporters fill the bar they built themselves by the main entrance of the De Vijverberg, just south of Doetinchem station.
It was here that De Graafschap played their first professional game in 1954. The fixture, a 1-1 draw, also stands out because because the opponents were Fortuna ’54, founded by Gied Joosten, the role model for what Johan ‘Joop’ Roodbergen was trying to create here in Doetinchem. At the time, Dutch football was amateur. Following Joosten’s example in Geleen, near Sittard, Roodbergen founded De Graafschap, in the town where he harboured his family after fleeing Amsterdam during the war. A solid Blauw-Wit Amsterdam man, Roodbergen opted for a blue-and-white colour scheme.
Offering his players a regular salary meant that Roodbergen could attract the likes of Dutch international Wim Hendriks from Vitesse Arnhem, who then persuaded other teammates over, helping instigate a bitter rivalry. It also meant that De Graafschap, one of ten clubs in the inaugural professional NBVB League, were at loggerheads with the strictly amateur Dutch FA. The season only barely reached the halfway point when an agreement was struck between the two bodies.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Roodbergen then left to run a hotel. De Graafschap spent the best part of the next two decades in the second and third tiers.
Change came in 1971 with the arrival of coach Piet de Visser. Shortly before, locally born Guus Hiddink, appointed De Graafschap youth coach at the age of 20, had been persuaded to take up his playing career once more. His 22 goals from the left side of midfield had helped De Graafschap climb back to the second flight, and persuaded PSV Eindhoven to buy him – only to then keep him out of the first team.
Hiddink’s return coincided with de Visser’s rising influence. In 1973, their combined football nous allowed De Graafschap to gain promotion to the top-tier Eredivisie for the first time. Although it was a brief stay, de Visser leaving for NEC Nijmegen and Hiddink for Washington Diplomats, it sealed a working relationship that would later continue at Chelsea. Trusted scout De Visser still works as a football adviser to Roman Abramovich.
But the high point came with the so-called Fritz Korver effect, the much-travelled German coach known for reviving demoralised club whose manager had just been sacked, and getting immediate results – even promotion. This is what happened at De Graafschap in the mid-1990s, when the Super Farmers regained top-tier status, and even reached a record eighth place in 1997. Goals from Eric Viscaal, on the bench for PSV when Guus Hiddink’s side won the European Cup in 1988, kept De Graafschap buoyant in the Eredivisie for five of eight consecutive seasons.
It was at this point that a cultish support developed at De Vijverberg, beyond the community spirit for which the club had long been known. Younger fans formed the ultra-like Brigata Tifosi, while those with memories of Hiddink and Viscaal became Oldies DTC. Outside of Arnhem, De Graafschap is a name that generates respect and nods of approval around the Netherlands. When fans demanded a standing section at De Vijverberg, their wishes were granted. Plans for a new stadium were also abandoned.
For all that, the last 20 years have seen the club yo-yo between Eredivisie and Eerste. In 2018, promotion was gained after a stoppage-time penalty at Almere and a second-half comeback at home. Every season but three since 2007-08 has ended in a play-off to stay up or go up. With only three games won over the first half of the 2018-19 campaign, one a memorable 2-0 victory over Feyenoord, a play-off at the end would actually count as a bonus.
A ground rebuilt to create a real football atmosphere, De Vijverberg has been De Graafchap’s home since the club was formed in 1954. Originally a field owned by cattle dealer Bart Wentink and developed by builder Bernard Bruil, acting alongside De Graafschap founder Johan ‘Joop’ Roodbergen, De Vijverberg quickly gained wooden stands and a 12,500 capacity. With only a few weeks before the start of the professional league, time was of the essence.
Within a decade or so, wood was gradually replaced by concrete and the modern-day stadium took shape. The West Stand became the Spinnekop home end, in honour of Liverpool’s Spion Kop. Opposite was the Groenendaal Stand, and along the sidelines were the north Roodbergen Stand and south Vijverberg.
With the ground nearly a half-a-century old, and De Graafschap a regular fixture in the Eredivisie, there were calls for a new stadium to be built at a different site. If this was happening in Sittard, Breda, Tilburg and, most of all, Arnhem, why not Doetinchem? But supporters, by now organised and vociferous, helped stop the project.
Instead they got a whole new De Vijverberg, intimate and closer to the pitch, with the corners closed to keep the atmosphere in. Deportivo Alavés, European finalists later that same season, took part in the curtain-raiser in August 2000.
Selling off the land on which the stadium stands, south of Doetinchem, to investors, the club reinvested in expansion, so current capacity stands at 12,600. For 2017-18, average gates were 8,000-plus, nearly three times the league average for the second-tier Eerste Divisie. A return to top-flight football in 2018-19 meant a near full house every home game.
Standing sections 15 and 16 are immediately behind the goal in the home Spinnekop end. Away fans are allocated 550 seats in sectors 13 and 14, set by the corner with the main Vijverberg Stand.
The stadium is 10-15 minutes from Doetinchem station – turn right as you exit, head down Terborgseweg then follow the signposts as you veer diagonally left at the junction for Lijsterbeslaan.
There’s no bus stop in the immediate vicinity of the stadium. The nearest one, Watertoren, is one stop from the station on half-hourly bus Nos.28 and 40, but it only brings you slightly closer and is hardly worth the bother. A taxi would be around €6.
Admission to most matches is exclusively to holders of a De Graafschap ClubCard, available free from this Dutch-only link and valid for five years.
Tickets then become available three to four weeks in advance online. These must be printed not downloaded onto a mobile, as the stadium gates do not have suitable scanners to read them. Online registration and purchase is Dutch-only.
There are no match-day sales.
For all information, contact the club on +31 314 368 450 (Mon-Fri 9am-5pm) or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ticket prices are affordable – around €16 behind the goals and in the corners, and around €20 in the sideline Roodbergen Stand. Under-17s are charged around €10-€12.
Supplements are added for the visits of Ajax, Feyenoord, PSV and Vitesse Arnhem.
The match-day only De Graafshop proffers blue-and-white merchandise by the main entrance for one hour either side of the game. Away tops for 2018-19 are canary yellow.
There are no bars or restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the stadium, not even around the station. Home fans and neutrals gather in the Supporters Kantine just inside the main entrance, where scarves from scores of clubs dangle over an island bar. Beer here, and at kiosks behind the Spinnekop, is Grolsch, purchased with tokens (munten) available from vendors alongside.