A major northern trading centre, capital of its own province, Groningen has recently been a regular destination on the European football calendar.
Flagship club FC Groningen, competitors in the top-flight Eredivisie every season but two since 1980, were Dutch Cup winners in 2015, a rare year when none of the Big Three made it to the quarter-finals. The club’s trophy cabinet otherwise contains two Eerste Divisie titles awarded for topping the second tier.
The only time a team from Groningen was crowned Dutch champions was in 1920. The wonderfully named Be Quick – nicknamed, perhaps even more bizarrely, Good-Old – dominated the game in this far northern part of the Netherlands from 1915 onwards.
The date is no coincidence. Formed by local grammar-school students in 1887, Be Quick first won the regional league in 1896. Their main rivals were working-class Velocitas 1897.
Initially, only the top teams from western Holland, then eastern, then southern, were granted access to the play-off round to determine the annual national champion. Those from the country’s northern provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Drenthe remained exempt, partly because of distance, partly as the standard of football here was lower.
This changed in 1916-17 – just as British influence was being felt in these parts. Soon after the start of World War I, 1,500 British troops fleeing Belgium were interned in Groningen, far from the fighting in the neutral Netherlands. Put to work on various industrial duties, naturally they played football in their spare time.
The team of British internees played regular friendly matches with Be Quick, attracting growing crowds of spectators. Watching these games, locals formed another team, eventually known by the acronym GVAV, ‘Gronignen Football & Athletics Association’. This was the club that became FC Groningen in 1971.
Impressed by the levels of skill and fitness on display, Be Quick invited a couple of British players to join their team invited for a friendly in The Hague at Christmas 1915. Rugby player Harry Waites stood out for his coaching abilities while penalty-taking goalkeeper Arnold Birch played for Be Quick for a short time before returning to England to play for ten years between the sticks at Sheffield Wednesday and Chesterfield.
Waites stayed to lead Be Quick to the national play-offs in 1920. Winning five out of their six matches, the Groningen side stayed ahead of VOC Rotterdam to take the Dutch title. Waites also briefly assisted Fred Warburton in the national job. One of several Be Quick title winners to play for Holland, Evert van Linge was also the architect responsible for the Stadion Esserberg, the club’s home in the leafy suburb of Haren south of Groningen.
Still on Rijksstraatsweg to this day, Be Quick kept winning regional titles until the 1940s then fading away in the post-war professional era. The senior team currently plays in the Derde Divisie, Holland’s fourth tier, Sunday league. FC Groningen’s youth team is in the Saturday set-up.
To reach the Sportpark Esserberg, take bus Nos.50 or 51 (every 15-30min) from Perron S at Groningen main station, journey time 10min.
With Be Quick’s slow demise, GVAV became the top team in town, winning the regional title for the first and only time in 1940. The following year was the last time the trophy went to Esserberg.
Until the 1930s, GVAV had shared a ground at the Stadspark, behind the train station, with Velocitas. In 1933, a hockey game and a handball match were the curtain-raising events for the opening of the Oosterpark east of the centre, in an area of new-builds. Originally housing 524 seats, with parking for 500 bicycles, Oosterpark became the main stadium in town, its capacity relatively modest. Even when the Holland of Gullit, Koeman and van Basten played here against Iceland in 1983, only 7,000 showed up.
GVAV, meanwhile, have played in Holland’s top division for most of the past half-century, relegation in 1970 leading to a rethink, a rename and rebrand. Out were blue, white and red, in were the city colours of green and white.
Successor club FC Groningen came good in the 1980s, the Koeman brothers making their debuts there. In 2005, the club left the Oosterpark for the newly built Euroborg Stadium, at a leisure hub south of town, Europapark. In 2007 it co-hosted the European Under-21 Championship, including the final won by Holland against Serbia.
Recently it was renamed Nordlease in a sponsor’s agreement.
Currently used by Flybe for flights from London-Southend and recently dropped from the Ryanair roster, Groningen has its own airport, 14km (nine miles) south-west of town. Qbuzz bus No.9 runs every 30min (Sun every 1hr) to the main train station, Hoofdstation (journey time 35-40min), a short walk south of the city centre.
The bus fare is around €3 with a nationwide OV-chipkaart (€7.50), valid on trains and all public transport across Holland. If you have no chipkaart, you can buy a €5 Eurokaartje (valid 90min) from the driver. All other city buses run on this system. For shorter journeys, there’s a 1hr €2 Eurokaartje, although the city centre is walkable and trains to the stadium far quicker.
From Amsterdam Schiphol 192km (119 miles) away, an hourly train (€26, journey time 2hr 10min) runs direct to Groningen – change at Zwolle if you’ve just missed one. Schiphol’s is the only station in Holland where those without a chipkaart can buy a paper ticket with a non-Dutch credit card without incurring a draconian levy. Note that trains run direct from Zwolle to Gronigen Europapark beside the stadium – otherwise from Amsterdam, change at Groningen Hoofdstation.
TaxiCentrale Groningen (+31 50 364 4044) quotes €30 from Groningen airport and €175 from Amsterdam Schiphol.
The only hotel around the stadium is the one run during the week by hospitality students of the Alfa College, Noorderport, near the main stand. If you need to stay by the Euroborg from Monday through Thursday inclusive, a themed single room is €60 and the staff young and keen – but it doesn’t operate at weekends or out of term time. You can’t book online – to make a reservation call +31 50 317 8200. Students also run the in-house café and restaurant.
Groningen station is the otherwise the most convenient hotel hub. Nearby, the age-old Martini, opened in 1871, is now a modest two-star, surprisingly pricy for what’s on offer. In the same group, the Budgett Hostel offers double and triple rooms as well as dorms, its reception manned 24/7.
The City Hotel Groningen, the former Hampshire City now in the Eden Hotels chain, is a conveniently located mid-range option, with 93 rooms, a sauna, restaurant, bar and roof terrace.
Slightly further into town, the Hotel Schimmelpenninck Huys has been spiffed up since becoming part of the Charme group, with a superior brasserie and in-house bakery with irresistible aromas.
Still close to the station, the affordable Pension Tivoli is super-basic but you won’t find much at €40 in a major Dutch city – here you get a small room, creaky bed and decent shower in the corridor. Reception operates afternoon-only.
At the other end of the scale, and the other side of the city centre, the Hotel Prinsenhof is where distinguished guests and dignitaries stay, with 34 individually designed rooms. Think valet parking, a grand café – and views of the Martini Tower. Nearby, the Groningen Hotel De Ville also features historic touches, with elements dating back to the 1400s. Now it’s part of the Spanish NH group, with modern amenities and a destination restaurant.
On the main square, old-school three-star Hotel de Doelen is, for price and location, near perfect if you’re on a budget, with comfortable rooms and the Drie Gezusters café downstairs. It also dates back to 1798.
Student-swamped Groningen is chock-a-block with bars. Starting on the main square of Grote Markt, De Groote Griet is the best football haunt in town, with a huge screen and games scheduled from across Europe and beyond. It’s also a grand old bar with spacious terrace in summer. Next door stand the classic vintage coffeehouse, the Drie Gezusters and its more party-oriented stablemate Hoppe.
Behind, there’s another bar hub on Poelestraat, with venues such as lively Oblomov, known for its beer varieties, late opening (4am at weekends) and big-screen football at tournament time. Klein Amsterdam also pushes the boat out until silly o’clock, Wednesdays to Saturdays inclusive.
Here you’re round the corner from Peperstraat, Groningen’s narrow alleyway of (very) late-night drinking and dancing – though, sadly, the revered Coyotes at No.29 has since moved.
If that’s what you need, there are foreigner-oriented pubs too, such as The Dog’s Bollocks on the university side of the main square, with big-screen sports and, on the busier station side, O’Malley’s on Oosterstraat and the Pacific Aussie Pub & BBQ next door, both sport-friendly. O’ Ceallaigh is more music-oriented and Chaplin’s Pub has a bit of character, plus TV football.
To mix with locals, Jut & Jul at Rademarkt 5 is a handy friendly spot with full focus on football when it matters.
Finally, if you’re after a civilised drink by the waterfront, tastefully Café De Sleutel also does decent food, in a historic building dating back to the 1650s.