Between Eindhoven and Rotterdam, Tilburg lacks the illustrious football heritage of either, the main square of this faceless, former textile hub filling with supporters should flagship club Willem II gain promotion or reach a cup final.
Nearest local rivals NAC Breda, with whom Willem II contest the Brabant derby, dismiss the club as ‘Stillem II’ (‘Silent II’).
Named after the bisexual, liberal Dutch monarch who fought alongside Wellington at Waterloo, Willem II, the Tricolores, sport the patriotic red, white and blue of the Dutch flag. Tilburg was where Willem II, the king, had his headquarters during the Belgian Revolution of 1830 – the modern-day border is now almost walking distance from the town, and closer to the Koning Willem II Stadion that stands on the town’s southern outskirts.
The first match here did not only involve Willem II but two of Tilburg’s lesser clubs, NOAD, formed by workers in 1910, and RKTVV, formed by the Church as RKTVV Wilhelmina in 1917. Older than both, Willem II had been founded by railway worker’s apprentice Gerard de Ruiter as Tilburgia in August 1896 at the Café Marinus, a key meeting place on downtown Monumentstraat. Renamed Willem II soon afterwards, the club played on Koningshoeven, also on Tilburg’s modern-day ring road, south-east of town.
Enough of a landmark to warrant the path leading to it being called Voetbalweg, Koningshoeven was home to the Willem II side who became Dutch champions by winning the three-team play-off in 1916 – the first club to do so from outside the country’s urban hub of the Randstad.
Somewhat confusingly, Willem II’s first kit were shirts borrowed from Enschede club Wilhelmina – but to this day, RKTVV, forced to drop ‘Wilhelmina’ from their name early on, play in the same red-white-and-blue stripes as Willem II.
With football becoming ever popular in otherwise sleepy North Brabant, the Church authorities keen on discouraging menfolk from pubs, a municipal sports park was set up on Goirleseweg in 1920. First home to RKTVV and Tilburg’s third club, NOAD, it was taken over by Willem II shortly after a friendly match in 1923 against revered English amateurs Corinthians attracted record crowds to Koningshoeven and exposed its shortcomings.
The Sportpark, now the Koning Willem II Stadion, has been home to the Tricolores ever since. It has even staged two Dutch internationals, both pre-tournament friendlies, against Ireland and China in the mid-1990s.
At club level though, the stadium and its regular hosts only came into national prominence in the 1950s, when a Willem II side under Czech wonder coach František Fadrhonc twice won the title. Early campaigns in the European era, though, such as the visit of Denis Law’s Manchester United in 1963, had to be moved to floodlight-equipped Feyenoord. The rebuilt stadium did host Champions League action in 1999, however, and Willem II’s winless group-stage debut against Bordeaux, Sparta Prague and Spartak Moscow.
As for RKTVV, based at the Sportpark Noord, the pre-war national Catholic champions still play, in the C division of the Sunday amateur league, Holland’s de facto sixth flight. The ground is just north of the university at Rueckertbaan 207.
NOAD (‘Never Stop Playing’) find themselves two rungs below, running out on Sundays at the Sportpark NOAD (Melis Stokestraat 42) in an industrial zone in north-east Tilburg.
Eindhoven is the nearest airport to Tilburg, 31km (19 miles) away. There are two ways to reach Tilburg. An Air Express bus runs directly from the airport every 90min to Den Bosch (30min journey time, €8.50) then a half-hourly train (€4.50) takes 15min. Alternatively, to the right as you exit the airport terminal, bus Nos.400 and 401 (€3.50, €2.20 with an OV-chipkaart) run to Eindhoven station 20-25min away, where a half-hourly train takes 20-30min to reach Tilburg (€7).
If you’re coming into Amsterdam airport, then for Tilburg you’ll need to change trains at Breda or Den Bosch (‘s Hertogenbosch), overall journey time 1hr 30min, €19 single.
Trains and local transport run on the Dutch OV-chipkaart (€7.50) system – top up as you go.
Tilburg station is just north of the town centre a short walk away. The stadium is on the southern outskirts and you’ll need a bus or taxi. Local buses are run by Arriva, again on the OV-chipkaart system. If you don’t have a chipkaart, a single journey (ritkaart) is €3.70, a day ticket (dalurendagkaart) €6.
Taxi Tilburg (+31 13 777 7777) currently quotes €69 from Eindhoven airport.
The nearest hotel to the stadium is a standard ibis but you’re so far from town, it’s not convenient for anything else but the match. Further along the south ring road, the 105-room Bastion Tilburg, opened in 2015, is comfortable but still quite a way from the centre.
In town, the two main hotels are the 91-room Mercure Tilburg Centrum, overlooking the main square of Heuvel, with its own top-quality restaurant, and the City Hotel Tilburg, an independent alongside. Nicely renovated rooms belie its three-star status and there’s a warm, traditional bar too.
By the station, Het Wapen von Tilburg is a hostel-like place, an old-school inn (‘The Weapon of Tilburg’) whose seven rooms have shared bathrooms, five of them twins. It mainly operates as a restaurant.
Tilburg was built for a bar-crawl – in fact, you’ll see ‘Kroegentocht’ displayed inside some venues in the pub hubs of Heuvel and nearby Piusplein, indicating the place is there to be ticked off as part of a beer traipse.
On terrace-lined Heuvel, Stoffel is good for seasonal beers and a general lively feel – quiz nights here are huge. Alongside, the Café-Bar Heuvel 15 is a little more grown-up, with the accent on wine, while party-focused, late-night Le Clochard has been popular for more than three decades. Look out for ‘3rd Half’ happy hour on Saturday evenings, with seats on the recently opened heated terrace at a premium. Closed Mondays.
Many locals shed a tear over the closure of Irish pub Clancy’s – over on Paleisring, Ruby’s makes up for it by going mega-big on TV sport. In the nearby shopping zone of the Oude Markt, the Café Anvers offers a choice of 100 mainly but not exclusively Belgian beers, ten on draught.
The stately Stadscafé Meesters stands on the same narrow street as the Café Marinus, where Willem II were formed in 1896. The Marinus was knocked down to make way for the Town Hall expansion – the venerable Meesters is still going, its accent more on providing a quality gastro experience.