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Last season I visited the splendid city of Enschede in the Netherlands as part of a short break in the country, and as pre-planned I ended up at De Grolsch Veste the home of FC Twente. It was a mild November evening and that night Twente absolutely dominated possession with the opposition Excelsior barely getting near the ball, yet it was Excelsior who took the three points running out 3-1 winners. At that point Twente only had 9 points on the board, I thought nothing of it really and to be honest their ultimate demise and eventual relegation come the end of that campaign kind of passed me by. So when Twente started the current campaign in the second tier it came as a bit of a shock, but having finished the previous season with only 24 points and just five wins to their name they were relegated to the second tier. Amongst all this, however, there was actually more than meets the eye.
Aside from Steve McClaren’s dodgy Dutch accent and that Eredivisie title in 2010, FC Twente is a club who has never gotten much attention over here in Britain. The Enschede based club hail from the home of the Grolsch brewery and are named after the region in which the town sits. In a shape similar to that of Celtic Park, Glasgow, Twente’s home stadium lies on the edge of the town but is only a short train journey from Enschede’s centre and it’s smart-looking car-free streets. At this out of town venue, however, Twente’s recent tale has been one mostly of severe financial problems, trouble with the footballing authorities, and of course that eventual relegation. But the team are fighting back and have just won the Eerste Divisie title to secure promotion back to the top flight with three games to spare in what has been an impressive first season back in the second tier since the 1980s.
For Twente, last season’s relegation was the culmination of several years of problems on and off the field. The club who nearly went bankrupt in 2003 have in recent years again found themselves in massive financial problems after many years of misspending. In April 2015 club President Joop Munsterman left the club over allegations of financial mismanagement and this came a month after the Dutch football association (KVNB) had deducted the club 3 points when they failed to meet a deadline they had been given to get their financial affairs in order and sort out their huge debt.
In December of 2015, the club were in further trouble with the KVNB. Twente’s failure to reveal full details of a player third-party ownership contract with Malta-based Doyen Sports Investments saw them banned them from qualifying for European competitions for three years and fined €45,250 by the Dutch FA. Doyen had agreed to put €5m into the club in return for a percentage of the transfer fees of seven players, but leaked documents showed that the deal gave Doyen considerable say over Twente’s transfer policy, something they had previously denied. This also broke KVNB rules regarding third-party involvement.
Things almost got abundantly worse still for the club in 2016 when the KNVB declared it’s intent to relegate FC Twente to the Eerste Divisie for “repeatedly and deliberately misleading” both them and the league’s clubs about their finances. This, however, was subject to appeal, an appeal which Twente won to give them a huge reprieve. On the pitch, things weren’t exactly great either, but with the club finishing 11 points above the relegation zone in both the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons they could have definitely been worse. The 2017-18 season, however, was when their problems off the pitch really caught up with them and affected performances on it.
Twente lost their first four games of the 2017-18 season, and though despite winning two of their next four, fans were then rocked by the shock departure of Rene Hake who was sacked by technical director Jan van Halst that October. His replacement was Gertjan Verbeek who lost 5 of his first 6 games in charge of the club. Verbeek did not last the full season, the club won only one game when he was in charge whilst it was rumoured that many players did not have confidence in him, and there was also clear fan unrest. Verbeek was sacked after just 149 days in charge. Twente were all but down and although they beat PEC Zwolle in April, they lost their following game 5-0 at Vitesse Arnhem which saw the club relegated with one game to spare, finishing rock bottom. FC Twente had spent 34 years straight in the Eredivisie, but one torturous season of despair in which they won only 5 league games and they were suddenly looking at the prospect of a stint in the second tier.
After relegation, debt restructuring was the order of the day, but as the clubs Eerste Divisie campaign got underway they were still €42m in debt and during that pre-season, there had been talk of bankruptcy. A court ruling that summer demanded that they pay €6.3m to agent Matias Bunge over the transfer of Jesús Corona, whilst the club had asked for a loan from the local authority, even though they already owed them €17m from earlier loans.
Now in the centre of Enschede stand two rather impressive churches, one Catholic, one Protestant, and in a once devout country, this is a scene you’ll find in the heart of many Dutch towns. Considering Twente’s troubles one would like to think that both congregations were praying for a more stable future down at De Grolsch Veste, and if indeed the flock did partake in a few Hail Mary’s, then as we entered 2019 it looked as if their prayers might actually be answered.
In February of this year, new investment from sponsors raised €14m whilst in March ABN AMRO bank wrote off €4.5m of a €5.5m loan the club had previously taken out. April then saw even more good news as the city council announced it would write off €5m of the €17m debt the club was still owing them and would not charge interest on the rest. These proposals were voted through 23 to 16 in favour and came with the stipulation that the club would continue to invest €400,000 in their women’s team, a figure they had previously intended to cut by half.
Whilst FC Twente were financially sorting themselves out off the pitch, on it, the team were also beginning to get back on their feet. Under the supervision of head coach Marino Pusic, the club won 6 of its opening 10 games in the Eerste Divisie, and although they suffered three league defeats in November, 10 straight wins followed as the club surged to the top of the table. Although their winning run came to an end with a 1-1 draw away at Roda JC, they ended up taking 43 points from a possible 45 before eventually suffering defeat at the hands of RKC Waalwijk and then losing to FC Dordrecht. A win against Telstar followed and then with three games to spare, a 0-0 draw at home to Jong AZ in front of a sell out crowd of just over 30,000 combined with defeat for second-placed Sparta Rotterdam saw Twente crowned champions and secure the only automatic promotion spot back to the Eredivisie.
For Twente supporters, it’s been a refreshing season of hope and fulfilment, and despite having been demoted to the second tier, their average home attendance of about 26,000 is actually slightly higher than last season, and nearly treble what the divisions next best supported team have been getting. On all fronts, it’s definitely been a successful season and no doubt those loyal fans turning up week in week out will have enjoyed the winning football on the pitch. Spanish winger Aitor and the front two of Tom Boere and Jari Oosterwijk have scored 34 goals between them, but crucially at the other end, they’ve conceded fewer goals than anyone else in the division with an impressive centre back pairing of 24-year-old local lad Peet Bijen and Uruguayan Cristian González aged 22. These are two inexperienced players who have really come to life in the second tier.
With a financial package now in place that should secure the clubs future, Twente returns to the Eredivisie in much better health than they left it, and the supporters who regularly turn up at what is effectively the town’s third church are now a lot more optimistic about the years to come.