How Dutch minnows Heracles secured their first European adventure

On May 23rd, the whole of Almelo was on its feet in jubilation. Less than 75,000 people inhabit the little city tucked away in the east of the Netherlands and, as faces dotted the windows and people wandered out on to the streets, it seemed everyone had turned up for the celebrations: 113 years after the club’s inception, Heracles had qualified for European football for the first time.

The previous day Heracles emerged victorious in the second leg of their domestic play-off for entry into the qualifying round of the Europa League. They beat the favourites FC Utrecht 2-0 away from home at De Galgenwaard Stadion. The days preceding the game had been mired in controversy. Following the news of the KNVB’s proposal to relegate Heracles’ neighbour FC Twente due to financial mismanagement, the media revealed that the KNVB had also declined to give Utrecht the necessary licence to play in Europe over a ‘small financial issue’. If Utrecht had beaten Heracles, this development could have posed serious threat to the reputation of the league and its governing body. Thanks to Heracles, the predicament was avoided.

The triumph that sealed the club’s entry into Europe was the culmination of chairman Jan Smit and technical director Nico-Jan Hoogma’s many years of dedication, along with the shrewd management of  John Stegeman, who has overseen a remarkable rise over the past two seasons. At the start of the 2014/15 campaign, Stegeman, a former striker who struggled to find success in the Eredivisie but had a decade-long career in the second division, was not even a formally qualified coach. Then an assistant to former Heracles manager Jan de Jonge, he was finally handed his coaching certificate on the day Ajax faced PEC Zwolle in the Johan Cruijff Shield at the Amsterdam ArenA.

Almost six weeks later, Stegeman returned to the Amsterdam ArenA, swapping a panoramic view in the stands for the manager’s seat in the opposition dugout. The intervening period had seen Heracles lose their opening four matches, scoring twice and conceding 10 in the process, which resulted in the dismissal of De Jonge. The club searched for experienced replacements, but once their top pick — current AZ boss John van den Brom — said no, they decided to give Stegeman a shot. The young coach delivered a convincing PowerPoint presentation and, just as he was driving home, Smit and Hoogma made the call to affirm their faith in him.

Taking charge of a professional football team for the first time isn’t an easy experience for any coach, let alone one languishing at the bottom of the top flight on zero points – and with a trip to the defending champions as a baptism of fire. Stegeman’s Heracles went behind in the first minute to Ajax and ended up losing 2-1, but there was a renewed optimism in the team’s approach as the game wore on.

It is rare for sustainable change to present itself right from the outset, and Stegeman lost six of his first nine games in charge, with silver linings brought by a 6-1 decimation of NAC Breda and a 3-1 win away to Go Ahead Eagles. Heracles were still rooted to the bottom, merely bouncing between last and second-last place. But on the pitch there were changes starting to take shape as the team attacked with a fresh confidence and defended with markedly more focus. New generals emerged, and captain Mark-Jan Fledderus, Mike te Wierik, Thomas Bruns, Iliass Bel Hassani and Wout Weghorst (below) all displayed a new lease of life under their new coach.

By the start of 2015 Heracles had jumped to 14th, but were still very much candidates for relegation. With their stadium also under renovation, they could not afford to bring in new talent either, and Stegeman was forced to work with what he had. In the club’s first five games after the Eredivisie reconvened, they only managed to pick up a single point. By February, they had dropped to into the relegation play-off zone and were dogged by infighting, with winger Oussama Tannane circled out for being a problematic figure.

Prone to outbursts that had negative repercussions on the team dynamic, Stegeman decided to suspend Tannane and the club referred him to a psychologist. The coach called his decisive act a ‘defeat’ but his captain voiced support: “He dared to intervene, and did not let things fester. You do not see that everywhere.”

In March, Heracles finally woke up, like the protagonist in every boxing film who had been pummelled in the earlier rounds, bloodied but unbowed. A run of form bettered by few of their rivals in the last eight matches saw Heracles just about hoist themselves to safety; relegation would have been disastrous considering the costly stadium expansion. Instead, come August, the updated Polman Stadion – now with artificial turf, increased capacity and heated seats – was fully sold out for the first home game of the 2015/16 season. Tannane was back in the fold, and demonstrated his undoubted skill with increased focus and support. It was symbolic of Stegeman’s transformative influence at the club that the Moroccan scored the first goal of the season, coming from a brilliant free-kick.

While Ajax and PSV had previously turned him away, Heracles, through their culture of inclusion, had addressed Tannane’s issues. Like another small club who made waves in the Netherlands recently — PEC Zwolle — Heracles have a policy where everyone who works at the club, from the players to the administrative staff, all eat their meals together. Every week, Jan Smit and Nico-Jan Hoogma take time to talk to the players about their personal success and how that complements the success of the club.

As the season began to gather pace, Heracles found themselves as close to the top as they had been to the bottom just a year before. In September came another date Heraclieden will likely remember for a long time: in front of packed stadium, the Almelose minnows played their 500th match in the Eredivisie, beating PSV for the first time in their history. Just the previous week, PSV had defeated Manchester United in the Champions League.

Heracles were still fourth when December arrived with European football a genuine possibility just a year after relegation had loomed. Not only were they picking up results, but Stegeman had the team playing aesthetically appealing football despite a tight budget. Likened to Leicester’s miracle in England, the club’s rise did not go unnoticed. Scouts begin filling the newly-furbished boxes of the Polman Stadion, and the club were suddenly seen as a threat to the traditional big three.

Over the winter break, which Heracles spent in the Spanish village of Benahavís, Smit and Hoogma were constantly shuttling between meetings and taking phone calls from clubs looking to poach their best players. Striker Weghorst, who had blossomed since scoring his first Eredivisie goal in Stegeman’s first match in charge against Ajax, was chased by Celtic and Cardiff, who even agreed a fee at one stage. Tannane, of course, was hot property, garnering interest from all over Europe, and eventually moving to Saint Etienne for €2.5 million.

It was not only their players who were sought-after. Peter Bosz, who had led Heracles to promotion in 2005, was to take charge at Maccabi Tel Aviv, and he wanted his old friend and Heracles’ assistant manager Hendrie Krüzen to join him. Just six months on, the duo have now been appointed to lead Ajax after Frank de Boer’s departure.

Although Heracles managed to hold on to Weghorst, they suffered a loss of form once again after the winter break. But Feyenoord’s catastrophic run meant their league standing didn’t suffer — and the club even climbed to third behind PSV and Ajax for two weeks. Eventually AZ and FC Utrecht caught up, leapfrogging Heracles but failing to extinguish their European hopes.

Moroccan midfielder Iliass Bel Hassani shone brightest in the tougher matches. Bel Hassani plays with a beautiful synthesis of thought and skill, serving as the driving force for his team’s play. Off the pitch, he is as eloquent in his expression as he is with the ball. Of Heracles’ unexpected rise, the midfielder told Voetbal International: “It never goes as you expect, that’s the beauty of life. (If you told me Heracles would reach European football), I would have said: ”Are you crazy?” I also found it strange for long that we had so many points. In the winter that changed. We kept saying that we wanted to secure safety from relegation as soon as possible and wanted to do better than last season. As a team, we have greatly proven ourselves, I think we are one of the strongest teams in the league. You can see this on the table.”

Two games stood between Heracles and European football. They nearly fell at the first hurdle, losing 2-1 to Groningen in the first leg of the play-off semi-final. When Groningen took the lead in the 63rd minute in the second leg, the European dream seemed all but over. But the home side kept pushing and, in the last 10 minutes, they found two goals to even up the aggregate score. With momentum on their side, the hosts surged forward and scored three more in extra time, including Brahim Darri’s near-recreation of Lionel Messi’s dink over Manuel Neuer in Barcelona’s victory against Bayern Munich in the Champions League.

And so it came down to the two surprises of the season to fight it out for the final ticket: Erik ‘Pep Guardiola Jr’ ten Hag’s stylish Utrecht side versus John Stegeman’s resilient Heracles.

The first leg brought a 1-1 stalemate in Almelo, leaving Utrecht holding the advantage. In the second leg, the home side burst out of the blocks, having a goal disallowed for a questionable offside. It got worse for Heracles before it got better. Ten minutes from half time, Stegeman had a confrontation with his opposite number and lost his cool. The 39-year-old was sent off by the fourth official and, as he was walking up to the press box, Utrecht winger Andreas Ludwig hit the post.

But late in the second half, Heracles midfielder Thomas Bruns struck home from a corner and, 15 minutes later, Paul Gladon wrapped up the result with a neat finish. The FOX Sports camera cut immediately to a view of the box where Jan Smit was being congratulated by those around him. The Heracles bench was a picture of euphoria.

A few minutes later the final whistle sounded and the small Heracles contingent that had travelled to De Galgenwaard erupted. Weghorst broke down in tears, Stegeman bowed down on his knees to the Heracles fans. In a low-budget Bundesliga celebration, sans the beer, the players dunked a bucket of water over their coach’s head. They tried to lift him in the air, but their attempts were thwarted. “Too heavy,” Stegeman smirked later.

The reverberations of Leicester’s miracle has been felt in Almelo too. As Bel Hassani, who missed the play-off finals, put it: “I used to think a team should have some very strong players, and that would make it very strong. That was an immature thought of mine — it is not so. You can do it with the team, which you see in England and with us. Leicester is proof that as a team, you can win prizes, because they do not have better players than Manchester United or Manchester City.”

While regional rivals FC Twente face an uncertain future, Heracles could now see their coffers boosted. “Nothing was stolen, it is earned,” said director Nico-Jan Hoogma. The new stadium and the increased exposure means that the club is well on course to break even and the prospect of watching European football from heated seats will certainly do no harm.

The club’s three pillars of Hoogma, Smit and Stegeman remain sober about the club’s chances and limitations. They know they are a small club, and will aim to avoid relegation again next season with a transfer budget of just €4 million. But the sheer joy of making it to the continental stage has flooded the whole town and they deserve to enjoy it. Thomas Bruns certainly will, screaming into the microphone during the celebrations: “Sevilla, Sevilla, Heracles is coming!”

How Dutch minnows Heracles secured their first European adventure
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