Readers of a certain vintage will perhaps recall the UEFA Cup Final of 1981, when Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town defeated AZ’67 their Dutch opponents, 5-4 on aggregate, complete with Dutchmen Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen in the Portman Road side. By modern day standards it was perhaps an unusual double act for a European final, but in the days before excessively seeded draws, coefficients and big money made the route for the lesser clubs to a final more protracted, the European competitions, especially the UEFA and Cup Winners Cup finals, did throw up a curve ball on occasion. That said, both Ipswich and AZ were at the height of their powers in the late ’70’s and early ’80’s so a coming together in a near “local” derby across the North Sea was no fluke. While Ipswich had already enjoyed FA Cup success, as well finishing runners up in the league twice in ’81 and ’82, AZ’67’s consolation for losing the UEFA Cup to the Tractor boys was winning the Dutch Eredivisie for the first time in the clubs history that month, and becoming the first team outside the “big” three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) to win the title since the magnificently named DWS Amsterdam (Door Wilskracht Sterk, translates as Strong Through Willpower!), who won their only title in 1964.
The fortunes of these UEFA Cup finalists fluctuated thereafter with both relegated by the mid to late ’80’s. AZ dropped down a level for nine out of ten seasons from ’89 to ’98, returning to the top flight just before Ipswich settled into the English second tier, where both teams have respectively been ever since, albeit the Tractor Boys look doomed to the third tier this season now. AZ’s decline coincided with departure of the club owner Klaas Molenaar, who together with his brother had arrived at the club in 1972 and invested heavily. Three Dutch Cup wins and that first ever championship were their legacy.
AZ (which stands for Alkmaar Zaanstreek, the names of two nearby towns following mergers long before 1967) have always played in Alkmaar, and they moved into their new home, the 17.000 capacity AZ Stadion in 2006, with sponsorship altering the initials more recently to AFAS. It would soon be witness the clubs second league title in 2008/09, and more recently a fourth Dutch Cup win in ’12/13. Oddly, AZ’s second league title was first outwith the big trio since their last success, but the trophy didn’t go back to Amsterdam, Rotterdam or Eindhoven the next season, with FC Twente Enschede getting in on the Roll of Honour for the first time. What is even more odd is I have now seen two Dutch clubs in my life, both in the last 15 months, AZ and FC Twente, the two “rogue” Eredivisie Champions of the last 54 years, with FC Twente were sighted in the most unlikely but wonderful surroundings of a sun soaked Stair Park, Stranraer! It was a mismatch of a friendly at the start of last season, with Twente winning 5,0, but new friends were forged! AZ v Kairat Almaty is perhaps not a conventional first ever game in the Netherlands on my first ever day in the country, but the lure of the Kazakh visitors was the real draw for me!
Since Kazakhstan successfully switched across from the Asian conference to UEFA, arguing the Western part of the country is within Europe as the Ural mountains are the dividing line between the two continents, their club sides have little by little progressed up the UEFA coefficient table. FC Astana from the same named modern day capital are essentially backed by the sovereign purse of the Kazakh government and they have been leading the charge, but Kairat, from the old capital Almaty have been knocking on the door of making the group stages of the Europa League too in recent seasons. In Soviet times Kairat were the Kazakh regions leading club and they occasionally graced the top flight in those days going toe to toe with the Moscow and Kiev giants. In the modern world of independent Kazakhstan, the closest Kairat have come so far to making the Europa groups was in 2015 when they made the Play Off round, only narrowly losing out to Bordeaux on the away goals rule. On that run they had played Aberdeen, and not only was I the author of the programme notes on Kazakh football and Almaty, but I got to see Kairat for the first ever time and meet some of the fans! You have to respect fans who travel from the furthest eastern extremity of Kazakhstan to anywhere in Western Europe, although some had travelled from as far as Edinburgh where they were at University! The games with Bordeaux set a new “longest distance” record for a European match at the time, but Astana’s games v Benfica might have beaten that now, although the Kazakh capital is a good bit west of Almaty.
The first leg of the AZ v Kairat fixture coincided not only with a European match in Edinburgh, Hibernian v Asteras Tripolis, but also FW’s editor Jim making his Scottish capital debut at a football match here! With the time difference to Almaty at five hours, it allowed me the opportunity to view both matches and by the time I met Jim for a beer ahead of the Easter Road game, I was positively gleeful at the imperious way Kairat had seen off AZ on a sticky Almaty night. A 2-0 win for the Kazakh’s is a result that isn’t just another feather in their cap, and keeps an impressive European home record going having only lost the very first ever European game to Red Star Belgrade in 2002, but beating a team who finished third in the Dutch Eredivisie last season would make afficionados of the European game sit up and take notice! The stage was beautifully set for my trip to Alkmaar.
Alkmaar (pronounced Olkmar) has a population of just 107,000, adding even more credence to fantastic achievement of winning the Eredivisie once, let alone twice! It is situated in North Holland, no more than 35 minutes by train from Amsterdam, or Schipol (change at Zaandam) and it is a city famed for its Cheese Market. The nickname of AZ is “The Cheese heads” (Green Bay Packers might want a word!!). As you’d expect, like a number of Dutch cities, water abounds with a network of canals on one side of the city. The central area is classic Dutch architecture and very picturesque as well as clean. If you are here on a warm sunny day, cafe/bar society on the canal sides or squares abound. The Railway station to the stadium is a good 45 minute walk, as the AFAS Stadion is just outwith the city limit, with motorways surrounding it as well as that old Dutch favourite, water! Indeed, if you follow the logical trail out of the city, you can see the stadium across from a very busy roundabout, but how to get to the stadium will stump you unless you are close to match time when a stream of red and white colours will show you the route. Essentially you have to follow a walkway to the left at the roundabout which looks as though you are walking away from where you want to go, but lo and behold, an underpass appears! I am sure buses will get you close to the stadium, a taxi will take you to the door, at a cost, but if you don’t want to walk, follow the lead of the locals and get yourself a bike!!
I guess Dutch football has its issues with hooliganism and the away area in the AZ ground is heavily penned in, both inside and out. The three hundred or so Kairat fans were pretty much isolated, and even after the game, a separate gate is opened for them to leave, right at that busy roundabout! It was to be their night, as I had suspected it would be, having surprised a few AZ fans in a bar in town on such matters! A 2-0 lead was always going to be a useful position to defend, and they largely did the job magnificently. Things might have been different had an AZ goal not been chalked off for offside in the first 15 minutes, but when Kairat’s impressive centre forward Aderinsola Eseola was cynically blocked in the AZ penalty box on 30 minutes, the ref pointed to the spot, and Islamkhan coolly slotted home the resultant kick to send the visiting fans wild. AZ had an hour to score four, but it was never going to happen, however by half time they were level. The Kairat keeper Vladimir Plotnikov, who had a couple of wobbles amid some exquisite saves, punched the ball but it spun up ending behind him nearer the goal! It then hit someone, probably an AZ leg, before dribbling into the corner of the goal. It brought encouragement to the hosts, who tried with fire and fury at the start of the second half, but similar to the game in Almaty, nothing came of their efforts, with the midfield trio of Isael, Islamkhan and Arshavin supplementing the back line effort of Kairat led imperiously by Sheldon Bateau, a Trinidadian defender on loan from Krylia Sovietov Samara. Sitting deep, soaking up pressure and then breaking fast, it is a tactic that serves Kairat well, and they looked dangerous on the break. Eseola should have scored, and a younger Andrey Arshavin (ex Arsenal Arshavin) would have tucked away his chance having scampered from the halfway line to go one on one with the keeper, but either the legs or his mind failed him and the keeper easily saved. In the very last minute of injury time, the amusingly named Fred Friday went to ground in the Kairat box, a dive that had the AZ fans around me giggling, especially when the ref awarded a penalty, 2-1 AZ but seconds later no one from Almaty was caring. They had got through a potentially tough round against a useful side from a country proud of its footballing history, but like the Dutch National side that had hit the buffers in terms of qualification for finals tournaments before the Nationals League relaunched the Oranje, this result was a wake up to call to the shifting sands of the European club game. Kairat moved on to play Czech side Sigma Olomouc in the quest for Europa League Group stage football, while AZ had a little longer to get things sorted out ahead of the league campaign starting. In a brief exchange of words with Sheldon Bateau as he chatted to a friend by the touch line, they didn’t seem unduly concerned about Olomouc, but the Czech’s won both legs, becoming only the second side ever to win in Almaty, before going out themselves to Sevilla in the last round before the group stages.
The Kazakh season runs from March until November, and maybe they have the advantage of catching sides a little lacking match fitness in July. The club are heavily geared to success in Europe, the Sigma loss saw the Spanish manager sacked, and while they maintained second place and won the Kazakh Cup, performances seemed flat, and in the winter break their has been a considerable turnaround in personnel ahead of kicking off the new season with a relatively routine 2-0 win at home to Taraz, but they did lose the Kazakh Super Cup 1-0 to the enemy, FC Astana.
I have now seen Kairat twice, they have failed to win either game, but on both occasions they have taken the scalp of perceived “bigger” clubs Aberdeen and AZ over the two legs. Another away tie in the Northern parts of Europe for Kairat and I will have to see if I can get there!! Almaty a go, go one day soon!