Where Eagles Dare
The football season only seems to be over for a couple of weeks these days before the next one rolls along, and that was definitely the case for 2015/16. Indeed, I still had the bruise on my leg from celebrating Gareth Bale’s winner against Belgium in my last game of 14/15 as I headed to Emmen for the first one of this campaign – a first round qualifier for the Europa League.
While my Dutch club is and always will be Feyenoord, I also have a lot of admiration for Go Ahead Eagles. They made the list of the top supporters I saw live in 2014 for their incredible performance at De Kuip, losing 5 – 0 and still making more noise than anyone else who came to Rotterdam that season. It says everything about the underdog spirit of GAE that their supporters actually made more noise during this 5 – 0 defeat than they did last season, when they won 1 – 0!
Sadly the Eagles were relegated from the top flight last season after unexpectedly losing in the end of season playoffs. They had spent 17 seasons in this division before being promoted in 2013 so it is perhaps no surprise to see them go down, but their great supporters will definitely be a loss to the division. Still, the bright spot for Kowet supporters was the fact they finished top of the Fair Play League, with the Netherlands qualifying for an extra spot in the Europa League this season – setting up this clash with Ferencváros, the runners up in Hungary last season and the most famous club in the country.
To put the difference in the size of the clubs into some context, Zöld Sasok won 33 major trophies since the last time the club from Deventer did so, making it one of the most difficult draws possible for the Dutch side. Still, after not playing in Europe for 50 years, you might as well take on one of the big names rather than a trip to TNS or Andorra.
Work is currently ongoing on the Eagle’s home stadium, so the game would take place in Emmen instead. I knew this before buying a ticket, but sadly I did not know where Emmen actually was. As the Netherlands is a pretty small country, I assumed it would be pretty close. Geography lesson – it’s really really far away. Three trains, a metro and a taxi later I arrived at De JENS Vesting stadion at around 7:20pm. It was pretty obvious that most of the Go Ahead Eagles fans had been getting drunk since 7:20am, wandering round in a topless drunken haze of confusion which you only get with a sunny European game.
Around 7,500 fans had made the trip from Deventer for this ‘home’ match, a 180km (110 mile) round trip for a first round tie having just been relegated a couple of weeks ago. Great support, and one which is certainly worthy of a better team than the one they have. I was initially confused to see only 80 – 100 people in the away section, when I knew that around 400 had travelled. I thought that perhaps some people had been denied access to the stadium after causing trouble earlier in the day, but was later sent this article by Hungarian Ultras which contained some interesting information.
Many Ferencváros supporters, especially the hardcore element, are currently boycotting matches due to the ridiculous security measures which are in place. If you had a look at the Hungarian Ultras report, ‘vein scanner’ is not a mistranslation – the club appointed security will actually check your blood to make sure it matches with what is on your mandatory ID card. Worse still, these security guards have been involved in all sort of beatings and even a shooting – with the deeply unpopular club president cracking down on dissent in the harshest of ways. I am only thankful he isn’t friends with Vincent Tan, or I’d have been found at the bottom of a river back in 2012.
The supporters who did not take part in the boycott seemed to mostly be the older supporters or those who were a little younger and probably didn’t understand what was going on. I also suspected that many of them were people who lived in Germany or the Netherlands, taking the chance to see their team without having to take a long flight home.
With kick off drawing near, the home supporters displayed several large flags – the most eye catching being a ‘NO ONE SHOULD GO WHERE EAGLES DARE’ banner which ran the length of the pitch. There was also the customary pyro (this time in red and yellow) and streamers sent firing in to the air. Jupiler League or not, they were up for this! One of the best things about the Eagles support is how varied their songbook is, and they showed off a number of these as the match was about to get underway. From passionate chants about their love of the club to the simply but effective “We are Eagles, who the **** are you?” there can’t have been many games at this stage of the competition with a better atmosphere.
Having looked up the away squad on Wikipedia, the only player I instantly recognised was Zoltan Gera, now 36 years old. “Hmm, if their best player is Zoltan Gera, maybe Eagles will have a chance…” I thought as the game kicked off. Two minutes later, Zoltan Gera scored to make it 0 – 1. That’s me told, I guess.
It could have gone two ways on the Eagle’s big day at this point, the players and supporters being deflated by such an early goal and going on to a heavy defeat, or rallying together as if it didn’t happen and keep fighting for a good result. The supporters chose the second option, carrying on singing as if nothing had happened. However it took the players longer to recover from the setback, with the Hungarian team running rampant at times. It was only some great play from the goalkeeper which kept them in the game for the first thirty minutes, it could easily have been 3 or 4 – 0 in these early stages.
For most Eagles supporters this would have been the first time in their lives they had seen their team play a competitive game in Europe, and they weren’t about to let the result spoil the party for them. They continued to sing, jump and generally do all the things drunk football supporters enjoy, including threatening to clash with the away end. Despite most of the travelling Hungarian fans not actually being in the stadium, there were still plenty of people in the away end ready for a rumble. The big fence between the two sets of supporters meant it was never actually going to happen, but there were plenty of invitations to meet up after the game given out, presumably not for a quick pint and to swap scarves.
A few Eagles fans began to get frustrated close to half time, with two of them in my section having a pretty intense argument, which ended in them shoving each other and having to be pulled apart. They continued to give each other angry looks from across the stand. I think we’ve all had an argument with someone supporting the same team at one stage, mine was at Sheffield United away when someone was screaming at Peter Whittingham for being “crap and lazy” after he’d scored two goals and created another. Whittingham would later complete his hat-trick, resulting in me doing an elaborate dance in this guys face and him leaving early.
Just when it looked as if these two Eagles fans were going to come to blows, the magic moment that Deventer had been waiting 50 years for came. With just seconds to go before half time, the red and yellows won a corner in front of the largest block of their supporters, with the ‘Eagles dare’ banner I mentioned earlier. These Eagles certainly dared to go where seemed impossible, forcing the ball home from the corner and leveling the score against one of the most successful clubs in Europe.
As you’d expect, the place went completely wild. In between the plumes of red and yellow smoke and the bodies leaping everywhere, I noticed something which showed how truly unique football can be. In the middle of the celebrations were the two guys who had been threatening to bash each others faces in 10 minutes ago. Instead of fighting, they were now hugging each other and jumping up and down with delight. It was a really cool moment to witness, and one that says a lot about what being a football supporter is all about. Most of the time it’s annoying, it regularly makes you angrier than a teenage girl on Tumblr and can often feel more like duty than enjoyment. However, all of this is worth it for the times like this when something truly brilliant happens.
The Eagles had been pretty poor for 44 minutes, but thankfully possession stats and shots on target count for exactly nothing if you can’t stick the ball in the back of the net, and that is exactly what they had done.
It was party time in the second half, as Kowet saluted their team for having already achieved more than most people expected them to do in the whole competition. The players were also extremely fired up by grabbing the unexpected equaliser, and indeed if any team was going to win it in the second half, it looked more likely to be them. The ‘home’ side had a number of chances to go to Hungary next week with the lead, falling just short of pulling it off. Whether they go through or not, the memories of the goal celebrations will stay with the GAE supporters for at least another 50 years.