‘That one word does stick’
With AZ’s European semifinal against West Ham United, thoughts in Alkmaar also quickly wander back to last time they reached the last four.
“The moment still sometimes passes by in documentaries. Then I keep thinking: but when exactly does it happen? After all, the match seemed to be over already. Then it’s just as painful to see again,” said Kenneth Perez.
The Dane was one of the goal scorers in the return match of the 2005 UEFA Cup semifinal against Sporting Portugal, in which AZ had forced an extension and made it 3-1 in that match. Enough for the final, which AZ eventually miraculously missed out on.
“I looked at the clock and it said 120 on the scoreboard. Goalkeeper Henk Timmer went to take a back ball. And I thought: this is going to be him,” left back Tim de Cler remembers like it was yesterday. “What happened after that, that’s actually unbelievable.”
In the extra time of the extension, everything and everyone from Sporting went forward on a corner, then the ball caromed into the goal via defender Miguel Garcia (3-2). Done. On away goals, the Portuguese qualified.
De Cler: “I had already seen a little bit during the match how that ball went in. But then when you see that back, you totally think: how then?”
For AZ it turned out to be the most dramatic denouement ever of a European adventure, which was totally unanticipated beforehand. That the Alkmaarers had managed to qualify for that then UEFA Cup at all through the preliminary rounds against PAOK Saloniki was a windfall in itself.
In the run-up to the confrontation with the Greeks, coach Co Adriaanse mainly wanted to take the pressure off. De Cler: “We sat by the pool in the afternoon, while we had to play soccer in the evening. And we won 3-2 there.”
Perez: “We thought: that’s nice. We’ll probably leave it at that. Gradually we found out that we had quite a good team and actually did not have to be inferior to other teams in the UEFA Cup.”
Something beautiful was growing within the team, which was then still playing in the heavily dated Alkmaarderhout.
“Denny Landzaat, Henk Timmer, Barry van Galen, Kenneth Perez, Jan Kromkamp, Martijn Meerdink, Barry Opdam,” De Cler effortlessly lists the names of the AZ team still. “That’s where I had my best time as a soccer player. We also had so much fun outside of soccer, that just always stays with me.”
And so the Alkmaarders rose above themselves, with subsequent victories over Auxerre, Amica Wronki, Glasgow Rangers, Alemannia Aachen, Shachtar Donetsk and the ironclad Villarreal.
“There we did have a bit of luck,” Perez said. “We were in a flow. We were very complementary to each other. Everyone knew exactly his role and was happy with that. The core consisted of almost only Dutch players, I was one of the few guys from abroad.”
If you look at the second half and the extension, there was only one team that deserved to win. And that was us.
AZ’s success was also mainly Adriaanse’s success, Perez recalled. “He was progressive as a coach and tactically very strong. We played adventurously and with daring and guts.”
So too in the return in the semifinals against Sporting, in which a narrow defeat (2-1) had to be erased. And that was quickly done.
“We often started very attacking, we surprised a lot of teams with that,” De Cler remembers well. “If you look at the second half and the extension, there was only one team that deserved to win. And that was us.”
And yet, so it still went wrong. De Cler: “We were completely empty. Especially compared to the euphoria of the 3-1 that was there with us, that you felt. In the stands and with everyone you felt it afterwards, that emptiness.”
Players burst into tears. For many guys, it may have been the only chance ever at a major final. “Godskolere, hey. Were we so close…,” stammered goalkeeper Timmer.
While big money increasingly took control of soccer, Adriaanse did not rule out the possibility of Dutch clubs ever reaching European finals ten years after the Alkmaar tragedy. “At Europa League level it should still be possible.”
And after Feyenoord last year, so even AZ might be able to do it, albeit in the Conference League. Perez: “Against a club like Real Madrid you are hopeless, not against the number 15 from the Premier League.”
Defeat at AZ after missing out on final: ‘Godskolkere, lol. Were we so close…’
The 2005 sporting blow still reverberated for a long time at AZ, which lost the last three games of that season without glory, completely burned out.
“I lingered for a long time afterwards,” De Cler concludes about that black evening. The second in a row for Dutch soccer, by the way, as PSV also missed out on a European final that week. “Then you’re standing with people at the club talking about the match. And then that one word does stick.”