In the beginning, there was a financial crisis. Then again, there always seems to be a financial crisis at the beginning of stories like this one.
This, however, was an important financial crisis rendered such by the stature of the club entrapped by it: Feyenoord. Winners of fourteen Eredivisie titles, eleven KNVB Cups, 1 European Cup, two UEFA Cups and one Intercontinental Cup; this wasn’t just one of the biggest clubs in Holland, it was one with genuine European pedigree.
The trouble had started back in 2006. That year, echoing mistakes that others had done before them and others will do in the future, they brought back to Holland three of the country's international stars; Roy Makaay, Giovanni Van Bronkhorst and Kevin Hofland. The belief was that these players could lift the team to success and, crucially, Champions League football.
That never happened and, slowly, the huge wages they paid for these players along with other costly transfer mistakes until the club was on the brink of administration. Loans had to be taken just to pay players’ wages.
To fill the hole, any player who could command a decent transfer fee was sold with those tasked with running the club keeping the wolves at bay whilst some clever financial restructuring whilst a significant chunk of investment from a group of fans breathed new life into the club.
Those measures had ensured that there was going to be a future for Feyenoord but the present was dire. Shorn of all quality the team struggled with their problems culminating in the most humiliating afternoon of the club's history, a 10-0 defeat at the hands of PSV Eindhoven.
Fortunately for Feyenoord, it wasn't just financially that they had started making right moves. Their bitter experience had taught them that success couldn't be bought and, even if they wanted, they couldn’t do that anymore. Either they got players who could come for very little or else they looked within.
The latter proved to be the more attractive option thanks also to the fortuitous appointment of Wim Jansen. As a player he had been legend at the club, playing more than 400 games in a career that spanned from 1965 to 1980 in what was the most successful era for the club. After he brought his playing career to an end (somewhat controversially, at keen rivals Ajax), Jansen became a manager of some success, leading Feyenoord themselves to a league and cup double in 1993 as well as helping Celtic break Ranger’s dominance over the Scottish league when he guided them to their first title in ten year.
In 2005, he returned to Feyenoord as a technical advisor but whilst most of the club was focused on immediate success, Jansen had an eye on the future. It was something he strongly believed in and remains involved in up to this day. “Wim Jansen is the silent force behind the youth system,” former Feyenoord defender John De Wolf said recently. “He advises coaches and teaches training courses.”
Back in his early days at the club, in 2006, he made what would turn out to be his most notable contribution when he brought in Stanley Brard, a former Feyenoord player – as well as Jansen’s son-in-law – to help restructure the club’s youth system.
It wasn’t a minor challenge. Feyenoord had produced good players in the past but they
weren’t anywhere close to matching Ajax’s continuous stream of home grown talent, whose history gave them the edge when identifying and recruiting talent. Nor was Brard helped by the club’s fluctuating financial position which changed in a very short space of time from looking largely for readymade stars to one where huge financial problems resulted in cuts everywhere..
Yet he had a vision that he wanted to impose; one that perhaps was best captured in the saying “geen woorden, maar daden” (actions speak louder than words) that eventually became the club’s mantra. So much that when he left in 2013 to try and do a similar job with Azerbadjian side FC Gabala little changed with the exception of Damiën Hertog taking over as head of the academy at Varkenoord, as Feyenoord’s academy is widely known.
Deep down, Feyenoord’s system is fairly simple, as most success stories tend to be. Players are scouted from all over the country, although there is a particular focus on the Rotterdam area which is where they exclusively look for players who are younger than 12.
Significantly, Feyenoord have placed a lot of importance on building good relationships with the various youth and amateur clubs. That they treat them with respect helps and indeed no player who interests them is approached before Feyenoord have informed his current club
of their intention to do so.
In the past they also looked abroad when searching for talent but with budgets reduced, this had to stop as it was simply too costly to find allocation and maintain these players. Now, the focus is entirely on Dutch players.
Nor do they look at players who are older than fifteen, with the belief being that once past that age it is difficult for them to join and learn to fit into Feyenoord’s way of playing.
Indeed, whoever joins must also learn to live by Feyenoord's rules. At Varkenoord the focus isn't exclusively on the player’s footballing ability but also on their overall development. Everyone gets individual attention and parents are also kept informed. Feyenoord ensure that there is help on hand for their educational needs, working with a local school - the Thorbecke Lyceum - so that lessons are fitted around training schedule.
The scholastic element is important because through the school, Feyenoord get additional information about their players and how they are behaving. Indeed, bad behaviour there can lead to suspension both from playing with the club and even the national team.
The key element of any youth system, however, is the level of coaching that the players get and Feyenoord isn't any different. Attention is given so that there are coaches with different management styles, even though all have to adhere to the general philosophy, to ensure that players get maximum benefit.
More significantly, there is the belief of exposing the players to coaches who know what it is to become a professional. It is why so many of the youth teams' coaches are former players although even they have to prove their worth at different age groups. Roy Makaay, who played not only for Feyenoord but also for the national team and at the highest level abroad (Deportivo La Coruna and Bayern Munich), started coaching the club's U13 before graduating to the U15s and now the U19s.
Examples like that show that “geen woorden, maar daden” is indeed at operation at every level and in every facet of the academy. And it is why the Feyenoord academy has won the last five editions of the prestigious Rinus Michels award that identifies the best youth system in Holland.
For all the work that Brard did and that Hertog continues to do, the biggest impact came from the change in the club’s attitude. “The focus of the club has changed in recent years,” Brard admitted. “If the club need players for the first team Koeman and Van Geel (Koeman’s assistant) will first look to see if players from the youth department are ready to make the step before they look outside the club.”
Whilst the sale of established players might not be agreeable, it is certainly understandable. In order to avoid a repeat of past problems, Feyenoord have set strict limits on the amounts they spend on players’ wages where no one is £635,000 annually meaning that the total wage bill of £9.5m of 2012-13 was half of what PSV and Ajax pay. Indeed, it was the fifth-biggest in the Netherlands.
This structure protects the club but, ultimately, once players hit a certain level they will inevitably look elsewhere to make more money. It is something that the club accepts as do the fans (at least, for the moment) which makes it crucial that there are always new players ready to be promoted and integrated in the first team.
If Feyenoord’s set-up keeps working as it has, that should be the case but there exists a real threat to this. Sadly, however, the reality is that Feyenoord’s success attracts those – and it usually is rich English sides – looking to raid their youth sides, robbing them of talent before it has the chance to mature. Ironically, UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules, ostensibly set in place to allow clubs who work within their limits like Feyenoord a chance to compete, could end up making matters worse with the richer clubs looking at accumulation of as much young talent as possible – in the hope that a few will turn out to be good enough for their first team – as a way to live within these rules.
Already, Feyenoord have suffered considerably. Jeffrey Bruma and Nathan Ake (Chelsea), Karim Rekik (Manchester City) and Kyle Ebecilio (Arsenal) all left Feyenoord after spending their formative years with them with the Dutch club getting only risible fees, if any at all.
It is a subject that causes anger and frustration, yet most of those players were forced to return to Holland in order to find regular football; they, like many others, have discovered that regardless of how good they are in youth football they’re unlikely to get an opportunity at senior level in England.
Their stories should act as a warning to any young player thinking of leaving Feyenoord established tradition of giving youth an opportunity to go into a system where very few youth make it.
For all the fear and uncertainty this creates, when that question was put to Jansen his reply was a rather pragmatic one. “In that sense, nothing has changed. Twenty years ago, PSV took Giovanni van Bronckhorst, while he was still playing in our youth.”
“What Feyenoord have to do is increase the supply of talent. If there six talents and three of them opt for overseas, then there are still three who can eventually make it to the De Kuip.”
The unavoidable reality, however, is that Feyenoord must find a way of breaking the cycle which they can only achieve if they manage the transform themselves into a destination, rather than a stepping stone. For that, they will need success of the more tangible kind.
Feyenoord last won a trophy in 2007-08 when they won the Dutch cup. Their last league success came fifteen years ago and they have not played in the Champions League proper since 2002-03. Over the past three seasons they’ve finished second twice and third on the other occasion but they need to make that final step forward.
That could come once the De Kuip is enlarged to fit in 70,000 fans rather than the current limit of 45,000, something that is scheduled for completion in 2018 and which would make it the largest stadium in Holland. Perhaps then, the stars coming out of the Varkenoord can have their dreams of success fulfilled at the De Kuip rather than having to move elsewhere.
This article originally appeared in Issue 6 of The Football Pink. For similar writing, join Blueprint for Football Extra, our free weekly newsletter.