Defying the odds appears to be a speciality for Heracles Almelo. Since the Heraclieden were promoted to the Dutch top flight in 2005, they have been prime candidates for relegation every season thereafter. Year after year however, the club’s fortunes have improved. Indeed, despite one of the lowest playing budgets in the Eredivisie, the minnows have proven that they can cut it at the highest level in a way that was completely unexpected.
In 2010, led by coach Getjan Verbeek (now heading up AZ Alkmaar’s title push), Heracles stunned Dutch football by finishing in a lofty sixth place, going incredibly close to qualifying for Europe. If the club’s supporters thought this was the high watermark however, they were mistaken as almost two years later the Almelo outfit have reached the Dutch Cup final for the first time in their 109-year history.
The man behind the cup miracle is coach Peter Bosz, who led Heracles to promotion by winning the Eerste Divisie in 2005. Bosz made a return to the Tukkers’ bench two years ago after Verbeek packed his bags for Alkmaar and continued the excellent work with sixth and eighth place finishes respectively. While in this season’s Eredivisie Heracles’ have disappointed by recent standards (a lower mid-table spot, but still well clear of relegation trouble), the club’s cup run has meant the Almelo side have remained in the spotlight.
Heracles reached the semi-final without conceding a single goal; two straightforward rounds against amateur sides JVC Cuijk (1-0) and VV Berkum (4-0) were followed up by victories over Eredivisie opposition in De Graafschap (4-0) and RKC Waalwijk (3-0). Once in the last four, Bosz’s men produced arguably their finest performance of the campaign so far, beating title hopefuls AZ in Alkmaar, triumphing 4-2 after extra-time. The manner of the win was impressive and summed up Heracles’ style: 2-1 down with 24 minutes to play, the minnows’ hard work, humbled approach and never-say-die attitude paid dividends.
Left back Marl Looms is the side’s veteran, having joined the Heraclieden in 1998. “I think we wrote the brightest page in the history of Heracles”, said the 30-year-old, reflecting on the semi-final success. “The club won two national titles, the first in the 1920s and the second in the 1940s, but those victories are too long ago. Only a few supporters can remember them. For me, that was the best day of my football career. Even better than the day we celebrated promotion to the Eredivisie.”
Heracles are a team with few stars, mainly down to the inescapable fact that when a promising talent makes the grade at the Polman Stadion and proves his worth, he is sold within just a few months to a more ambitious outfit. A typical raid took place in the summer of 2010 with the departure of striker Bas Dost, the Eredivisie’s current top scorer at Heerenveen, while in January this year another star was lost in the shape of Glynor Plet, who was snapped up by FC Twente; Plet had scored 14 goals for Heracles, ten in the Eredivisie and four in the Dutch Cup – and in only six months.
Midfield is where Heracles’ current strength lies, due to the solid performances of Kwame Quansah, Willie Overtoom and Lerin Duarte. Defensive midfielder Quansah was first scouted and secured by Ajax, but made only one appearance in Amsterdam. After two seasons rebuilding his career in Sweden with AIK, the Ghana international inked a deal with Heracles in 2004 with the side in the Eerste Divisie, and quickly became a key player. The 29-year-old’s header against AZ in the cup was vital in helping Heracles to force extra time, before substitutes Thomas Bruns and Ninos Gouriye handed the Almelo outfit victory.
While Quansah can be considered something of a veteran, fellow midfielder Duarte is just starting out at 21 years old. The Holland Under-21 international moved to Heracles last summer from second tier side Sparta Rotterdam and has slotted in with ease; in 2009, Duarte was voted the best performer in the Under-18 Eredivisie.
But it is Overtoom who is perhaps Heracles most talented player. The Cameroonian midfielder was developed in AZ Alkmaar’s youth system and turned out for a number of Holland’s junior sides. His rise however was stopped by an unsuccessful loan spell at Stormvogles Telstar in the Eerste Divisie. At the end of the campaign, Overtoom found himself a free agent after his contract with AZ expired.
Overtoom soon joined a team in the Hoofdklasse (the Dutch third tier at the time). Heracles then swooped to pick up the Cameroonian in the summer of 2008, rescuing the former AZ star from amateur football. Overtoom is currently one of the best performing midfielders in the Eredivisie, in part thanks to an impressive nose for goal – he found the back of the net 14 times in the 2010/11 season. Last November Overtoom stated his desire to represent Cameroon at international level, in preference to Holland. The 25-year-old looks set to receive his first Indomitable Lions call-up soon.
The story does not begin and end in midfield though. Goalkeeper Remko Pasveer, right winger Marko Vejinovic and striker Samuel Armenteros are important cogs in the Heracles machine too. The latter though, despite his undoubted talent, still needs to improve his composure in front of goal, especially as the departure of club topscorer Plet has increased the burden on his shoulders. Plet’s new side, Twente, are seen by Heracles as a something of a big cousin, with the two clubs sharing a youth system and hailing from the same area. It is for this reason that Heracles’ fans always hurriedly check the fixture list upon its release for their meetings with Twente.
Last February the Almelo outfit beat Twente away for the first time since September 1985, thanks to a brace from Brazilian striker Everton. “The last time Heracles won in Enschede I was two”, joked the goal-getter, “and the only game I knew about was Lego.”
Everton is another player who has proven to be deserving of the chance Heracles have given him to play in the Eredivisie. After joining the club in 2006 from Gremio Barueri, the forward had to wait two years for his breakthrough, scoring 14 league goals and proving worthy of the faith that had been placed in him; Everton did even better last season, scoring 15 goals. Last summer, the Brazilian missed out on a move to Spain’s La Liga and experienced a slump in form as a result, for which Bosz benched him. “But now I’m back”, said Everton, “because I understood that life is more important than a transfer to a top league. So, there was no need to feel frustrated anymore, especially in a lovely peaceful place like Almelo.”
The striker’s words are welcome for Heracles, though it is deeds that will be needed this coming Sunday as the club face PSV Eindhoven at De Kuip in the Dutch Cup final. It took just five days for the club to sell their allocation of 17,500 tickets. “This will motivate our players even more”, commented chairman Jan Smit. “Against PSV we are clearly underdogs, but we are ready to do our best to lift the trophy.”
Once again, the odds are against Heracles – PSV may start to worry.