GRONINGEN X HEERENVEEN: THE DERBY OF THE NORTH

Football needs rivalries. No matter how well a football club is performing, derby day always means something. It culminates in a match where all of the age-old clichés of form going out the window and the importance of securing local bragging rights come to fruition. In the Netherlands, the biggest derby is De Klassieker: Ajax versus Feyenoord. However, the Derby van het Noorden provokes more intrigue, more questions to be asked, and more uncertainty around its legacy than any other.

This is the derby between FC Groningen and SC Heerenveen. It is a provincial derby between Groningen and Friesland. It is a derby between two teams who have yet to scale the domestic heights of Dutch league football. It is a derby which retains a significance in the narrative of the season despite its conflicted meaning. People don’t appear to know why exactly the derby has a reputation for being important. Located 60 kilometres apart, spanning two different provinces, the rivalry between Groningen and Heerenveen is an eccentric one.

Indeed, Heerenveen have a historic and acrimonious rivalry with Cambuur Leeuwarden within the province of Friesland. For Groningen, a long-standing feud with another club in the Eredivisie has been lacking. Nonetheless, many of Groningen’s ultras have traditionally taken a particular disliking to FC Twente and Ajax.

Due to Heerenveen’s conflict within Friesland, many of their fans are indifferent to the idea that Groningen are perceived ‘enemies’. “I view Groningen like the rest of the Eredivisie,” Heerenveen fan Peter tells me. “In the mind of a Heerenveen fan there is only one derby and that is against Cambuur. In the mind of a Groningen fan, it lives more than in our minds.”

Peter is not alone in thinking this. “The best way to explain the match against Groningen from our side is as a surrogate derby,” Heerenveen supporter Andries says. “Groningen is kind of a half-hearted replacement [for Cambuur]. Most of us don’t even call it a derby.”

In many ways, Peter and Andries are correct. Heerenveen’s rivalry with Cambuur is much more political and bitter. However, Groningen fans are much more open about the significance of the Derby of the North. “Heerenveen is the biggest rival,” Groningen fan Ronald says. “The derby is the biggest game in the year for us.” Fellow Groningen supporter Kees concurs, putting it: “I don’t care that we’re having a horrible season, we won 2-0 against Heerenveen and that makes things a lot better.”

This rivalry is thus rather peculiar. Supporters from one team take the match seriously and supporters from the other have a rivalry elsewhere which they deem more significant. After all, the first Eredivisie meeting between Groningen and Heerenveen was not until 1991. So why has the Derby of the North developed a reputation? Where did the enmity between the two teams come from? And why does it polarise opinion so much? 

UNDERSTANDING THE DERBY FROM A GRONINGEN PERSPECTIVE

To discover how and why the Derby of the North came into being, we must start in Friesland with the rivalry between SC Heerenveen and Cambuur Leeuwarden. This rivalry has traditionally grown a reputation for being the most spiteful in the Netherlands. The short distance between the two clubs and their very different identities has fuelled a mutual resentment over the years. Cambuur are the club of Leeuwarden, the capital city of Friesland, with Heerenveen mockingly known as the club of the boeren, the farmers of the province. Most Heerenveen fans are from the small villages of Friesland are proud of their identity.

“Frisian identity is central in anything the club says or does,” Andries explains, “It is our identity.” Andries believes that the history of the Fries Empire is central to the context of Heerenveen’s rival clubs today. “Friesland once had an empire spanning from Belgium to Denmark in the Middle Ages. That empire included Groningen, and once it was lost, the mentality of Frisians as a proud and independent people within the Netherlands grew in relevance and remains to this day.”

From 1983, Heerenveen chairman Riemer van der Velde embraced Frisian identity at the club. This idea did not sit well with the fans of Cambuur. Due to the hatred the two clubs had for each other, Cambuur went the opposite way, abandoning their Fries heritage. Cambuur’s fans and players began to disassociate themselves with Friesland in an attempt to highlight their separation from Heerenveen.

More recently, Heerenveen’s rise to the Champions League in 2000 marked them out as the province’s “commercial club,” Cambuur fan Emko Vogelzang told COPA90 in 2016. Vogelzang even suggested that Heerenveen were awarded more capital by the province as they became more successful, another source of resentment from Cambuur’s perspective.

Heerenveen supporters naturally defend their club’s development. “I think you need to be commercial to grow big,” Peter argues. “Without it you are nothing. In 2018 all clubs need it to keep their heads above water. Without commercial development we never had the chance to get a big stadium and better players”. Under Van der Velde and trainer Foppe de Haan, Heerenveen’s fortunes skyrocketed between 1992 and 2004.

From being an undistinguished club in the Eerste Divisie, Heerenveen boasted talents such as John Daal Tomasson and Ruud van Nistelrooy. De Haan told David Winner for Brilliant Orange: “Our aim is to amuse the public a little bit by being artists. Tactically, we play the Dutch style. Cruyff style.”

Such proclamations did not endear Heerenveen to the surrounding teams in the North. “It made them a laughing stock when they started to decline years later,” Groningen fan Thijs humorously points out. Nonetheless, Winner noted that Heerenveen, with their ‘village rather than a town’ underdog tag, gained admiration from those across the Netherlands. “All over the Netherlands, people have adopted the ‘sympathetic’ Heerenveen as their second team,” Winner maintained. With an attractive style of play and charm as a small club, Heerenveen indeed became widely adored.

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UNDERSTANDING THE DERBY FROM A HEERENVEEN PERSPECTIVE

FC Groningen’s bitterest rivals, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, were FC Twente. “For a fierce rivalry you need deep hate,” Thijs insists. “Twente was the biggest rivals in the Oosterpark era with the Z-Side firm and some of their members still feel more hate for Twente,” he continues. “Groningen hooligans were known to be aggressive with riots and fights happening at almost every home game [against Twente],” fellow Groningen supporter Guus adds.

However, Groningen left the Oosterpark Stadion for the new Euroborg Stadion in 2006, moving from one of the poorest areas in the city to a more prosperous part. “In Groningen, their culture was more about fighting as their stadium was based in an area that wasn’t as rich”, Heerenveen fan Marcel tells me. The move to a new stadium was thus indicative of a shift in culture at Groningen. Stepping into the future saw Groningen and Heerenveen become more similar as they both strove for success in the Eredivisie. Furthermore, becoming the  ‘Pride of the North’ in the Netherlands added a value to the meetings between the two sides. 

Ajax are another club that many Groningen fans detest. Groningen club legend Erik Nevland tells me, “Everyone hates Ajax!”. Groningen’s hatred for Ajax is understandable, particularly considering what happened in the summer transfer window of 2007. “Groningen had a very good side but Ajax took away our best players like Luis Suárez, Bruno Silva and Rasmus Lindgren in 2007. You can tell what that does to the fans,” Guus explains. 

From a Groningen perspective, Twente have been largely forgotten in the modern era. “Last season, Twente were in the Eredivisie but the Derby of the North was still bigger”, Groningen supporter Damian says. “The game has always been a big game and this has nothing to do with Cambuur and Twente being absent,” Guus argues. “Twente are rivals, but this is something of the old days.”

This is a distinct contrast to how Heerenveen fans perceive the derby through the lens of other rivals. “When Cambuur got promoted to the Eredivisie again in 2013, we almost completely forgot about Groningen,” Andries declares. “It [the derby] is and always will be a replacement in Cambuur’s absence. When Cambuur goes up again, we will completely forget about Groningen.”

Nonetheless, a turning point in the growing prominence of the Derby of the North came in January 2006. Poignantly, Groningen’s first official match at the Euroborg stadium was against Heerenveen. Nevland scored in a 2-0 victory for Groningen, and he now sees the victory as fundamental in his appreciation of the derby. “It was special that the first match was against Heerenveen,” Nevland tells me. “It gave the whole of Groningen a big lift when it was played. For me, it meant I am in the history books so that is always nice. It was a great day. Heerenveen were a better team than us during the time so it was special to beat them”.

Nevland claims that despite being unaware of the derby upon arriving at FC Groningen, he quickly learned what it was all about. “That was one of the games that everyone talked about when I started playing”, he explains. “I came when we were struggling at the bottom of the Eredivisie and at the old stadium. However, we had a good team and developed really well when I was there. I was lucky to be a part of that and obviously contributed to the growth of the club.”

For Groningen fans, it is thus understandable why the Derby know means something to them. As their rivalry with Twente diminished and the club moved away from its relatively violent past, Groningen were almost looking for another rival. Heerenveen were the perfect match, and the legacy of Nevland’s opening goal at the Euroborg and the victory over the Fries club set a precedent for years to come.

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THE ANTICS OF DERBY DAY

When listening to both Groningen and Heerenveen fans talk about the dynamic of Derby Day, you get a sense that the relationship between the clubs is uniquely affable for a supposed ‘rivalry’.  

It is about a shift in the identity of the fanatics from each side that has been significant. “Over the years, Groningen have had several Ultra groups, right now Ultras Cruoninga are leading the fanatical north stand (Noordtribune Groningen, Z-Side) and they produce beautiful choreographies.,” Guus says. “There certainly is a rivalry but there have not been many incidents of actual rioting or fighting between both sets of fans. What is the case is that there are more funny, jokey things happening, such as the one with the statue.”

One incident that Guus is talking about is when Groningen fans painted the famous Abe Lenstra statue outside Heerenveen’s Abe Lenstra Stadion green and white (FC Groningen’s colours). Abe Lenstra is an icon of SC Heerenveen, amassing a seismic 523 goals in 500 appearances for the club between 1936 and 1954. Therefore, Groningen fans took great pleasure painting the historic symbol of SC Heerenveen in their own colours in an attempt to mark their territory. 

Heerenveen have committed their fair share of practical jokes too. A group of their fans hung their club flag from off the Martinitoren, Groningen’s highest church steeple, in 2005. Heerenveen fans also once stole the kick-off spot from Groningen’s Euroborg, an emblematic prank indicative of the two club’s contemporary antagonism. “We also hate them [Heerenveen] a lot because they stole our Ultra-banner from the Ultra-group ‘Groningen Fanatics’”, Damian adds.  

The toing and froing of the shenanigans between the clubs has thus come to embody the Derby of the North. In their most recent meeting, a 2-0 victory for Groningen at the Euroborg, the home fans revealed a tifo depicting a train exiting a station. “It means that the best part of Frielsand is the train to Groningen!”, Ronald tells me. Therefore, we can see the existing provincial element to the rivalry between the two clubs which, although in jest, remains a vital component to the atmosphere surrounding the derby.  

The tifo failed to impress Heerenveen fans. “I’ve seen the tifo. Cool one, but nothing special”, Andries rebukes. Nonetheless, Andries does insist: “From both sides, you have to give credit where credit is due. Them throwing a sewing machine in the front yard of one of our players is a funny one, the naaimachine we call it in Dutch. The player was known as a matennaaier which is a Dutch insult. So it [the rivalry] is not as die-hard. At some point, we have to have humour.”

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HOSTILITY DERIVING FROM RESEMBLANCE

The relationship between the two sets of supporters reveals the similarities they share. “In general Groningen, fans are down to earth people,” Guus says. “Somewhat of a motto of ours is ‘act normal, that’s crazy enough’. Some people claim that the Derby of the North is not really a derby just an act, that’s definitely nonsense. Of course, Ajax and Feyenoord has way more history and is way more intense, but our Derby certainly is one,” Guus continues. “I don’t think Heerenveen cares as much, but they must care a little bit with a full away section!” Kees rightly claims.

Marcel uses the same words as Guus to define Heerenveen fans, illustrating the two clubs’ likeness. “In Heerenveen in general it is down to earth, not die-hard”, Marcel explains to me. “We saw the Frisian identity and it made Heerenveen the club of the whole province. In Groningen, I think they perceive it in a similar way as province against province. They changed their stadium too and had Luis Suárez among other big players so they became commercial too”.

Therefore, not only did Groningen move away from a past marred by hooliganism, but reclaimed their sense of provincial pride to align themselves with a similar plight to Heerenveen, which was to become a competitive and well-run Eredivisie club that is proud of its roots. As a consequence, the derby has developed another degree of relevance over the years.

Therefore, for the battle of the North, Heerenveen fans can’t resist the chance to visit the Euroborg on derby day. The derby against Groningen may not be the most electrifying in the Eredivisie, but it is one that both clubs need. Indeed, it may be merely for convenience, but both groups of fans have charmingly created a noteworthy derby through their reciprocal practical joking. 

Both Guus and Marcel are quick to emphasise how no-nonsense the respective fans of Groningen and Heerenveen are. This is indicative of the derby itself, it would be fair to say. The Derby of the North is simply down-to-earth by nature. The way in which both sets of supporters behave adds to an atmosphere detached from some of the world’s most spiteful derbies. 

Of course, hooliganism once defined the rivalries of Dutch football. Nonetheless, once both Groningen and Heerenveen began competing in the Derby of the North, the idea of claiming an entire region became a romantic pursuit. It became province versus province. It gave fans the opportunity to identify themselves with their communities under the guise of ‘Derby Day’.

The Derby of the North is a unique and contemporary rivalry, marking a distinct shift away from the archaic definition of what we consider to be a footballing grudge-match. Although Heerenveen fans are quick to dismiss the fixture and downplay its importance, it remains the north of the Netherlands’ most significant meeting during the Eredivisie season.

The relationship the fans have with one another reflects the idea that it matters. Just because the dynamic between the fans revolves around banter does not mean they do not care. In fact, it signifies the opposite. The Derby van het Noorden gives both Groningen and Heerenveen supporters the chance, twice a year, to dictate the terms of their rivalry and to settle which club lays claim to the ‘Pride of the North’. “It is more than a football match,” Andries declares at the end of our conversation. “It is Friesland versus Groningen.”

BY CHARLIE PRITCHARD