"We put AZ back on the map again," said proud coach Dick Advocaat, one day after his AZ Alkmaar side knocked out FC Anji Makhachkala to earn a UEFA Europa League quarter-final with SL Benfica, bringing back memories of their most famous season 33 years ago.
Back in 1980/81 the club were known as AZ '67 – short for Alkmaar Zaanstreek '67 – following a 1967 merger between Alkmaar '54 and FC Zaanstreek. In 1972, brothers Klaas and Cees Molenaar – former players for the KFC outfit that preceded Zaanstreek and now owners of electronics firm Wastora – took over AZ and led them to the summit of Dutch football. Indeed, from 1977 they were resident in the Eredivisie top four, new players reportedly attracted by a bonus of a Wastora washing machine.
In 1978, German Georg Kessler became coach, building a team featuring goalkeeper Eddy Treijtel, defenders John Metgod, Hugo Hovenkamp and Ronald Spelbos, midfielders Peter Arntz, Kirsten Nygaard and Jan Peters, and forwards Kees Kist, Kurt Welzl and Kees 'Pier' Tol. Kessler went against the grade by abandoning the typical Dutch 4-3-3 formation.
"I went against the mainstream view at the time," he said. "Even the players were opposed to a 4-4-2. The press wrote that my system encouraged laziness, but I pressed on because I knew what I was doing. I was stubborn. It was ridiculous how I was criticised, but it also drove me on. I delivered a top performance. I started out in 1978 with an average team and turned them into champions."
In 1980/81 an AZ side combining German discipline and Dutch creativity scored 101 goals as they became the first club other than AFC Ajax, Feyenoord or PSV Eindhoven in 17 years to clinch the Dutch title. However, it may be that their league success cost them in Europe.
Having entered the UEFA Cup for just the second time – in 1977/78 they had gone out to FC Barcelona in the last 32 on penalties – AZ saw off Red Boys Differdange, PFC Levski Sofia, FK Radnički Niš, KSC Lokeren OV and FC Sochaux-Montbéliard on their way to the final against another team unused to such heights, England's Ipswich Town FC.
On 3 May 1981, AZ beat Feyenoord 5-1 in Rotterdam to seal their first championship (a second would arrive in 2009), followed by a victory tour and celebrations lasting until the early morning. The opening leg of the final at Portman Road was only three days away ...
"I had seen that coming," Kessler said. "After the championship on Sunday I went to bed at 11.30pm. Spelbos and Metgod were the only players who went to bed early. They were defenders, the players with most responsibility. The rest only went to bed on Monday morning. On Tuesday they were still making jokes in training."
On 6 May, AZ lost 3-0 in Ipswich, through goals from John Wark, Dutchman Frans Thijssen and Paul Mariner. The return at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, where the club played their top matches instead of their own small Alkmaarderhout home, was nevertheless a real spectacle.
Wark struck early but Welzl and Metgod gave AZ hope. Thijssen levelled on the night for Ipswich only for Tol and Jos Jonker to make it 4-2 and ensure a nervy finish for Ipswich and their other Dutchman, Arnold Mühren.
"That was weird," Mühren recalled. "We made it 1-0 early on. Most teams would have given up, but AZ suddenly had wings. The team was completely unleashed and soon we faced a deficit. We were under huge pressure. We scored our second goal and were relieved. But AZ seemed possessed that night. And soon it was 4-2, and we really had to give all we had to reach the end, by the skin of our teeth – relieved and happy."
AZ completed a domestic double with a Dutch Cup triumph in late May 1981, but successes since have been sporadic (including further cups in '82 and 2013). However, having made the 2005 UEFA Cup semi-finals and got to the last eight in 2007, 2012 and again this year, the time may have come to make amends for that 1981 near-miss.
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