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New high for Neeskens

Published: Monday 1 September 2003, 12.11CET
Taking NEC Nijmegen to the UEFA Cup may be Dutch legend Johan Neeskens' biggest achievement.
Published: Monday 1 September 2003, 12.11CET

New high for Neeskens

Taking NEC Nijmegen to the UEFA Cup may be Dutch legend Johan Neeskens' biggest achievement.

By Jonathan Wilson

It was 25 years ago that Johan Neeskens inspired FC Barcelona to a 4-3 victory against Fortuna Düsseldorf in the final of the 1978/79 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup at Saint Jakob Park, Basel.

'A great game'
"It was a great game to play in because it was the first time Barça had won a European competition," he told "We took 30,000 fans to Basel, which was just unbelievable. It was a great game to watch, with a lot of goals, and I was fortunate enough to play well."

European comeback
The former Dutch international has taken his time, but has now returned to European competition as coach of Dutch side NEC Nijmegen, who have drawn Polish champions Wisla Kraków in the first round of their UEFA Cup campaign.

Remarkable success
Neeskens may have tasted glory with AFC Ajax and Barcelona, but taking tiny NEC into Europe for the first time may be his greatest triumph yet. "It's a huge achievement," he said. "Qualifying for the UEFA Cup means a lot to the fans and the city, and it will be a great experience for everybody."

Steady rise
Since taking charge in the summer of 2000, with NEC having avoided relegation on the last day of the season, Neeskens has performed admirably. League positions have improved steadily each year, and a fifth-placed finish in 2002/03 saw the club earn their first trip into Europe.

Modest ambitions
However, Neeskens - who was Guus Hiddink's assistant with the Netherlands national squad before joining NEC - is keeping his ambitions modest. Asked whether NEC could improve on their 2002/03 finish, he said: "I don't think so. This is as far as the club can go.

Raised expectations
"A mid-table place is all we can realistically aim for," he added. "If we can finish eighth or ninth I'll be happy. Last year was an exception. It has probably raised the levels of expectation, but we simply do not have the ability or the finances to regularly finish in the top six."

Youth policy
Having won the European Champion Clubs' Cup three times with Ajax before he was 22 - in 1970/71, 1971/72 and 1972/73 - the modest NEC was regarded as something of a step down for Neeskens. However, he has made his experience count at the club, who have overcome acute financial problems by relying on young players.

Loan star
"It's very important to give young players the opportunity to play," said Neeskens. "It is better for them to play than to sit on the bench at a big club." One such tyro who has thrived at NEC is Ajax striker Youssef Hersi who has agreed to spend a second season on loan at the club.

Uncertain future
Hersi will be free to return to Ajax at the end of the campaign, and Neeskens may be considering a move at the same time. "We'll see how things go this year, with the UEFA Cup and everything," he said. "My contract is up at the end of the season, so we'll how I feel and how the team is then."

Learning curve
In the meantime, his club await their European baptism. "We'll try to do our best, of course, and see how far we can go, but we have a very young team," said Neeskens. "This will be an important experience for them, and a great opportunity to learn. But we must not put pressure on them to achieve." After all, reaching the first round was a big enough victory on its own.

Last updated: 02/09/03 17.31CET

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