By Ryan Ferguson
I was once highly sceptical of friendships between fans of different clubs. It always seemed rather fanciful that such bonds could sustain across borders. But then I visited Eindhoven, the Netherlands’ fifth-largest city, and was taken aback by the welcoming nature of its people.
There was an instant connection with the supporters of FC Eindhoven, who offered ample beer and were keen to hear about Tranmere Rovers. Soon, a real connection bloomed, with fans of both clubs travelling to watch matches together. So it’s only fair that we take a closer look and try to explain the relationship in greater detail.
Firstly, there are obvious similarities between Tranmere Rovers and FC Eindhoven. Both play in white and blue. Both operate near giant clubs that dominate attention. And both represent the people rather than the business class. But the friendship runs deeper than those grand motifs. It relies on a shared outlook, a united vision for what a football club should be. There’s a mutual disdain for the vagaries of modern football, where tradition is subsumed by commerce. And above all else, there’s a common fight, against tough odds, to re-establish the power of historic clubs that fell upon difficult times.
FC Eindhoven was formed in 1909, albeit under a different name. PSV, latterly the most powerful club in the city, wasn’t established for another four years. FCE became a club for the people, whereas PSV was initially exclusive to workers of the Philips electronics plant. Here, we see instant similarities with Tranmere, which came into existence as Belmont FC in 1884, eight years before Liverpool kicked a single ball. It would take Rovers a while to consolidate power, as rivalries with Birkenhead FC and New Brighton emerged, but Tranmere eventually became the predominant sports club of Wirral, a peninsula famed for its working class rigour.
Under the name of Eindhovense Voetbal Vereniging, our friends won the Dutch Cup in 1937. Seventeen years later, they were crowned national champions in the final season before Dutch football turned professional. In those days, competing clubs were split into four groups, and the winners of each section played off for the title. Eindhoven won their section, famously defeating Feyenoord twice, before dominating the championship round. They even beat PSV home and away en route to the title, an extra treat for all involved.
After turning professional, Eindhoven was a founder member of the Eredivisie in 1956. The Blauw-Witten finished last, but that slice of history can never be taken away. A tough period followed, and the club even fell into the third tier before a brilliant revival took them back to the summit. By 1975, Eindhoven had two top flight clubs once again. As Tranmere fans, we can relate to the pain of falling far beyond your natural habitat. Hopefully our recovery is equally rapid.
Following two more seasons in the Eredivisie, Eindhoven returned to the second tier in 1977. The club has remained there ever since. Nevertheless, the record books show that Eindhoven played 102 Eredivisie matches. That’s 34 more than near rivals Helmond Sport. The club was renamed FC Eindhoven in 2002, and has since fought hard to regain top flight status, often qualifying for the promotion-relegation playoffs before losing painfully.
At this point, it’s important to acknowledge another strong connection between FCE and Tranmere: a certain Dutch goalkeeper with a propensity to bark at his defenders. That’s right, John Achterberg played for both clubs.
After time in the youth system of Utrecht, his hometown club, John played for NAC Breda between 1993-96. He then joined FC Eindhoven, where he remained until 1998. At that point, he journeyed to Birkenhead, where a contract awaited following an impressive trial. Along with Danny Coyne, Achterberg filled the void left by Steve Simonsen. Over the next eleven years, the Dutchman made more than 300 appearances for Tranmere. He even enjoyed a testimonial in 2009.
John was one of my first Tranmere heroes. His commanding cry of “Get out!,” or “Left shoulder, Gaz!,” was a soundtrack to any afternoon spent on the Kop as a kid. I’ll never forget my heart breaking as he trudged off the pitch in tears following the penalty shootout defeat to Hartlepool in the 2004-05 playoffs. This was a man who fell in love with Tranmere, just as we all did. The club still runs in his blood, even if he is the Liverpool goalkeeper coach these days. It’s great that FC Eindhoven fans also have special memories of him.
Achterberg was one of the main talking points when a good friend and I visited Eindhoven in 2015. We watched four games in five days, ranging from Ajax facing AZ to Willem II hosting Heracles Almelo. A trip to see PSV was thrilling for me, as I’ve fond memories of watching Mateja Kežman, Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel and Phillip Cocu on TV while growing up. But one of the highlights of our trip was becoming acquainted with FC Eindhoven and its fans.
Roda JC won 2-0 at the Jan Louwers Stadion, which is capable of seating around 4,700, but the football was secondary to the camaraderie we enjoyed in the bars before and after the game. I saw a lot of Birkenhead in the hospitality these people provided. We were welcomed into the stand with their most vocal supporters, who sang throughout and displayed a variety of banners. After the game, Tranmere stickers decorated the clubhouse, while we swapped the scarves and hats of our respective clubs in a drunken stupor.
Much is made of Merseyside and Rotterdam sharing similarities, but Eindhoven seems to share our laid back, positive outlook on life. The hosts didn’t even care that the main motivation for our trip was to watch PSV, because that rivalry has cooled considerably in recent decades. The clubs haven’t met in a competitive fixture since 1977, and various agreements have been brokered to exchange players. The fanbases have even been known to link up for big matches.
It was rather humorous to watch our new Dutch friends searching for flights to Liverpool on their phones as we taught them about Rovers. When people are willing to travel overseas to watch a team coached by Mickey Adams in arguably its darkest hour, you know that’s a friendship built to last.
Indeed, a few FCE supporters attended our home defeat to Oxford as relegation to the non-league beckoned. It was a shame we couldn’t provide more entertainment, but the club was in a worrying crisis at that point. Still, they seemed to enjoy the occasion, and various pockets of Rovers fans have visited Eindhoven since then, as word has spread.
Last season, an even larger contingent came to watch Tranmere away at Dover. It was great to meet up again, and our friends brought along a terrific banner that they take to every match back in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the game finished goalless, and the Dutch fans once again failed to see Rovers at their best. However, they seemed to really enjoy our football culture, just as we appreciate theirs.
More Tranmere fans have visited Eindhoven since then, strengthening the bond. Meanwhile, the various supporter groups of FCE have been busy planning their next trip to Prenton Park. At this point, 18 people are booked to come over for the Braintree home game in March. It will be satisfying to show them just how much the club has improved, with the new fan zone, club shop and main gates at the stadium.
I know this isn’t the only fan friendship between Tranmere and another club. It’s not even the fan friendship by which everyone must abide. But it is a friendship, and there has been genuine dedication on both sides to maintain it.
So what’s the next step? Well, how about a pre-season friendly between the two clubs? Flights are cheap enough these days, and Rovers fans are always asking for a summer excursion in Europe. Where better than Eindhoven? After all, it has the largest pub street in the Netherlands, and that’s sure to be a hit with the Super White Army.
Whatever happens, there will always be a connection between these football clubs. From shared colours and common yearning to frequent visits by both sets of fans, there’s a tangible bond between Tranmere Rovers and FC Eindhoven. Before now, many people didn’t know why. I’m pleased to outline the details, and invite you to get involved.