Club Focus: AZ Alkmaar

18/10/16

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Kitbag Club Focus
An Introduction to AZ Alkmaar

Kitbag.com is home to many of club football’s biggest names; but also a number of interesting teams from somewhat off the radar. One of them, AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands, is set to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary at the end of current season, yet the Eredivisie outfit has often been overshadowed by Dutch giants Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven across its 50 years of existence. With this in mind, the latest Kitbag blog shines the spotlight on AZ, while taking a look at their latest home and away jerseys, available at Kitbag.com

Culture

AZ Alkmaar are affectionately known by their unusual nickname of the Cheeseheads; a colourful moniker derived from the northern Dutch city’s traditional and ceremonial cheese market, a popular tourist destination. Cheese trading in Alkmaar can itself be traced as far back as the 1300s and continues to influence the culture of the region, as reflected in its senior football club’s unique signature identity. Unlike a number of their contemporaries, AZ are not particularly known for their Ultra-style support, though their Noord-Holland derbies with Ajax can be relied on to set the pulses racing. In 2011, a cup match between the teams would be abandoned following a physical altercation between AZ goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado and a pitch invader. Thankfully though, the AZ-Ajax rivalry has been largely friendly in nature, with some Ajax fans considering nearby AZ to be something of a second side.

Stadium

AZ play their football at the AFAS Stadion, named after the same software firm that serves as the club’s shirt sponsor. In spite of its modest 17,000 capacity, this modern all-seater arena has already welcomed a number of European heavyweights, including Premier League giants Arsenal, who travelled to Alkmaar in 2006 to open the facility. Played mere weeks after the Londoners had raised the curtain on their own new Emirates Stadium, Arsenal won the exhibition by three goals to nil, with Brazilian international Gilberto Silva scoring the stadium’s first goal. Fortunes however would swiftly improve in the inaugural Eredivisie fixture, as the Cheeseheads charged to an 8-1 win over NAC Breda; Germany’s Simon Cziommer running riot with a hat-trick. Known locally as Victorie Stadion, in commemoration of Alkmaar’s repelling of Spanish forces during the Eighty Years War, the main stand at AZ’s home is the Molenaar Tribune; named in tribute to club founders, Cees and Klass Molenaar.

Honours

As well as a string of second tier accolades, AZ Alkmaar have been outright champions of the Netherlands on two occassions; the only club to accomplish this in the professional era, outside of the Ajax/Feyenoord/PSV triumvirate. In 1980-81, Alkmaar stormed to the Eredivisie title by an eventual 12-point margin; particularly impressive given this came in the era of two points per victory. Moreover, AZ scored over 100 times in the top flight that season, losing only once in 34 league outings. Then, under the management of former player and assistant coach Louis van Gaal, AZ secured their second Eredivisie crown in the league’s record-breaking 2008-09 season, curtailing a four-year period of PSV league dominance. In addition to divisional success, AZ have been four-time winners of the KNVB Cup, the Dutch equivalent of England’s FA Cup. In 1978 and 1981, Alkmaar snagged the silverware at the expense of neighbours Ajax, while 1982 saw Alkmaar’s double-winning squad retain the pot in a two-legged final against Utrecht. The Cheeseheads’ most recent success came as recently as three years ago, as first-half efforts from Adam Maher and Jozy Altidore helped them to a 2-1 KNVB Cup Final triumph over a crack PSV Eindhoven side at Feyenoord’s De Kuip.

Europe

AZ Alkmaar’s greatest European achievement came in their landmark 1980-81 campaign, as the domestic double-winners marched all the way to the two-legged UEFA Cup Final. Pitted against Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, a 3-0 defeat at Portman Road all but extinguished their hopes, yet AZ would record a 4-2 win in the return at Amsterdam’s Olympic Stadium to come achingly close to a dramatic turnaround triumph. In 2004-05, AZ put another fine run together, chalking up UEFA Cup victories over Rangers, Auxerre, Shakhtar Donetsk and Villareal, only to fall to Sporting Lisbon at the semi-final stage. Continuing to knock on the door, AZ would reach the competition’s Quarter-Finals three times in the next decade, while reaching a record-breaking 31 home matches in Europe without defeat. This formidable streak would encompass visits from Liverpool and others, yet would end at the hands of another Merseyside XI; David Moyes’ Everton clinching a 3-2 win in December 2007.

Alumni

Like a number of their Eredivisie adversaries, AZ Alkmaar have provided the English Premier League with a host of top talents in recent times, with stars from Tottenham trio Victor Wanyama, Vincent Janssen and Moussa Dembélé to Liverpool’s Estonian newcomer Ragnar Klavan all building their respective careers at the AFAS Stadion. Still awaiting his first team chance at Old Trafford, Manchester United goalkeeper Sergio Romero made around 100 starts for the Alkmaar club between 2007 and 2011. Meanwhile, striker Graziano Pellè made more first team appearances for AZ than any other club, en route to securing the summer move to China that saw the Italian international become one of the world’s highest-paid footballers.

Captain

Launching his professional career in Alkmaar in 2004, former Feyenoord and Aston Villa skipper Ron Vlaar returned to the club eleven years later and has duly assumed the role of AZ captain. Bringing a wealth of experience to the field, the 31-year old from neighbouring Hensbroek holds over 30 senior caps for his native Netherlands, including appearances at EURO 2012 and the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The latter competition saw centre-back Vlaar enter a particularly strong showing; playing a key defensive role in all seven fixtures as the Netherlands secured to a landmark third-placed finish. Though still to win silverware in Alkmaar colours, Vlaar did lift the KNVB Cup with Feyenoord in 2008, before earning an FA Cup runners’ up medal with Aston Villa in what proved his final game in English football.

Manager

AZ are currently managed by Amersfoort native John van den Brom; a two-time Eredivisie champion with Ajax as a player and a two-time international for the Netherlands, albeit with his pair of caps coming in walkover wins over Malta and San Marino. Van den Brom took the reigns at the AFAS Stadion from Dutch football royalty Marco van Basten, one of a parade of high-profile coaches to pitch up at AZ; a list that has also included the aforementioned van Gaal, current Everton boss Ronald Koeman and former Rangers and Sunderland supremo Dick Advocaat. Interestingly, two successive British bosses guided the fortunes of AZ during the 1960s, with Wales’ Barry Hughes and Englishman Les Talbot each enjoying a year at the helm. Evidently enamored by his Dutch football adventures, Hughes would release a 7″ single called ‘Voetbal is Koning’ (‘Football is King’) in 1978, as well as signing Ruud Gullit to his first professional deal that very same year, while manager of Haarlem. Meanwhile, AZ successor Talbot would remain attached to Alkmaar, until his eventual death in the city in 1983.

Upcoming 

After a strong third-placed finish in the Eredivisie last season, AZ Alkmaar will complement their domestic campaign with another crack at the Europa League this year. Having successfully negotiating the qualifying rounds, AZ find themselves in a tricky group that also contains former tournament winners Zenit St. Petersburg and Israeli heavyweights Maccabi Tel-Aviv, as well as League of Ireland underdogs Dundalk. The Lilywhites, who snatched a 1-1 draw in the 89th-minute of their September meeting in Alkmaar, will welcome the Dutch to the Emerald Isle on 24 November; with AZ chasing a crucial win to kickstart their challenge.

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AZ & Under Armour

AZ Alkmaar’s 2016-17 playing shirts are manufactured by Under Armour and, with the brand’s Moisture Transport System intact, have the potential to become instant favourites with the avid kit collector or connoisseur. Retaining the first choice colours synonymous with the Alkmaar side, the latest AZ home shirt is enhanced by subtle horizontal striping and a unique collar construction, while the team’s attractive alternate jersey carries a truly unique sleeve design, as inspired by the walls of Alkmaar’s historic castle. Both Alkmaar shirts carry the message ‘Samen naar Victorie’ (‘together to victory’) at the inner back neck as a motto for the months ahead, with replica editions now in stock at Kitbag.com, while stocks last. AC

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