It’s a mild Monday morning 55 miles north of Rotterdam and a few hundred excitable supporters pack their way into the Netherlands’ Zeist training campus for a glimpse of their heroes.
Netherlands vs N Ireland
October 10, 2019, 7:00pm
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Upbeat chart music and lion mascot ‘Dutchy’ add to the open-day feel but before the training session can begin the players enthusiastically fulfill media duties at the side of the pitch.
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European Champions Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum, fresh from seeing off Leicester City to extend Liverpool’s lead at the top of the Premier League, make their way over to the Sky Sports News camera.
They are polite and accommodating, much like the media and security staff, who leave them to it.
Nearby another fans favourite Frenkie de Jong, surprisingly lively after arriving on two hours sleep following his game for Barcelona the night before, smiles as he answers questions for a local journalist.
There is something in the air that suggests this group of players know they are about to end the major finals hiatus for this proud football nation since the 2014 World Cup.
The last hurdle to clear is Northern Ireland, a vastly more experienced international squad with 726 caps between 23 players compared to 585 for the Dutch, but Ronald Koeman’s side is filled with some of the best players in the world.
It’s a far cry from the days of crushing defeats to Turkey and Bulgaria. Indeed it’s a world away from the time Wesley Sneijder, at the peak of their problems, told the media that he had gone from getting on the team bus knowing they would win 3-0 to a feeling of dread.
In third place in Group C they are still not there but, as fans at the open day speak of their pride in the team in the aftermath of their stunning win in Germany, Sky Sports News asked Van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Koeman and experienced Dutch journalist Maarten Wijffels from Algemeen Dagblad what has prompted the turnaround…
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Ronald Koeman: “First of all, it’s the quality of the players. We are always producing in Holland good big talents and sometimes they take more time than people expect. We knew it’s a difficult situation because we did not qualify for the two big tournaments.
“It’s like golf! It goes up, it goes down, up, down [gestures up and down movement with hand]. Maybe it was the same for Holland but at the moment we are enjoying the football.”
Virgil van Dijk: “We got a new manager [Koeman], we’ve got some players who made some big transfers so it’s obviously fantastic for their development and I think everything is falling into place.”
Georginio Wijnaldum: “The manager changed and we also changed accommodation to move from Amsterdam to Zeist. It was a new group, players of around the same age and a lot of friends.”
Maarten Wijffels: “In 2017 at the lowest point players like De Jong and De Ligt were not old enough. Blind was the coach when De Ligt made his debut at 17 v Bulgaria. He had a poor game but Blind, who was sacked after that game, said that De Ligt would be an incredible talent. Koeman came in to work with the new generation of players.”
Koeman: “Yeah, it was difficult of course. We have a small nation but we expect a lot of big things in football.”
Wijffels: “There was real panic because 2014 was the last tournament we qualified for. There was no clear plan what coach to take. They tried Van Gaal but he refused. They spoke about hiring a foreign coach like Arsene Wenger or a German coach but eventually Koeman came in after leaving Everton.
“They got rid of older players like Sneijder, Van Persie and Robben. Depay had lost his way at United but he was only 21 or 22. People like Wijnaldum and Van Dijk took on responsibility of senior players.”
Wijnaldum: “There was a lot of hurt. In Holland, they are not used to it (failure to qualify). It was strange. Everyone was disappointed and it was a tough time but we learned a lot from the experience.”
Wijffels: “They wanted someone to do it for four years and they made some changes to the ‘Total Football’ model the team was known for. It was too old fashioned. Clubs like Ajax changed. The best teams no longer played 4-3-3 but nowadays attackers play every position and are more dynamic. The modern strikers have pace and are more direct and fluid.”
Koeman: “It’s not always normal that you will qualify for a big tournament. At the moment we are back. We are still in charge to reach the next big tournament and it’ll be a tough and difficult game v Northern Ireland.”
Wijnaldum: “The main thing for all of us is to get back to any tournament and the only thing we can do now is try to win the game tonight and then go for it. We want to be at a tournament so much.”
Wijffels: “Back then it was difficult to find faces for a billboard or poster because the public was fed up with them. Now with Van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Depay, De Jong & De Ligt the public likes the national team again.”
Koeman: “We know we have a good strong squad with top players in Europe performing in big clubs. It’s really a good example for the players still in Holland playing football. The results we achieve in the last few months are really positive. That makes the team stronger and the players confident. The ambition is key to this squad at the moment because they are showing incredible belief and great spirit at the moment.”
Netherlands vs Northern Ireland – 7.45pm, live on Sky Sports Main Event
Team news: The Netherlands will not have Jeroen Zoet (groin) and Davy Propper (hamstring) available.
Northern Ireland will be without Norwich City defender Jamal Lewis, who has withdrawn with a knee injury. Conor Washington was already an absentee with a hamstring injury, along with Rangers winger Jordan Jones.
Former Scotland U21 winger Matty Kennedy could make his debut after switching his international allegiance to Northern Ireland.
How to watch: Coverage starts on Sky Sports Main Event from 7pm; kick-off is at 7.45pm.
What’s the state of play in Group C? Northern Ireland’s perfect start was ripped apart by Germany last time out but Michael O’Neill’s side still have their destiny in their own hands. A tough trip to the Netherlands, who have been back with a bang over the past 12 months, awaits on Thursday night but even defeat in that wouldn’t be fatal, although it would be a bitter blow.
Leaders Germany could find themselves leapfrogged by Netherlands by the end of the international break, especially if they are held themselves by Estonia on Sunday, while Belarus must beat Estonia too to stand any outside chance.