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Ziyech, Veerman and the Heerenveen Incubator

Occasionally, it doesn’t doesn’t take a statistical anorak or a scout with a crystal ball to highlight a skillful playmaker running rings around his peers.

There are times when sheer brilliance and outrageous ability is staring you in the face. Occasionally, it just takes the right person to notice at the right time.

A conversation took place during 2007 on the touchlines of an amatuer football pitch in Dronten – a small town in central Netherlands that lightly hugs the outskirts of Amsterdam.

Two scouts from Eredivisie club sc Heerenveen caught wind of a very young, but very skillful attacking prospect causing a stir in youth team football and took the short 45-minute car ride south to examine a lad they hoped would be the crowning jewel of their academy system.

In the right place at the right time

Speaking exclusively to First Time Finish of the first time his scouting staff laid eyes on Hakim Ziyech that evening in the autumn drizzle, Head of Scouting at sc Heerenveen, Karel Brandsma, spoke affectionately.

“We were informed that there was a young and skillful kid at a nearby amateur club, ASV Dronten. One of our scouts headed down to catch a game of his and cast an eye over his performance. He saw immediately that [Ziyech] was by far the best player on the pitch – it really was not hard to discover him. Everyone could see the skills he possessed and this really was no hard work for a scout. You don’t unearth a player like Hakim Ziyech, sometimes they are just there and what you have to do is your utmost as a club to bring a player like him to sc Heerenveen – and that is what we set out to do.”

Sportclub Heerenveen, a small town outfit not far from the northern coastline of the Netherlands, is remarkable in its honour roll of young, green and hungry future internationals that passed through its ranks on the way to the top.

The question is, then, why does so much footballing talent pass through this provincial town before exiting in exchange for large satchels of Euros? What makes sc Heerenveen such a great incubator for burgeoning talent?

A club with its own culture

Brandsma offers a small insight into the ethos of the club as we chat.

“sc Heerenveen is very much a club with its own culture. The youth academy consists of seven teams, with which the program is small in scale and the emphasis is on programme customization, the individual, and ensuring the players and their development are central to everything we do.”

“We pride ourselves on characterizing our youth academy by its warm environment and its healthy, top-tier sports climate.”

“From the lower school sc Heerenveen often works with talented football players from its own region. When the players graduate to the upper school, the selection of regional players is reinforced by talents from both home and abroad.”

Brandsma begins to hammer home what the club, its scouting staff and coaching staff are trying to achieve through this process. “sc Heerenveen aims to train its national and international talents with its own Heerenveen identity.”

Operating outside of one of Europe’s top five domestic leagues and with very little in the way of continental football year on year, sc Heerenveen compete on a modest budget – opting to act as a conveyor belt of talent for some of the countries bigger sides to dip into once or twice a year, cherry-picking their best offerings for a fair price.

Think of sc Heerenveen as something of the YO-Sushi of Dutch football clubs.

Heerenveen have a clear blueprint

Karel Brandsma is a tenured member of the sc Heerenveen staff, having worked for the club for over thirty years. Now operating as the head scout, it is within his remit that the first team is brimming with saleable assets while also ensuring the cupboards of the youth team are fully stocked should a position on the left-wing, or the right, or even between the sticks, become available.

SC Heerenveen rely on the promotion of youth, on progression from within, in order to compete for domestic supremacy, consistently jockeying for position with clubs like AZ Alkmaar, Vitesse Arnhem and local rivals FC Groningen.

On the construction of the first team squad, Brandsma outlines the blueprints clearly. “Our selection for the first team consists of eighteen more or less fully-fledged first-team players that are supplemented with four talents from our internal system. These four talents are recruited from our academy. Talent is the main ingredient for being eligible for one of these four places, it is the decisive factor.”

“These four players will then train with the first selection throughout the week and thus get used to training at a higher level, quicker. As we don’t have a huge budget to buy players, the transfer of players from the academy to the first team is essential for us.”

“If we have great talent, they will receive all the attention and opportunities within our club that they need in order to develop further and bring their game to a higher level. We take time and care, we put all of our efforts into this process. We aim to give confidence to each and every one of our players.”

Ziyech’s origins at Heerenveen

As for Hakim Ziyech, this is exactly the kind of early footballing education he received in Friesland. 

“During Hakim’s time with us at Heerenveen he received all the attention and coaching he could want. He was received kindly by a loving host family who treated him well during his time at the club. This is the kind of atmosphere and environment we try and cultivate here at Heerenveen – we consider players as part of our blue & white family. We want to take care of them, develop them as players and usher them into the first team.

Hakim, during his time in our academy system, was a very self-assured and willing boy with the drive to be successful. He was a boy almost allergic to mediocrity. He had the utmost respect for the trainers and coaches at the club who endeavoured to make him better on the pitch.”

Heerenveen with an enviable history

For such a humble football club, sc Heerenveen’s production line of world class talent is enviable.

During the late 1990s, an adolescent Ruud van Nistelrooy helped fire De Superfriezen [The Super Frisians] to sixth in the Eredivisie and a place in UEFA’s Cup Winners’ Cup the following year.

In addition to van Nistelrooy, the Abe Lenstra Stadium has seen the likes of Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Lasse Schöne, Jon Dahl Tomasson, Marten de Roon, Bas Dost, Daryl Janmaat, Martin Ødegaard and Michael Bradley grace its turf.

Even the much maligned and ridiculed Afonso Alves enjoyed a prolific spell in the blue and white stripes – scoring 45 in 39 league appearances over a two year span – before his dismal spell on Teesside.

Each arrived for a modest fee, improved their game and excelled on the pitch before leaving for significantly more. Huntelaar was scooped up on a free from PSV before Ajax snapped him up eighteen months later for more than €9 million.

Bas Dost arrived for €3.2million amid speculation of a transfer to the Dutch capital, Wolfsburg would spend around €8.2 million on the bustling target man within two years.

Improving players and making profits

Heerenveen pushed the boat out to sign Afonso Alves in 2006, forking out an exorbitant fee by their own standards of €4.5million – which remains their highest transfer fee paid to this day – before Middlesbrough would stump up over four times that two years later to bring him to the Riverside.

Van Nistelrooy would arrive at the beginning of the 1997/98 season for a meagre €360,000 from Den Bosch.

The striker notched 13 league goals, and kick-started the comeback in the Dutch Cup third-place play-off against FC Twente as Heerenveen triumphed 3-1 – as finalists Ajax and PSV had already qualified for Champions League football the following season, the third-place play-off effectively determined who would take the Dutch spot in the following year’s Cup Winners’ Cup.

The future Manchester United and Real Madrid talisman would then depart the Abe Lenstra Stadium after just the one campaign for PSV Eindhoven for a fee of €6.3million – an enormous markup for just twelve months’ work.

What makes Heerenveen an attractive prospect?

Turning a profit on such fledging genius is key to any success the club are likely to have, but in order to sell a player, first you have to bring them in. So what makes wearing the blue and white of sc Heerenveen such an attractive prospect for blossoming footballers?

“We certainly don’t have the best facilities to develop players, but the trainers who work and have worked for our club are and have been willing to do everything they can to make players better.” Brandsma discloses.

“Due to the small scale of the operation here in Heerenveen, many players regard our club as a warm family club.

Heerenveen as a town is also a residence with limited size in terms of inhabitants – a mere 30,000 people live here. This means there are less distractions in comparison to other major cities in Holland.”

Lesser distractions at Heerenveen

Heerenveen is nothing like the cosmopolitan metropolises of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, or Eindhoven. “Players can really focus on their football. When it comes to young players, this is certainly not unimportant.”

“When you compare us to the top clubs in the Netherlands, we have a smaller budget at our disposal. We aren’t able to stock our first team with high cost, high profile stars. That means that talented youth team players have the opportunity to play in our first team earlier, for longer and with less pressure than at a club higher up the food chain.”

Looking at the recent results and success at sc Heerenveen, it’s clear that their approach is continuing to pay dividends. Having enjoyed a fantastic start to their Eredivisie campaign this year, the first team has blended a spine of experienced heads with complementary youth team products that are beginning to play starrings roles.

Sherel Floranus, Benjamin Nygren, Mitchell van Bergen and Rodney Kongolo are all enjoying breakout years despite their inexperience. However, it’s one rangy, creative presence in the center of the park who is currently commanding most of the plaudits – twenty-one year old Joey Veerman.

Veerman’s mentality drives him

“We’ve followed Joey for a long time. Initially we saw a football player at Volendam who mainly started and finished the matches based on his talent alone – he was almost too good to leave out of the line-up. But after a long-term injury during the 2018-2019 season, we saw a player with a different mindset when he returned to the Volendam side.”

“Joey began to play not only on the basis of his talents, but also because of his intrinsic drive and impeccable mentality. At that point, we knew it was the time to bring him to our club.”

When asked about the role Veerman plays within this exciting eleven developing under the watchful eye of head coach Johnny Jansen, Brandsma offers a ringing endorsement of the Dutchman’s midfield abilities. 

“Joey is playing as a deep lying playmaker and he is tasked with dictating the pace of the game, creating chances and exploiting the space in front of his team’s defense. He heavily relies on his technical ability and superb capacity to read the game he’s involved in. He has excellent vision and timing, is technically gifted and has accurate passing skills to potentially cover longer distances as well. Hence, Joey is focused on the build-up of our attacks.”

Veerman impressive on all counts

In addition, Jacek Kulig (@FTalentScout) of footballtalentscout.net speaks extremely highly of Veerman. “His biggest assets are his versatility and tremendous vision. He’s a fantastic all-round midfielder – the perfect mix of a box-to-box midfielder and playmaker. He was made to play in the Premier League and I would compare him to an Aaron Ramsey type.”

On the sheer numbers alone, Veerman’s statistical output makes for pleasant reading. During his first seven games of the season, Veerman is responsible for two goals and four assists.

Just shy of two key passes and three completed dribbles per game, Veerman is able to take the ball forward on his own. Alternatively, he is also able release it to a teammate making him incredibly unpredictable to play against with knack for unlocking a robust defence.

Heerenveen’s system reaping rewards

While Veerman may only be passing through, his performances at the Abe Lenstra and the fact he is just one in a long line of emphatic successes is proof that the system put in place at the Friesian club is still reaping rewards.

Veerman’s performances, along with those of van Bergen, Kongolo and Floranus in tow, will be paramount to Heerenveen’s hope for European football next season. And should they get there, any number of the young prospects will be placed front and centre of the world’s largest shop window.

And should they leave? Well the funds earned from any big money move, concurrently with the gap left in the starting eleven, will afford any further prospects in line behind them to follow in their footsteps for De Superfriezen and for their conveyor belt of footballing talent to keep on revolving.

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