Royal Antwerp FC (part 2).
Royal Antwerp Part 2.
Season 1967 – 68.
Royal Antwerp line up to face Anderlecht for the first game of the season.
Back row : Raymond (Mon) Goris, Maurice Tillotson, Eddy Braem, Florent (Flor) Bohez, Jos Rens, Robert (Bob) Geens
Front row : Paul Marter, Karel (Charel) Beyers, Wilfried Van Moer, Willy Van der Wee, Iwan Fränkel
Antwerp Manager, Harry Game made several signings during the pre-season period which included several foreign players who arrived from Germany, Holland and Italy. He also signed several players from the lower divisions of Belgian football, however, the only new signing to make any kind of significant impact was striker Paul Marter. Paul was signed from a club in a suberb of Antwerp; Olse Merksem. Iwan Frankel and I remained the only two foreigners in the starting line-up, which generally remained very much the same as in the previous year. The major change that Harry Game announced was a change in our playing system, which would adjust from a defensive counter attacking setup into a more attacking four-two-four. In hindsight, it was a mistake for Game to discard a method of play which had served us well; imposing a system which didn’t really suit the strengths of his players.
Royal Antwerp’s foreign contingent with Coach Harry Game.
We started the season with a Saturday evening home game (under floodlights), against Anderlecht, which attracted over thirty five thousand spectators to the Bousil stadium, and although we competed well, we succumbed to two late second half goals by Paul Van Himst. Other indifferent results were to follow, against less illustrious opponents, and by the time that Christmas came around we were languishing in the relegation zone.
Paul Van Himst scores as I watch!!!
Our much anticipated sojourn into the European Fairs Cup competition also went sour when we were knocked out of the competition by Goztepe Izmir of Turkey in a home and away clash. The first match in Antwerp started off far too easily for us, going a goal up early in the game and seeming to be coasting towards a comfortable victory. Our strikers were creating chance after chance, but we failed to add to our lead and in the second half Izmir struck with two goals, leaving us wondering how on earth we had lost the game. The return match in Turkey was a torrid affair played on a hard grassless pitch in front of thirty thousand screaming Turkish fans. As we emerged from beneath the moat, surrounding the playing area, we were greeted with the occasional sky rocket flying past our ears, sent from the behind the high fences which had been erected to keep out pitch invasions. We fought out a goalless draw, which wasn’t good enough to see us through to the next round. The only part of the game which stands out in my memory was the altercation I had with my direct opponent. We had been ‘going’ each other in the first game in Antwerp, both verbally (even though we couldn’t understand each other) and physically with the occasional elbow or kick; this carried on into the return match. After a particularly juicy tackle which sent him sprawling over the touchline I sensed him coming up behind me to take retribution, and I quickly turned and caught him with an uppercut just before he struck me. At this, the game boiled over for a few minutes, until the referee restored order and amazingly (by today’s standards), neither of us was dismissed.
Watching Van Himst score; again!!!!!
There was more frustration for us when we learned that, had we gone through against Izmir, we would have faced none other than the Spanish giants, Barcelona. This would have been a major pay day for us (the players), for in this competition, we shared all home gate receipts amongst ourselves, and we could have expected a crowd of at least thirty five thousand.
Youngsters Tielemans and Van Gool at the front.
Harry Game had introduced two youngsters into the starting line-up in the form of Ronnie Tielemans and Roger Van Gool, both highly promising players (Van Gool went on to play in the German Bundesliga and the English First Division at Coventry City) but at the age of seventeen they were hardly equipped for a relegation battle. The second half of our season remained a ‘dog fight’ against relegation in which we couldn’t escape, and with only a few games remaining, Harry Game was sacked, his place being taken by Vic Mees, a former Antwerp and Belgian International player. Mees belatedly introduced a 4 : 3 : 3 system of playing, but it was far too late in the day to save the club from relegation. Consequently, there was much soul searching amongst the club officials, prompted by demonstrations from a section of the supporters, who wanted the Board to resign en masse….
Season 1968 – 69.
We started this season in the second tier of the Belgian Football League with the majority of the squad who had suffered relegation. A notable absentee was Wilfred Van Moer who had been sold on to a club in the German Bundesliga, with the aging Jos Rens and Ubain Sagers also departing. We were strengthened by the experienced Belgian International Fritz Vandenboer from St Truiden, Michiels from Beeschot, and Jos Kuterna from a Belgian third division club.
The diminutive Coach Bob Maertens alongside myself, Robert Geens and Flor Bohez.
Former Royal Antwerp and Belgian International player Bob Maertens was appointed as the new Coach of the club for the 1967/68 season. Bob had tasted success at a club in the lower division and this was his chance to expand his career even further. Small in stature, he was a knowledgeable and dynamic personality and soon gained the support of most of the squad although he had a few ‘run ins’ from time to time with a few members of the team (myself included). One particular incident, early in his tenure, sticks out in my mind of the value of a good playing background when you take on the job of coaching players at a high level. We were engaged in a training session of shooting when Bob stopped the session to demonstrate a particular shooting technique. He placed the ball outside the penalty area and at an obscure angle to the goal, making it difficult to beat the keeper; without a moment’s hesitation hit the ball past Eddie Braem, against the far post and into the net. As we looked at each other in silent admiration he turned to us and sarcastically exclaimed (in Flemish), “that’s the sort of luck you need when you begin to coach a new team.” There was no doubt in all our minds that he had the footballing credentials to gain our respect, the question was, did he have the leadership qualities to take us back into the First Division?
1968/69 was a forgettable season….
This was a forgettable season which started promisingly enough but we struggled to adapt to teams of lesser ability, who raised their game simply because they were playing against Royal Antwerp. Consequently we finished the season in a mid-table position and therefore faced another season out of the limelight. The high points of the season came in Cup games, where we defeated the highly rated Gantoise, before succumbing to another First Division team; Racing-White from Brussels by 5 – 3 in a semi- final thriller. In the League competition, we defeated our local Antwerp rivals, Berchem Sports, in an away Derby, played on a snow covered pitch, thus giving our staunch supporters something to cheer about…..
Season 1969 – 70.
Two more signings were made in the summer months both from lower division clubs but the type of players which we needed if we were to gain promotion back to the first division. Norbert Verdingh was a left winger in the traditional mould, fast, direct, and possessed natural left foot which could whip in accurate crosses. Theo Torfs, was a hardworking, no nonsense midfielder who could win the ball effectively, lay off the simple pass to set up his teammates, and the type of player that you could depend when things got tough.
I welcome Norbert Verdingh and Theo Torfs to Royal Antwerp.
We started the season off well enough, but somehow lost our way and turned in some poor results which prompted Bob Martens to make some changes in which I was one of them. For the first time in over three years I was out of the starting line-up and had to content myself with a spot in the reserve team. Fortunately for me the first team hit another bad spell and in order to stabilise the defence Bob Martens took the brave step of changing the whole system of play from a zonal defence to a strict man for man marking system. Because of my mobility and discipline I was recalled back into the first team to perform in what was essentially a very negative way of playing. Basically the system worked around picking up our direct opponent and following him where ever he went thus stifling him whenever he looked to receive the ball. We played with a sweeper who always kept himself free to cover any attacker who got away from his marker. Bob had a philosophy that if we kept the opposition from scoring or at least we only conceded one goal, we would create at least one chance and if we took it we would get a draw or a win. His tactics worked brilliantly as we went on a run of games in which we either drew or won by a single goal. This negative philosophy took us right back into the promotion race before he bravely reverted back to a zonal system of defending. By this time we had become so used to closing down opponents, in a man marking system, that we had become very efficient at pressurizing opponents when we reverted to a zonal defence.
Goalmouth action alongside our keeper Eddie Braem.
Our consistent results culminated in us needing only one point from our final game at Waterschei in order to clinch promotion and return to the first division. More than twelve thousand supporters packed in Waterschei’s small stadium, at least half of them travelling from Antwerp, to witness a nail-biting finale to the season.
Thousands of our supporters travelled to Waterschei for our final game of the season.
We went a goal down at some stage of the match and we were still pressing for the equalizer, with minutes to go, when our supporters erupted with joy as the news filtered through that our nearest rivals Berchem had been beaten, thus handing us promotion. However, to confirm promotion due to our own efforts, Karel Beyers equalized with the last kick of the game, and with hundreds of our supporters invading the pitch, the referee blew the final whistle.
Escaping our celebrating supporters minus my shirt.
Royal Antwerp’s promotion success was a triumph for the Coach Bob Meartens, who’s intelligent tactics and training methods galvanised the players into supporting him all the way. Despite this the club did not retain him for the following season and he moved on.
As events turned out the game at Waterschei was my final match in the colours of Royal Antwerp, it was with some regret, and many good memories, that I returned to England unaware that my next competitive game of football would be played on the other side of the world…….