PEC Zwolle fan Fred Meeuwissen wasn’t optimistic heading into the biggest game in his club’s history. “‘I hope we don’t lose 7-0 or 8-0,’ that was my first thought,” he remembers. It did not take long, though, before that brutal scenario looked imminent. 

It took just seven seconds for the atmosphere to boil over in De Kuip on 20 April 2014 as the flares and smoke bombs rained down onto the pitch, forcing the game to be stopped momentarily.  Within two minutes of play resuming on this surreal, sunny Sunday evening in Rotterdam, the Dutch Cup final looked done and dusted.

As a corner was cleared from the box, it was met by the Ajax right-back Ricardo van Rhijn, who sent it blazing in off the bar from 25 yards. Having all but secured a fourth consecutive Eredivisie title the week before, the perennial giants had seemingly captured another trophy. Faced only with the challenge of the meagre northern club, the stage was set for the powerhouse, under the leadership of Frank de Boer, to annihilate their opponents and further enhance their place at the pinnacle of Dutch football.

“I said to my wife Barbara: ‘That’s it, it’ll be 10-0 or something,’” Meeuwissen said.

As Van Rhijn’s shot crossed the line, chaos ensued. With the game taking place in the stadium of their fierce rivals Feyenoord, the overzealous Amsterdammers were intent on marking their upcoming win by wrecking the place. Flares returned to the pitch with supporters unconcerned by the fact their pyrotechnics were landing very close to their own goalkeeper, Kenneth Vermeer. The game was stopped and the players were taken off the field.

In the iconic De Kuip stadium, the tunnel is underground, meaning a part of the grass beside the pitch rises as the players walk up the stairs and emerge like warriors from the depths of the earth. During the near 30-minute halt to the game, the lid to the tunnel rose, but it was not the stars of Ajax and PEC Zwolle who came from the pits of this modern coliseum ready to resume the game. Instead, it was the Dutch hero Edwin van der Sar.  

The former Manchester United goalkeeper, now Ajax’s marketing director, stormed out with fire in his eyes and a microphone in his hand. “Cut this shit!” he shouted at the troublesome Ajacied. “We want to win this trophy. All this nonsense doesn’t get us anywhere. Stop throwing fireworks onto the pitch, otherwise you’ll fuck us up as a club. If this happens again the game will be abandoned and we will lose this Cup.”

The supporters got the message and the madness ended. But from there emerged a completely new kind of anarchy. “Van Rhijn’s goal came in the middle of the fireworks,” the PEC Zwolle chairman Adriaan Visser said. “Our players were not really focused at that time and then the match was stopped. We came inside and there were talks with the mayor and the police. At that moment, we felt that we had lost the match.  I said to technical director Gerard Nijkamp: ‘What you need to do is tell our players that we have fought for them and that they have to do it on the field.’”

Regardless of how highly Nijkamp rates his motivational skills, he could never have envisioned what followed, as Zwolle stepped out with remarkable passion and urgency, charging forward with incredible attacking intent. Eight minutes into the game, Bojan, on loan at Ajax from Barcelona, was dispossessed by Kamohelo Mokotjo in the middle of the park. The ball found its way to Mateusz Klich and the Pole beat two Ajax players and evaded the tackle of another before moving it on to Jesper Drost, whose pass out wide found Ryan Thomas. The teenage winger immediately charged into the box to go head-to-head with Van Rhijn. With a dip of the shoulder, he cut back, taking the Netherlands international out of the game, and sent the ball into the net via a deflection from Niklas Moisander. 

Now it was the Ajax fans’ time to be quiet while the Zwollenaren went crazy.

From then on, Ajax were pinned around their own box. It was De Boer’s history-making champions who took the role of the underdog, while the blue-and-white hoops hunted them down, forcing them into mistakes in dangerous areas. PEC seized possession deep in opposition territory, only to be stopped by a foul. The resultant free kick struck the post and when Ajax failed to react, up popped Thomas once again, meeting it first time to divert past Vermeer. 

The game was 12 minutes old and PEC Zwolle were leading 2-1. 

This team could not be stopped. Nine minutes later, Daley Blind conceded possession with his counterpart Mokotjo gathering the loose ball and playing a one-two with Klich. The South African dodged a tackle from Davy Klaassen and sent a pass through to Guyon Fernandez, a loan signing from Feyenoord, who dipped in behind the defence to go one-on-one with Vermeer, finishing in style. 

Then, with 11 minutes left in the first half, Bram van Polen’s perfect cross flew into the middle of the box where Fernandez rose above Moisander and diverted it into the corner.

The tempo. The effectiveness. The brutality.

“There were 18,000 Zwolle fans in shock,” Meeuwissen says. “This wasn’t for real.”

Amid the celebrations, the TV camera panned across the sea of blue and white in the stands. Many were cheering their hearts out, many were in disbelief, the rest were crying. Meeuwissen thought he was being optimistic before the game when he smirked, “Everyone would settle for a 3-0 loss.” This was unthinkable.

For Ajax the half-time break brought, at best, a chance for De Boer to get his team together and find a way back into the game. At worst, it was a 15-minute break from the onslaught.

It turned out to be the latter. 

Zwolle maintained their dominance from the beginning of the second half. Just five minutes after the restart, a corner was whipped into the box. Van Polen met it with a header, only to see it blocked. But the defender reacted quickly, scooping it towards goal. 5-1.

Terrifyingly, two minutes later, Thomas almost had his hat-trick, with Ajax’s defence again caught out allowing him to drift in at the back post to meet a cross in acres of space, but his header went inches wide. And again, on 59 minutes, Klich and Fernandez slipped in behind the back line and the latter squared it, leaving the Pole faced with an open goal, but Moisander’s sliding tackle stifled the chance. 

It was pandemonium and Ajax were dead on their feet.

Substitute Giovanni Gravenbeek almost got in on the action with five minutes left of the game when Thomas’s through ball put him in a great scoring position, but Vermeer was able to keep him out.

The referee’s whistle blew for the final time shortly afterwards and De Kuip erupted.

“There was an explosion of happiness, but still disbelief,” said Meeuwissen. 

“It was such an unbelievable explosion of pride and emotion,” Visser added. “It was a dream. It was such an unbelievable and unexpected dream for everyone. We wrote history in that moment.”

“There was a lot of happiness, we were all hugging each other,” Meeuwissen went on. “It was one big party. Then we left the stadium, got on the buses and everyone was saying to each other, ‘Did this really happen?’ They still couldn’t believe it!”

“The journey back was really quiet and strange,” said his wife Barbara. “Going up to the stadium everyone was singing and we never thought that we would win, but everyone was in a good mood. On the way back, it was really quiet.”

The fans’ incredulity was understandable. Ajax had dominated Dutch football under De Boer for the previous four years and his team was the strongest in the country. Klaassen, Blind, Van Rhijn and Vermeer are all Netherlands internationals, while Lasse Schöne, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, Nicolai Boilesen and Moisander feature regularly for their national teams. 

But, as the Zwolle coach Ron Jans put it, “You only play the perfect game once in your life and this was it. Every player played the best game of his life. When you all do that at the same time, that’s amazing.”

While the result was the stuff of fantasy, PEC Zwolle’s presence in the KNVB Beker [Cup] final was no shock. For this small team from a city of around 125,000 who had had to fight back from liquidation 24 years before, winning their first ever major title in such incredible fashion brought a new peak to what has been a magical few years for the club.

Indeed, while PEC may never top such a dramatic, iconic moment, the achievement itself has not been seen as the end of the team’s journey. It is, rather, one giant step forward for a minnow in Dutch football with high ambitions and a lot of potential. 

The summer that followed saw the likes of Klich, Darryl Lachman and the goalkeeper Diederik Boer depart – big losses to the first team. However, the most depressing departure for the fans was the sale of Mokotjo. Having only arrived the previous year for free from Feyenoord, the South Africa international was one of the best performing midfielders in the league throughout the campaign and naturally caught the eye of bigger teams. But an agreement that the club made with the player and his agent before he signed made it impossible for PEC to negotiate for a better deal – any offer of around €1.5 million would be accepted. When FC Twente offered just that, off went a player who was worth so much more.

The situation caused a stir amongst the fans, but in a sense it helped illustrate exactly what makes Zwolle such a potent club.

Throughout Zwolle’s recent history, they have strived to play attacking, possession-based football. In every sense of the word, it is their philosophy. It has become the very heart of what they do and it is key to their recent success. Because of that, Zwolle have been able to build and maintain a solid system around the first team to ensure that no component is greater than the collective unit. With a set style and a preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, the technical director Nijkamp knows what kind of players he is looking for and, in many cases, knows exactly which player it is he wants to replace an outgoing star. “When we sold Mokotjo, we had to think; who is the next Kamohelo Mokotjo?” he explained. “I have my squad – the first XI – and also a shadow team – the reserves - so I have a selection of 20 players and three goalkeepers.

“But there’s a next shadow team which is of players who have a possibility of coming to PEC Zwolle. So when we sell someone like Mokotjo, I already have my shadow list which I make together with Ron Jans and our chief scout Ben Hendriks and other scouts. We decide who the best possibility is for all 11 positions in the squad.”

Despite the apparent injustice of losing a player who had humiliated Daley Blind in the Cup final for such a small fee and without the luxury of being able to splash out, Nijkamp’s system meant there was no need to fear when it came to bringing in a new midfielder. Indeed, the acquisition of Ben Rienstra on a free transfer proved to be a masterstroke. The 25-year-old midfielder made the step up from Heracles and slotted in perfectly. Mokotjo, whose first season at FC Twente was underwhelming, was never missed at the IJsseldeltastadion.

“It’s about vision,” Nijkamp insisted. “Vision never changes from one day to the other. It takes years to build it. It’s about the philosophy: what is our mission? What do we want to achieve for our supporters and sponsors? What type and what quality of player must we bring into the first team?”

The system seems like common sense, but Zwolle’s organisation and forward thinking has seen them continue to progress on the field despite losing a host of key players over recent seasons. Joey van den Berg (Heerenveen), Youness Mokhtar, Darryl Lachman, Mokotjo (all FC Twente), Rochdi Achenteh (Vitesse), Diederik Boer (Ajax) and Klich (Wolfsburg) have all come and gone in recent years, while a series of key loan deals expired. Still, though, Zwolle have improved consistently.

The recruitment strategy had to be employed in a different way in the summer of 2013, when the management duo Art Langeler and Jaap Stam left to take up roles at PSV and Ajax respectively. The pair had brought the club up from the Eerste Divisie, the Dutch second division, and, having secured survival, the future looked bright, but the lure of the bigger clubs was too much. Langeler became head of youth development in Eindhoven, Stam became a youth coach in the capital and Zwolle were left to find the next coach to take the team forward. 

Having proved himself a very intelligent coach with a devotion to attacking football at bigger sides like Groningen and Heerenveen, Ron Jans, a son of the city and the club, was Zwolle’s choice. Talent, Nijkamp insists, is not enough to convince the club of a coach’s worth – subscribing to their philosophy and way of doing things is pivotal.

“We like to have a certain playing style – that’s the playing style of PEC Zwolle,” he said. “Before Ron Jans was sitting at the table to negotiate a contract, he knew about PEC Zwolle already. He knows about our positional game, what we want to achieve, that we want to be dominant in games, have the ball, etc. That’s the first part of it. For a head coach it is very important he gets the players he wants, but in the total package of our philosophy it is never the case that a coach has the right to bring in a player that only he likes. We have a joint responsibility to create an environment of players who are adjusting to the way we want to play.

“The club makes decisions that are never about winning or losing a match, it’s more about what we want to achieve in the coming years. We are thinking and searching for coaches or people for positions in the club who can help us achieve these goals. With Ron, we were thinking he was the perfect guy to help us reach the next stage.

“That playing style was already here, he was to make it better. He has experience as a player, he comes from the city so he knows the culture of the club and the city and he has a lot of experience. We like coaches who can communicate, be open and transparent. All of these aspects make a coach we think PEC Zwolle needs to reach the next stage.”

Jans himself acknowledges that every aspect of the club is built towards long-term success and that he is a part of the system, not the dictator or head of it. “If you look at the coaches they have had, they are all the same,” he said. “The club have been looking for good coaches who can develop and improve them. They had a vision on how to improve. They got promoted, but then you have a problem because instead of being one of the best teams in the league, you’re one of the worst. They did very well and I think it’s because of the philosophy.”

Jans is seen as one of the most intelligent coaches in the country at the moment and had been linked to the Feyenoord job during the season. As well as his tactical knowledge and reputed man-management skills, his training style and ideas for growth show how much he adds to the system and how important he will be in the future development of the club. 

“Before Zwolle I coached clubs with more status, but I was born here and I played here, so I thought ‘Ah. It feels good. Let’s try it,’ and it was amazing! The training is still largely technical and tactical, but we brought in more physical training without changing the philosophy. So we try to make everything a bit more professional, but keep it in line with what the club was building up already and trying to improve on small things. A lot of small things makes the difference. In the first year I came here I think we made about 10 changes and I said we could do more work with video analysts. We had one video analyst who was already with the club, he was from a school, but he’s now a professional analyst and we improved so much from that. It gives us more tools to improve the players.”

Jans’s influence was key from the beginning. PEC started the 2013-14 season with a 2-1 win over Feyenoord and went on to win their next three, but inconsistency and the lack of an effective striker saw them plummet down the table.  Stability soon returned, however, and they went on to mirror their previous finish – coming in 11th but with a point more. The placing was the same, but the difference was the new found credibility PEC had. Rather than being involved in a relegation scrap, they had consolidated themselves as an Eredivisie team.

The real progress, of course, was in the KNVB Beker. They were lucky to avoid top tier sides until they took on NEC in the last four, but the demolition of Ajax said all that needed to be said about how deserving they were of a place in the final.

The key summer departures were seemingly easily covered. Tomáš Necid from CSKA Moscow came in on loan until January but was then signed on a free transfer, the quick winger Jody Lukoki joined from Ajax for a small fee, Rienstra and Thomas Lam came in for free, while the goalkeeper Warner Hahn was loaned from Feyenoord to replace Boer. 

Again, it was a perfect start for Jans’s men in 2014-15. Taking on Ajax in the Johan Cruyff Schaal – the Dutch Supercup – in the Amsterdam Arena, they heaped further misery on De Boer’s men with a 1-0 win. The Eredivisie campaign started well, but their journey into Europe via their Cup final triumph did not last long. They were held to a 1-1 draw at home against Sparta Prague before suffering a 3-1 defeat in the return leg. 

PEC were the first team to beat the runaway champions PSV, deservedly winning 3-1 as they lingered around second and third place in the league. PEC never dropped below seventh place and their hoodoo over Ajax continued as they drew with them home and away. In the final game of the campaign, they ended Feyenoord’s chances of securing an automatic Europa League place with a 3-0 win. The Blauwvingers [“blue fingers”] ended the season in sixth place with 53 points – a record finish in the top tier and another dream achievement. 

And again, Zwolle had a wonderful Cup run. This time, their journey was more arduous as they were forced to overcome Cambuur and FC Twente. Coming up against the likes of Mokhtar and Mokotjo, they showed that the grass is not always greener on the other side, beating them on penalties in the semi-final to book a place in the final for the second time in a row. It was a significant victory, as Twente are a much bigger club but they have been mired in financial troubles and finished five places below PEC in the league.

Lining up against FC Groningen in De Kuip, it seemed a much more winnable game than the previous final, but with the memory and elation of the previous year’s exploits still fresh in the mind, there was a certain buzz missing amongst the Zwolle fans. “When we played Ajax, it was the greatest. This year, I didn’t have the same feeling as the year before. Not that it has become common, but it just didn’t feel right,” Fred Meeuwissen admitted, a feeling Barbara echoed: “It was a different feeling the second time. You don’t get used to it, but we had last year and won, and I didn’t think this time that we had a big chance against FC Groningen, which is weird in a way. I said to Fred that they’d have a tough time.”

Sure enough, Zwolle’s performance was strong throughout a fairly even match, but the difference was made after 64 minutes. Groningen’s Albert Rusnák slammed a low shot into the bottom corner from the 18-yard line to put his side 1-0 up and, 11 minutes later, the Slovakian ran in at the back post to double that lead and kill the game off.

The season may not have ended in the same glory for Zwolle, but the progress made was still incredible and, over their three years in the top flight, has been greater than anyone expected. The development must be carefully managed as it points to a rather sensitive situation for the club. Throughout their history, there has been one common theme – severe financial issues. 

In the 1970s, Zwolle enjoyed a prosperous period in which they reached the Cup final (losing to FC Twente) thanks to the backing of Slavenburg’s bank. However, irregularities in the company’s dealings saw some executives and employees charged with various crimes including money laundering. When the bank was bought, Zwolle accrued massive debts and the chairman Jan Willem van der Wal was forced to leave. Close to liquidation in 1982, the club was saved by Martin Eibrink, who reformed it as PEC Zwolle 82 and invested heavily to improve the squad. Netherlands internationals such as Johnny Rep, Piet Schrijvers and Cees van Kooten were signed, but sensing more financial troubles down the road, no one was willing to invest further. Massive debts began to rack up once again and while Eibrink had been able to save Zwolle once, he could not do it again and had to leave in 1988. Relegation followed the next season and the team began to struggle in the second tier too. Then, in 1990, PEC Zwolle ’82 was declared bankrupt and FC Zwolle was formed months later, changing back to PEC Zwolle upon earning promotion in 2012.

The current hierarchy have recognised the need to work within their means to avoid falling into the same hole, which means sticking by their system and building towards stable, manageable growth. The potential is there, but the current situation is unpredictable. PEC are in the KNVB’s worst financial category at the moment, which they simply must work their way out of. Patience, the chiefs insist, is key.

“We are healthy from a general point of view but we have also our problems,” Visser admitted. “We are a growing club, so we have to invest, meaning the costs come up. We don’t have a stadium because we rent it, so we have a very short and empty balance sheet. Our working capital position is rather low. If you are growing you always need additional working capital because otherwise you can’t bridge the timing between the growing of costs and the revenue line. That makes it difficult to keep that whole system under control.

“We need to accept that from a technical point of view we will go down a bit and both lines have to cross each other. You need to manage that in the coming years.”

As a fan who has seen the club plummet to liquidation and stuck by them, Meeuwissen buys into the need to be careful, but he has grave concerns about the current situation. “I don’t see them closing the gap for the next three years,:” he said. “We need to grow slowly, take it step by step. Don’t act like we’re a multi-million euro business that grows quickly. That’s why we’re in category one. As a fan, I can’t figure that out. We have had the two best seasons in the club’s history and we’re still in a negative situation.”

It’s a precarious position. They are determined not to be trapped into becoming a selling club, but their other revenue streams are extremely small, while their players keep on attracting bigger clubs. They have sold the young winger Jody Lukoki to Ludogorets for reportedly double what they paid for him, but the key players Maikel van der Werff (Vitesse) and Necid (Bursaspor) have left for free, Hahn’s loan period has expired and the defender Joost Broerse has retired. 

Lars Veldwijk has come in on loan from Nottingham Forest to become the main striker and Sheraldo Becker has been borrowed from Ajax, but the squad remains decidedly thin. There are further departures expected, too, with Mustafa Saymak and Jesper Drost attracting a lot of attention, but PEC will be able to command strong transfer fees for their two main academy graduates. Luckily, beyond that, they are in a good position to demand high fees for the rest of the core of the squad. Furthermore, Nijkamp and Visser are fortunate to be working with a coach who also acknowledges the need to think small when it comes to signing players.

“When we get a good transfer we can’t spend all the money,“ Jans acknowledged. “But the club told me we could reinvest 50% and when you sell a player for let’s say €2 million and you can spend €1 million, well, we never spent money on transfers! We had to do with nothing, so that can help us grow. But even then we have to keep to the philosophy that we are a club where you can develop. We mustn’t buy players who are ready because the wages and transfer fees are too expensive, so you always have to keep looking for the players and find the right ones and not spend too much.”

The transfer prospects do not befit a club who reached a second consecutive Cup final and came close to European qualification for the second time in a row. Zwolle are certainly outperforming their own budget at the moment, a problem which they are intent on levelling out before they think about the next step. But what exactly is next for this team?

“It’s very important in terms of strategic thinking that in three years we get to an annual budget of around €16 million so we can be realistic and say that every year we want to be between sixth and twelfth place,” said Nijkamp. “Then, in a good year we can go for sixth or seventh and reach the Europa League play-offs. But there will also be years we don’t have luck and we’ll play for twelfth, but we’re not fighting a relegation battle. That gives us credibility and strength so we can grow.

“In the technical part, we can still grow, but we are reaching a higher level already with winning the cup and being stable in this league, but in our organisation we have to make big steps, in our ticketing system, hospitality, in the stadium – we have a capacity of 12,500 and we want to expand that to 15-16,000. But it’s step by step, so we’re not going to do it all next season.”

“It’s very possible to manage this club in the next two or three years to keep them around seventh place,” Visser said. “I’m convinced about that. If we reach that, the big discussion is then if you can make the next step.  For me at the moment, there’s a question mark around that because I don’t know. I’m very much focused on making the next step, but not taking the step after that one because then you’re in a league that, on a structural basis, you have to compete with the top teams in Netherlands.”

PEC Zwolle know all too well the troubles of being too ambitious and they are wary to ensure they do not risk falling into a financial black hole by overestimating their potential. Financial issues have almost become an epidemic in the Eredivisie lately and given Feyenoord’s recent flirtations with bankruptcy, it seems no one is entirely safe from getting into trouble. For a club like Zwolle to come up and make such a mark on the top flight in this way has been nothing short of magnificent. They have the ability to stabilise and build towards a bright future, but it requires luck as much as it does the great work they have put in so far.

No matter what happens, though, they will always be able to think back to that glorious afternoon in Rotterdam. As Ron Jans put it, “It was very special. Sometimes you could wake up and think something like: ‘Aw. My father is sick, but… we won the Cup!’ You always find inspiration to add to the Cup gem. Every day of your life.” 

For many PEC fans, that day will remain one of the best of their lives, but those in charge are hoping that the best days are not behind them.