It is mid-morning in an outer suburb of The Hague. HVV Haaglandia is the site for a gathering of supporters of ADO Den Haag, Legia Warsaw, Juventus, Club Brugge and Sparta Rotterdam. I have come to the event with Neal McClimon, an Englishman, who is well-known and respected amongst ADO fans. Neal is nursing a shoulder injury. This is a problem for a professional photographer, and it presents serious limitations for being in the often crowded spaces in and around football grounds.
The friendship between Legia and ADO supporters is particularly strong. Legia fans regularly attend ADO games: making the trip from Poland mainly for the game – and probably also for some of the recreational freedoms of The Netherlands. Neal will be making a trip to a Legia game later this year. It will be his first game in Poland. ‘It will only cost 100 Euros – for the return ticket. The trip will be an opportunity to further extend his number of stadium visits. ‘I’ve been to 94 stadiums. Basically, any stadium, where there is a covered grandstand and some terracing behind one end of the goals, is enough for me to qualify as a ‘stadium’ – no matter, the capacity or which team uses it to play in whichever league.’
Groundhopping, a hobby inextricably linked to geography, distance and time, is laborious. Stadiums are often found on the edges of major cities and many have little charm for those not seduced by football or football nostalgia. This would frustrate his ex-partner: on trips abroad, Neal would always make time to visit the local stadium. The act of visiting stadiums gains a slow momentum, slowly over time, groundhoppers are drawn into the combined romance of architecture, nostalgia, decaying infrastructure and fading memories. But, groundhopping is also at odds with the act of ‘supporting your local team’, which is strongly rooted in tribalism and topophilia.
‘I started going to the football when I was nine years old. My father took me to a Birmingham City versus Liverpool game. We lived in Birmingham and he asked, ‘who do you want to support?’ I told him, ‘whichever team wins.’ The game turned out to be a 1:1 draw. But, I chose Liverpool because they scored first.’ ‘I started following Liverpool at a good time. I was able to watch and enjoy the victories of the 1980s. I saw FA Cup victories, a European cup final win in Rome and other important games. I would stand at the Kop end. But, when they started to introduce seating into the stadium, I started to feel that it wasn’t for me. I stopped going. Standing up, singing and drinking is an intrinsic part of the game for me.’ He makes a brief comment about the sharp decline in the fortunes of the legendary club.
Neal is a professional sports photographer in The Netherlands, runs the ADO for Expats website. Neal, who has been in The Hague since 2001 , has run the website, by himself, since 2011, but has reported on ADO since 2009/2010 season. The website has a simple and easily negotiable layout, featuring pages on ‘club info’, ‘fixtures’, ‘match reports’, ‘ADO ladies’ and ‘tickets’. There are also small pages of information about the club in eight languages – including Spanish, Finish and Mandarin. ADO for Expats reproduces the pages that go up on the official website in English. Neal, however, is not an employee of the Club. But, this is not to say the Club is not helpful: they provide him with all the access he needs. ‘I have never been turned down.’
‘I did a lot of groundhopping when I came to The Netherlands. I went to a lot of the different stadiums and watched a range of teams, to get a feel for the local football. I spent one season watching Feyenoord. I sat in the same seat, for every home game, sitting next to the same people. At not one point did I get into a conversation. I tried to introduce myself a couple of times, but, it wasn’t only met with grunts and disinterest.’
‘The Hague has a huge expat community. My aim in making the website was to help tap into a new audience and potential crowd for ADO Den Haag. This is a club with a big reputation. But, I tell people I meet, forget what you hear about the Club and its supporters. Go to a game, watch them and tell me what you think. So far, I haven’t heard a bad work back. The foreigners who go, always have a good experience.’
The reputation of ADO supporters is that they are like the Millwall supporters of London: the toughest and roughest and most diehard hooligans. ‘All Clubs have their violent supporters. That can’t be denied. But, since the Club has moved to the Kyocera Stadium in July 2007, there has only been one minor incident. The Stadium is the safest stadium in Europe. It is virtually impossible to have a confrontation. The Away fans are brought to the stadium along a path exclusively for them. Then, inside the stadium they are separated from the home fans. It is statements such as these that suggest the reputation of ADO fans for violence, and, at least the police fears of the violence from fans.
There is a sense that ADO is somewhat victimised by both the police and the KNVB (the Royal Dutch Football Association). Neal sites two main examples. The first relates to the deep-seated enmity between ADO and Ajax. ‘A couple of years ago an Ajax fan ran onto the pitch at the Amsterdam Arena and attacked the opposition’s goalkeeper. The club were given a minimal fine. Not long after ADO had to cancel a game due to a damaged pitched water-clogged after a severe storm. The club was fined more for that than for an attack on a player. The second case regards a protest at the Kyocera Stadium. ‘Last year, after a 3:0 home defeat to Heracles, some of the fans, gathered out the back of the stadium to protest at the bad performance. Immediately, they were set upon by the police, who charged at them with horses. This was heavy handed action from the police. The ADO fans had done nothing. Okay, sure, if something happened, then the police would have had to respond, but, the thing was, the police attacked the supporters first.’
Neal also recounts the anecdote told to him by others that, back in the old days – 1980s and 1990s – the police had more difficulty in combating ADO hooligans than those from Feyenoord, even if the numbers of ADO hooligans was smaller. The ADO hooligans would be broken up into smaller groups, each one having his own leader who would orchestrate attacks. The police, apparently, found this much more difficult to combat. The legacy of the 80s and 90s, however, is a heavy handed approach from the police towards ADO fans, as well as the ongoing bans of ADO and Ajax attending their clubs games in each others stadiums.
Neal at work, and, supporting his local team.
Later in the evening, after the fan day has concluded at Haaglandia, Neal sends a whatsapp message, telling me: ‘It took me a long time to leave the ground. I was only planning on staying an hour at the most. But, as I left, I kept on meeting up with other supporters. It was good to be back with the crowd, now that the season is beginning.’ This aspect of friendship is vital to Neal’s engagement with ADO Den Haag and its fans. The support he has given to the Club has also been reciprocated by the Club itself and its fans. At times fans have called him across to make photos of them at some home and away games. He is also supplying the fanzine with match photos.
“I love attending ADO games and expressing how great the supporters are. However due to the historic reputation of the supporters, I was often told it is easy for me, as I don’t actually sit in the stands with the fans, but have a nice place sitting behind the goal with a camera. So on two occasions I have travelled to away games. On a bus-combi to NAC Breda and by Auto-combi to FC Groningen. People came over to talk to me, shake hands and say how they thought I was doing good work for the club, giving them positive feedback. So those visits for me were really enjoyable. I have made some very good friends at ADO, which in turn has made my life better as I feel a part of the city. I get invited to go to people’s homes and out for drinks. When I was due to have the latest operation, I had many calls and messages from fans offering help with travel, or fetching and carrying shopping etc, that humbled me. If I had not become a follower of my local team, my weekends would be far less interesting. I feel at home, it was a great way to integrate into Hague culture. All this from a club with a reputation that has led to people staying away from the Kyocera stadium. I can offer one great story of how an expat was welcomed to a first game at the Kyocera with his young son. He went to a home game and got seats in the North Side (Midden Noord) an area where the hardcore gather. As they approached their seats they were noticed as being outsiders. A big guy came over to ask if they were ok, as soon as he found out they were American expats and the boys first game. So the man took off his scarf and placed it around the boys neck and said “Welcome to FC Den Haag.” A very sweet moment, since then, the American has got season tickets and bring other expats with them to home games.’
The ideal of ‘support your local team’ is one of the fundamentals of the ‘against modern football’ practice of football fandom. Neal supports his local team – in this case ADO Den Haag: a club with a problematic reputation, but, perhaps one that is over-stated. Neal’s engagement with the Club is multilayered; he is able to work while supporting it and maintains the well-visited and only website on ADO in English. Engaging with the club has opened up the city to him and strengthened his sense of belonging in The Hague.