An Interview with Kenny Dougall, left-back of Sparta Rotterdam
It wasn’t the game I expected it to be. I left home with the expectation of witnessing a 90minute-long celebration of Sparta’s successful season in the Jupiler League, which had seen them become Champions and earn automatic promotion to the Eredivisie. I saw their last game last season, and with the team finishing 8th, the mood was sombre and tense (see: Watching Sparta Rotterdam). Upon arrival at Het Kasteel, on a mild, calm and still-light evening, I was surprised not to see the ‘uitverkocht’ sign stuck on the ticket window. And, indeed, the game was not ‘sold out’. There was only a crowd of some 6,000; just above half-full. The euphoria of the Championship-winning game had passed quickly and many fans were now waiting for the more prestigious Eredivisie season of 2016-17 to begin.
Sparta started flat after coming out to a guard of honor by FC Dordrecht (FCD) – their players bedecked in green and white. And, soon Sparta were down 2 goals to nil. Instead of celebrating, some of the Sparta would-be hooligans were throwing beer and cups on to the pitch. It ended in a 2:3 defeat. Sparta’s players were hardly in tears, but many of the crowd left quickly upon the final whistle. Michel de Zeeuw, groundsman of Het Kasteel and long-time fan, was surprised to see so many leaving soon and told me, it was time for fans to show their respect to the players who had achieved something that the club hadn’t for so long. (My profile on Michel and Sparta fan culture is here, Always Sparta Rotterdam). FCD’s players saluted their few fans who had made the short journey from Dordrecht. Their poor season finishing on a high; Sparta’s finishing with their first home defeat.
Before going to the game, I had made arrangements to interview Kenny Dougall at the game’s conclusion. I was interested in finding out how he had arrived at the club. I wasn’t sure how much time he would have or whether he would be particularly willing to talk. We spoke in the sparse and simple change rooms of the ‘away team’. Sparta’s players had been filing out; showered and bedecked in the official suit, they headed for the end of season party in the ‘players room’ where friends and family awaited. Through our 20 minute conversation, we talked the usual footy talk: of wins and losses, glory, injuries and disappointments.
The footballing-life, it seems, involves many transitions – from one country to the next, one city to another, one position to another, one language to another. The footballing-life, even in the comfort and stability of a footballing nation such as the Netherlands, is precarious. Kenny Dougall, is onto a good thing with Sparta and the team’s promotion to the Eredivisie. He has made the best of his chances, since playing as an amateur in the Queensland NPL and not cracking into the first team at Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.
Below is an excerpt of the conversation.
Well, you almost scored the equaliser.
I should have scored, to be fair. It was a chance, I missed it. I haven’t scored with Sparta. Disappointing to finish with a loss – our first loss at home, all season. It would have been fantastic to go unbeaten at home. It doesn’t matter too much: we were champions after all. But, a little bit of a disappointing end.
You must be happy to be part of this team and to have won the Jupiler League.
Winning the championship was wonderful – to do it in our own stadium was a bonus. So, as you can imagine, the celebrations carried on into the night. The fans were on the field – everyone stayed. It was just one big party. I’d have to say this is the highlight of my career as it’s only my second year as a professional, and winning the league no matter what the level of competition is, is special.
What were your expectations at the beginning of the season?
Our expectation was to get promoted. Be it through the playoffs, or through winning the league. And we’ve done that. So, we have not exceeded expectations, so, in our own minds, we’ve simply fulfilled them. The supporters expectations are always high. They expect to be in the Eredivisie. And now we are back, the fans are happy, but, for the last six seasons we’ve been in the Jupiler League, so, from their point of view, it has been disappointing. And, I’m not quite sure what they were expecting this season. I think no-one can complain. Throughout the year we were the most consistent team.”
So, what about this consistency?
From November, until the game against Almere City in March, we didn’t lose. [Sparta lost 1:0 on 14th March] We won almost every game; only drawing twice. And that sealed it for us; just that consistency. We went on this run for a number of reasons. We had a few new signings at the start of the season – included myself. Six of the starting team was new this season. So, for the first couple of games we were getting used to each other. But over time, we quickly just got more and more comfortable with each others playing style. And, winning is a habit, so, when you win, you keep winning. We won the first 12 games at home; which is unusual. It was great to be a part of it. And then our home form carried on through the season and away from home. Winning builds confidence. It is easy to play when you are confident.
So, on the night of the ‘Championship game’ – against Jong Ajax: how did it feel when they levelled? It felt really deflating in the stands, but I wonder what players feel at such moments.
When Jong Ajax scored the equaliser, it was a bit of a shock. It was a good goal, from 30 odd yards. Initially, it is like, ‘okay, we’ve still got 25minutes’ [it was about 18minutes], ‘so, we can just keep playing’. And we did. We just had to trust in ourselves. We had scored a lot of late goals during the season – especially at home [including a great game against FC Emmen when they scored twice in added time], so that gave us confidence to just keep going. So, we scored; that was fantastic. And then, we got it to 3:1 in the 85th minute. That was when we knew we were champions.
How does the quality of the Eredivisie compare to that of the competitions in Australia – the NPL, or the A-League?
I never played in the A-League so I can’t compare the A-League to the Jupiler League. From the Queensland NPL, to the Jupiler League, it is a massive step-up. And, there is always an adjustment period at any level. I felt that I adjusted quite quickly. It took me a few weeks to make my debut last season. But, once I made my debut, it just kept flowing. I think the initial adjustment period is difficult; just to get back to sharpness. It comes from the difference of training twice a week, and playing on the weekends, to training full-time. So, that in itself is going to bring back sharpness.
Did you ever feel like you could break into the Brisbane Roar senior team?
As a young player you are sometimes very naïve in that maybe you don’t talk to the coaches as much as you should. My first year at the Roar I was 16 and I improved quickly throughout the season and won the team’s young player of the year. After this maybe I didn’t progress the way the club had imagined and maybe that played a part in not progressing into the senior A-League team, even though I felt I was getting better. I’m not really a guy who looks back at the past and now that next season I’ll be in the Eredivisie it has all worked out for the best.
What about the training methods?
It is similar to what I was used to in the Royal Youth set-up. We had Rado Vidošić (Youth Coach & Assistant First Team) and Ange Postecoglou and they’re very football people. So, the training over here is very similar. We do lots of small possession-games. A lot of technique training and then final third work, where the attackers play against the defenders and that is very important. After all, you need to score goals and keep them out to win matches. From what I am used to – and I’m not sure about the other Australian clubs, but the training here is very similar to what I have experienced.
You are originally a mid-fielder, right?
I grew up playing as a midfielder in Australia. At Telstar I was originally a midfielder but also played as a central defender because of my ability on the ball which helps to build up from the back. I played 29 games with Telstar; about half-and-half in each position. At Sparta, I started off in mid-field during the pre-season and then the left-back, Christian Supesepa, got injured quite seriously. We didn’t have any cover, so I was chosen. I started off well. And they wanted to stick with the formation as we were winning games. It is not my position. I don’t really like playing there. But if that is my role, then I play there and it is no problem. But the last few weeks – like today, for example, I got pushed into the middle. We did it last week as well. So, it is coming together.”
How is your Dutch?
I understand a fair amount of Dutch. On the field we only communicate in Dutch. All the team-meetings are in Dutch. But the coach, Alex Pastoor, if he is talking one on one with me he will use English. I could still learn some more. Most people speak English. But, if I was speaking with someone who didn’t speak English, I could still get by. The ‘football Dutch’ is easy, as I’m used to it by now. I’ve picked it up quite well.
Was it disappointing to miss out on playing in the Olympic qualification games with the Olyroos?
Obviously it is up to them – the Sparta management. I am contracted to Sparta. So, on the one hand it was disappointing to miss out on that opportunity. I missed three games. They got knocked at the group stage. At the time, we were on top by two points. It was a difficult decision. My aim is to just enjoy every moment and continue to improve, if that results in a Socceroos call up then great.
What are the advantages of moving to the Netherlands?
I came here largely because I couldn’t get a chance in the A-League. That’s the reason. When I was at the Roar, they had a sort-of super-team. 36 games unbeaten. And, I couldn’t get in. And there wasn’t much interest from other clubs. So, I thought, this was sort of my last chance to achieve something I’ve worked for for all of my life. I just promote myself, really, on the field. There is only so much an agent can do. It is about how you perform. If you perform well, people take notice. I haven’t had any direct contact with Ange, but he is aware of me being here. I think next season, in the Eredivisie, and I’m playing well, I’m confident I’ll be more in the mindset of the national coaches. But at the moment, that is a step-away.
Did you settle-in well at Sparta? What does it mean to be a footballer?
From day-one, Sparta have looked after me. Everyone has welcomed me. They didn’t have to do it. But they have made me feel at home. In the public eye, footballers have an easy life. Training two hours a day and then going home. Our lifestyle is different. You have to look after your body. And make sacrifices. We can’t go out with our friends, midweek, or at the weekend. So, that is where it doesn’t get looked at the same way. People just think we do a little bit of training and play on the weekend and that’s it. And that we have all this free time.
What do you tell your fellow-professionals about moving to the Netherlands?
A lot of people have asked about the standard. It is more that the Netherlands is so well-connected with other countries in Europe. So, there are a lot of opportunities. If you’re not playing in the A-League, for example, there are only 10 teams. 27 games or so. 11 players play each week. Squads are roughly 23 players. From what I have seen, the A-League is a good standard. The majority of players, are not getting regular game time. This is the biggest advantage of being in Europe. If you’re not getting a lot of game-time, you can go half-an-hour down the road and there is another club that may be interested. But, in Australia, you have to move cities. It is a big commitment. But, here, I think, the scouts are at every game. Every country. The scouts are always looking and that is the biggest difference with Europe.
Kenny Dougall: 61 games (29 with Telstar, 32 with Sparta) in the Jupiler League; formerly of Brisbane City in the Queensland NPL and the junior team of Brisbane Roar. Australia u23, four games.
*Thank you to Sparta Rotterdam for the photos and to Kenny Dougall for the interview.