Kenny Dougall on Sparta’s First Season back in the Eredivisie
So Sparta survived. On the final day, the Roda result went Sparta’s way, and Sparta won 1:3 away against Go Ahead Eagles: a team that had been destined for relegation early on in the season. Back in the Eredivisie for the first time in seven years, Sparta also picked up some new players: including Mathias Pogba (formerly of Partick Thistle), Craig Goodwin (formerly of Adelaide United) on-loan from FC Midtjylland. They would play their roles in vital wins for the Club. Kenny Dougall, after spending much time in defence the previous season, would play again in his ‘natural’ position: that of midfielder. The season wasn’t smooth sailing: but wins from the final two games ensured Sparta survived without having to participate in the play-offs. Moreover, Dougall finished his season strongly after missing a few games. There is reason for optimism at the Club going into their second season back in the Eredivisie.
I called Kenny post-season to discuss how things had gone at the Club and for him personally. A couple of friends had kept me updated with Sparta’s form throughout the season – giving pointers on where to catch the best live streams. The day before games I’d check with my mate Michel de Zeeuw on whether he was going and whether or not he was confident that Sparta would win. I was frequently surprised by his restrained expectations. Fandom of football clubs can so easily get out of hand: with fans emotions swinging wildly from week to week depending on the previous game’s results. In my occasional communications with Kenny, I also detected something else: players have to believe that they can win every game regardless of the opposition’s line-up, reputation and where the game is being played. Sparta had some good wins – highlighted by the 1:0 home win over eventual champions and local rivals, Feyenoord – but also some disappointing losses. So football goes – to appropriate Kurt Vonnegut. The players and fans, though were relieved to have survived and to remain in the Eredivisie.
Kenny is amiable and humble: yet on the field he is like any other player. He goes about his game with a fierce and steely resolve. In one of his first games back after a few out of the starting lineup, he was well and truly in the zone: all passes were completed and a few successful dribbles. A stinging shot on goal was regrettably too close to where the keeper was standing.
What was the mood like, leading up into the final games?
Tension had been building at the Club. But, as a player you don’t really feel it. I guess it depends on different players, but, in general we were coping well, even though we were going through a poor patch. But our job is to perform on the pitch and not worry too much about what goes off it.
Was this the low-light of your season, i.e. being out of the team for a few games?
It was tough being out of the team for numerous games in the second half of the season. The coach didn’t tell me what he wanted me to do to get back in the team, he just said ‘I’m going to go with these other guys for the moment.’ Of course that is tough when you see that the team is losing and you are out of the team. As a player you want to be in the team and be having an impact. But, you have to accept the coach’s decision and just stick at it. My situation was a little different though because I had played 15 games in the Eredivisie and being older than 22/23 I couldn’t play for the Jong Sparta team. So, this meant I had fewer opportunities to really stake my claim to be back in the starting line-up.
What was the mood like in the team? Are there any conflicts?
There are always moments when something needs to be resolved between players. If a player makes a mistake, it needs to be acknowledged. It is important however to be able to move on quickly. We often hear stories about fights happening at other clubs, but from my experience, we deal with it pretty well at Sparta. Perhaps it helps that we have quite a few young guys. There is Michel Breuer who is older (37), but, otherwise we’re a fairly young team. We get along well.
The season was a mixed-bag: what is your take?
As a team we feel like we under-performed in general. We were really good at the beginning, but, then lost our way in the second half of the season. It was a big pity to lose in the semi-finals against Vitesse Arnhem in the KNVB Cup, but, it is always better to lose to the eventual winner. Vitesse aren’t the most popular club for some fans because of their close connection with Chelsea. They regularly get a few of their players on loan.
For us, the problem was that we lost to too many clubs that were more or less around us: Excelsior, ADO Den Haag and Roda. Those games were real killers. But, we also beat teams that were higher-up in the table – such as Feyenoord. So, it was kind of an inconsistent season. If we had been more consistent, we could have easily finished mid-table, and avoided the stress of the last few games. If we had drawn more games, rather than losing, we would have made things easier for ourselves. It was really great that we stayed up. We were all pretty pumped and relieved by that. For me personally, I’m relieved that we’re staying in the Eredivisie.
How did it compare to playing in the Jupiler League (Second Division)?
The Club brought in a lot of players, mainly up front. Pogba was great. He scored a lot of important goals: including the goal in the first minute against Feyenoord. Pogba is great for creating a good atmosphere in the dressing room. He leads the jokes and is always dancing. He has a few young proteges. Feyenoord had an off-day and we played well. So, fortunately for them, they still won the Championship. Otherwise, things would have been a bit tense. Even though I didn’t start that day, there was a great atmosphere at the club.
Where are you at with your career?
I’m at the early-mid-stage of my career I guess. What is important for me is just to play more. I just want to make sure that I get more game time in the coming season. I’m contracted to the end of 2019 at Sparta. I like it here. It is a club with a strong history and a good supporter base. But it is important to be needed and to be playing. I like it here in Rotterdam. I’m living in the centre and it is easy to cycle everywhere. The weather is fine now for a couple of months. Yes, there are things I miss like the coffee back home, but, this is where the work is and my opportunities are as a footballer.
How has it been having Craig Goodwin at the Club? What was his impression of the Eredivisie?
It has been good having Craig at the Club. In the beginning I guess it was because we are both Australian. Probably I was expected to help out in making him feel comfortable at the Club.
From what I have heard about and seen of the A-League the standard of football is quite good. What seems to be the case is that there isn’t the depth that the Eredivisie has. So, the first 11 might be okay, but, the standard drops off after that. Also, the lack of teams might become a bit tedious for fans and players. As a player there are more opportunities and challenges in Europe.
What was your highlight from the season?
The last two games were very enjoyable for me. It was a relief to be back in the team. In the game against Twente I had about half-an-hour and then against Go Ahead Eagles I came on for the last 15minutes. This was a moment when the game was still in the balance: it was 1:1. And we had to win to make sure of our survival, rather than head into the playoffs. So Pastoor basically said, ‘don’t overdo it. Just to stay focused. Play to the game.’ And more or less, that is how I play best. Just staying relaxed and making sure that I’m in control and winning the ball in mid-field.
*Thank you to Kenny Dougall for the interview and for also providing the photographs.