David Mooney meets Gerard Wiekens
The plane touched down in Bremen and I nonchalantly looked around the cabin as if I wasn’t at all terrified with the process of an aircraft landing back down to earth at a billion miles an hour and I hadn’t spent the whole fifteen minutes of the descent clutching onto my father’s hand. Why are you writing about flying to Bremen, David? Why are you even scared of flying? Why was your father there?
So many questions.
It was a Tuesday afternoon and both me and Papa Mooney discovered there is absolutely nothing to do at Bremen airport when you’ve got to wait three hours for your coach connection: Germany wasn’t the final destination; that was Groningen, in the north of the Netherlands.
Without being too shamelessly self-promoting (alright, I totally am, but I’m Mr. Ego, ok?), this trip formed part of my next Manchester City book. I’ve been terrible at keeping this a secret, so I may as well spill the beans here too: Coming out in May 2014 for the 15th anniversary, this book will catch up with each member of the 1999 Division Two Playoff Final squad. At the time of writing, there is only one player from the 14 that day who I have been unable to contact thus far – but I’m working on it.
This, then, is technically an exclusive teaser.
After being released at the end of his contract by then manager Kevin Keegan following his seven years at City, Gerard Wiekens returned to his home country and continued his playing career with the club where it had all started for him. The Blues had signed the Dutchman from SC Veendam in 1997 – where he had already been a senior player for seven years – and he returned there in 2004, playing five more years.
Now, after breakfast on Wednesday, Gerard called me up to make arrangements about where we could do the interview. He offered to come to the hotel – it wasn’t too far from where he lived and it meant I didn’t have to navigate a public transport system I was unfamiliar with.
Once he had arrived and I’d convinced the lady at the reception desk to turn off the music in the restaurant area, we began – chatting about his career, the 1999 playoff final, and all sorts of things since.
All of the other interviews I had done for the book had been based in the UK – with the exception of Terry Cooke, who now resides in the USA (I had to speak to him over the phone as I couldn’t stretch to flights to America). I’d even managed to grab Ian Bishop – who is also now in the States – while he was back home on a visit. Either way, the conversations have usually lasted somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes, with one exception who turned out to be a complete chatterbox (in a good way, of course). When we had finished, we went out separate ways each with a smile on our faces.
However, when I had finished speaking to Gerard, I wasn’t expecting what happened next. I’d explained about my fear of flying and how my dad had come on the trip with me, but was waiting in the hotel room. He’d laughed and said he “wasn’t keen on flying, either” – though I get the impression that was to make me feel less embarrassed about the situation. He then offered to show me and David Mooney senior around some places that are important to him and his career.
Ten minutes later, we were in his car heading to his place of work.
He’s now working with the youth players at FC Groningen – a team he likened to Everton in the Premier League in that they won’t be challenging for the title, but should be safe from relegation. It was at their training pitches that he described why he spent the final few years of his playing career refusing to play on plastic pitches.
“I had the ball at my feet,” he says, stepping onto one of the astroturf training pitches. “I was about to play it long, but at the last second spotted a run to my left. So I tried to switch it and turn to pass it there. I turned, but my foot stayed planted in the ground and I broke my leg, my fibula.
“I was 33 or 34 and I thought ‘I’m not playing on astroturf anymore’. I think there was only one or two teams in Holland that played on that surface. I think I was the first player to refuse to play on it. It’s not the same – when you make a sliding [tackle] or the smell… it’s not nice.
“Your team have to play the match and a lot of people got on my back [for the decision], but I think it [the injury] was caused by the artificial turf.”
From there, after a small misunderstanding with how cars work when they’re driven on the other side of the road (I tried to get into the driver’s side instead of the passenger side) we headed to the Green-White Army’s stadium. He tells us he was offered the chance to play there several times – but he turned them down each time out of loyalty to the team that had given him his first chance.
So, why is he now training the youth players at Groningen? The answer is quite a sad one – Veendam, where he spent roughly half of his life, no longer exists. In March 2013, the club went out of business, unable to pay debts of €675,000 and Wiekens was out of a job. It was then, with a heavy heart, he took up Groningen’s offer.
He took us to the (now deserted) De Langeleegte stadium and explained all.
“After I finished playing, I came straight back as assistant manager [at Veendam], so I was assisting the coach with the players I’d played with. For me it was good because when you play football for a long time and then stop, you feel an emptiness. But I didn’t have it because I was still in the middle of the group.
“Everyday, I was on the pitch and if there was a man short I was also training, so it kept me fit. It was very good and I did that for two and a half years at Veendam.”
As we get out of the car at the stadium, there’s an eeriness about the whole area. It’s behind a residential street where life continues as normal. It’ surrounded by trees, which hide it from the surrounding area, and there’s an unusual quiet despite the busy road that runs beside it. We walk around the side and get a view of the pitch, but are unable to get any closer – the gates are bolted shut. I poke my camera through and take a photo of the bright yellow and black seats and the small part of the pitch that’s in view.
“They were always struggling to get the finances right,” Gerard says. “At the end, with all the troubles with the companies, it was just a bad period. They didn’t have the right money anymore and were declared bankrupt.
“It meant I lost a club, a place where I went for 22 years – and I’m 40 so it’s a long period of my life. I went everyday to that club and suddenly it’s gone. Normally, when you stop and don’t go to the club anymore, you miss it – but you can see games or go to training or whatever. But it’s just gone.”
And that led him to FC Groningen: “When I was a youth player with Veendam, FC Groningen – that was the biggest club in this area – they wanted me as a youth player, but I chose to stay at Veendam. When I played in the first team, they were always interested and also when I stopped playing they wanted me to coach their youth.
“But because Veendam was in my heart, I stayed there. And then when they went bankrupt, they came back again and now I’m a coach for the under 14s.”
It was a very strange atmosphere at the stadium and discussion turns towards similar examples of clubs struggling financially in England. Chester City – now Chester FC – went bust and reformed, while there was the season Portsmouth were close to going out of business whilst in the Premier League. Wiekens even remembers when Stockport were in a higher league than City – but is shocked to hear they’re now in the Conference North, five divisions below the Blues.
As we get back into the car, I assume we’re heading back to the hotel. The day’s wearing on and the two bumbling idiots from England have taken enough of the former footballer’s time, but he’s got one more surprise in store for us. All the way, it felt like we were heading the wrong way for where we were staying and that hunch was correct, as we pulled into a residential area off the motorway and onto his driveway.
At his home, he’s converted his garage into a memorabilia room – somewhere he keeps all his bits and bobs from his playing days. There’s a few City shirts framed on the wall, and some other Dutch players he’s played with or against too (he’s got Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Manchester United shirt from the final derby at Maine Road – the game when he was unexpectedly asked to start alongside Lucien Mettomo following injuries to Steve Howey and Sylvain Distin). There are photos from his memorable moments at City – including a goal at Stoke, plus a cracking challenge from that derby. And there are his medals – Division Two Playoff winner from 1999, Division One runner up from 2000 and Division One winner from 2002.
He introduces us to his wife Angelique – who is full of a cold (which, as I type, I suspect I have caught) – and we chat about how Manchester’s changed since they left. They reminisce about times when George Weah was their next-door neighbour and about how they were able to settle in Cheadle, near to a place my dad used to play football.
Before we leave, I have to find out if they ever go back to England. “Sometimes,” he says. “It’s always like coming home – I get to one or two games a season, but it’s hard working in football.
“My sons are both City mad, though.”
David Mooney’s book – which still remains nameless, so feel free to send him some suggestions – is due out in May 2014. He’s written two others about the club: Typical City is all about the build-up to the title win in 2012 and The Man Who Restored Pride covers the rise and fall of Roberto Mancini at the Blues.
Both are available from his website: http://www.davemooney.co.uk/books