‘Here, no one feels special’

Interview with Paul and Liesbeth van Kemenade, who own the Herdgang and serve as cultural patrons of PSV.

Whenever I got the chance in the ‘90s, I would bike to the Herdgang, the PSV training ground. As a teenager, I wanted to see the Romarios of this world from close-up. And to get a photo and signature. Now, 30 years later, I visit that same, now drastically more modern complex. This time, it’s to meet Paul and Liesbeth van Kemenade. Not idols, not football millionaires, but a level-headed twin brother and sister who own the Herdgang ground café, de Verlenging.

Text Paul van Vugt
Image Scala Fotografie

As cultural patrons, Paul and Liesbeth have a special status at PSV. As did their late father, Harry. Harry came to the club in the ‘70s, and would leave a lasting impression on the Herdgang, where players and coaches come and go, but the deep-rooted family feel of the club never waivers.

It is clear that conviviality is still at the core of the PSV image, especially at the tree-lined training complex. The atmosphere is more encouraging than threatening. But the Van Kemenades don’t relate much to such sentimental notions. “De Herdgang is very down to earth”, according to Paul. “The warmth you feel here serves a practical purpose. It forms the basis of our elite sporting climate, where coaches and players can continue to work towards the ambitious targets of the sports business that is PSV in a calm and professional environment.”

When you put it like that, you might think of the homely feel at the Herdgang as a strategic business choice. But the truth is that it came about naturally, partly through the personality of Harry van Kemenade and his wife, Mies.

‘Pa supplied the PSV players with coffee and a newspaper, and made their lunches. That’s how he became something of a father figure.’

From helper to father figureDuring the 1970s, Harry worked at Galvano at Strijp-S, which was the galvanizing arm of Philips. After a long hard day’s work, he would voluntarily bob down to the training ground at Welschapsedijk in Eindhoven, one of Philips’s five sports complexes, where employees and family members could decompress under the motto exercise keeps you healthy. The various Philips departments would also play football against one another here. Harry worked behind the scenes at this amateur ground, as one of tens of thousands of Philips employees, unaware that he was in training for his future career. Liesbeth: “In the early years, Dad and Mum would just go along to help out. They’d clear up in the mornings at Welschapsedijk. This also happened to be the ground where PSV’s first team played and made their home. It was during the era of Willy van der Kuijlen and co. Dad in particular soon became a familiar face among these players. He got closer and closer to the players. He supplied them with coffee and a newspaper, and made their lunches. That’s how he grew into his role. He started out as a helper and soon became the face of the Welschapsedijk; a father figure, even, for the PSV players.”

“Harry and Mies only moved to the Herdgang in 1983, to run the first team’s clubhouse”, Paul continues. “It was a simplified version of today’s situation. There were just six people running the stadium during the day. Besides the day-to-day running, there was a ticket seller, a book-keeper and a kit man. The squad’s coaching staff only consisted of a handful of people: the physio and head coach plus his assistants. Now, every day they have a team of nutritionists, physios and thirty-odd other professionals on site. The squad itself is also much larger, with almost 30 players. In our parents’ time, there were only 18 of them. In short: the club structure was simple and straightforward, as befitting of the time. And our parents’ mindset.”

Paul: “Dad came from a big family of 15 kids. You certainly know your place in a family of that size. For example, when you miss out on clean undies because your brother beat you to it. Status was an unknown concept to him, and that’s the moral standpoint he took with him to the Herdgang. Grandstanding by players was knocked on the head with humour. ‘Best get another pair of boots, looks like you are getting too big for them’, he’d joke with a wink to put them back in their place.”

With his pragmatic and cheerful demeanour, Harry kept the players’ feet firmly on the ground. Like a father who was raising his own children. It made him a valued key figure among all echelons of the club, up until retirement approached. Mum in particular felt they both needed to slow down.

‘Best get another pair of boots, looks like you are getting too big for them’, he’d joke with a wink to put them back in their place.’

Liesbeth: “For Mum, quitting really meant quitting. But not for Dad: he was happy to keep helping out at PSV on a voluntary basis and was always at the Herdgang, right into his final years. As a child of the club, Paul and I were part of its fabric. And around the year 2000, the key to the Herdgang was officially handed over to us.”

Breath of fresh air

Paul: “At the time we joined, there was a lot that was changing on an executive level within PSV. An executive board was introduced for the first time, and the club began functioning more and more like a business. The stadium was extended, the staff grew and commercial opportunities were being pursued. One of those was to build on the Herdgang family feeling. They wanted the stadium to have that same feeling.”

“It upset the then commercial director that all of the players were silently slipping out of the stadium after games. They went into town, to the pubs at Stratumseind. And Liesbeth and I would go in their wake, as by then we’d become close friends with many of them. After half an hour, the club’s capital had left the stadium and was making its way through the city. Not a single player remained at the stadium. Which was a real shame for the club, because the players are an important glue for sponsors and partners.”

PSV discussed this problem with the Swinkels family of sponsor Bavaria. The solution came in the form of a cosy café-bar at the stadium: De Verlenging. Both parties insisted that Paul and Liesbeth – being Van Kemenades – would be the face of it. And although it wasn’t openly communicated, De Verlenging was to become a lively alternative to the clubhouse, where players would mingle with sponsors after matches. A shortcut was even created so that the players could slip away to the pub unnoticed once they’d fulfilled this obligation.

Paul: “We created a narrow, closed-off corridor between the clubhouse and de Verlenging. It brought players out at the café kitchen. There, they’d thrown down their bags and grab a decent bite to eat. The ‘post-match’ would then kick off. It was a huge success from day one. We didn’t know what had hit us. Both Erik, Liesbeth’s husband, and Sandra, my wife, worked at De Verlenging every day. Four-hundred-and-odd people would pile in through the front door after each game. And twenty minutes after the final whistle, practically the entire squad would be in here, including players’ wives. With a DJ at the decks, people would be going wild. Including the players!

‘Four-hundred-and-odd people would pile in through the front door after each game. And twenty minutes after the final whistle, practically the entire squad would be in here.’

“Not the manager, by the way. At most, Guus Hiddink would grab a frikandel from the kitchen. We kept him as far away from all the partying as we could so he didn’t see his own professional players letting their hair down like that. In short, the club’s plan was a huge success.”

“It was a special time”, Liesbeth recalls. “Not least because Paul and I were one of the lads. We were contemporaries with the players and got really pally with them. Many of them stayed at the club for years. People sometimes ask us if we could bring back that unique feeling. If we could get all the players back partying in De Verlenging. I understand why, but no, it’s not happening. That was then. You could do it then. ‘But you can’t go back to those day, and you shouldn’t want to, either.’ The club and society have changed. Not for better or worse – just different.”

Different times, different people
Paul: “A major difference is that players are far more transient nowadays. The average player is here for roughly three years. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was around eight years. Whether you like it or not, that has an impact on the bonds that you form. The players back then mostly came from this region, and their whole lives were in and around Eindhoven. Now lots of players come here from overseas as whippersnappers. They’re often really young, don’t speak the language and don’t have family to fall back on. That’s why building a close bond with players is much more important nowadays than it was then.”

‘Ex-keeper Gomes once said: ‘The one thing you don’t feel at De Herdgang, is that you’re special. Everyone’s just so normal here.’

“You need to bear in mind that all many new foreign players have is the club and facilities at the Herdgang. It’s their new home. The club is their only connection on Dutch soil. That requires another role from us. We now consider it our job to make everyone feel welcome in the PSV family, much more than we did back then. So that a player looks back after his career and thinks: I’ve played at many clubs, but what I experienced at Eindhoven, that was friendly and special. I was at home there.”

“Ex-keeper Gomes, a Brazilian, once said on a documentary: ‘The one thing you don’t feel at De Herdgang, is that you’re special. Everyone’s just so normal here.’ He said that at a time when he was a real club icon. A hero to the supporters. His words still ring true for many foreign players. Thanks to the family feel, they soon settle into our down to earth Brabant sports facility. Exactly as Dad intended it.”

Liesbeth: “And yet, if Dad were to come in here, he’d probably want to leave again right away. He wouldn’t be able to fathom how players get pampered these days. With carefully thought-out nutrition plans, a support staff that’s bigger than the squad of players, and an hour-by-hour fitness regimen. Dad believed in hearty fare after a heavy training session. On the other hand, what was then very normal would now be totally unthinkable. In his day, there would be a party tent with collapsible table and a glass filled with Marlboros. After training, the players would kick off their shoes and light up a cigarette. So yeah, what’s normal?”

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