Soccer: Cup runneth over for Kiwi scorer

By Michael Burgess

Te Puke teenager Ryan Thomas grabbed a slice of New Zealand football history last Monday, scoring twice as his PEC Zwolle side upset Ajax 5-1 in the Dutch Cup final for their first major trophy. Michael Burgess looks back on a momentous achievement.

Ryan Thomas celebrates his second Dutch Cup final goal with Guyon Fernandez.
Ryan Thomas celebrates his second Dutch Cup final goal with Guyon Fernandez.

Before the match

Cup fever hits town

Zwolle was in a spin. The blauwvingers, based in the modest city (population 120,000) north-east of Amsterdam, have never been a big club. They have had some famous names, including Jaap Stam and Johnny Rep, but most of their 100-year history has been spent outside the top division. Their most recent return to the Eredivisie came in 2012, after almost a decade away.

"The town was buzzing," says Thomas. "We had 5000 or 6000 at our last training session before we left for the game. People were letting off flares. It was pretty crazy."

As the team bus departed for Rotterdam, thousands more lined the streets and highways.

The night before

At a team meeting, Zwolle coach Ron Jans urged them to believe in themselves ahead of facing an Ajax side on the brink of a fourth consecutive league title, the club's 59th major honour.

Thomas, who paid for his own flights and accommodation to trial in Holland, thought about running out in front of more than 50,000 people at the famed De Kuip arena.

"I wasn't really nervous. These are the games you dream about. We knew we had a chance. We should have taken all three points at home against them in the league [the game ended 1-1]. We also knew it was going to be tough."

The day of the game Thomas woke around 10am, with another team meeting after breakfast. After a 3pm pre-match meal of pasta, there was a surprise for the 19-year-old.

"The club had made a motivational video featuring the foreign players. They had families from home talking about what it meant to them. It was quite special to hear my sister, mum and dad talking about how proud they were."

In the dressing room

Despite his youth, Thomas says he is probably the "most relaxed guy in the changing room". He has no particular pre-match rituals and listened to R&B and hip-hop.

"There was definitely a special feeling in the room. Our coach reminded us how well we had played before against them, telling us that we would have to fight until the final whistle. I was quite calm - thinking about where I had come from. I was playing in the Northern and Central Leagues and nine months later, I'm in the Dutch Cup final."

Nightmare start

The Dutch Cup final, first staged in 1898, kicked off. Pre-match talk had centred on Ajax supremo Frank de Boer, who was set to become the first coach to take the domestic treble (Super Cup, League and Cup). In the third minute, defender Ricardo van Rhijn smashed home from 30 metres off the crossbar to put the Godenzonen (the sons of the gods) on the way to their 19th Cup triumph.

Fateful flares

The Ajax fans reacted to the goal by littering the field with flares, fireworks and smoke bombs. A pitch-side advertising sign caught on fire and the players left the field. While Ajax club marketing officer Edwin van der Sar urged the fans to "stop this s**t", threatening that the game would be abandoned, the teams sat in their dressing rooms.

"We'd barely touched the ball and were already down. Everyone was a bit angry. We said: 'We're not going to lose like this, we're going to fight."'

The Thomas touch

7 minutes, 38 seconds

After almost 25 minutes, the players returned to the field. In one of the first Zwolle attacks, Thomas received the ball 30 metres out from goal on the left flank.

"I got the ball in space and ran into the area. I cut inside, shot, got a bit lucky with the deflection, and everybody went mental."

Thomas downplays some of the skills involved. As he charged into the box, Thomas performed a Cruyff turn - named after Johan Cruyff, who played for Ajax and Feyenoord and scored his last league goal against Zwolle - to beat one defender, then twisted quickly to get his shot away under the leg of another. It was Zwolle's first goal in a Dutch Cup final having failed to find the net in 1928 (0-2) and 1978 (0-3).

'Ryan of the Rovers'

11 minutes, 32 seconds

From a Zwolle free kick five metres outside the area, Thomas was first to react after the ball struck the post. The rebound bounced up at an awkward shin height, but Thomas showed remarkable skill and poise to guide the ball home with the outside of his foot from a tricky angle. The last player to score a brace in a Dutch Cup final? Luis Suarez.

"[Former coach] Declan Edge was always on at us about following in shots. It was a good free kick and I was lucky enough to poke it home. We were buzzing but we wanted to keep at it, to carry on."

Ajax agony

The 17,000 Zwolle fans were in raptures but there was more to come. Zwolle scored twice more in the first half to take a 4-1 lead into halftime.

"Everyone was happy but we knew Ajax were still capable. Our game plan, based around counter-attacking, had been perfect. No one can outplay Ajax but we fought for everything and every time we shot, it seemed to be going in."

Hat-trick hindered

In the 50th minute, Zwolle scored from close range through Bram van Polen to effectively secure Zwolle's first major trophy. Thomas had a great opportunity for a third goal, which would have been the first treble in a Dutch Cup final since Jari Litmanen in 1998 and only the third since 1961. Superstars who have featured in finals over the years - from Cruyff to Marco van Basten to Romario to Zlatan Ibrahimovic - puts Thomas' feats in perspective.

"There was a massive chance to get a hat-trick. I had a clear header and completely fluffed it. It played on my mind for a few hours after the game but then I realised two goals was probably enough."

Celebration time

At the final whistle, Thomas completed more than 10 interviews with Dutch media, as the scale of their achievement sunk in.

"Everybody was asking, 'how did you do this?' They were calling it the biggest upset in Cup history."

Champagne flowed in the dressing room and the team eventually arrived back in Zwolle at 3am, only to be greeted by delirious fans at their home stadium.

"It was the middle of the night and there were thousands of people waiting for us. It was incredible. They were singing songs, chanting, crying. That is when you realised how much it meant. Most fans thought we would get beaten but had just travelled down to enjoy the day."

The aftermath

The following day, 35,000 people lined the town canals, as the team went for a ride with the cup, before an official ceremony in a local park. Thomas, who lives with a family in Zwolle, went to four or five parties in the aftermath of the win and has been stopped regularly in the street to talk about the match. His phone has also "blown up" with messages and calls from New Zealand.

What's next?

Zwolle, who are currently ninth in the 18-team league and close to their best finish of eighth in 1979, complete their season with tough games against PSV Eindhoven and FC Twente. After that, Thomas returns home for the All Whites clash with South Africa at Mt Smart Stadium next month.

- Herald on Sunday

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