BY RYAN PLANT
Utrecht, the fourth largest city in Holland, is a historic yet vibrant university place. With its compact city centre, beautiful meandering canals and famous church tower, it is a wonderfully friendly place to be and I am lucky to be staying in the main square as I pen this article.
The Womenâ€™s European Championships are currently taking place in the country. FC Utrechtâ€™s Stadion Galgenwaard was one of the chosen stadiums for the tournament that will host four matches. With the influx of international fans, the cityâ€™s love for the sport has never been so apparent.
The city centre never seems to be quiet or sparsely populated; it is a sea of orange Dutch national team shirts, mixed with representatives of some of the biggest teams in the country such as Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord. Of course, with an international tournament taking place in the city there are an array or nationalities that have filled the local bars and takeaways with their flags, scarves and club shirts; I have spotted all kinds of strips, from Aberdeen to Barcelona, Oldham to AC Milan â€“ and as usual when I travel abroad, my Wolves shirt made an appearance and for once, I did not look out of place.
But as a one club city, the signs of how much passion there is in Utrecht for its football club is very prevalent. The lamp posts in the local park each have the outline of the clubâ€™s crest at their base; to get there, I pass a bike shop nearly every day that has a logo strikingly similar to that of the football club. Shops are filled with football based souvenirs, and the cityâ€™s sport outlets are bursting with Utrecht merchandise that is strategically placed near the shirts of the worldâ€™s elite clubs.Embed from Getty Images
I had to visit Utrechtâ€™s home Stadion Galgenwaard; first, I visited the club shop. The walk to the stadium from the centre of town is a brisk half an hour stroll that takes in the modern parts of the city containing shops from some of the worldâ€™s most recognisable designer labels. The stadium is just outside of the main city meaning that on the journey, wonderful green scenery is on the lead up to the ground that towers above the local buildings.
The front entrance of the stadium is a striking large window with a large badge mural that is visible from the other end of the street. As I walked into the club shop, which has a floor of AstroTurf, I could see why the city was filled with Utrecht merchandise. The queue to pay at the counter was almost out of the door, and fans that seemed both local and from around Europe stared intently at the shirts, scarves, mugs and training gear available. Having already bought a Utrecht away shirt from a shop in the city, I bought a shirt that was a tribute to the clubâ€™s departed striking supremo SÃ©bastien Haller, who recently moved to Eintracht Frankfurt of Germany. It has the message â€˜Merci et au revoirâ€™ coupled with a large photo of him saluting his adoring fans that thanked him for firing them back into the European football spotlight with his impressive goal tally of 41 league goals in three seasons.
As is often the way in Dutch domestic football, Utrechtâ€™s fans are notoriously passionate â€“ I witnessed their loud, resounding support first hand when I went to watch their tie against Maltese side Valletta in a Europa League qualifier, which Utrecht won 3-1. The game included a spectacular volley from outside of the area from Sean Klaiber and a curling effort from Zakaria Labyad. From start to finish, Utrechtâ€™s fans were loud, making the stadium shake and were the driving force behind the team.
Because of the Womenâ€™s Euros and the group games taking place in Utrecht, the fixture was moved to the home of RKC Waalwijk. Outside of the Mandemakers Stadion is a small football cage, with perfect turf and goals that are kept meticulously clean. During my time spent watching the game between local children that had begun, children of all ages and both genders, all representing different Dutch clubs, came together to further prove the love for the sport in the area. For a brief time, I joined in and played in goal, but had a few language difficulties with the young centre-back in front of me.Embed from Getty Images
The inside of the stadium was completely new to me; there were large safe standing areas, with the front rows of each stand still a staircase from the side of the pitch. Sat in the stands I could see many types of football fans â€“ the chanting (probably drunk) pitch invading fans that seized every opportunity to celebrate with their players; there were families with young members decked out in Utrechtâ€™s club colours of red and white with face paint, flags and clappers, and my favourite fans, the well-off followers sat in the executive area.
Sat two rows below me was a bald man, with a perfectly crisp buttoned shirt and groomed moustache who sat reclined in his leather seat with a cigar. Near him, a young, jewellery clad man with ripped jeans and a designer jacket that spoke highly of himself all game, exclaiming how important he was in the day-to-day running of Utrecht. On my way out of the stadium at the end of the game, the older generation of Utrechtâ€™s fans could be seen seated in the top corner of the one-tier stand waiting for the rush out of the turnstiles to be over. They wore flags on their back, had dozens of badges on their hats and wore age-old Utrecht home strips.
My few days spent following Utrecht, in what has been my first experience of the countryâ€™s football scene, has shown me what it feels like to be a part of a vibrant, exciting European football city. The unwavering support for the countryâ€™s domestic clubs, and for its national team despite the current disarray surrounding the camp as the star-studded side may yet miss out on the 2018 World Cup after being a notable absentee at the European Championships last year, is something that perhaps English fans could learn from.
Little things like immaculate football facilities that are free for the public to use near the countryâ€™s stadiums, to the support for the local club everywhere you turn show me why Holland in recent years, on the whole, have progressed further in major international competitions than most. On Thursdayâ€™s evidence, Utrecht could well be a force to be reckoned with in Europe this season.
FOLLOW RYAN ON TWITTER @ryanplant1998