Tonny van Leeuwen – The Violent Death Of A Groningen Hero

NetherlandsIt’s usually all about the outfield players when talk turns to the rapid rise of Dutch football during the 1960s and 70s. Fans now as then readily identify with the high-profile stars like Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol, Suurbier, Van Hanegem and Keizer, but rarely with the men who stood behind them in goal. That’s a shame as it overlooks a fine generation of Dutch goalkeepers who deserve more equal billing.

Tonny van Leeuwen
Tonny van Leeuwen

Agile and often spectacular with a penchant for saving penalty kicks, Feyenoord’s Eddy Pieters Graafland had the air of a showman and was the first man between the posts to capture the imagination of the Dutch footballing public. ‘Eddy PG’ was the undisputed international number one for most of the decade between 1957 and 1967, but snapping at his heels was a talented and ambitious group of new keepers who aspired to be his successor. Five in particular stood out. Piet Lagarde was capped twice during 1962 but broke his collarbone during the second appearance against Denmark. Two years later he picked up an injury during a League game that led to him losing a kidney and effectively ended his top-level career. Pim Doesburg came through the famous Sparta Rotterdam goalkeeping school but never quite inspired enough confidence to win more than eight sporadic caps spread out between 1967 and 1981.

Tonny van Leeuwen 2Doesburg lost his club place first at Sparta Rotterdam and then some years later at PSV to Jan van Beveren, a composed and technically excellent shot stopper. Van Beveren would earn 32 caps for his country, a figure that would have been much greater had he not been marginalised after falling out with the overly influential Cruyff. Jan Jongbloed was the beneficiary of van Beveren’s misfortune. Less naturally talented than the PSV man but better with the ball at his feet, the FC Amsterdam keeper represented his country during both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups.

And then there was Tonny van Leeuwen. Jan Mulder wrote about him in his autobiography and was just one of the big players of the era who believed Tonny could have been the best keeper of the lot. Van Leeuwen earned his debut for Sparta Rotterdam in 1959 at the age of just 16 and settled so well that he seemed set to establish himself as the club’s number one at a very young age. Then serious injury set back his progress and Pim Doesburg stepped up from the reserves to made the most of his opportunity to secure the number one jersey. Unable to force his way back into contention when he recovered full fitness, van Leeuwen transferred in 1963 to GVAV, the club that was the forerunner to the one we know today as FC Groningen.

Tonny van Leeuwen 1967The move was a great success and van Leeuwen quickly became a favourite of the GVAV fans. Dutch U21 recognition followed and a first call-up to the full international squad arrived a year later in 1964. A lengthy domestic suspension incurred for striking an opponent delayed any debut and it would eventually be 1967 before he was finally chosen to start a game for his country by coach George Kessler.

That first appearance turned into something of a personal disaster as the Dutch went down 4-3 to East Germany. Van Leeuwen was criticised for his inability to deal with high balls played into the box and his future international prospects looked bleak. Kessler was persuaded to grant him another opportunity though, the catalyst a career-defining performance by the GVAV man in Amsterdam against Ajax a few weeks after the East German debacle. Van Leeuwen’s heroics that day helped earn his team a shock 1-0 win as he single-handedly kept the free-scoring champions-elect at bay for 90 minutes.

Tonny van Leeuwen 3

That second international appearance brought another defeat, this time 2-1 to Hungary with van Leeuwen blighted by nerves and at fault for the second Hungarian goal. So affected was he by the pressure that he feigned injury at half-time to avoid coming out for the second half. His international career may have been stillborn but his club form with GVAV never faltered as he settled comfortably back into life as a semi-pro, combining football with work for the Dutch sports good manufacturer Quick.

GVAV suffered relegation from the Eredivisie in 1970 but were buoyed when their long-serving keeper spurned offers from bigger clubs to stay. That loyalty looked to have been rewarded as GVAV won an immediate promotion back to the top flight in 1971 and Tonny wrote himself into the record books with a most distinctive achievement.

GVAV failed to win promotion as champions, didn’t play particularly stylish or entertaining football and found goals hard to come by, but describing their defence as parsimonious doesn’t come close to doing it the justice it deserved. A large part of this was down to the heroics of their goalkeeper who picked the ball out of the net just seven times in 30 League games – still a record low number of goals conceded in a season of any major European division.

On June 14th 1971 Tonny and his wife Geri travelled to Rotterdam’s Embassy Club for a KNVB event in which he would be the recipient of a medal to recognise his feat. The organisers had reserved a room for the van Leeuwens at the Rotterdam Hilton, but when the event ended, fatefully the couple decided to drive home instead.

At around 5am on the A32 motorway near Meppel, van Leeuwen fell asleep at the wheel of his white Mercedes. The car careered through the central reservation and crashed head-on into a truck on the opposite carriageway. His wife miraculously survived the impact but Tonny van Leeuwen was killed instantly. He was 28 years of age. To die so violently just a matter of hours after recognition from his peers of the greatest achievement in his career was the bitterest of ironies.

Tonny van Leeuwen statue outside the Euroborg stadium

Then as now Tonny van Leeuwen was not a name known widely outside Dutch football circles, but laudable efforts have been made in the town that became his home to keep his memory alive. A statue commemorates him, a street and a train are both named after him, but most fittingly so too is a stand at FC Groningen’s new stadium.

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