Amid a raucous atmosphere in the tiny town of Doetinchem last Saturday night, Andy Driver scored his first goal in Dutch football against PSV Eindhoven. The former Hearts winger needed time to establish himself at his new club, De Graafschap, but his undoubted talent is now beginning to shine.
The 12,600-capacity Stadion De Vijverberg rocked with noise during a crazy game which finished 6-3 to PSV. The ground’s name translates as the Pond Hill, and its latest arrival certainly plans to make a major splash there. Scoring against PSV is intended as merely the start for a 27-year-old whose career is already well-travelled.
Driver left Tynecastle in 2013 for the United States, spending two years with Houston Dynamo before a brief spell at Aberdeen earlier this year. He admits to hankering after different life experiences and different cultures, whilst also trying to improve as a footballer. A one-year deal with newly-promoted De Graafschap promised more unchartered territory – a new country, language and lifestyle in a region of the Netherlands known as ‘The Back Corner’.
After a thigh strain delayed his debut, he is gradually finding form. His club are bottom of the Eredivisie table with two points from 11 games but signs are a recovery is possible. De Graafschap were 3-0 down against PSV before Driver’s goal inspired a comeback to 3-3. The class of Phillip Cocu’s side ultimately proved too much.
“It was a good feeling to score against a big club but most importantly to start showing the fans down here what I can do. Hopefully I can build from here,” Driver told the Evening News. “I didn’t play much football at the end of last year and I’ve had my injury this year. I just want to get back playing regularly now.
“The opportunity appealed to me here. I obviously had to come on trial but I wanted to do something different and I’m glad I did. Well, I’ll be glad if we start winning. It’s frustrating not winning. I had a thigh strain at the start of the season and I’ve only just got back fit and started playing again. Hopefully we can turn it round.
“I’ve never been a person who made plans for my life, I just want to do well. I want to show the Dutch people what I can do and make it a success. I don’t want to just come here for a good life, I want to improve. That’s my main aim right now. You have to do well to create other options in football. So far, I really like it here. I think it’s a good place for me to do that.”
He isn’t quite wearing clogs and cycling to training through tulip fields each day, but it’s fair to say Driver has adjusted seamlessly to the Dutch way of life. He lives in Arnhem, 25 minutes from Doetinchem, and is loving the sense of freedom.
“It’s a nice life down here. Doetinchem is a tiny town in the east of the country. There are loads of farms and things. It’s like all the little farming counties coming together and their team is De Graafschap. As you can imagine, it’s pretty chilled out. There are bikes everywhere. It’s a pretty cool country, actually. It’s a completely different way of live, very relaxed. The weather’s good as well.”
Travelling was in Driver’s mind from a young age, although the Netherlands brings different challenges than America. “It’s something I always wanted to do,” he explained. “It’s not easy, though. I was lucky to get over to America and it’s the same here. Sometimes you just have to say: ‘Let’s just go and give it a shot.’ I’m a lucky person overall. I get to come and play football in a different country, see different things and learn new things.
“America was quite easy because there was no language barrier. Here is quite tough. De Graafschap signed Jeroen Tesselaar [former St Mirren and Kilmarnock full-back] and he’s been a big help. He translates a lot of stuff for me. The worst thing is everybody in Holland speaks perfect English so that makes it harder to learn Dutch. There isn’t really much point learning the language but, at training, all the instructions are given in Dutch. I’m starting to figure it out. I can now tell you what people are talking about, just not every detail.
“I got the chance to go to Houston and play in the US. You’re travelling miles and miles every week and you’ve got the American way of life, where everything is over the top. Then you come to Holland where football is massive. People love it and it’s all on top of you because it’s a small country. I’m learning new things every day.
“It’s a good experience going and playing all these new teams. We played PSV at the weekend, there’s Ajax as well and I’ve been all over the country. It’s just a one-year deal because De Graafschap wanted to keep a lid on their finances. I think they had troubles a few years ago when they overspent. They got promoted last year, finishing sixth and going up through the play-offs. I think it was a bit unexpected but it’s amazing how much the team is improving. We’ve gone from losing 5-0 and 3-0 in games to be being really competitive.
“The only thing we want to do is stay up. I don’t think it’s too unrealistic. We’ve started poorly but we can definitely do it if we go on a little run. It’s just like the Scottish league in that sense because you can beat a lot of the teams. The Dutch league is the exact same as Scotland. The difference is all the facilities and stadiums have been improved. When you have all that, it makes it look better and it gets taken more seriously. That’s the frustrating thing with Scotland. It just doesn’t look as good so people automatically downplay it.”
Driver left Hearts initially seeking new challenges, although he wouldn’t have bargained on meeting his future bride Stateside. He married Texan girl Jackie on the quiet and then took her with him to Arnhem, via Aberdeen. “Nobody really knows about it, we just did it at the end of last year,” said the player, coyly. “We just met in Houston one Sunday afternoon. Sundays were always good because it’s warm and sunny. We watched American football together over there. The Texans just love it, it’s on all the time.”
Driver got to play in some of those lavish American football grounds which double as grounds for certain MLS clubs. Perhaps not surprisingly, an old favourite still ranks amongst his most enjoyable venues. “A lot of the MLS games were in the American football stadiums. I played in Seattle, which gets a good atmosphere. New England was pretty empty but it’s still a top stadium. There’s Hampden, which I like for obvious reasons. We played Ajax in the Amsterdam Arena the other week in a cup game and it wasn’t full. Maybe the atmosphere will be better in a league game. I haven’t been to Feyenoord yet but I’m told their fans are among the best in Holland.
“Celtic Park and Ibrox are always good, but Tynecastle is always going to be one of the best for me. It’s because it’s the right size. Stadiums that are slightly smaller but full are always the best in my experience. I enjoyed playing at Easter Road as well because those are the big games with the best atmosphere.”
Stadion De Vijverberg is in the same mould – tight, compact, deafening when full. Maybe that’s partly why Driver is relishing the most recent chapter of his life. However, don’t bet against him setting off on his travels again at some point in the future.