Passion for Jebel Ali Dragons burns deep inside Dutchman Neil Verweij, who has been part of the club for all 25 years

Matt Jones 00:50 06/09/2017
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The UAE is, by its very nature, short-term, with expatriates constantly coming and going. But one man who is firmly embedded with the roots of a nation officially just 46-years-old is Neil Verweij – affectionately known as ‘Dutchy’ to the many at Jebel Ali Dragons who know and love him.

The Dragons will be celebrating 25 years as a club this season and at the very heart of their existence has been the Dutchman – who moved to Dubai in 1992, the same year the club was officially born.

Spending quarter of a century anywhere is an impressive feat. That Verweij, a man born 5,000 kilometres away and who was a talented footballer in his youth – even earning Netherlands trials – has come to be an integral part of a club which play a sport he’d never heard of when he arrived in the Emirates, seems almost unbelievable.

But then, the thought of Dubai becoming a modern super city the envy of the world also have seemed pretty impossible 25 years ago.

“I came in September or October ‘92 and planned to stay for two years,” says Verweij, an initial plan still common among today’s new expat arrivals.

He arrived having spent three years in Saudi Arabia, with a nine-month stint in Iraq prior to that.

“I thought it would be a bit of a party time coming from Saudi. A friend went to Dubai at the same time so I came here occasionally at the weekends. They had concerts at the Red Lion, the old Metropolitan Hotel. I thought this was the place to be.

“I came here and the company offered me a temporary position. I went back to Holland, resigned from the mother company, came here in the summer, went back home then moved over.”

Dragons winning an early title at the Dubai Sevens

Dragons winning an early title at the Dubai Sevens

It didn’t take Verweij, then 30, long to settle into Dubai life. He met his wife Michelle, a Londoner, at the end of October at Sharjah Wanderers Sports Club through former Dubai Exiles player Gary Harris, who had invited Verweij to a game.

“I knew a Dutch couple and they were close friends. They knew I’d played rugby in Saudi and said Gary was playing in Sharjah at the weekend for Exiles. I went to have a look and had a few drinks. I started talking to her (Michelle) and we’ve been together ever since. Now it’s 25 years later.”

The couple were married the following April, and they have two sons, Thomas, 20, and Ben, 19.

A recruiter for oil and gas firm IPS, it perhaps isn’t surprising Verweij, now 55, is an apt networker. But whereas it seemed like with his early Exiles connections he might join the region’s oldest club, Verweij quickly realised Dragons was his team.

He said: “Gary said to come to Exiles training which was then at Al Awir on a Tuesday. I arrived, got changed. A few boys looked at me strangely. A few older boys asked me some questions like my level, how long had I played for, what uni I went to etc.

“I answered ‘no’ to all the questions and they said ‘this club is not for you’. At that same time Dave Oseman (a former Dragons player and manager) walked by and said ‘that’s the club for you’ and pointed to another pitch where Dragons were training. They’d just started playing social rugby in 1991.”

But by the time Verweij was integrating himself into Dubai life, Dragons had begun to dream bigger and wanted to create a proper club. Plans were formulated earlier in ‘92 and the name Dragons originated after the club was officially formed in the old George and Dragon pub in Bur Dubai.

“On that first day there were 30 boys there. It was a decent team but some just wanted to join a social club. We had games, but scraped teams together. That was October ‘92. They’d set up the social side in late ‘91 but then wanted to form a proper club.”

Today, the average Dubai resident might struggle to decide where to go on a night out, spoilt for choice with a plethora of restaurants, bars and clubs to choose from.

Back at the beginning for Dragons and Verweij, however, nightspot choices were a little bit more limited.

“We had the George and Dragon, Poncho Villas and a nightclub, there was a place called Bolty’s too in Bank Street, which was known for live music. Three or four places,” Verweij says.

“Now there’s hundreds of them. We’d go to the George and Dragon on a Tuesday, play some darts and pool, the DJ there was an English guy, Chris Pike, he was a Dragon player too. It was a Dragons pub. You knew you’d always bump into some Dragons boys.

“A lot of those boys from the early days are still here. Keith Byrne, Simon Fielder, Paul Smith. We were just Dragons back then. Jebel Ali came in in 2010 when JA Hotels and Resorts came on board. That was when we had the first official home ground. That was the best thing that ever happened to us.”

Dragons and players pictured at the final game at Dubai Exiles' old Al Awir ground in 2008

Dragons and players pictured at the final game at Dubai Exiles’ old Al Awir ground in 2008

Dragons were part of the inaugural UAE club league introduced in the mid ‘90s, along with Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Ain, Sharjah, Exiles, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. Dubai Hurricanes and Arabian Knights were to follow, as well as Dubai Tigers, actually a spin-off of Dragons.

As well as being a transient place, the UAE rugby scene is also a bit of a merri-go-round with players switching clubs regularly. But for Verweij, he’s always been a one-club man – even when he was not playing for a period.

“I’ll always be a Dragon,” he said. “A lot of guys went down to Abu Dhabi because they offered them different bits and pieces. I’ve never been a great player anyway but besides that I could have joined other clubs socially. But I’ve always been a one club man.

“It really is one big family. I’m very passionate about the Dragons, and that’s from a Dutchman who’s a footballer. They set me up in Dubai. They set up my social life, I met so many friends because of the club.”

That a footballer from a country which coined ‘Total Football’ and produced the likes of Johan Cruyff, Marco van Basten and Johan Neeskens ended up so entrenched in the oval-shaped ball is a mystery in itself.

“I was always a footballer, being from the Netherlands,” said Verweij, who hails from the tiny town of Alphen aan den Rijn, just south of Amsterdam.

“I was quite a talented goalkeeper. I had the talent and played at a decent level, third or fourth division for a team called AVV Alphen. At 15 I was invited to the junior Dutch squad but you go out with your mates and that’s it.

“It wasn’t until I went to Saudi that I first got involved with rugby. I bumped into a client at work and he asked me what I was doing at the weekends. I said ‘sleeping’ as in those days it was a six-day week.

“He took me to training even though I had no clue at all about rugby. I saw the ball and thought it was an American football. I was running forward trying to get them to throw it to me like a quarterback, and the guys were on their knees laughing at me.”

Verweij’s first rugby team was the Khobar Eagles, who still feature at the Dubai Sevens.

After an arduous introduction to the game in Saudi, however, Verweij found his feet as a prop forward for Dragons in Dubai. Formed as a social side, by the mid-90s the club had started to shift focus and harbour more serious ambitions of success.

At that point, around 1997 or ’98, Verweij returned to his football roots, happily admitting he was not talented enough to keep playing as the club grew around him.

But he still kept up to date with Dragons news and in touch with the lifelong friends he’d made, like founders John Fish and a man simply known as ‘Blaster’, as well as Byrne, Fielder, Smith and many others.

“We were way below in the early 90s. We were happy to win the Sevens or a tournament, but then we became a bit more serious and got our first coach, Andy Jones,” recalls Verweij.

“It was too serious for me and that’s when I diverted back to football, with the vets at Dubai FC. It started becoming more serious with two trainings per week and unless you made both you didn’t play on the Friday. I was busy with work and realised it was getting serious so I went back to my roots.

“I left in around 97 to go play football again and I knew they were going to get big with the coaching finally coming in and the good players too. I realised they could become something special.”

He remained a follower from afar, but an encounter with long-time friend and Dragons stalwart Matt ‘Fester’ Seale five years ago brought him back into the fold on a more permanent basis.

“I came back to rugby about five years ago, 2012, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” he added.

“I’d always kept up to date with what the club was doing, what time the games are, I would go to the Dubai Sevens, occasionally see a familiar face.

“They would always ask me what I was doing and ask me to come back. When I did come back I wondered to myself ‘why didn’t I do this sooner?’. I think if I was to change anything it would be to never leave originally.”

A collection of early Dragons' jerseys

A collection of early Dragons’ jerseys

Upon his return, Verweij played vets rugby which in turn led to a coaching role, assuming responsibility for Dragons 3rds, in 2015/16. Despite being in his early fifties, he remained an active on-field option as a player-coach, leading Dragons to the final of the inaugural Community League, where Dragons lost to Beaver Nomads 34-23.

Verweij featured in that game, which turned out to be his final outing as a player. He stayed on as coach though and, undeterred, led Dragons back to the Community League final this April at the maiden UAE Rugby Finals Day at Dubai Sports City.

It was a much happier finale too as they beat fierce rivals Harlequins 3rds 22-13 – an achievement Verweij holds among his finest.

“It was the icing on the cake, especially as we beat the Quins who were in all three finals,” he said.

“We lost heavily to them at the start of the season. That was very sweet and talking about it still makes me very emotional, it was very special. Out of all my years at the club that is right up there with one of my most special moments.

“I was dragged out of retirement by Fester to play for the vets (now the thirds). I became third team manager because of Ian Jones, the vets captain at the time, which turned into the thirds.

“When I stopped playing I didn’t want to give it up. I stopped playing after the final against the Beaver Nomads and became full time manager, and we won last year which was unreal.”

As a sign of the esteem in which he is held by the club, Verweij was presented with the prestigious Dragon of Distinction award at the end of season club dinner.

In addition, he was asked by players as well as director of rugby Henry Paul earlier this summer to step up to the plate and become first team manager for the upcoming season, with Johnny MacDonald taking charge of the second team.

Although heavily attached to the third team, he didn’t take much persuading.

“The boys, Henry Paul, Harty (Paul Hart, former DoR and UAE international) and Quinny (chairman Stuart Quinn) asked me if I’d step up,” said Verweij.

“That’s the thing with the club, it doesn’t matter what team you play for, there’s no looking down on someone because they play for the thirds. I’ve been third team manager the last two seasons and now I’m stepping up to become first team manager.

“Again it was emotional, special, being asked to do that. It wasn’t just the coach asking. It was a group of players too. They needed a new team manager and wondered who they’d get. They all said ‘Dutchy’.

“I wanted to know what will be expected of me. I’m emotional and passionate and won’t sit still.”

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