Rob Rensenbrink – Anderlecht’s ‘Snakeman’.

Pieter Robert Rensenbrink, forever known as Robbie Rensenbrink was born in Amsterdam in July 1947. Unlike many of the stars of the great Oranje teams of the 1970s born in the Dutch capital around that time however, he slipped through the Ajax recruiting net and began his career at another Amsterdam club, the then amateur set up at DWS. Despite outstanding success as his career developed after moving on from DWS, he would never return to play club football in his native country. If his international fame was garnered in an oranje shirt, the colour of his club success would be purple.

Although hardly the powerhouse that Ajax came to be, DWS were a more than decent club and had been Eredivisie champions in the 1963-64 season, finishing second and then fourth in the following terms. A teenage Rensenbrink joined in 1965 but, by that time, the club was in a steady decline and would hardly entertain aspirations of the title again. The club was a useful launch pad club for Rensenbrink, but hardly one that could contain the burgeoning talent of the forward. In his final season with the club, he netted 15 league goals in 34 games for a club destined to finish in mid-table. It was no mean feat. In 1969, a move across the border to Belgium and initially Club Brugge would see his abilities given full range.   

It should perhaps be considered less of a surprise that a left-sided player chose such a left-field move, when the conventional wisdom dictated that the inevitable move from DWS would be to either Ajax or Feyenoord – who were about to launch into a period of continental domination. Even deciding on a move to the Belgian league that, in the Netherlands at least, was considered as being inferior to the Eredivisie was strange enough, but choosing Cub Brugge , who hadn’t won a league title for almost half-a-century only added to the mystery. Rensenbrink was however, apparently sold on the club’s ambition, headed at the time by another Dutchman, Frans de Munck. For both club and player, the move would deliver success, albeit only briefly.

In his first season, Club Brugge finished second to Standard Liège, trailing the champions by a single point, and took a European spot after winning the Belgian Cup, trouncing Daring Club de Bruxelles 6-1 in the final. Success against Kickers Offenbach and FC Zürich took Club Brugge to the last eight of the Cup Winners Cup, where they fell to Chelsea, the eventual tournament winners. Back in domestic matters, another second place rubber-stamped the club’s progress and the gap to Standard Liège was now down to a single point, but it would be Rensenbrink’s last term in Bruges. The forward had averaged a goal every other game for the club and had become hot property.

By the end of the 1970-71 season, whilst Rensenbrink had been in Belgium, Dutch club football had ascended the heights of continental competition with first Feyenoord, and then Ajax lifting the European Cup. The latter would remain top of the European tree for three successive terms. It looked like time for Rensenbrink to end his Belgian sabbatical and return to the Netherlands, choosing between Amsterdam and Rotterdam, with a mix of the continent’s other major clubs also showing interest.

Rensenbrink however felt at home in Belgium and, instead, elected to move across the country to join Anderlecht. Across the following nine years, with Rensenbrink’s play driving them forwards, Anderlecht would collect a trove of domestic silverware, including two Belgian league titles, four Belgian Cups, and a brace of League Cups. In Europe, they would win the Cup Winners Cup in 1975-76, with Rensenbrink scoring twice in the final against West Ham United, and be losing finalists following year, before again lifting the trophy in 1977-78 defeating Austria Wien in the final with another brace from Rensenbrink in a 4-0 romp.

As well as netting his fair share of goals, Rensenbrink was also the consummate team player and formed an effective forward line with Belgium internationals Ludo Coeck, the legendary Paul van Himst and Hungary’s Attila Ladynski. The success was almost instantaneous with goals flowing. Rensenbrink’s first league season with the club brought 16 goals and the league championship returned to the Parc Astrid. Those goals proved to be all important as the title was determined on goal difference. Both Anderlecht and Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge finished the season on 45 points. Brugge’s defensive record was slightly the better, conceding 19 goals to Anderlecht’s 22, but the goals scored column comfortably eliminated that deficit, Rensenbrink’s haul significantly contributing to the club’s total of 67 strikes, ten clear of Club Brugge’s.

The club’s manager at the time was the German, Georg Keßler who, as coach of the Netherlands, had given Rensenbrink his first cap for the Oranje back in May 1968. It would be the overture to a glittering international career that saw Rensenbrink reach successive world Cup Finals in 1974 and 1978 and, in the latter, come within millimetres of delivering football’s Holy Grail to the Nethgerlands. Across the following years at Anderlecht, Rensenbrink would play under three more managers – Belgians Urbain Braems and Raymond Goethals plus, briefly, Dutchman Hans Croon. Each would enjoy success there, and each would have much to thank for the skills and contribution of Robbie Rensenbrink.

It wasn’t merely the Dutchman’s goals that made such a difference to the club’s fortunes however. Now comfortably into his twenties, his style had been established and his skills well-honed. Left-footed, he could both conjure a pass or deliver a powerful shot with minimum of apparent effort, often suggesting to some that his work-rate was sometimes below par when, in fact, it was merely another deceptive quality. His lythe running style was both distinctive and often beguiling to opposing defenders, who were often either deceived by his dribbling skills or the coruscating bursts of speed that left opponents trailing in his wake. These abilities conspired to earn him the nickname that would both stay with him throughout his career, and come to almost define an uncanny knack to wriggle out of seemingly impossible situations. Het Slangenmens (The Snakeman) would coolly slither free and deliver a devastating killer bite with either an assist or goal.  

Despite repeating his first season goal tally of 16, the 1972-73 season term saw Anderlecht slip from their top position to a lowly sixth place, as Club Brugge gained a measure of revenge, for their near miss the previous term, lifting the title. The following three seasons though would see Rensenbrink soar, scoring 20, 19 and then 23 in domestic competition, and adding valuable strikes in Europe as well. In 1973-74, with their Dutch star forward netting those 20 goals, Anderlecht regained the title under Urbain Braems, scoring a mightily impressive 72 goals across the 30-game league programme.  They also added a Belgian League Cup triumph to underscore their status and Belgium’s top club. The following term, with Braems still at the helm despite losing the title to surprise champions R.W.D. Molenbeek as the league was restructured to accommodate 20, rather than the previous 16, clubs some compensation was garnered by defeating Royal Antwerp to again win the Belgian Cup.

By this stage, Rensenbrink had been joined at the club by Arie Haan. The pair had played together in the 1974 World Cup Final, and would do so again in 1978. As the great Ajax team was disintegrating after Ștefan Kovács left to take charge of the France national team, many of their stars were drifting away, and Haan had decided to join Rensenbrink in Brussels. He would add another dimension to the club, delivering even more success – as would the arrival of another Dutchman – when Hans Croon took charge for a single season, succeeding Braems. It was a time that could have also seen Rensenbrink leave Brussels.

During the 1974 World Cup Finals in Germany, Johan Neeskens had agreed a deal to join Barcelona, and reunite with Cruyff and Rinus Michels in Catalunya. Ajax decided that the man they wanted to replace Neeskens was Rensenbrink. With the money received from Barcelona, they considered themselves to have a strong bargaining hand. Anderlecht, however, declined the cash offered, and suggested to the Amsterdam club that the only deal they’d consider was if Johnny Rep was involved as part of the fee for Rensenbrink. Ajax decided against pursuing the transfer on such terms and Rensenbrink stayed in Brussels. The success enjoyed by the club over the next few seasons suggested that the Belgian club had been wise to hold onto their star player. 

The domestic cup success had granted Anderlecht another entry into the Cup Winners Cup competition and, this time, they would take full advantage, with Rensenbrink being a key element in the success, scoring eight goals in the nine tournament games. A first round tie against Rapid București threatened an early exit after a 1-0 defeat in Romania. Back in Brussels though, inevitably, it was Rensenbrink scoring the winning goal, netting a penalty five minutes into the second period after Gilbert van Binst had levelled the aggregate scores.  A comfortable 3-0 home leg win over FK Borac Banja Luka in the next round saw Rensenbrink open and close the scoring, with a goal from Ludo Coeck sandwiched in between. It rendered the second leg almost meaningless and a 1-0 defeat for Anderlecht was only of interest to statisticians. 

In the last eight, Anderlecht were paired with Wrexham for, what looked on paper at least, a fairly comfortable passage into the last four. As things turned out though, the encounter was anything but comfortable. After the first leg in Brussels, Anderlecht only held a slim single goal lead, thanks to another strike by Van Binst. The visit to north Wales would be a test, especially as, going into the game, Anderlecht had gone four successive away games without a goal. The game was tight and, after a goalless first period with the welsh team holding their own, the second half would bring goals. On the hour mark, Stuart Lee squared the aggregate scores and the momentum now clearly lay with the Welsh club, as they pressed for the decisive strike. Anderlecht rallied however and with 15 minutes to play there had been no further score. At such times, teams look to their star players to step up, and Rensenbrink delivered, netting a killer ‘away goal’. Anderlecht were in the last four.

The semi-final pitted them against East German club Sachsenring Zwickau. Ties one step away from a major European final can often be close affairs, but this wasn’t one of them. A brace by Van der Elst and, somewhat inevitably, a goal by Rensenbrink gave Anderlecht a 0-3 away win and the opportunity to coast to the final in the return in Brussels. Another goal each for Rensenbrink and Van der Elst eased the club over the line and into a final where they would face West Ham United also in Brussels at the Heysel Stadium.

Once more it was the twin threats of Van der Elst and Rensenbrink that carried the day. After Pat Holland had put the Hammers ahead, both Anderlecht players scored to turn the game around. Keith Robson squared things up with 20 minutes to play, but both Van der Elst and Rensenbrink added further goals to deliver the Belgian club’s first European trophy. Rensenbrink netted from the penalty spot, and with time slipping away, it was the Dutchman, delivering a Man of the Match performance, who set up the clinching goal for Van der Elst. Rensenbrink’s eight goals in just nine games had powered Anderlecht to triumph. Just over a month later, the club returned to the Heysel and defeated Lierse SK 4-0 to retain the Belgian Cup, with Rensenbrink scoring once more.

Despite the success he enjoyed in Brussels, Croon left Anderlecht at the end of the season, returning to his native Netherlands and taking over NEC. The vacant manager’s chair was filled by the legendary figure of Raymond Goethals, who continued the trend of success, with Rensenbrink rapidly becoming the club’s talismanic striker. The following season, despite a strong attempt to retain their European title, Anderlecht fell at the last hurdle, losing to Hamburger SV in the final. Rensenbrink’s still notched seven goals in his nine games in the tournament, but further continental success would have to wait. There was also frustration in the club’s league campaign, as Anderlecht finished as runners-up to Club Brugge.

The club was going through a period of change at the time, as Goethals adjusted the squad to his liking, and they were again frustrated in the league, once again losing out to Rensenbrink’s former employers, Club Brugge; this time by a single point. Whatever changed around him though, Robbie Rensenbrink remained as a constant and, in the 1977-78 season, the club prospered anew, winning their second Cup Winners Cup trophy in three years. As in the final to years earlier, Rensenbrink was vital to the club’s success. In total, he scored five goals in the Anderlecht’s run to triumph, with two of those saved for the final, and the crushing 4-0 defeat of Austria Wien.

Although, it’s tempting to reduce Rensenbrink’s contribution to Anderlecht’s success in reaching three successive Cup Winners Cup Finals merely to the goals he scored, that would be to deny the consistently unassuming nature of his commitment to the team’s success, and the fruitful partnerships he formed with other players, particularly of late with Van der Elst. The Dutchman’s name however, is forever written into the annals of the tournament as its record goalscorer. His 25 strikes in 36 games surpassed that of Gerd Müller and Gianluca Vialli and, as the Cup Winners Cup is now assigned to the annals of history, it’s a record that will stand for all time.

The following season, Anderlecht finished as runners-up in the Belgian league once more, this time losing out to Beveren. It would be the first season Rensenbrink had played in the Belgian capital without winning either a domestic or continental trophy. It also saw his lowest scoring return since joining the club, recording just a dozen goals in 31 league outings. It seemed that the conclusion of his time in Brussels was approaching. The end was confirmed at the end of the 1979-80 season. Now 33 years old and having scored just three goals, with Anderlecht finishing in a lowly fifth position in the league, changes were afoot.

Goethals left, and was replaced by Yugoslav manager Tomislav Ivić. In his first erm with the club, he would deliver Anderlecht their first league title since 1974, but Rensenbrink wouldn’t be part of the celebrating players. In the summer of 1980, he moved to the USA, following on the footsteps of Cruyff, Neeskens and a few other former Oranje team-mates, joining the Portland Timbers. It would be a brief tenure in the Oregon city though. In 1981, the ambitious second tier French club Toulouse persuaded Rensenbrink to return to Europe and assist in the club’s renaissance. Again, it was a short stay, but the move did have the happy ending of Rensenbrink’s 12 game stint with the club delivering promotion, before he decided on retirement. The stature of his career in both domestic football with Anderlecht and on the international stage with the Netherlands was assured, but could so easily have been massively enhanced.

Less than a month after defeating Austria Wien in the 1977-78 Cup Winners Cup Final, Rensenbrink would be in Argentina with the Oranje in pursuit of the Dutch World Cup dream. He would score four times in the initial group stage, and once more in the second group that delivered the Netherlands to their second successive World Cup Final. After Dirk Nanniga had equalised Mario Kempes’ opening goal for the hosts, with the last seconds of the game draining away, a long free-kick from Krol found Rensenbrink closing in from the left flank to collect the ball with just goalkeeper Ubaldo Fillol to beat, but at an acute angle. Prodding the ball past the beaten goalkeeper, the world held its breath as the ball bounced towards the unguarded net. Robbie Rensenbrink was about to become immortalised in the annals of Dutch football, and etched into the records of the world’s greatest football tournament. Streets in his native Amsterdam would be named after him, children born at that time would bear his name and his fame would surely eclipse even that of Johan Cruyff. A second or so later though, the ball seemed to drift off course. It struck the post and was hacked clear. Those street names remained the same, young boys were named Johan, and Cruyff was still the Dutch icon; Robbie Rensenbrink merely a member of the supporting cast. 

Perhaps that was true for the Oranje, but for the purple shirts of Anderlecht, the respect and appreciation ran so much deeper. More than 200 goals in his term with the club speaks loudly enough, but coupled with the fact that Anderlecht not only achieved their first European triumph, but reached three consecutive Cup Winners Cup Finals, while he was wearing the purple shirt, only adds to the lustre of his reputation. In 2008, Robbie Rensenbrink was voted Anderlecht’s greatest ever foreign player. It was a well-deserved accolade, and one that reflects the legendary regard for a player who turned down opportunities to star in his own country to become a hero in purple.    

(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’ “Anderlecht! magazine).

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