English football fans are famed the world over for their passion and devotion to their historic clubs. It was and still is part of the attraction behind the Premier League which has seen the competition emerge as the world's standard, both financially and athletically. Even at a Dutch second division side in the mid-'90s, that English passion was still very much there.
"I met Darran Wooller on the stands of Helmond Sport," says Ralf van Deursen (41). "As a 17-year-old lad, it was extremely interesting seeing an Englishman supporting my team so fanatically as he did, especially his English songs and cheers. The more matches we visited, the better we started to know each other."
The story is a common one: immediately attracted to this affable and friendly British man who shared with them a love for football and for a drink at the game, Helmond fans took to Burnley-bron expat Darran like a duck to water. Having moved to Holland in the early '90s, the former Burnley season ticket-holder fit right in.
"What struck me was the passionate way he talked about his hometown and its team, Burnley F.C," explains Ralf of Darran "It made me very curious [and] it has always been a great desire to watch a football match in England. One plus one is two: in October 1998 I flew off to the other side of the channel.
"That flight itself already was something because of Darran, who was already in a state slightly less than sober," Ralf continues. "When in Burnley, first thing I noticed was how ‘gemoedelijk’ (a typical Dutch saying meaning pleasantly behaving) everybody was. Although the town is not what you call paradise, it soon stole my heart.
"I also took quick notice of the mentality people had," Ralf adds. "[There's a] Dutch saying: you’re acting crazy enough as it is. It means 'be down to earth and don’t show off' and that’s what I stand for too. The inhabitants were all totally surprised that someone from Holland wanted to come over to Burnley to see their town and home team. Immediately we were invited to join a bachelor party with all its consequences... welcome to Burnley Wood!"
The relationship between Burnley and Helmond fans is unlike any other in the world. Bonded by a mutual respect kick-started by the late Darran, they undergo regular pilgrimages to each others' homes. And for Dutch fans, there's plenty of anticipation ahead of 'the baptism of fire at Turf Moor' as Ralf puts it.
"Burnley played Blackpool; a one-nil win, penalty kick by Payton, the local hero," he says, the memory of the game imprinted in his recollection. "Burnley entered my heart from that day on. While the stands weren’t even fully crowded, there still was lots of passion coming from them, and I really dug the team colours.
"All together, it was one hell of a weekend worth repeating, as happened [over] the next 20 years," Ralf adds. "Then the very sad news of Darran’s incurable disease reached me. Devastating. On his deathbed, me, Peter van der Els, and Bob de Bruin amongst others tried to arrange things for Darran’s family when they would be in the Netherlands; people who became very dear to me, especially Joan and Victoria, Darran's mother and sister.
"I have created a close relationship throughout the years that resembles family," he says. "Bob and I even went to Burnley to attend the church service for Darran that was organised by his family. These circumstances led to the spread of the Clarets-virus."
Praising both Joey van der Aa for his work in creating a ‘Band of Brothers’ mentality between the supporter bases and Ian Chapman for his work in bringing the groups together, Ralf has seen the friendship grow from a small group to around 150 committed travellers.
"I’m intensely proud and happy to have been part of it," he says. "Surely Darran is joyful up there."