The origins of football in Groningen are dated back to 1887, when students of the city gymnasium established the cricket and football club Be Quick. Initially, cricket was the club's main activity with football being a mere winter pastime, but in the mid-1890s football gained a more prominent status within the club. In 1895, Be Quick became a founder member of the first football league in the northern Netherlands (comprising the provinces Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe), which initially consisted of mere three clubs (LAC Frisia from Leeuwarden and Achilles 1894 from Assen being the others). The league was named Tweede Klasse Noord (Second Northern Division, or literary: Second Class North). There was no First Northern Division, but the Dutch Football Association regarded the level of play in the northern league to be too low to be rewarded with First Class status. This meant that the northern champion could not participate in the nationwide championship in which the winners of the other Dutch regional leagues competed for the national title.
In 1897, the city of Groningen got its second football club with the foundation of Velocitas, which became the lower-class rival of the elitist Be Quick. Mimicking Be Quick and Achilles from Assen, the founders of Velocitas also adopted a "foreign" name for their club. Be Quick and Velocitas remained the most successful football clubs in the city of Groningen until the mid-twentieth century, winning 26 northern championship titles between them (18 won by Be Quick and 8 by Velocitas).
Football in Groningen got a boost during the First World War, in which the Netherlands remained neutral. In 1914, about 1400 soldiers from the English 63rd Division who were involved in the Siege of Antwerp were forced to flee across the border into the Netherlands when Antwerp was overrun by German troops. Because of the neutral status of the Netherlands, the troops were disarmed interned in an encampment in the city of Groningen for the duration of the war.
The English military men baptized their encampment "Timbertown", which developed into a lively little city of its own. Football was an important pastime for the English soldiers, who organized a league amongst themselves, consisting of sides named after the division's battalions Collingwood, Hawke, and Benbow. The English also interacted with the local community outside the gates of Timbertown. The battalion teams played numerous exhibition matches against local opposition and participated in local cup competitions, in which the English often demonstrated a superior level of play. Local interest for these matches was high and aroused much enthusiasm for the game of football in Groningen. Several English military men went on to coach and play for Be Quick, most notably Arnold Birch and Harry Waites, which helped to raise the standard of the game in Groningen. In 1916, the northern league finally was rewarded with First Class status, and in 1920 Be Quick went on to win the national title. To date, this is the only time that a team from the northern Netherlands was crowned Dutch national football champions.
In 1915, a couple of locals inspired by the English players established football club Unitas, which is the oldest predecessor of FC Groningen. When in 1917 Unitas joined First Class level of the Groningen Football Association the club was demanded to drop its name because there already existed several other clubs in the country named Unitas. The newly adopted name was GVAV (the Dutch acronym for "Groningen Football and Athletics Association"). In 1921, GVAV merged with athletic club Rapiditas. The new official club name became GVAV-Rapiditas, but the football team usually was just referred to as "GVAV". In 1926, GVAV promoted to the Eerste Klasse Noord for the first time in its existence. The club remained active at the highest northern level until the abolishment of the regional leagues in 1950. During the days of the Eerste Klasse Noord GVAV stood in the shadow of multiple Northern-champions Be Quick and Velocitas. GVAV succeeded in winning the Northern championship only once, in 1940.
In 1935 GVAV moved from the "Stadspark" (City Park) in the south side of the city (where it shared its accommodation with Velocitas) to the Oosterpark Stadium in the newly built Oosterparkwijk (East Park District), which was constructed to provide housing for the working class. The Oosterpark Stadium would remain the home of GVAV, and later FC Groningen, until 2005.
The regional leagues, among which the First Northern Division, ceased to exist in 1950. For the next four seasons, Dutch football clubs were divided more randomly over four divisions of twelve (in season 1950–51) or fourteen (from 1951 to 1954) clubs, of which the four winners went on to compete for the national title. In the 1951–52 season, the three Groningen clubs from the First Northern Division were joined at First Class level by VV Oosterparkers, a fourth side from the city of Groningen who were founded shortly after liberation in 1945 and shared the Oosterpark ground with GVAV. Oosterparkers immediately relegated from First Class level, returning the next season, and going back down again the year after that. In 1952, Velocitas also suffered relegation from the Eerste Klasse, leaving GVAV and Be Quick as the sole representation from the city of Groningen at the highest tier of Dutch football.
The season 1954–55 saw the inauguration of professionalism in the Dutch football league. A new nationwide league structure, consisting of Eredivisie, Eerste Divisie (First Division), and Tweede Divisie (Second Division), was planned to commence in 1956. Results in the 1954–55 and 1955–56 seasons determined the make-up of these new divisions. The high ranking teams in the 1954–55 season played for qualification for either Eredivisie or Eerste Divisie in the 1955–56 season, while the low ranking teams in the 1954–55 season played for qualification for either Eerste Divisie or Tweede Divisie in the 1955–56 season. GVAV was able to make the cut two times in a row, while Be Quick missed out for two consecutive seasons. This led to Be Quick ending up in the newly formed Tweede Divisie. Also Velocitas and Oosterparkers failed to qualify for the Eerste Divisie, and together with Be Quick ended up at the nationwide third tier for the inaugural season of the new league structure. The four years between the 1951-51 and the 1955–56 season had turned out to be crucial in determining the new relations in football in Groningen. In 1951, four Groningen clubs were active at First Class level. Five years later, GVAV was in the Eredivisie among the 18 best teams in the country, while Be Quick, Velocitas, and Oosterparks were ranked two tiers below.
At the introduction of professional football in the Dutch football leagues in 1954, Be Quick suffered from internal division. Be Quick's long history and respected stature led to the club containing numerous outspoken and conservative factions. In addition, resistance against professionalism in general tended to be bigger at elitists clubs. Many Be Quick members opposed the plans of their club joining the professional leagues, among which most notably several players from the title winning squad of 1920. Be Quick did become professional, but because of the internal strife it was not able to develop its full potential as a professional football club. No such obstacles existed at GVAV, were chairman Jan Hekman faced no internal resistance in his ambition to make GVAV the city's number one professional football team. Labour class teams Velocitas and Oosterparkers, at their turn, had insufficient financial backing to compete with GVAV in the professional leagues.
Oosterparkers remained professional for three seasons, after which they voluntarily left the professional leagues and went back to amateurism. Velocitas held on for one more season after which they also relegated from the professional leagues. Be Quick initially was more successful. The club won promotion to the second tier in 1960 (the same year GVAV promoted back to the Eredivisie after they had relegated from the national top tier two seasons before), but after mere two years they relegated back to the bottom level of Dutch professional football. Be Quick stayed professional until 1964, after which they voluntarily stepped back to the amateur league and left GVAV as the only professional football team in the city of Groningen.
In the early 1960s, GVAV found itself in financial difficulties. This instigated the establishment of the Stichting Betaald Voetbal GVAV (Professional Football Foundation GVAV) in 1963, consisting of GVAV-Rapiditas, the Groningen municipality government, and an organization representing local businesses. All three parties were shareholder for 300.000 Guilders. It was planned that this sum was paid back in three years, but the Foundation soon turned out not being able to do so. GVAV even needed additional annual financial support from the municipality government in order to survive. The future of professional football in Groningen remained uncertain.
Early 1970, Harm Brink, the chairman of Groningen amateur football club GRC, stated that Groningen amateur football clubs needed to support the local professional team. He suggested that the amateur clubs should put their best players to the local professional club's disposal. However, he recognized that the name "GVAV" might be an obstacle in such a cooperation and proposed the foundation of a "Sport Club Groningen". Groningen's amateur clubs supported Brink's plan, but confirmed to have little faith in the connection between GVAV-Rapiditas and the Professional Football Foundation GVAV. The local businesses and municipality government declared to be willing to remit the Foundation's debts from 1963, under the condition that GVAV-Rapiditas would cut its ties with the city's professional team.
In 1970, GVAV's financial woes worsened when the club relegated from the Eredivisie. The advocators of the establishment of FC Groningen hoped to commence the 1970–71 season under the new name, but this plan failed as the GVAV members assembly rejected the proposals. Later that year, however, the GVAV members did vote in favor. In June 1971, FC Groningen was officially established. GVAV's traditional blue, white, and red were dropped in favor of the municipality colors green and white. Because GVAV promoted back to the Eredivisie in 1971, FC Groningen started its existence at the top national tier.
One day before the official foundation of FC Groningen, tragedy struck. In Rotterdam, GVAV goalkeeper Tonny van Leeuwen was awarded with the honor of being the country's best goalkeeper of the 1970–71 season, in which he had only conceded seven goals. Van Leeuwen was offered a room for the night in Rotterdam, but the goalkeeper choose to drive back to his home in a village close to Groningen. On his way back up north, Van Leeuwen's car collided with a truck coming from the opposite direction. Van Leeuwen was dead on instant. His wife sitting next to him survived.
In its first two seasons FC Groningen finished 12th and 13th in the Eredivisie (out of 18), but in the 1973–74 season the club finished bottom of the table and relegated to the Eerste Divisie. Financial woes worsened at the same time. In 1974, FC Groningen came very close to bankruptcy, but was saved by the municipality government once again. A swift return to the top flight came very close when FC Groningen finished in second position in 1975 with an equal amount of points of champions NEC, who won the title by a slightly better goal difference. In subsequent seasons, FC Groningen finished 4th, 8th (the lowest ever league finish in the history of the club), and 6th of the Eerste Divisie. In 1978, FC Groningen came very close to promotion via the post-season mini-league, consisting of four clubs from the Eerste Divisie. In the last round of play MVV caught up with FC Groningen's seemingly comfortable lead in goal difference after an unexpected 5–0 victory over Excelsior, while FC Groningen drew 0–0 with FC Wageningen. In these years, average crowds fell to between 5000 and 6000. To date, this is the lowest seasonal average in FC Groningen's history.
From the mid-1970s, the seeds for success were sown. In 1975, FC Groningen established a youth academy from which would came the backbone of the team that eventually would win promotion back to the Eredivisie. In 1977, the club appointed Theo Verlangen as manager, under whose leadership results gradually improved. In the 1978–79 season, FC Groningen finished second again, one point behind league winners Excelsior. Yet in 1980, FC Groningen were rather comfortable champions of the Eerste Divisie and returned to the Eredivisie after an absence of six years.
The club was then propelled into success by the Koeman brothers, Ronald Koeman and his elder brother Erwin Koeman together with defending midfielder Jan van Dijk resulting in qualification to European football for the first time in the 1982/83 season. Their best season in the Eredivisie was during the 1990/91 season when they finished third.
The 2005–06 season turned out to be one of the best in a long time for FC Groningen, with the club finishing 5th place in the league. This allowed Groningen to enter the play-off tournament for the UEFA Champions League third round qualification. However, they were beaten by Ajax in the finals who scored a goal two minutes before the final whistle.
By finishing fifth in the league, FC Groningen qualified for European football for the first time in 14 years, where they were defeated 4–3 on aggregate in the first round by Partizan Belgrade.
In the 2006/07 season FC Groningen again managed to gain entrance for the UEFA Cup. They ended the season in 8th place but thanks to the play-off tournament system, in which they beat Feyenoord and FC Utrecht, they qualified for the UEFA Cup where they faced ACF Fiorentina in the first round. Both matches in Groningen and Florence ended in a draw, 1–1. FC Groningen were defeated after penalties and knocked out in the first round.
On 13 April 2008 part of the west stand of the Euroborg was set on fire when a supporters' tifo-action went wrong. This happened when thousand rolls of toilet paper were thrown down from the stand and the large pile of toilet paper caught fire just before the beginning of the match between FC Groningen and AFC Ajax, a fierce rival of FC Groningen. The match was postponed and replayed 3 days later.
At the end of the 2009–2010 season Ron Jans, who had been the manager of FC Groningen for 8 successful years, stepped down. He went on to become the head coach of SC Heerenveen, the local rival of FC Groningen.
Groningen started the competition with two draws against Ajax (2–2) and AZ (1–1). The team went on an eight match unbeaten run until beaten by leading champions FC Twente (4–2). The first half of the season was the best ever in Groningen's history, going into the winter break with no less than 39 points and a third place. The first match of the second half of the season ended in a 1–2 loss against FC Twente, ending an impressive run of 10 wins and 1 draw at Euroborg Stadium. After a cup-loss at FC Utrecht (3–2), Groningen went on to beat rivals SC Heerenveen, with former manager Ron Jans, 4–1, Dusan Tadic scoring two of the goals. A week later Groningen recorded their biggest ever win in the Eredivisie. Bottom of the table Willem II was thrashed with 7–1, with top scorer Tim Matavz scoring his first ever hat-trick in league football. Then followed a period of heavy losses against Roda JC, Heracles Almelo (both 1–4) and Feyenoord (1–5) before breaking the deadlock with a 0–1 win at NAC Breda. Groningen climbed again in the table to draw their final game against PSV (0–0), only just missing out on direct Europa League qualification.
In the play-offs Groningen started with a 2–3 loss away at Heracles Almelo. They were supported by their two away goals and won the second leg at home, beating their opponents 2–1 to progress to the Final of the play offs for European qualification, in which they took on season sensation ADO Den Haag. The first leg was played in Den Haag on 26 May, and the return match on 29 May in Euroborg Stadium. At the end of the first half, the score was 1–1, resulting in ADO Den Haag getting the ticket. But at full-time it was 5–1 to FC Groningen thanks to a penalty in the last minute, which meant there had to be penalties to decide who got the ticket. Matavz and Sparv missed for Groningen, so Den Haag got the ticket after all.
After serving three years for Groningen, captain Andreas Granqvist moved on to sign for Italian Serie A side Genoa. Top scorer Tim Matavz also headed for the exit door after three games to sign for PSV. Fredrik Stenman in turn left to join Club Brugge.
The new season started with ups and downs for Pieter Huistra's side. Inexplicable losses away from home were followed by home wins against Ajax (1–0) and Feyenoord (6–0), as well as a draw against FC Twente (1–1). The new side was full of inexperienced players, but Groningen managed to end the first half of the season in 8th position. Groningen decided to extend the deal with manager Huistra by one year, just days after being thrashed away at PSV (6–1).
The second half of the season was disastrous. Groningen only managed to win two games (Excelsior 0–1 and PSV 3–0) and they finished in a disappointing 14th place. This fell way short of the target set at the beginning of the season. Pieter Huistra was sacked by the Groningen board for his failure to motivate the side.
On 23 May 2012, Groningen announced that the 43-year-old Robert Maaskant would be the new manager. He signed a one-year contract.
There were a lot of controversies before the season had even started. Maaskant was unhappy with the new signings. Especially Serbian winger Filip Kostic. The season was a disappointing one for the club. Despite finishing 7th, the style of play was far from encouraging, with mostly destructive football. The fans were far from pleased. Maaskant was also known for his controversial statements about certain players. All of which damaged Groningen's reputation as a quiet and decent club.
FC Groningen announced on 11 March 2013 that it would not be renewing its 1-year contract with Maaskant.
On 4 April 2013, it was announced that Erwin van de Looi – previously assistant to Robert Maaskant – was assigned as new manager for the seasons 2013–2014 and 2014–2015.
The club announced that it wouldn't set any real targets for the season due to the club's poor financial state. The only target set would be to play attractive football and win the fans back after the disappointing previous season under Robert Maaskant.
Groningen didn't make any major signings. Brazilian defender Eric Botteghin joined from fellow Dutch side NAC Breda, with Dutch midfielder Tjaronn Chery joining on loan from ADO Den Haag, with him transferring permanently after the season had finished.
Initially Groningen started well. The play was encouraging and the results were quite good. After the winter break Groningen fell down the table and they were looking to miss out on Play-Off football. However a six match winning streak secured 7th place for the club.
On 18 May 2014, Groningen defeated AZ Alkmaar 3–0 on aggregate in the playoffs to qualify for the UEFA Europa League for the 2014–15 season, ending the season with a 10-game unbeaten run. This was the club's first European appearance since 2007. The club, however, fell at the first hurdle as they were beaten in the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round by Aberdeen F.C.. The first leg in Scotland ended 0–0, and goals from Adam Rooney and Niall McGinn secured a 2–1 victory for Aberdeen in the second leg.
When GVAV was reformed as FC Groningen in 1971 a competition was subscribed to come up with a new crest. The winning design was created by Reint Rozema. It showed an abstract character G, referring to Groningen. The "simple but strong shape of the crest" (as it was described by Rozema) had to symbolize the nature of the people of Groningen. The crest's form was inspired by the truncated icosahedron pattern of a football. In 1993 the mythical flying horse Pegasus was added to the crest. The supporters opposed this change and the crest was restored to its original form in 1996.
FC Groningen's official colours are green and white, derived from the arms of the city of Groningen. Although the crest was green and white from the beginning, the team's first ever home kit was purple. although a green and white kit was also used in the club's inaugural season. The purple home kit was dropped after a couple of seasons and the club's home colours solely have been green and white ever since. The design of the shirt continued to change until 1991, when a kit with two vertical stripes was adopted as FC Groningen's standard home kit. Since 2006 the colour purple has been revived as the team's third colour and often is used in the away kits.
The club plays its home games in stadium Euroborg, with a capacity of 22,329 seats. In December 2005, the club played its last match ever in the 12,500 seat Oosterpark Stadion after having played there for 72 years. The average attendance in 2004/05 was 12,500 people. This has risen to just under 22,000 people in the new stadium. There are plans to expand the stadium to a capacity of 30,000 or 40,000. The Euroborg Stadium is known to be one of the more atmospheric of all Dutch stadiums. Despite its relatively short existence, it has already earned the nickname the Green Cathedral.
Euroborg is easy to reach by public transport. Train station Groningen Europapark, located 200 meters from the stadium, is served every hour by a number of trains (coming from Groningen Central, Veendam and Germany) and buses. There are also a number of car parks (marked as P1, P2, etc.) in the surrounding area. The stadium is located 2.5 kilometers/1.5 miles from the city centre of Groningen
Having no other teams of a similar size in its nearest proximity, FC Groningen lacks traditional rivals. SC Veendam was the nearest professional team to Groningen until the club dissolved in 2013, but as FC Groningen and Veendam were in different divisions during most of their histories, and Veendam had a significantly smaller following, a strong two-sided rivalry never developed.
In the 1980s, incidents between the hooligans of FC Groningen and FC Twente led to a fierce rivalry between the clubs' respective hooligan firms. Encounters between FC Groningen and Twente often led to violence in and around the ground during the 1980s, 1990s and early years of the 21st century. After FC Groningen moved to the Euroborg Stadium in 2005, supporter violence around matches with FC Twente disappeared almost completely due to the superior safety conditions of the new ground. Although aversion against FC Twente remains to exist among FC Groningen's most fanatical following, the fierceness of this rivalry in general is considered to be something of the past. In a similar vein, yet significantly lesser fierce and long-lasting than the rivalry with FC Twente, the hooligan firm of FC Groningen has maintained rivalries with FC Den Bosch, PEC Zwolle, Cambuur Leeuwarden, and NAC Breda. However, antagonistic feelings towards (the fans of) these clubs mostly were limited to the hooligans of the club and barely existed among the rest of FC Groningen's following.
A feeling of hostility towards Ajax is more widespread among all categories of FC Groningen supporters. Although relatively insignificant from the perspective of the Ajax fans, home matches against Ajax are considered main events by most FC Groningen supporters. Remarkably, away matches against the Amsterdam side are not deemed equally important. This rather one-sided rivalry can be explained by a more general aversion of the inhabitants from the more rural and peripheral northern regions of the Netherlands towards people from the Randstad and Amsterdam, who are stereotyped as being arrogant and haughty.
Since the late 1990s, a more local rivalry has developed between FC Groningen and SC Heerenveen (located 60 kilometers from Groningen). Around this time, SC Heerenveen became a regular in the Eredivisie and no longer met regularly with its nearest and primary rival Cambuur Leeuwarden, which mostly was active in the second tier. FC Groningen and SC Heerenveen are seen as representing the two neighboring northern provinces of Groningen and Friesland, between which a more general rivalry exists. Therefore, the match between FC Groningen and SC Heerenveen is referred to as the Derby of the North.