The road to Rotterdam has been a long one for Tim Krul. Long and winding.
But the Newcastle United goalkeeper is finally back doing what he does best.
And Krul and AZ Alkmaar, his loan club, have a cup final to look forward at De Kuip, Feyenoord’s iconic home, next month.
The 28-year-old grew up watching KNVB Cup finals in his native Holland.
A few short months ago, Krul – who ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament on international duty in late 2015 – didn’t think he’d be playing in one this season.
Krul spent the first half of the campaign in the shadows at Ajax.
But he was on centre stage in the semi-final against Cambuur earlier this month after 120 goalless minutes at the AFAS Stadion.
As Martijn Barto strode towards the penalty spot, Krul turned towards the AZ fans and repeatedly raised his arms.
The supporters behind his goal roared back.
And when he dived low to his left to save Barto’s spot kick the stadium erupted.
The fans have now got something to look forward to. The cup final is a massive day out in Holland, like the FA Cup final in England. It’s exciting to be part of it. As a little boy I’ve watched those games.Tim Krul
“There was a lot of pressure on me,” said Krul, who became a national hero in Holland after coming off the bench to save two spot-kicks in a penalty shootout against Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“People were expecting me to save a couple like in Brazil again. It was a bit of pressure, but the relief at the end was so nice.
“The fans have now got something to look forward to at the end of April. The cup final is a massive day out in Holland, like the FA Cup final in England.
“It’s exciting to be part of it. As a little boy I’ve watched those games. For me to come back and reach the final is great.”
It hadn’t been an easy few weeks for Krul and AZ, and the cup win over Cambuur was important for the club – and Krul.
AZ will face Vitesse Arnhem in the April 30 final at De Kuip.
“We’d had a couple of bad results,” said Krul. “That can knock your confidence.
“But everybody talked from the start about the cup being the priority, and to do that, especially in a penalty shootout, is what it’s all about. That’s what you put in all that hard graft for.”
Krul – who went 16 months without playing a first-team game – has certainly had to graft to get back to fitness.
He suffered a bad injury at a bad time, both for himself and Newcastle.
Krul landed awkwardly on the Astana Arena’s artificial turf after collecting a cross playing for Holland Euro 2016 qualifier away to Kazakhstan in a in October 2015 and left the stadium on crutches.
Seventeen months later, Krul is fully fit and finally enjoying his football again.
“For any player, a cruciate is a bad injury,” said Krul. “A little ankle injury, if you go over on your ankle and damage your ligaments, that’s part and parcel of it.
“Knee injuries knock you out for such a long time. That was something new for me, because if you’re out for a couple of months, you don’t really lose that sharpness and match practice.
“That was the biggest thing for me.
“It’s been difficult. That’s been the hardest part, and it’s just nice to be back on the pitch and able to help the team and get points for the team and reaching the cup final.
“When I got to the club, that’s the first thing they said, because when you win the cup here it’s Europa League. For a club like Alkmaar, that’s important.”
Krul had joined Ajax on loan last summer as he completed the final stages of his rehabilitation.
Having seemingly done the hard part in the gym and on the training field, Krul found it harder still to dislodge Andre Onana in goal once he proved his fitness.
Newcastle manager Rafa Benitez hadn’t loaned out Krul to sit on the sidelines, so he moved to Alkmaar on transfer deadline day in January.
“It’s been tough,” said Krul, named in Holland’s provisional squad for this month’s games against Bulgaria and Italy.
“Just the sheer fact that you’re working so hard, but there was no end product. There was no game at the weekend.
“When you’re injured, you’re going in the gym and the boys are going on the pitch. That’s the hardest part – just watching and not being able to help the lads, especially the season we were relegated.”
Since joining AZ, the games have come thick and fast.
And Krul’s knee has stood up to the demanding schedule.
“I think I’ve had nine games in the last few weeks, and that’s obviously been the major test,” he said. “I’ve come through that.
“I think the more I play, the stronger it gets. The medical staff have been great. Playing a game every three days is as much a mental challenge than physical one.
“Physically, I’m fine. You get through that. It’s been a major step for me.”
* For part two of our exclusive Tim Krul interview, see tomorrow’s Gazette