Ray Clarke: An Englishman in Amsterdam

How many Englishmen do you think have played for the Ajax first team? Considering the club has been going for 117 years, you would think there must be quite a few. So I decided to do some research and remarkably could find the name of only one. I accept that some of the websites I researched may not be the most reliable, take a bow Wikipedia, and there may be more. However the only Englishman I could find was a player called Ray Clarke.

If this statistic is correct, why is that? As far as I know the Dutch and English have been on good terms for all of that time, so it’s not as though we hate each other. Holland is not far away and the cultures are similar. The Dutch language might be a problem for an Englishman, but thanks to the Dutch education system, English is almost universally spoken as a second language.

I might have the answer though, and it lies in what is to me, one of life’s great mysteries. According to the label, that great British classic, HP Sauce, is surprisingly made in The Netherlands. So why is it impossible to get any of the stuff when I’m in that country? Seriously though, I have no idea about the reasons for the lack of English players, if you do, then answers on a postcard please.

Right, if the Brits amongst you have finished checking your sauce bottles then we will continue.

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Back to Ray Clarke. I must admit I can vaguely remember him playing In England, but have no memory of him plying his trade in The Netherlands. So I decided to try and find out more. It turns out that Clarke’s time in Holland was quite fascinating and despite spending only one season at Ajax, he became something of a hero to the Ajacied.

Let us have a look at how Ray Clarke came to play for Ajax for that single season. Clarke was born in Hackney, East London on 25th September 1952. He signed as an apprentice for Tottenham Hotspur in 1969. During his time with the White Hart Lane club, he scored a remarkable 155 goals in 228 games at youth and reserve team level. Despite his prolific scoring record, Clarke found it difficult to break into the Tottenham first team ahead of established strikers such as Martin Chivers and Alan Gilzean. In fact he made only one senior appearance, as a substitute, before moving to Swindon Town in 1973.

After a year at Swindon, Clarke moved to Mansfield Town in 1974. He helped that club to the old fourth division title in his first season, scoring 30 goals in the process. After a further season at Mansfield he put in a transfer request and this is where the Dutch part of his story begins.

Sparta Rotterdam made an offer of £90,000 for Clarke in 1976 and he was on his way to The Netherlands. At the start Clarke had difficulty in adapting to a different style of football. However he eventually settled and during his time in Rotterdam scored 35 goals in 65 games. It was this scoring record that led Ajax to sign Clarke in July 1978.

Now you have to remember that the club Clarke joined in 1978 was no longer what is was in the early 1970s. Players such as Cruyff, Neeskens etc had long since departed. The European glory days had gone. Domestically, although Ajax did win the Dutch title in 1976 they were struggling to match PSV and Feyenoord. They were also facing serious competition from relative upstarts such as AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente.

Having said that, there were still players at the club from the glory years such as Ruud Krol and Piet Schrijvers. In addition new younger players were beginning to emerge. All in all, it probably was a good time for a prolific, but you would have to say at this stage of his career, journeyman, English striker to join Ajax. Indeed, as the season unfolded this most certainly did prove to be the case.

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Clarke’s scoring record in that one season was quite phenomenal. In the Eredivisie, he made 31 appearances scoring 26 goals. In the KNVB Cup he played 6 games and netted 6 times. In the UEFA cup he had an identical record of 6 in 6. In total he scored 38 times in 43 appearances.

What really endeared Clarke to the Ajax fans however, was the importance of some of those goals. Many players can score goals against vastly inferior opposition or in those games where there is little or no pressure. Clarke was the type of player that always turned up for the important games. His performances were one of the key reasons why Ajax won trophies in that season.

On 4th June 1979, Clarke scored the only Ajax goal in a 1-1 draw at AZ Alkmaar. That strike secured the Eredivisie title. After the game, Ajax fans carried the Englishman off the pitch on their shoulders. Earlier in the season Ajax had also won the KNVB cup, beating FC Twente in the final. This victory came after a replay. In the first tie Clarke scored the Ajax equaliser from the penalty spot in a 1-1 draw. In the replayed game Clarke scored the first Ajax goal in a 3-0 win.

Sadly, in respect of Ajax and Ray Clarke that was as far as it went. A few months after winning those trophies, the Ajax Board surprisingly agreed to sell Clarke to Club Brugge for £200,000. The reasoning was that the money they received for Clarke would be used to fund the purchase of new players. It is reported that Johan Cruyff himself criticised the sale, condemning what he called this ‘grocers’ attitude to running a football club.

The Ajax fans themselves were angry about the transfer and strongly protested against it. The F-Side unfurled banners which read amongst other things ‘Ray Clarke, King of Ajax’ and ‘Ray Must Stay’. All alas to no avail, as the deal went ahead.

“Cruyff is the best, but Keizer is the better one”

Ray Clarke’s time at Club Brugge was not a success and in October 1979 he returned to England and joined Brighton. In July 1980, Clarke was sold to Newcastle United. After playing only a further 14 matches, he was forced to retire at just 28 years of age due to hip problems. After retirement Clarke became a scout for a number of clubs including Coventry City, Southampton and Celtic. He did however return to Ajax as a guest of honour in 2004 for the Eredivisie fixture against NAC Breda.

Just one final thought and I’m going back to my opening paragraph here. Perhaps Ajax fans at that time loved Ray Clarke, not only for his goals, but because he was a rare Englishman wearing their colours. To them, this represented a link back to the country which had invented the game that Ajax subsequently polished and made into Total Football.

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