In January 1965, Ajax had just sacked their English coach, Vic Buckingham. The club were in a situation that modern fans would find incredible. They were facing the spectre of relegation! Fortunately, among the crop of players left to save the club’s season was a skinny kid called Johan Cruyff. Knowing talent when they saw it, they gave Johan’s mum a cleaning job as well as his Uncle Henk becoming groundsman at De Meer. With echoes of EPL clubs signing up kids who are barely out of the womb, the young Cruyff was training with Ajax from the age of six and benefitting from coach Jany van der Veen’s weight training and exercises, designed to beef up the slight youth and also develop his weaker left foot.
After Buckingham’s departure, the club replaced him with Rinus Michels, who was to oversee the greatest period in their history, plus the national team’s 1988 European Championship victory. Michels turned to Cruyff in his first game in charge and was rewarded with a 9-3 victory over MVV Maastricht that set them on their way to survival at the end of the 1964-65 season.
It’s no exaggeration to say the Michels was truly the architect of what was to happen over the next eight years. As a player, he was one of quieter members of Jack Reynolds’ team (for more on Reynolds tenure at Ajax, see Neil Fuller’s superb piece) but there was a noticeable change to his attitude once in the coach’s dug-out. Tough defender Barry Hulshoff said –“Michels was tough. He used to say ‘when you come to the ground, you’re a footballer with a number. When you leave, you’re a person and I can talk to you. When you’re in the ground, I’ll judge you only by your football ability’”.
This frank, open approach eventually extended to the players being critical to each other, a strategy that worked with some (Cruyff taking it to the nth degree) but not all. The late Piet Keizer allegedly danced on the table when given the news that Michels was leaving for Barcelona.
It will come as no surprise to admirers of Dutch football of old, that Michels’ training methods eschewed the traditional cross-country runs and sprinting up the terraces. Instead, the focus was on technique, ball control and encouraging players to think on the pitch, solving problems for themselves rather than performing robotically, adhering strictly to pre-arranged instructions.
Realising that Dutch clubs were handicapped by the part-time status of their players, Michels convinced the Ajax board to give his charges full-time contracts, giving them the freedom to train every day. The benefits were immediate, Ajax becoming league champions in 1966. This success led to one of Ajax’s most famous early European victories, a stunning 5-1 victory over English champions Liverpool. The away leg saw Ajax leading 2-1 until Liverpool scored an 85th minute equaliser, but the overall result was never in doubt. This superb win gave the Amsterdammers the confidence to compete with the European (and eventually world) elite. Unfortunately, they were knocked out by the Czechs of Dukla Prague in the quarter finals but the (total foot) ball was by this time well and truly rolling.
Realising that his attacking strength was a match for most (in addition to Cruyff, Michels could call on Sjaak Swart and Keizer for striking options) defence was another story. Bringing in the Partizan Belgrade centre back Velibor Vasovic was a masterstroke, and he was to become a lynch pin of a defence that would at various times include Wim Suurbier, Ruud Krol, Horst Blankenburg and the aforementioned Barry Hulshoff.
After losing in the first round to Real Madrid in the 1967-68 tournament, Ajax reached their first final the season after, losing to Milan 4-1. That season’s tie against Benfica of Portugal saw the Amsterdammers lose the home leg 3-1 – so lacking in confidence at Ajax’s ability to salvage the tie, Dutch TV decided against showing the second leg. What a shame, as a 3-1 Ajax victory forced a replay (none of your new-fangled penalty shoot-outs in those days) which the Amsterdam side won 3-0.
This was not the end. Oh no, far from it. They show was just starting..