Ajax and Total Football – The Jack Reynolds story

It is nearly impossible these days for anyone to remember Amsterdam as anything but a modern vibrant city where nearly anything goes. However in the years after the end of the Second World War, the Dutch capital was a very conservative and staid place.

Writing in his 1955 book ‘The Fall,’ French philosopher Albert Camus observed that “in Amsterdam for centuries, pipe smokers have been watching the same rain falling on the same canal”

All of that was to change within a decade as the city became the centre of a youth revolution and a place were new and radical ideas were developed. Among these was a different way of playing football which was undoubtedly embodied by Ajax. The ultimate result was that the club became arguably the best team in the world in the early 1970s.

I would have to accept that has not been the case for many years now, but the influence of that team is still there for all to see. Ask Pep Guardiola for one.

This of course was not something that happened overnight. The seeds had to be sown before they could flower. The flowering was the work of Rinus Michels who eventually coached Ajax to their first ever European Cup win in 1971.

However, in the opinion of many people the sowing of those first seeds was the work of an Englishman, Jack Reynolds. His name and story may be more familiar to Dutch readers because sadly in his native land, his memory has long since faded.

Reynolds was born in Bury, now part of Greater Manchester, in 1881. He had a far from distinguished playing career in England spending time with Grimsby Town, Sheffield Wednesday and Watford. The latter were a non league club at the time.

He left England in 1912, at the age of 30, to take up a coaching position in Switzerland. Two years later he was approached to take charge of the German national team but the First World War put paid to that. Unfortunately for Reynolds, he seems to have had the unhappy knack of being in the wrong place at the wrong time as far as wars are concerned.

He was in Amsterdam as coach of Ajax in 1940 when the Germans invaded and due to his nationality spent most of the Second World War interred in various POW camps. Sorry I digress. Going back to where I was, soon after the Germany job fell through, the manager’s position at Ajax became vacant and Reynolds leaped at the chance of filling it.

This was the start of a career with Ajax that would last on and off for over 30 years. When Reynolds joined the club at the start of the 1915/16 season they were playing in the second tier of Dutch football. In his time, Reynolds raised them from being just another local team in Amsterdam to become the most successful and famous club in Holland.

How did he do it? Well firstly he introduced training methods that had never been employed in Dutch football before, or possibly anywhere else for that matter. Bear in mind that this was the early years of the 20th century. Professional football in England was in it’s relative infancy and the game in Holland was still amateur.

You may have seen photographs of football played at this time. The pitches seem to be a sea of mud and the game was played with heavy leather balls that absorbed all the moisture. Despite this, Reynolds recognised that the emphasis should be on playing skillful offensive football rather than on physical power alone. Quite a revolutionary idea at the time.

Another far seeing policy of Reynolds was the concept of youth development, something totally unheard of elsewhere at that time.  He introduced youth teams at various age groups throughout the club. In addition to this, Reynolds showed the foresight to decree that every player at every level of the club had to train and be coached in exactly the same way to ensure that every player  played and understood the same system and formation.

This meant there was a seamless transition as players progressed through the ranks but just as importantly it ensured the same football ethos prevailed throughout the club. Sound familiar? Well it should, as Reynolds’ methods are credited with laying the foundations of ‘total football’ the style of play pioneered by Rinus Michels at Ajax. It is no coincidence that Michels himself was a product of the Reynolds youth system.

Overall Reynolds managed the club in 3 separate spells. In his 24 years in charge at Ajax he coached the club to eight Dutch championships. That is a fine record in itself but much more important was the legacy he left behind.

Jack Reynolds finally retired in 1947. He did not leave Amsterdam but stayed on to run the cigar shop he had opened during his time at Ajax. He died in 1962 at the age of 81 and was buried in the city in which he had lived in for nearly 50 years. After his death Ajax commemorated his achievements. A stand at the former De Meer ground was named after him and there is now a Jack Reynolds Lobby (lounge) at the Amsterdam Arena.

This a condensed history of the career of Jack Reynolds. There is much more of interest you can find out about this remarkable man if you have the time and inclination. If you do, I would urge you to look further.