Have you ever in your life had one of those moments where something you have planned and worked for suddenly comes together? If you have, you will know what a tremendously satisfying feeling that can be. If you translate that satisfaction into football and Ajax in particular, then in my opinion that moment came on 7th December 1966 at the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam.
That was the night that Ajax, under Rinus Michels, beat Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, the champions of England, 5-1 in the second round of the European Cup. (Champions League to you youngsters). Was the result unexpected? Certainly. In terms of European Cup pedigree this was only the third appearance by Ajax in the competition. In the 1957-58 season Ajax had been knocked out at the quarter final stage by Vasas SC of Hungary. In the 1960/61 campaign Ajax didn’t make it beyond the qualifying round, losing to Fredrikstad of Norway.
By contrast, England had won the world cup earlier in 1966 and Liverpool were champions of that country. Although these were the early years of Liverpool’s long period of domination of English football, they had begun to establish a decent European record, having been European Cup semi finalists in 1964/65 and runners up in the Cup Winners Cup in 1965/66. Indeed, many people thought the Liverpool team that took the field in December 1966 were one of the best club sides in the world.
That’s enough of the background. Let’s move on to the match itself that December night. The game very nearly didn’t take place as thick fog had enveloped Amsterdam all day. It was supposed to clear by the evening but didn’t. The Italian referee had insisted that he had to be able to see the whole pitch from goal to goal for the tie to go ahead. He certainly couldn’t do that so it would have been postponed if it wasn’t for the intervention from a UEFA official. The UEFA observer, Leo Horne, insisted the referee’s interpretation was incorrect. He said ‘No, in Holland if we can see both goals from the half way line, we play.’ Incidentally I think Horne was correct. Certainly I spent many a Sunday morning as a goalkeeper playing football where I couldn’t see beyond the half way line. Anyway the game went ahead and subsequently became known in Dutch as ‘De Mistwedstrijd’ (The Fog Match).
The game itself took place before 55,722 spectators at the Olympic Stadium. How much of the match those spectators could actually see is a moot point. Reportedly the Ajax chairman asked the TV commentator, Herman Kuipof, if he could also provide commentary for the fans inside the ground as he was so worried that they would not see. (He didn’t do it by the way).
The game started perfectly for the Dutchmen with debutant Cees de Woolf heading his side in front after only 3 minutes. The conditions were so poor that the crowd celebrated in stages. Those fans closest to the goal reacted immediately while those at the other end only belatedly realised that Ajax had scored.
Things got even better in the 17th minute when Liverpool goalkeeper, Tommy Lawrence, could only parry a shot from Klaas Nuninga and Johan Cruyff was on hand to knock the ball into the net. By the 39th minute Ajax were in dreamland. The Liverpool defence failed to clear a free kick properly and Nuninga latched on to the loose ball to make it 3-0. Towards the end of the first half, the Ajax legend, Sjaak Swart, heard the referee blow his whistle. He couldn’t see the referee so assumed it was half time and began to walk off the pitch. He was stopped by a steward who pointed out that the match was still ongoing. Swart then re-entered the pitch, received the ball and promptly crossed for Nuninga to make it 4-0.
Liverpool came out in the second half determined to atone for their performance so far. They forced the Dutch team on to the back foot for most of the half but were unable to make the pressure count. Then in the 76th minute, as a result of an Ajax counter attack, Hendrik Groot added another to make it 5-0. Chris Lawler did score a consolation goal for Liverpool in the 90th minute, but by that stage neither the Ajax players nor their fans inside the stadium cared that much.
What of the reaction to the game? Well, Johan Cruyff long recalled it as the favourite match in which he had ever played. Bill Shankly’s view was somewhat different. In his usual indefatigable way he said ‘I wasn’t too impressed with Ajax. They got lucky. Next week in Liverpool we will beat them 7-0.’ Those words may seem ungracious in defeat, but Bill Shankly was nothing if not a winner. This heavy defeat of his beloved Liverpool side would have hurt. Also bear in mind that after the second leg in Liverpool he went into the visitors dressing room at Anfield and congratulated all of the Ajax players individually.
What of that second leg? The match itself was marred by a terrifying incident that was a precursor to the tragic events that occurred at Hillsborough and Heysel some years later. During the early stages of the game, there was a crush on the Kop. As fans struggled to see the match due to a low-hanging haze, people at the back pressed forward for a better view. This resulted in supporters at the front being swept off their feet and spilling onto the pitch. Over 200 people were injured, with 31 taken to hospital. Thankfully there were no fatalities.
As to the game itself, Johan Cruyff opened the scoring in the 49th minute. Although Roger Hunt responded for Liverpool, Cruyff was on hand to notch another goal in the 71st minute, before Hunt scored a late leveller to make it 2-2. Ajax had won the tie 7-3 on aggregate. This was quite a remarkable scoreline bearing in mind that Liverpool had only conceded 10 goals in the 12 European games they had played previously..
So did this result lead to instant European glory for Ajax? A quick glance at the record books will tell you not. A disappointing 3-2 aggregate defeat to Czech side Dukla Prague in the next round put paid to any hopes of European Cup success for that season. They did reach the final two years later but lost out 4-1 to AC Milan. Of course it was only in 1971 that Ajax finally won the European Cup and then went on to retain the trophy for the following two years.
Given that it was a further 5 years before Ajax tasted European success, why were the Liverpool games of 1966 such a turning point? Well to me, it demonstrated that, for the first time, the club could not only compete with, but beat the best teams in Europe. I feel that Rinus Michels himself best summed this up:
“The Liverpool game was for me an important moment to be acknowledged and recognised internationally. Not only the first game, because that could have been an accident – with the weather conditions etc. No, the performance we achieved in Liverpool under bad circumstances – I’ve never seen such a hectic situation. We drew that game 2–2 and never really had problems. For me, it was the proof that we were at the international level.”