The original Flying Dutchman of Ajax and Arsenal

Ever heard of Gerrit Keizer?

I hadn’t either before stumbling across his name while researching something totally different. A glance at the record books will tell you the bald facts, namely, that Keizer was born on the 8th of August in 1910 and made 302 appearances in goal for Ajax between 1933 and 1948.

What the record books won’t tell you about Gerrit Keizer is that he became the first Dutchman to play in the English Football League (for Arsenal); was one of the reasons foreign players were banned from English football for 48 years; was responsible for Ajax temporarily playing in Arsenal kit after the Second World War; went on to become a successful businessman;
joined the Ajax board in 1955;

and oh, also served a six month sentence in a Dutch prison.

Let us start at the beginning. Keizer first joined Ajax in 1927 at the age of 16. He made his first team debut against Stormvogels on the 1st of April in 1929, but spent most of his time as deputy to the then first choice goalkeeper, Jan de Boer.

In 1930, Keizer decided to move to England in order to improve his English language skills. Shortly after arriving, he found himself playing for Margate, an amateur side in Kent. At the time Margate acted as a ‘nursery’ club of sorts for London giants Arsenal. Keizer was soon spotted by Arsenal’s legendary manager, Herbert Chapman, and signed for the Gunners in the summer of 1930. What then followed was the reason foreign footballers were effectively banned from playing in England for 48 years.

READ: “If you have got the ball, keep it. The other side cannot score.”

Earlier that summer, Chapman had tried to sign Austrian goalkeeper Rudi Hiden, who was widely regarded as being the best in Europe at that time. However as a result of pressure from the English Football Association, who were concerned at the threat of foreign players to home grown talent, the British Ministry of Labour refused entry to Hiden when he landed at the port of Dover. When Chapman then turned to Keizer, the Football Association were outraged. But there was nothing they could do, as the Dutchman was already in the country and had signed for Arsenal as an amateur.

The FA would get their revenge in the following year. On 1st June 1931, as a direct response to the Hiden and Keizer affairs, they passed a rule preventing foreigners from playing in England until they had been resident for two years. This was an outright ban, as no overseas footballer would sit around waiting to play for that length of time, nor was any club going to pay money for a player they couldn’t use for the next two years. This rule remained in place until 1978. In case any Manchester City fans amongst you are wondering how your famous German goalkeeper Bert Trautmann managed to play for you between 1949 and 1964, his time in the UK as a prisoner of war counted towards his two year residence.

(Nothing if not fair us Brits).

In spite of the controversy it caused, Keizer’s Arsenal career was unsuccessful and short-lived. The Dutchman played in Arsenal’s opening twelve First Division matches of the 1930-31 season, making his debut against Blackpool on 30th August 1930. He also played in the Gunners’  Charity Shield victory over Sheffield Wednesday that season. Arsenal won the match 2–1.

According to reports at the time, Keizer’s playing style was distinctly flamboyant, to the point of being erratic. He truly lived up to the crazy stereotype of the goalkeeper and never kept a clean sheet in his first-team matches at Arsenal. The Dutch goalkeeper was dropped in October 1930 and would never play for the first team again. He left The Gunners in July 1931 for Charlton Athletic and later played for Queens Park Rangers.

While playing for Arsenal, Keizer acquired the English moniker of ‘The Flying Dutchman’. Unfortunately, this supposedly referred less to his feats between the sticks, but more to his travel habits. I so want this to be true, but the story goes that having turned out for Arsenal on the Saturday, Keizer would then – Dennis Bergkamp look away now – fly back to Amsterdam that evening or the next morning so that he could line up for the Ajax second team on the Sunday.

READ: Ajax and Total Football – The Jack Reynolds story

Keizer eventually returned to Amsterdam in 1933 and went on to become Ajax’s number one goalkeeper for the next 15 years (he must have become more consistent). In total he made 302 appearances for the club, putting him 24th in the all-time rankings. He also played for the Dutch national side on two occasions, his debut coming in the 1934 World Cup qualifier against Belgium.

However, Keizer was destined to return to Arsenal again, this time on urgent business for the Amsterdam club. Following the Second World War, Ajax were finding it difficult to get back on their feet and had serious problems finding football strips in which the team could play. Keizer flew to London to contact his old friends at Arsenal to see if they could help. The Gunners obligingly donated a set of kit and some footballs. Ajax thus played their first matches after the war in Arsenal’s red-and-white kit rather than their own. Legend has it that Ajax only stopped wearing the kit when the washes were mixed up in the laundry and the sleeves came out pink. Incidentally, I can well remember a team mate’s Mum turning our playing kit from black and white stripes into faded black and grey. But I digress.

Now here comes the twist to the story. The entrepreneurial Keizer continued to shuttle between Amsterdam and London, each time returning with consignments of football kits. But it transpired that this was not all he was bringing back with him. In late 1947, on his return from a trip, Dutch customs found a substantial amount of British banknotes concealed within a set of footballs. At that time there were strict laws on bringing foreign currency into The Netherlands and what Keizer did was illegal. He received a fine of 30,000 Guilders and was sentenced to six months imprisonment. This brought a sudden end to his playing career.

The conviction turned out to be only a temporary setback as following his release from prison, Keizer went on to found and build one of Amsterdam’s best known greengrocery businesses. In 1955 he was invited to serve on the Ajax board, a position he held for the next seven years.

After what can only be described as an eventful life, Keizer died in 1980 at the age of 70. My research suggested that in tribute to his long service, a pair of Keizer’s boots hung in the Ajax museum along with one of those pink sleeved Arsenal shirts. I sincerely hope this was the case and continues to be so to this day. He deserves it.