The Butterfly Effect

It was a day for Ajax fans to soon forget. Very soon. The last round of the 2015/2016 Eredivisie season ended in horror. Ajax needed a win at De Graafschap to secure their 34th league title but somehow drew 1-1. All seemed well for Ajax after Amin Younes put the Amsterdammers in front, but after that only De Graafschap midfielder, Bryan Smeets managed to put his name on the scoresheet. Meanwhile in Zwolle, PSV and their fans had the day of their life by beating Zwolle, winning the Eredivisie and laughing at Ajax.

All because of that one goal, Bryan Smeets’ name was written in history from that moment on. A bitter summer for all Ajacieden over the world followed, illustrated by the camera shot of Ajax’ head coach Frank de Boer in which he mourns the loss of the title. It would turn out to be the last time he coached Ajax. Fast forward a few months and Ajax appoints Peter Bosz as the new coach. As with many new trainers at a club, supporters were divided. Some were happy because of the attacking style and Cruijff philosophy he adapted, while others didn’t want an ex-Feyenoord player. The start of the 2016/2017 season was rough. Ajax lost against Willem II and drew Roda JC at home. Players needed time to adapt to the new playing style, which resulted in dropped points. Because of Bryan Smeets’ goal last season, Ajax had to play Champions League play-off games to qualify for the group stages. PAOK Saloniki was the first opponent, but Ajax couldn’t beat the Greek side in the first game (1-1). In the away game Ajax managed to win 2-3, seeing them through to a decisive play-off against FK Rostov. Despite being the better side, Ajax drew Rostov 1-1 at the Amsterdam ArenA. The return game was a disaster. Ajax didn’t have the necessary creativity to create chances and saw the Russian team be effective with their chances: 4-1.

Bad results in the league and the early elimination in the Champions League saw Ajax supporters get more and more frustrated. At the end of the transfer window, Ajax sold goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen to FC Barcelona and got Tim Krul on loan from Newcastle United to replace him. Krul however still was injured, so Jong Ajax keeper André Onana was put on goal until Krul was fit again. Weeks passed, months, but Krul didn’t get fit yet. Meanwhile, Onana replaces Krul excellently. Krul didn’t get fit to play up until January 2017, but Bosz made up his mind and saw that Onana developed into a trustworthy goalkeeper. Krul needed to play and chose to move to AZ Alkmaar for the rest of the season. A scenario nobody really held possible had happened. Netherlands’ 2014 World Cup hero was outplayed by a young Onana, who regularly made mistakes at Jong Ajax. It comes to show that football is unpredictable. A certain movement of Krul on a – probably rainy – day in Newcastle made him tear his ACL. That one movement across the North Sea secured Ajax’ goalkeeping position for the coming seasons. Had Krul arrived fit or at least with a shorter lasting injury, Onana never would have developed into the goalkeeper he is now. Onana probably would have left the club, Sergio Rochet never would have lost his starting position as AZ goalkeeper and Ajax would have to search for a new keeper for the 2017/2018 season.

With months passing by, Ajax secured good victories in the Europa League, seeing them finish first in a group with Panathinaikos, Celta de Vigo and Standard Liege. An achievement that was already far better than the year before, after Ajax got eliminated in a group with the likes of Molde FK. Ajax next opponent would be Polish side Legia Warsaw, seeing Nick Viergever score the only goal of the two games. Meanwhile In the Eredivisie, Ajax started playing better and better, but just before the first quarter final against FC Copenhagen, Ajax dropped very costly points against FC Groningen in a weekend it could have taken over the first place. In Denmark Ajax lost for the first time in their Europa League campaign, but managed to score a very important away goal: 2-1. In the return game, the build-up play of Bosz’ attacking, pressuring gameplay got very visible on the field. Ajax blew Copenhagen away, scoring twice and seeing the Danish team barely being able to create chances. Ajax hung on to their two goal lead and saw themselves progressing to the quarter final of a European tournament, a performance that was last achieved by Ronald Koeman’s Ajax in the 2002/2003 season. Also on national level Ajax made great impression by beating Feyenoord 2-1, though it could have ended 6-1. Everything seemed to fall in place at the right moment. Ajax won their games in the Eredivisie and prepared itself for the quarter final against Schalke 04. The first game was one to not soon forget for Ajacieden. A fantastic Ajax blew the German side away and kept a clean sheet: 2-0. Despite having a two goal lead, all seemed over in Gelsenkirchen after the Germans made it 3-0 in extra time. However, with ten men, Ajax were not beaten yet and ten minutes before the final whistle, Nick Viergever somehow got the ball in the back of the net before Amin Younes made an end to all Schalke dreams: 3-2.

Ajax fans were proud again. Ajax made a name for themselves again on a European level and seemed to have got the right flow going, with fans dreaming of a new European title. Much would depend on the draw. Celta de Vigo, Manchester United and Olympique Lyonnais were the remaining possible opponents, of which Olympique Lyonnais was the strongest of the three, was the general opinion. Not without reason, since they trashed AZ (1-4, 7-1) and eliminated teams as Besiktas and Italian giants AS Roma. What would follow was as unbelievable as it was beautiful. A majestic performance on a night that will forever be written in history saw Ajax demolish the French favourites 4-1. Despite the beautiful display of effective, Dutch style football, Bosz was critical: “We should have scored more goals.’’ It became clear that Ajax was Ajax again. A whole generation of fans who only heard of the Ajax domination in the seventies and nineties, would get to experience a European final for the first time. The results in combination with the dominant way of play saw Ajax fans falling in love again with the club they already cherished so much. Few people even talked about the return game in Lyonnais. Though Ajax scored and dominated the first 40 minutes of the game, Ajax eventually conceded three goals, leaving the remaining ten minutes feel like an eternity for everyone with an Ajax heart. Despite a huge chance for Lyon to score the 4-1, Ajax hung on like they did in Gelsenkirchen: 3-1. It showed that though Ajax is renowned for its beautiful play, it could also fight like experienced professional footballers and bring home the result.

In the Eredivisie, it became clear that Feyenoord would win the title. How strange it might sound, Ajax fans couldn’t really care too much. Peter Bosz gave Ajax its face back and coached Ajax to some unbelievable games in the Amsterdam ArenA. Or so that’s what it was called. A beautiful season got a beautiful addition by renaming the Amsterdam ArenA to Johan Cruijff ArenA. The stadium that once had no identity whatsoever, was born as an Ajax stadium this season. In addition to the true Ajax game and the name change, the seats in the stadium are starting to become red all over, except for the middle part where it says ‘A J A X’, just like in the old days. Just like when Ajax was Ajax. Now the final awaits against Manchester United. Seconds seem like minutes, minutes like hours and days like decades. But this wait until kick-off was the dream of any Ajax supporter. Regardless of the result in the final, Ajax is Ajax again. And that is worth a lot more than any trophy. It seems like Bryan Smeets’ goal turned out to be a blessing for Ajax. Wouldn’t he have scored, Frank de Boer might have stayed, Hakim Ziyech never would have been bought, Ajax probably wouldn’t have reached a European final, Schöne wouldn’t play as a controlling midfielder and players like Sánchez and Neres might never have been bought. Other than that it’s fair to say that it’s highly doubtable if Ajax would have been as good as they are now. “Elk nadeel heb z’n voordeel’’, is one of Cruijff’s famous quotes. “every disadvantage has its advantage”, and it seems like Smeets was the best disadvantage Ajax could ever wish for.