The Wrong Time and Place – Frank Stapleton and Johan Cruyff at Ajax
By Neil Fuller
Those of you of a certain age will remember Frank Stapleton as an accomplished Irish centre-forward with both Arsenal and Manchester United in the 1970’s and 80’s. But did you know that he also played for Ajax under the late, great Johan Cruyff? No, me neither. That may be because his career at Ajax was short (less than one season), and was, to be honest, something of a disaster.
Stapleton joined Arsenal in 1972 as an apprentice after being rejected by Manchester United. He made his first-team debut for the Gunners in 1975 and went on to score 108 goals in exactly 300 appearances for the north London side This included 3 FA Cup finals. He was transferred to Manchester United, then managed by Ron Atkinson, in 1981 for a fee of £900,000. He went on to help United win the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985 becoming in the process the first player to score for two different clubs in the final. Between 1981 and 1987 he made 288 appearances for the Red Devils scoring 78 goals.
Stapleton’s career at Manchester United ended as the then new manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, began to ruthlessly put his own stamp on the team. Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford in November 1986 and to begin with Stapleton was in the side. However Stapleton struggled for goals and when Brian McClair was signed from Celtic at the end of Ferguson’s first season, the writing was on the wall and he was on his way out of Old Trafford. Talking much later Ferguson revealed how disappointed he had been with the Irishman: “his reputation was as long as your arm” he said, “but he had lost his mobility and he just didn’t look like he would ever score a goal”.
Stapleton had an excellent reputation and given the type of player he was, strong and brilliant in the air, there was no shortage of English clubs willing to sign him. So how did the thirty-year-old Dubliner end up signing for Ajax instead? According to sources at the time this was due to the influence of a former Dutch teammate at Old Trafford, one Arnold Muhren. He had played for three seasons with Manchester United but by 1987 was back at Ajax.
In 1986/87 season, the Amsterdam club, then managed by Johan Cruyff, had lost out on the Eredivisie title but had won the Dutch cup and the European Cup Winners Cup. However that summer Ajax lost their most prized asset, the striker Marco van Basten, who signed for the Italian giants AC Milan. Due to financial constraints, Cruyff was finding it difficult to land a replacement.
Obviously Cruyff’ was aware for much of the season of van Basten’s impending departure, and though it may be something of a surprise, he had for some time been tracking the late Cyrille Regis, who was then at Coventry City. As the Sky Blues were on a good FA Cup run, Cruyff urged the Ajax board to act quickly in case the transfer fee soared. However the board took no serious action, Coventry won the FA Cup with Regis as a star player and Ajax found they could not afford to buy him anymore.
Ajax didn’t have much success with their other targets and it was then that Muhren told Cruyff of Stapleton’s situation under Ferguson and that he was available to buy. With time running out until the start of the season, Cruyff decided to take the risk. He had obviously seen Stapleton play before but knew that he might not be the ideal replacement for van Basten. Writing many years later Cruyff said “I remember Stapleton as a great attacker. He didn’t cost anything because he was still vulnerable to injury. That was how I had to get my players in the end”. Of course, the transfer needed Stapleton’s agreement but as the Irishman later admitted, the allure of playing for Johan Cruyff was too much to resist.
Stapleton’s first appearances for Ajax came in two pre-season games against Torino and Porto. He made his Eredivisie debut against Roda. However, he was hauled off at halftime, a portent of what was to come. He was in the side again for the next match against AZ Alkmaar but it was becoming clear even at this early stage that Stapleton was struggling to fit into the team.
That team incidentally contained many future stars. For example, Frank Rijkaard was the captain and Danny Blind the defensive anchor. Meanwhile on the bench looking on at the struggling Stapleton was a young blonde haired attacker called Dennis Bergkamp.
Although he was having problems it was clear that Stapleton bought into Cruyff’s ideals. Some years later Stapleton was quoted as saying;
“Training was intense and the players were expected to be fit. We trained all day, double sessions on Tuesdays and Thursdays and he was ahead of his time when it came to the scientific part as well. A month into the season, we’d all be tested and assessed for fitness levels. It was completely different to England. At Manchester United, I’d never trained in the afternoon. Big Ron didn’t think it was important, but in the 1980s, Cruyff was leading the way.”
As the season went on there was a big problem, Stapleton was simply not scoring. Cruyff, therefore, decided to give some of the youngsters a chance. A winger called Bryan Roy (later of Nottingham Forest) was given his debut alongside Bergkamp in a match against FC Twente. Both repaid Cruyff by scoring in the game.
Just when things were looking bleak, Stapleton got a boost when Ajax were drawn against the Irish side, Dundalk, in the first round of the 1987/88 Cup Winners Cup. The first leg was in Amsterdam but Cruyff refused to give in to sentiment and Stapleton was on the bench. At halftime the game was scoreless and the home team were booed off. Stapleton was introduced for the second half and Ajax raced into a three-goal lead. Then with five minutes left the Irishman got his moment of glory when he applied a neat finish to a Frank Rijkaard cross. And that was just about it as far Stapleton’s Ajax career was concerned as that turned out to be first and only goal for the club.
At the end of 1987, the Irishman was sent out on loan to Belgian club, Anderlecht. This was equally as unsuccessful and Stapleton returned to England with Derby County in early 1988. There followed a season-long stint with Le Havre in France then spells with Blackburn, Huddersfield and Bradford.
As I said earlier, Stapleton had been an accomplished striker in the English top flight with both Arsenal and Manchester United. So why didn’t it work out for him at Ajax? Some people were of the opinion that as a typical English league striker of the 1970s and 80s he was simply unable to adapt to the more fluid passing game employed by Ajax. This ignores the fact that Cruyff knew the type of player he was signing and would surely have been able to make the changes needed to accommodate Stapleton. It is also worth noting that Ray Clarke, another typical English striker of the time, had been a success in Amsterdam a few years earlier.
To me, the answer is quite simple. Although Stapleton was only 30 years old when he moved to Ajax, he was for many reasons already past his best. Remember, Alex Ferguson decided to sell him because in his opinion he had lost his mobility and had stopped scoring goals. Cruyff knew he was taking a gamble when he signed him and sadly the move simply did not pay off for either the manager or player.