Ajax and the English football connection – Johan Cruyff

With the passing of the incomparable Johan Cruyff, a lot has been written about his legacy to football worldwide as both a player and coach.


He changed the game and how people saw it forever. His impact even went beyond football where he played. Here will be examined the history of Dutch football, its internal and international development, and the importance of the reciprocal English connection in the Dutch game that continues to this day.

Football had been played in the Netherlands since the 19th Century, and a national championship was organised not long after the formation of the Football League in England and its counterpart in Scotland. However, like many other countries, a unified national league structure was not established as it was in England and Scotland. Instead, the championship was decided by a series of play-offs from local leagues, a situation that persisted into the 1950s (and indeed Germany adhered to such a setup until 1963). The proliferation of football clubs mirrored Dutch society of the day, with the heritage of many reflecting the distinct communities, illustrated in the fact that there were separate competitions for Saturday and Sunday – which still exists in the amateur leagues today.

Dutch football was also open to many outside influences, through the foreign factors that shaped the game. One of the most prominent was Englishman Jack Reynolds, who’s work before World War II established the Amsterdam club Ajax, founded in 1900, as a force in Dutch football. Coaches from central European nations also made their way to Holland over the decades. All of these were to have a profound influence on the underlying philosophy of Dutch football and would remain fixtures in the system for a long time after.

While in the years before World War II, Ajax and the Rotterdam club Feyenoord had become nationally prominent, a key fact of Dutch football was that since its inception it remained strictly amateur. While this was by no means unique, the rise of professionalism either side of World War II was to present a significant challenge. While the national team qualified for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups and took part in the 1948 Olympics in London, they would struggle in the years that followed. Furthermore, the adherence to amateurism even at the highest level had not only come to be viewed as anachronistic, it also led to the departure of the country’s best talent abroad. Most notable among those was Faas Wilkes, who went to play in Italy and Spain.

In 1954, professionalism was finally introduced into Dutch football and two years later, the Eredivisie was established as a unified national league. This would lead to a rise in playing standards and slowed, at least for now, the outflow of the best players. TheOranje’s fortunes slowly improved, just missing out on the 1958 World Cup and becoming more competitive thereafter, while Dutch clubs began to post respectable results in European competitions. Domestically, the beginning of the professional era also meant the beginning of the domination of the Dutch landscape by Ajax and Feyenoord, which became and remains one of the fiercest rivalries in football.

Neither Amsterdam nor Rotterdam were one-team cities. Sparta Rotterdam had their share of success and were periodically a respectable force, while Excelsior also enjoyed periodic spells in the Eredivisie. Amsterdam had up to four clubs in the professional ranks, one of which was DWS, which won the Eredivisie in 1964 and had a respectable European record before merging with other local clubs to form FC Amsterdam. This folded in 1982, but not before having some memorable games and players of their own. Name changes and mergers have occurred over the years (FC Utrecht, Roda JC and FC Twente are but products of such), although often the amateur sections of the original clubs remained separate as they did with the FC Amsterdam merger and continue after professional clubs go bankrupt.

The ‘big two’ of Ajax and Feyenoord had to contend with PSV Eindhoven, Sparta, FC Twente and ADO Den Haag during the era in which the Total Football phenomenon was taking shape – of these, PSV would become one of the ‘big three’. By the early 1970s, Ajax and Feyenoord could lay claim to being among the best teams, not only in Europe but the world, while many other Eredivisie clubs were more than capable of holding their own and boasted many fine players in their own right. This was a similar situation to such countries as Scotland and Portugal.

The English connection continues

Vic Buckingham managed West Bromwich Albion between 1953 and 1959, winning the FA Cup in 1954. During his six-year spell in charge, his WBA sides earned a reputation for the quality and style of their football. It was a game based on passing and movement, and much like the ‘Push and Run’ tactics of the contemporary Tottenham sides, it was to be a major influence on Total Football. For after leaving the Baggies, Buckingham became coach of Ajax in 1959 at a time when Johan Cruyff had entered the junior ranks at the club, and players like Sjaak Swart and Henk Groot had emerged and would be key figures in the success story that followed. Buckingham guided Ajax to the title in 1959-60 (Ajax won the first edition of the Eredivisie three years earlier), giving more than a hint of what was to follow.

After leaving to become manager of Sheffield Wednesday in 1961, Buckingham returned to Ajax in 1964 to coach for one more season. It was on November 15 1964 that Johan Cruyff, aged 17, made his Eredivisie debut. Although Ajax had a poor season in the league and Buckingham made way at the end of the season for Rinus Michels, he left a team that already had the components of one of football’s greatest dynasties – players like wingers Swart and Piet Keizer, right-back Wim Surrbier, striker Klaas Nuninga and defender Ton Pronk, while Groot would rejoin the club from Feyenoord for the following season. Between 1965 and 1973, Ajax would win six Eredivisie titles in eight seasons and three consecutive European Cups.

It was not simply a flow of English coaching influence into the Dutch game. As the years went by, the flow would go the other way when foreign players began to enter English football in the late 1970s. Dutch players, not a few of them contemporaries of Cruyff and his Ajax and Oranje teammates, were to do well in the English game: Arnold Mühren and Frans Thijssen at Ipswich Town, Hans van Breukelen and John Metgod at Nottingham Forest, Martin Jol and Romeo Zondervan at WBA (the latter also playing for Ipswich), and Heini Otto at Middlesbrough.

Furthermore, Richard Sneekes was a midfielder who became a cult hero at West Bromwich Albion in the late 1990s. He began his career at Ajax when Johan Cruyff was coach.

In today’s Premier League the tradition continues with Ronald Koeman – who has played for and managed all of the Dutch “big three” as well as winning a European Cup for Barcelona – managing Southampton and assisted by his brother Erwin Koeman. Their father, Martin Koeman, was himself an accomplished player and also a follower of the English game.

Thanks to the visionary work of some very fine men over many decades, and the incomparable genius of Johan Cruyff and the qualities of many of his teammates, the influence of not only one man but a Golden Generation of Dutch football has become pervasive throughout the world, and this is the case in England as much as anywhere else.


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