Tuesday, January 31, 2023

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Ajax in Europe - The Renaissance

Ajax badge (via Wikipedia)With the Champions League now back in full swing, it’s time to welcome back something of a forgotten powerhouse (of sorts) as Ajax look to be well on the way to qualification from Group H in this season's competition. This following them having lost to eventual finalists Tottenham in the semi-finals last season, letting a two goal lead slip in the process.



My own interest in their progress, beyond picking up a newspaper & scanning the back pages following European matches, in a sense comes from my dad, who worked for a time in Holland when I was very young & indeed got chance to see their sides of the late Eighties up close at the old De Meer Stadion. An experience I one day hope to share in a nice bit of football tourism, watching their modern equivalents alongside him at the Johan Cruyff Arena, renamed last year in honour of possibly their greatest ever player & favourite son.


Dutch football's most successful club side can actually trace the roots of its later glory days to an Irishman, John Kirwan leading them to the country's top flight in 1911 (eleven years after their formation). Englishman Jack Reynolds took over four years later & guided them to a first league title win IN 1918, clad in that famous red- striped white home shirt, which in itself came about to avoid a clash of colours with Sparta Rotterdam!


The retirement of Reynolds in the Forties, after a marathon (2nd) stint in charge, brought with it a period of rebuilding during which striker Rinus Michels was promoted from the youth ranks. Going on to spend his whole playing career in front of the Amsterdam crowds after scoring five goals on his maiden outing in an 8-3 thumping of ADO Den Haag.


After he hung up his boots he would have a similar impact as manager, introducing the philosophy of “Total Football” & winning the Eredivisie four times, three Dutch Cups following the league titles into the domestic trophy cabinet. The European Cup would then be squeezed in three times in the early seventies, having lost their first crack at a final against AC Milan in 1969, in quite a turnaround from a period of decline which saw them almost losing their seat at the top table...


A measure of revenge for that humbling arrived in the mid Nineties as a youthful side featuring the likes of Edwin Van Der Sar, the De Boer brothers (Frank & Ronald), Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids & Marc Overmars inflicted a late defeat upon the Rossoneri, under the stewardship of Louis Van Gaal having gone the whole league season unbeaten to win a 25th Eredivisie crown. That they went on a similar run in the process of adding the Champions League to cap off a double is also no mean feat, no other club having managed it since that 1994/5 season.


The 1995/6 season saw them go agonisingly close to doing so again, winning the league but losing the Champions League final to Juventus after extra time. This after having gone unbeaten through the group stage, topping Group D ahead of Real Madrid before dispatching Borussia Dortmund & Panathinaikos en route to another Dutch-Italian tussle. The advent of the Bosman ruling meant that level of success wouldn't last, Van Gaal making his way to Barcelona & many of the players he'd built his team around leaving for pastures new on free transfers.


Which meant another rebuild. Success was slower in coming along for the new man in the dugout, though Morten Olsen did manage to bring in Michael Laudrup in time for the start of 1997/8's campaign & win another league & cup double. By late '98, though, he too was gone- paying the price for a row with the De Boers over their contracts.


European battles with Milan, you might have noticed, are becoming a recurring theme here! Another Champions League scrap with them in 2002/03 saw Ajax exit in the quarter finals, which proved the beginning of the end for Ronald Koeman after a final minute winner in the second leg consigned his boys to another defeat at their hands. A group stage exit and drop into the UEFA Cup in 2004/05 proved too much, as he handed in his notice after a loss to Auxerre, disagreements with the now director of football Van Gaal were insurmountable.


They won the Champions League's little brother in 1992, beating Torino on away goals, before losing the 2017 final to Manchester United. A loss to Rosenborg in the 2017/18 play-offs, following a Champions League play-off loss to Nice, made for an unfortunate double that curtailed any hope they might've had of another go at the Europa League...


But then came the cat among the pigeons & a return to the bigger prize. Last year's Champions League Group E found Europe's most successful Dutchmen in with Benfica, Bayern Munich & AEK Athens. They finished second to the Germans before exorcising a few ghosts in beating both Real Madrid & Juventus, before that agonising loss to Spurs.


Ajax have invested a hefty percentage of the fees received into the team, from old beneficiaries Barcelona for Frenkie De Jong & Juventus for prising away Matthijs De Ligt. With signings like former Southampton man Dušan Tadić, Edson Álvarez from Club America in Mexico & a return for Quincy Promes via Sevilla, having first been released from the club's youth system as a lad for bad behaviour. Can they build another team around a home-grown spine of players to lift yet another European trophy?


Level on points with Chelsea and Valencia, at the top of their group at the time of writing, the early form book suggests they've made a decent fist of starting out on that road again having qualified as league winners, their 34th such title setting Erik Ten Hag & his men in good stead. We can only hope fortune & the late great Cruyff will smile upon them once more....

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