Friday, August 1, 2003

An Ode to Sjakie

From the desk of the Editor
Menno Pot
August 8, 2003

Arie van Eijden dropped the brief announcement during a press-conference on the day of Ajax's first training: Sjaak Wolfs will retire as Ajax's equipment manager and jack-of-all-trades. The good man is 71 years old now and, according to Van Eijden, could understand the decision of the club, "although he wasn't all too pleased with it". Board and directors will think of a proper way for club and supporters to say goodbye to their beloved Sjakie. Van Eijden then moved on to other subjects.

Anyone who ever attended an Ajax training session can not possibly have overlooked the bent, small-statured figure pottering about on the sideline. He would drag cones and hurdles for running exercises, large ball-bags, player boots and other equipment. Walking through the gate to the training pitch he would mutter "mornin'" to the fans. Walking off the pitch after training he would usually be talking to one of the players, gesturing with one arm while the other would be tightly wrapped around the player's shoulders. In such a personal conversation Sjaak would do the talking and the player the listening and silent nodding. Sometimes the player must have had no idea what Sjaak was on about. Sjaak talked to players of all nationalities, but only spoke Dutch. It did not matter. They all adored him.

Sjakie (pronounced 'Shah-kee') was a life-long and passionate Ajax fan when he first met a few players (Johan Neeskens, Barry Hulshoff and the Mühren brothers) during the summer vacation of 1972. They kicked some ball and when the season started the players invited him for a day at De Meer. Wolfs volunteered to polish the players' boots and was offered a part-time job in 1975, although he usually spent the whole day at the club. Remarkably he didn't have a full-time contract until Louis van Gaal offered him one in December 1995. At that point Sjakie was already a hero to all Ajax fans. "That's the magic of Ajax", Sjaak said, "everyone within the club is always regarded as equally important. We're doing it as a family. As a team."

Now he's retiring. After 31 years of service. Nothing too remarkable for a man of almost 70, but it was rather shocking when I realized that Sjakie was the only man on the 2002 team picture who was already there on the very first Ajax team poster on my bedroom wall (1984). He was my 'last Mohican', since Bobby Haarms called it quits as the first team's coach-assistant (2000).

Sjakie on his way to the ArenA pitch, chatting as always.
[Photo: Bobby Haarms Site]

I met him a couple of times. The first time I shook his hand was in 1997. I did a work placement the weekly arts & culture program on Amsterdam's regional TV station, AT5. Being an Ajax fan I was very much on speaking terms with the editors of the weekly Ajax program, which at the time used to have a weekly feature named Sjakie Wolfs' Minute. The camera crew would go to the ArenA every week and hand the microphone to Sjakie, who would then discuss the week with himself in his own inimitable, though not always coherent way. His monologue was shown integrally, with a clock ticking in the top corner of the screen. The camera would fade to black after exactly one minute, sometimes in the middle of a sentence. I asked the sports editors if I could join them to the ArenA for the shooting of Sjakie's minute. I was more than welcome.

In the car Mark Keizer, chief-editor of the program, told me: "It's a one minute item, taped in one take, but it usually takes us over an hour to get it done." I soon found out what he meant. Sjakie was nowhere to be found. The people from the Ajax offices helpfully answered our question before we'd even asked it: "No idea, guys. He must be around here somewhere."

We found him after half an hour in the home dressing room, snoozing in the bath wearing his swimming trunks.

"Ah, right, there you are. How's it goin', alright? Good. So, let's get started then, shall we? It was quite a week, I'll tell ya. Hang on a minute, I'll get dressed and we'll tape the thing right here. Right here in the dressing room, so the people at home can take a peek while I'm talking. I mean: it's not just yer average dressing room, but the Ajax dressing room. That's right. Not many people get to look around in here. Strictly forbidden. The coach doesn't want it. You want coffee? Won't be a minute. Will be right back."

And off he went. We'd had absolutely no chance to say a single word.

Another 15 minutes ticked away. He returned with five cups of coffee on a tray. He sat down, the camera started spinning and Mark asked his standard question: "So, Sjaak, tell us: what happened this week?" That's all it took. Sjaak grabbed the mic and pushed off. He'd already recorded dozens of 'Minutes' for AT5, but still seemed totally unaware that only the first sixty seconds of his monologue were going to be used. He rattled on for at least a minute or four.

"Right. Thanks Sjaak. That will be enough, I guess."
"You sure?"
"Yeah, pretty sure. Thank you."

As we sat down, drinking our coffee and talking some more, Sjaak turned to me and said: "Excellent idea of those AT5 chaps to have me presenting my own TV show. Excellent idea. You see, I'm extremely popular in town, of course."

Of course.

Our second meeting was in April 2002, during Ajax USA's first ever trip to Amsterdam. After having watched training I told the group we just had to take some pictures with The Phenomenon Himself. "Sjakie, got a minute for some pictures?" I asked. Of course he had. Any time. Ajax people, good people. "These guys are from America", I told him, "they travelled all the way here to see Ajax."


Sjaak lined up with us for a 'team picture', meanwhile talking non-stop to the Americans:

"Afternoon Sir. So, let's have some nice pictures. You over here. You, the tall one, right there. Do you guys play football? Any other sports? Any exercising? Probably not, eh, looking at you. Well, let's go. Smile, folks. Here we go."

I can still see the faces of Jim, Ben, Bob and the others staring at Sjaak like a young child stares at Santa Claus. That morning I'd tried to explain them a few things about Sjakie and why the fans love him. Now I could rest my case. They knew exactly what I meant, even though Sjaak's entire monologue was in Dutch and they might not have understood a few tiny bits of it. But they knew it somehow made sense. In a Sjakie way.

Coach Co Adriaanse once decided he was no longer welcome on the bench and in the dressing room. An unforgiveable mistake. It led to furious yells from the stands ("Sjakie on the bench!") and the foundation of the 'Sjakie On The Bench Committee'. The end of the story: Sjakie returned to the bench, Adriaanse got fired.

This time it's for real and I must face reality: it had to happen one day. Sjakie's successor, Fred Hek (quite a character himself, by the way) assisted him throughout the 2002-2003 season. The large ball-bags were becoming too heavy for the old Amsterdammer, the old knees were giving in. Two hours of standing and walking on a training pitch were becoming too exhausting for Sjakie. From August 2003 onwards Sjakie will not be on the bench anymore. He will no longer sit next to the team in the dressing room during the half-time break, listening to the coach with balled fists and a grim, determined expression about his mouth, as if he had to play the second half himself. He accepted the seat Ajax offered him. On the main stand, directly behind the Ajax dug-out. His dug-out.

His inevitable retirement makes me more sentimental than I could ever have thought back in 1984, when I first put him up on my bedroom wall in 1984. And I want to urge the Ajax board to make sure that all doors in the Amsterdam ArenA are open for him at any time. The man's only home is where he can feel and smell Ajax. He has the right to stroll through the stadium hallways for the rest of his life, until the day he dies. If he ever goes it has to be in his ball and boot basement at the ArenA, which I hereby officially christen the Sjakie Wolfs Room.

Banner distributed at Sjakie's tribute game.

Here's to you, Sjakie. Thank you. May you live forever. And we'll see you at Ajax.

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