Thursday, May 1, 2008

1988 - 1991: On the Edge

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

No players; no money

Seeing a generation of players go is bad. Forgetting to make good money out of it is worse. AC Milan bought Marco van Basten for just over $500,000. Rijkaard left for practically nothing. The conservative Ajax board of chairman Ton Harmsen was left empty-handed. There were no players; there was no money. Players such as the De Boer twins, Dennis Bergkamp and Bryan Roy were still too young to take over. The new entries failed, except for Swedish striker Stefan Pettersson, who slowly became one of the biggest fan favorites in Ajax history.

German trainer Kurt Linder decided to play it safe: wingers John van 't Schip, Bryan Roy and Rob Witschge were put on the bench, as the team played a defensive 4-4-2 system - sacrilege to the grumbling crowd at De Meer. The start of the 1988-1989 season was a disaster and is generally regarded as the deepest financial crisis in Ajax history. Four out of the seven first league games were lost, against mediocre clubs such as Fortuna Sittard, PEC Zwolle and RKC. Coach Linder was gone after six weeks. But the real problem was, as Johan Cruyff ha called it earlier, the "grocer's attitude" of Ton Harmsen's board. They could not appease the fans, nor stand the pressure, and resigned. The once so proud ship called Ajax was drifting, out of control.

Close to bankruptcy

The legacy of the board brought Ajax closer to the edge of bankrupcty than ever before. The Fiscal Investigation Department (FIOD) revealed iregularities in some transfer procedures under Harmsen's reign. Ajax was hit hard and watched nervously as some of its employees were arrested and taken into custody. The first team experienced a remarkable resurrection, booking twelve victories in a row, even beating the later champions PSV twice. But stand-in coach Spitz Kohn could not do better than second place. Nothing was won that season, but a lot was lost.

The new board, with legendary 1970s chairman Jaap van Praag's son Michael as the new chairman, started their job in the most difficult circumstances thinkable. Former Ajax, Real Madrid and Holland coach Leo Beenhakker was the man expected to make a new start. It didn't seem to work. Linder had lost four out of the first seven league games the season before; Beenhakker lost three out of the first six. But that was nothing compared to the disaster which was waiting for the club on 28 September, 1989, in the first round of the UEFA Cup. Ajax had already lost the away game against Austria Memphis Vienna 1-0. No problem, it seemed at De Meer, as Jan Wouters fired home from long range just before half time.

The 'bar incident'

The score was even, but the second and deciding goal didn't come. The game went into extra time. A Stanley Menzo slip allowed the Austrians to tip in the equalizer. Two more goals would now be required, an impossible mission. The crowd at De Meer watched anxiously as frustrated F-Side hooligans demolished the stadium fences and threw the pieces onto the pitch. The inevitable happened: Vienna goalkeeper Wohlfarth was hit in the neck by an iron bar. End of game, end of European ambitions for the upcoming years and - it came really, really close now - maybe the end of Ajax, depending on the UEFA sanctions.

The future of Ajax was at stake as UEFA delivered its verdict in Geneva. Ajax were fined an unspecified amount, and the 1-1 score of the interrupted game was changed to an 'administrative' 0-3 defeat; those were expected. But that was not all: Ajax was also banned from European Cup tournaments for a season, and the first three European home games after that were to be played at least 200 kilometres away from Amsterdam. Devastating, for a club in financial despair. Mere survival was now the one thing the club had to work for. New European glory was out of the question - that was for sure.

"Betrayed and let down"

Ironically, the young team of de De Boer brothers, Richard Witschge, Bryan Roy, Marciano Vink and Dennis Bergkamp won the national title that year, the 23rd in total. It would have been Ajax's first European Champions Cup performance since 1985, were it not for the UEFA ban. More sadness: fan favorite Stefan Pettersson tore his hamstring that season, which kept him off the pitch for over six months. And coach Leo Beenhakker, on whom the new Ajax board had based its future philosophy, signed with Real Madrid halfway through the 1990-1991 season. "I feel betrayed and let down by Leo," said Michael van Praag in an emotional speech.

How much worse could it get?

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