Tuesday, July 1, 2008

1974 - 1985: The Dark Years

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

Learning the art of losing

Jan Mulder, an obstinate left winger and nowadays a cynical TV personality, once wrote in his column in newspaper de Volkskrant: "I was part of the generation that taught Ajax how to lose."

Mulder joined Ajax in 1973. He played no more than four games in his first season, the year Ajax won its third European Cup. He knows what glory tastes like, but his Ajax career really started in the 1973-1974 season, as Ajax was collapsing around him. Cruyff had gone. Barcelona was tugging at Johan Neeskens' shirt sleeve as well.

The success story of Holland's greatest ever football generation ended painfully at Munich's Olympia Stadium. The whole world expected Johan Cruyff and his mates to win the ultimate trophy in football, wearing the orange shirt of the national team. Rinus Michels was hired to teach Oranje the 'total football' with which he made Ajax great.

1974's Oranje had a red and white spine. No-one was going to keep Cruyff from making the Dutch dream come true. In the final against tournament hosts West-Germany, Cruyff himself walked straight through the defense from kick-off and was brought down. Neeskens fired home from the penalty spot. Holland was on its way, in the very first minute. 90 minutes later, the score was 2-1 to Germany. What was brought home the following day was not the World Cup but a national football trauma that was to last for fourteen long years.

No future - the birth of hooliganism

Ajax won one more European Super Cup, beating AC Milan 6-0. But they finished 3rd in the league of that year, and again in 1975 and 1976. European campaigns were consistently terminated before the winter break. The dark era had begun, not only as far as football was concerned. World economy collapsed in 1973, with widespread pessimism as a result. 'No future' was the motto of the musical punk movement of 1976.

Football had its own punk movement, named after a rather uncivilized Irish family, called Hooligan. On 24 October, 1976, as Holland was having to get used to mediocrity in both football and daily life, De Meer stadium saw the ugly face of hooliganism for the first time, when a group of FC Utrecht fans climbed over the stadium fences, crossed the pitch and attacked their Amsterdam enemies using very Dutch and very nasty weapons: bicycle-chains.

Supporter's 'sides' began to emerg in larger Dutch cities. The Amsterdam one named itself after their section at De Meer stadium. They have determined the atmosphere at all Ajax games since, sometimes in positive, sometimes in less positive ways. The debate will never end, but it is fair to say that Dutch football did not become more peaceful after the birth of the " F-Side".

The Danish Invasion and the new 1980s breed

There were new heroes at De Meer. Right winger Tscheu-La Ling, for example, and short left winger Simon Tahamata. There were national titles to be celebrated sometimes (1977, 1978 and 1979). But Ajax had gotten used to being one of Europe's best. The reality of the dark years between 1974 and 1986 painfully proved that the mighty Ajax Amsterdam was no longer an international superpower. The only time Ajax 'hibernated' in a European Cup tournament (made it to the quarter finals) was in 1979-1980. Then, Nottingham Forest proved too strong, eliminating Ajax in the semi-finals.

In the mean time, the development of international football and the transfer system had caused the death of the traditional 'club man': few players spent their entire career at one club. Football players had become 'career builders', which forced Ajax to become less Dutch. The first cheap football country for the Ajax scouting system to focus on was Denmark. Frank Arnesen, S¢ren Lerby and Henning Jensen were contracted in 1979. Left winger Jesper Olsen followed two years later.

The time in which Ajax could rely solely on its vaunted youth system was over. It remained the main source of talent, however. The early 1980s saw several of debuts that brought back hope for the future. Defender Sonny Silooy, midfielder Gerald Vanenburg, right winger John van 't Schip and a strong kid named Frank Rijkaard were said to be great talents. Striker Wim Kieft, picked up from the streets of Amsterdam-East, proved to be a real 'killer', but according to many observers at the time, a 16 year-old named Marco van Basten was really the one to watch.

Cruyff returns...

Pessimism slowly turned into optimism, especially when Johan Cruyff was re-signed in 1981, scoring a brilliant goal against Haarlem in his return to De Meer. 'Jopie', as Amsterdammers call him, was back home. More national titles and two KNVB Cups were won with him as a captain, but the fans were really longing for was international success.

That seemed farther away than ever: from 1982 to 1986, Ajax was eliminated in the first round of the European tournaments five times in a row. Would it ever be possible to be part of the European elite again? Apparently, even Johan Cruyff couldn't make it happen.

... and leaves again

A historic disaster. That's the only way to describe the board's decison to let Cruyff go after the 1982-1983 season. 'J.C. Superstar' was too expensive and too frequently injured. The crowd reacted furiously. Riot police had to set chairman Ton Harmsen free from outraged F-Siders during the turbulent last home game of the season.

Cruyff took his revenge in a way only he could think of. To the dismay of his home town, he did what nobody had expected: he signed a contract with Feyenoord. With Cruyff wearing the Feyenoord shirt in 1983-1984, the Rotterdammers won their first national title since 1974, and their last one until 1991. 18 September, 1983, was a day of mixed emotions, as Ajax crushed Feyenoord and their beloved 'Jopie', 8-2.

One more remarkable feat of arms from the 'Dark Years': On 3 October, 1984, Ajax booked its largest European victory ever. The UEFA Cup first round away game against small-time amateurs Red Boys Differdange from Luxemburg had ended in a scandalous 0-0 draw. The Ajax fans who had traveled along threw everything they could find at their heroes. The players promised to make up for the come-down in the home game - and they kept their promise: five Marco van Basten and three Ronald Koeman goals contributed to a 14-0 victory at De Meer.

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