Monday, December 1, 2008

1900 - 1915: The Ancient Ajax

A History of Ajax
by Menno Pot

"An entirely new Football Club"

Walking along Kalverstraat you can hardly imagine what the street looked like in 1900. The original 17th century gable-roofs are hidden from view by the neon signs and sign-boards of what is now Amsterdam's busiest shopping street. Just off Dam Square, at #2, is Fame Music Megastore. Most of the people purchasing a CD, Playstation game or DVD over there are totally unaware that football history was created on that very spot just over a century ago.

The man who founded Ajax: Floris Stempel.

On 14 March 1900 a young student named Floris Stempel sent a letter to a group of his friends, saying: "Hereby the undersigned invites you politely to grace us with your presence in one of the upper rooms of Café-Bar 'Oost-Indië', at number 2, Kalverstraat, on Sunday morning at 9 hours and 3 quarters, to discuss the establishment of an entirely new Football Club."

What Stempel wrote was, in fact, not completely true: the football club he wanted to establish was not "entirely new". Stempel had been chairman of a low-key football club some six years earlier, in early 1894, or possibly late 1893. The players at the time referred to themselves as a 'club' because one of them, Han Dade, possessed his own leather football. Moreover, they officially rented a lawn in Willemspark, Amsterdam-South, to play their games. The name of the club: Ajax, after the ancient Greek warrior.

Co-founders and brothers Han and Johan Dade wearing the jersey of the 'prehistoric Ajax'.

The oldest proof of Ajax's existence is a letter by Floris Stempel, sent to his friend Carel Reeser on 15 May 1894, in which the chairman dictates the official club colours: red and white. The oldest exisiting membership card of the 'Footh Ball Club "Ajax"' (including the beautiful English spelling error) is dated 3 June 1894.

In the 1890s one football club after the other was founded in The Netherlands in general, and in Amsterdam in particular. The proliferation of clubs forced the newly founded Amsterdam Football Association (AVB) to put a list of strict requirements for football clubs together, in order to create a league structure and avoid chaos in the city's football landscape. The requirements were too strict for the Ajax of Stempel and his friends: the 'prhistoric' Ajax died on the verge and had silently vanished by 1896.

Four years later, however, Stempel decided to give it another try. On 18 March 1900 he became the first official chairman of the re-born 'Football-Club Ajax' (now spelled correctly, although he still possedded a stash of old, unused membership cards with the spelling error, which the club continued to use for a few years). His friends and fellow founders Han Dade and Carel Reeser joined him in the club's first board. How would they have reacted if someone had told them that their club would celebrate its centenary in a futuristic stadium with a capacity of 51,500, built at the bottom of Bijlmermeer (a lake, miles away from the city in 1900; a reclaimed suburb in 2000)? And that their Ajax would be voted the world's fifth greatest football club of the 20th century?

A lucrative first season...

Ajax did not return to the lawn in Willemspark. The first home ground of the new Ajax was 'across het IJ', the water that separates Amsterdam from the rest of the Noord-Holland province. In the undeveloped Buiksloterham polder to be precise, now a suburb of Amsterdam-North. New members paid a registration fee of 50 cents, followed by a member's fee of 25 cents a year. These fees were remarkably high, so that Ajax was one of the more exclusive football clubs in Amsterdam. Most of the playing members, like the founders, were students and boys from middle and upper class families.

The board took the club seriously from the outset, which is illustrated by the fact that the membership's presence for matches was compulsory: the penalty for not showing up was a fine of 10 cents, and this wasn't the only fine defined in the club's official regulations. Some of other fines: 25 cents for walking away during a game, 5 cents for refusing to carry club equipment, 10 cents for swearing or fighting during a game and 5 cents for not paying attention during a game.

The oldest ever Ajax team photograph from 1900 shows the team lined up in formation. Goalkeeper Cor Kist wears a woollen hat and holds the ball. The oldest Ajax line-up we know today is completed by defenders Harbord and Dijkstra, midfielders Brockman, Holst and Hertel and forwards Pasteuning, Stallmann, Geissler, Martaré and Van der Laan.

The photograph also shows that the Ajax of 1900 abandoned red and white as its club colours. The team wore the colours of the Amsterdam crest -- black and red -- presumably to underscore Ajax's metropolitan origins. An extra advantage of those colours was the fact that most men wore black clothing and black trousers anyway, so that a special club jersey wasn't required. The first, simple Ajax uniform was all-black, with a red sash tied around the waists of the players. This uniform lasted less than a year. The '1st Anniversary' team photograph from March 1901 shows that it was soon replaced by the the first official Ajax kit: a jersey with vertical red and white stripes and 'dark' shorts (black, brown, grey - whatever the men had in their wardrobe). This kit was also used by the 'prehistoric' Ajax of the mid-1890s.

Soon after the foundation of the club, Ajax signed up for its first official AVB league participation. The club started at the lowest level: the AVB Second Class. The times of unofficial kickabouts were over. Ajax played its first official AVB league game on 29 September 1900, away at DOSB, and won by the score of 1-2. Ajax finished second in its four-team league. The first season also yielded commercial success: Ajax's first ever treasurers (and players of the team), Hertel and Geissler, proudly announced a profit of no less than four guilders and 31½ cents at season's end. Which was enough to pay for the team's first ever 'road trip': on 8 April 1901 Ajax played its first game outside of Amsterdam: in Haarlem. It was the first time for many of the players to travel by train. The opponent was a club named Oranje. Ajax won: 2-4.

The first silverware

Ajax soon became known as a well-organized club and attracted increasing numbers of spectators. The club impressed its opposition with its excellent facilities: Ajax had its own, wooden dressing room with coat-hangers and cans of fresh water. Unfortunately it was quite a journey to get to the Ajax ground from the city: after having crossed the IJ using the Central Station ferry, it was a pretty long walk to the Buiksloterham polder. Ajax's first move to a new ground took place as early as in 1901: it was situated on Laanweg. Still 'over the IJ', but considerably closer to the ferry's landing stage.

In 1902 Ajax first entered a western division of the Third Class of the national Dutch football league, supervised by the Dutch Football Association (NVB). The club decided not to leave the AVB league, so that Ajax briefly played in two leagues at the same time. The step from the Third to the Second Class was made after only one season. The most prestigious piece if silverware in those years, however, was the Gouden Kruis ('Golden Cross') of the city of Amsterdam, a 'knock out' competition structured like modern cup competitions. After having lost the finals of 1903 and 1904 the edition of 1906 was won, beating AFC in the final (4-3). Ajax had received its first medal in 1902 (for best goal-difference in its league...), yet the Golden Cross of 1906 can be regarded as the first prestigious prize Ajax ever won.

The Golden Cross, first won in 1906. [Photo:]

1907-1911: years of ambition

The winning of the Golden Cross stirred up the club's ambition and marks the end of Ajax's 'freewheeling years'. A goal was set: promotion to the First Class of the NVB, sooner rather than later. Ajax started promoting its home games in the city, in order to attract larger crowds - and soon decided that a second move, to the 'city side' of the IJ, was a must. Ajax crossed the water in 1907 to its third ground, situated at #86 Middenweg in the newly built eastern suburb of Watergraafsmeer. From now on it was a piece of cake to travel to the Ajax ground from the city - by steam tram.

July 1908 saw a merger with a club named Holland, a club that (like Ajax) was getting increasingly frustrated by its own inability to jump to the First Class. Holland was effectively 'swallowed' by Ajax and ceased to exist, while Ajax only slightly changed its name: from 'Football-Club Ajax' into 'Amsterdamsche Football Club Ajax', usually abbreviated as 'AFC Ajax' - the name that has remained unchanged ever since.

A modest milestone was reached on 26 December 1908, as Ajax played foreign opposition for the first time. The guests: Daring Brussels, a club that (after a string of mergers) is now part of Belgium's RWD Molenbeek. The Amsterdammers beat their first international opposition in convincing style: 3-0.

A second Golden Cross was won in May 1909 (beating Blauw Wit in the final), but by that time the medal felt like a consolation prize. Ajax wanted only one thing: the First Class! In order to achieve promotion the club decided to hire what some of Holland's best clubs (Sparta, HVV, DFC) already had: a coach! The first ever man to train was recruited from the country where football was of almost superhuman quality for Dutch standards: England! The Ajax board received several recommendations and ended up hiring a man who had played for Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Clyde and the Irish national team: John Kirwan. He became the first ever coach of Ajax in the summer of 1910.

A coach, a stadium and... promotion!

Meanwhile, the Ajax home ground at 86, Middenweg was turned into a real football stadium. By 1911 wooden stands and dressing rooms had sprung up. The ground was known as The Stadium in Amsterdam and is now usually referred to as the 'wooden stadium'. It held some 10,000 spectators. There is a not-so-beautiful shopping mall on its location today. With a real coach and a real stadium Ajax finally finished tops in its Second Class division. Noteworthy detail: Ajax had to miss out on one of its best players, Gé Fortgens, in the last game. He was invited to become the first Ajacied to play for the Dutch national team. He made his Holland début on 19 March 1911 in the away game against Belgium in Antwerp - and, for the record, received a 5-1 hammering.

The famous Ajax jersey as we know it was first introduced in 1911.
Apparently, not all of the players were aware of this at first...

21 May 1911 was the most glorious day in Ajax history: the day that Ajax grabbed its fifth and decisive point in the promotion/relegation play-offs. Promotion to the First Class, the highest level of Dutch football, was a fact!

Sadly it wasn't given to the club's founder, the honourable Floris Stempel, to witness the triumph. He resigned as Ajax's first chairman in January 1910, after having accepted a job in the West Indies. Many members of the Ajax family waved him goodbye, but tragic news followed two days later. His ship had gone down with all hands. Stempel never made it to the West Indies. He didn't get any further than the coast of France.

The real Ajax jersey

The most important effect of that promotion was (understandably) not rated at its true value at the time: Ajax had to change its uniform, for the simple reason that another First Class side (Sparta from Rotterdam) had exactly the same strip. According to NVB regulations the newcomer to the league had to design a new kit. In the summer of 1911 Ajax chose for a white jersey with a red vertical bar running over chest and back - and white shorts. Indeed: the Ajax shirt that is now one of the most recognized football jerseys in the world.

1911-1914: First Class

Ajax's début season on the highest level of Dutch football isn't the only thing noteworthy about the 1911-1912 season. As a reward for 'staying in' (Ajax finished 8th out of 10 and only the bottom team got relegated) the board offered the team a surprise that was no less than magical: a trip to the Austrian-Hungarian 'twin monarchy'! Most of the Ajax players had never set foot across the border as they departed from Amsterdam Central Station on 23 May 1912. Ajax played its first ever game on foreign soil in Budapest, against the mighty MTK Budapest, twofold national champions and playing with internationals. MTK proved far too strong for the Amsterdammers (5-1) - but who cared? The players surely didn't. They'd seen Budapest - and Vienna, too (where they lost again, this time to Wiener SC: 2-0). Very, very few Dutchmen could say that in 1912.

At home Ajax continued to have a hard time remaining upright in the First Class. While Sparta (Rotterdam) and DFC (Dordrecht) were the dominant factors at the top of the table, Ajax finished last-but-one in 1913 and (finally and inevitably) bottom in 1914. The happiest day in club history (the 1911 promotion) was, sooner than planned, followed by the saddest: 17 May 1914 was the day of Ajax's first ever relegation - and it still is the club's only relegation today. Back to the Second Class. The ambitious AFC Ajax had to start all over again.

January 1913: playing the reigning Dutch champions, Sparta Rotterdam.

The relegation marked the birth of a tradition that still typifies Ajax today: Ajacieden expect their club to win and whenever the results are bad the atmosphere within the club turns grim. The emotions during the General Members' Meeting of 18 June 1914 ran so high that the first club crisis soon was a fact: the entire board, except chairman Egeman, resigned on 20 June.

In 1914, too, football sometimes seemed larger than life itself for those who loved the game. Eight days later, however, it became clear that there are more important things in life. On 28 June, during a visit to the city of Sarajevo, archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was shot dead by a Serbian nationalist named Gabrilo Prinzip. A chain reaction of war declarations followed and a historic carnage commenced in the trenches of Flanders and northern France. German troops briefly marched over Dutch soil and the Dutch army remained mobilized for a considerable time, but The Netherlands ultimately managed to stay out of The Great War, the bloodiest war the world had ever seen.

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