Thursday, March 1, 2007

Ajax... Fifteen Years Ago: March 1992

by Menno Pot

On Sunday 01 March Ajax can finally make the long trip north that was vetoed by the mayor of Groningen in September, due to an imminent, arranged 'hooligan battle' in downtown Groningen. Today, the game can be played, but safety measures are overwhelming. Police have blocked off all access roads, as a trap for Ajax supporters without tickets. Out of fear of fan violence, local authorities have turned the city of Groningen into a stronghold.

Oosterpark Stadium is a stronghold in a different way: Groningen are no longer the title contenders they were last season, but they're still 6th on the table. It's gonna be a tough one. Dennis Bergkamp serves his one game suspension today, as Ajax start in a 4-4-2 with Van 't Schip and Kreek as the two outer midfielders and both Pettersson and Van Loen upfront. The deadlock remains intact for well over an hour, but then suddenly things go very fast. Groningen's battering ram Harris Huizingh gives his team a 1-0 lead (68'), but Ajax strike back immediately and decisively. Stefan Pettersson levels the score (72') and Michel Kreek fires Ajax's second into the net (75'): 1-2. Wonderful result.

Ajax now have three days to prepare for the first UEFA Cup quarter final fixture, in Belgium at AA Ghent. Knowing that Ghent is not very far from Amsterdam (the drive is hardly longer than Sunday's trip to Groningen, in fact) the local police fear a large scale invasion of Amsterdam hooligans. Once again, a beautiful old town - this time in Flanders - waits in fear for the arrival of the Ajax supporters, who still have a bit of a reputation in Europe. Fortunately, the Dutch visitors are at their best behaviour this time.

Defender Claus Boekweg is late. Stefan Pettersson has equalized against Groningen, 01 March 1992.

It appears that AA Ghent are as afraid of Ajax as the local police of the Ajax supporters: they hardly have the courage to attack and wait for opportunities to counter-attack. Ajax attack cautiously. The Amsterdammers create a number of string of good scoring chances, but the final score is 0-0, a promising result for the return leg in Amsterdam. In two weeks' time European football will finally return to the Dutch capital, two years and six months after that ill-fated evening at De Meer in September 1989. A new, provisional light-plant has been put up at the Olympic Stadium. The old 'concrete colossus' of Amsterdam-South will be sold out to the last seat. Ajax, meanwhile, ask the KNVB to make the league game against FC Twente (scheduled for Sunday 15 March) one day earlier, so that the team will have an extra day to prepare. The request is granted: Ajax vs FC Twente is re-scheduled to Saturday evening, 14 March.

But first: another 'Classic', the third of the current season, in the quarter final of the KNVB Cup. It is played on Sunday 08 March, one day after PSV's comfortable 2-0 home win over Vitesse in the Eredivisie. The Dutch cup may not be Ajax's top priority at the moment ('UEFA Cup fever' is about in Amsterdam), but the Classic is always the Classic. Ajax get sucked in in the first half, in which the hosts (John de Wolf and Henk Fräser, particularly) have their bayonets out and kick everything that moves. Stefan Pettersson is hit in the face by Fräser's boot after 31 minutes and has to be replaced, his face covered in blood.

Ajax have their chances and play the better football as usual, but it is clear that the match means a bit more to Feyenoord than it does to Ajax. Two minutes after the half-time break the Amsterdammers pay the price for it. John Metgod's thru-pass is converted by Rob Witschge and De Kuip almost explodes with joy: 1-0. Indeed: good old Robbie Witschge, a typical Amsterdammer and a typical Ajacied in many ways... That hurts. Feyenoord close the shop for the remainder of the second half and Ajax are out of the KNVB Cup.

Need we say more...? Ajax vs FC Twente, 14 March 1992.

Ajax vs FC Twente, on Saturday evening 14 March, is the last fixture before the Ghent return match. It is the first time for Frank de Boer to play against his twin brother Ronald at De Meer. Their parents are on the main stand, hoping for a result both of their boys can live with, but after the final whistle Frank is the only one smiling, whereas Ronald must be one of the most gutted men on the planet: 7-0 Ajax, after what was by far the Amsterdammers' best performance of the season. What a stunning football show it was, with Wim Jonk, John van Loen and Dennis Bergkamp as the excellent backbone of Louis van Gaal's team. Their partnership never worked as well as it did tonight: Jonk sprayed his perfect long passes across the pitch and Van Loen flicked them on with the head for Dennis Bergkamp, lightning-quick as always. The opening goal comes from Jonk's boot (9') and Van Loen nets twice (48', 80'), whereas Bergkamp hits for three (54', 78', 81'). Aron Winter also scores one (17'). Frank: seven, Ronald: nil... It is a result the De Boers won't easily forget.

Noteworthy detail: referee Roelof Luinge decides that Twente's home and away kits look too much like the red and white of Ajax. Therefore, Ajax wear their away jerseys in front of their home crowd: Ajax in green, at De Meer, a unique sight. The next day PSV book an easy road win at FC Volendam (0-3). The Eindhoven league leaders now have 45 points out of 27 matches. Ajax have finally leapfrogged Feyenoord (who are more serious competition than in previous seasons) and are now second with 43 out of 28.

Oh, have Ajax - and their supporters - missed this... It is Wednesday 18 March, the first 'European Cup night' at the old Olympic Stadium since April 1988. Amsterdam is completely and totally up for it: fireworks, red torches, chants, a constant roar and a sea of red and white scarfs behind the goal at the city end... The 'Düsseldorf games' were alright, but this is a different story. Tonight, Ajax really celebrate their return to 'Europe'. Coach Louis van Gaal surprises everyone by benching John van Loen (he was great against Twente on Saturday) and restore Bryan Roy to favour: it is the left winger's first appearance in the starting eleven since mid-February.

GOAL! Michel Kreek slams home against AA Ghent at the Olympic Stadium, 18 March 1992.

AA Ghent are mere onlookers tonight - and they know it. Ajax bulldoze their Belgian opposition in the opening phase. Michel Kreek's slamming header in the 8th minute gives Ajax an early lead and only two minutes later an erratic backpass from defender Michel de Groote demonstrates how badly AA Ghent have lost the plot. Dennis Bergkamp has a free passage and beautifully chips the ball into the far side netting: 2-0 after only ten minutes. Ghent are K.O., as 42,000 Ajax supporters go mad. This is a dream return to the European spotlights.

For 80 minutes the game is little bit dull, to say the least, but no-one at the 'Olympic' seems to care. Ajax have a little treat in store for their fans, who are absolutely wonderful tonight. In the last minute of the game a perfect demonstration of 'one touch football' via Bergkamp and substitute Van Loen ends up on an onstorming Wim Jonk's right boot: his perfect shot from the edge of the box slams into the corner, out of goalkeeper Petry's reach: 3-0 (90'). Ajax are in the semis - and what a fantastic party this was. The draw, on Friday, determines that Genoa 1893, last season's #3 in Italy, are Ajax's next opponents. Away game first, on Wednesday 01 April, followed by another cracker at the 'Olympic' on 15 April. The fans can hardly wait.

There is no Eredivisie football in the weekend of 21 and 22 March, due to a friendly fixture between The Netherlands and Yugoslavija, played at a venue the Oranje don't frequently visit: De Meer in Amsterdam. Four Ajax players are called up by Rinus Michels: Winter, Van 't Schip, Menzo and Blind. The game can be regarded Holland win by the score of 2-0 courtesy of two former Ajax players: Wim Kieft and Jan Wouters.

The last hurdle in the Eredivisie before departure to Genoa is Sparta. Rob Alflen, Bryan Roy and John van Loen play from the start at The Castle in Rotterdam. Dennis Bergkamp is rested, so that Stefan Pettersson rather surprisingly starts as Ajax's 'number 10'. The hosts are all over Ajax in the first half and take a well-deserved 1-0 lead, as Edwin Vurens converts a 20th minute penalty. In the second half, however, Ajax demonstrate their excellent form of March 1992 by scoring three goals in twelve minutes' time, as if it were nothing: Jonk, De Boer and Winter are the scorers, 1-3 to Ajax is the final score. Meanwhile, PSV book a hard-fought 2-1 win over Feyenoord in Eindhoven, so the status quo at the top of the Eredivisie table remains unchanged, but Louis van Gaal's boys seem to be pretty much unbeatable at the moment - and board their plane to Italy with confidence. These are good times. (MP)

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