As Ajax and Arsenal goalkeepers take centre stage in the Champions League tonight - Dan Brennan pays homage to the man who, 80 years ago, turned out for both teams between the sticks… at the same time.
The Dutch have a phrase, 'vliegende keep' - it means, literally, ‘flying keeper’ and is sometimes used to describe custodians of a particularly acrobatic bent. It was first coined in honour of one Gerrit Keizer, who played 302 league games for Ajax between 1933 and 1948. Less well documented is the fact that, 65 years before Bergkamp famously refused to fly for Arsenal, Keizer was doing a regular aerial commute between North London and Amsterdam – holding down a gig for the Gunners as well as the Dutch giants.
Keizer turfed up at Highbury in the summer of 1930, barely out of his teens. Already on the books at Ajax, he had come to England to improve his English. And having “kept a splendid goal” in a couple of trial games, he impressed the legendary Herbert Chapman into signing him. He only played just 13 first-team games, but made a valuable contribution to Arsenal’s first ever league title, while making a considerable impression off the pitch too.
Keizer's English moniker, 'the Flying Dutchman', referred less to his feats between the sticks, and more to his travel habits. Having turned out for Arsenal on a Saturday, Keizer would then - Dennis Bergkamp look away now - fly back to Amsterdam that evening or the following morning, so that he could line up for the Ajax second team on the Sunday. The Dutchman was, in the words of teammate Cliff Bastin, “a crazy character”, who amazed fellow players by driving an American sports car. His flamboyance carried onto the pitch too, where he was acrobatic and erratic in equal measure.
Discounting various Irishmen and the odd player born in colonial India, Keizer was the Gunners’ first proper overseas player – and his arrival caused something of a furore. Earlier that summer, Chapman had actually tried to sign the Austrian Rudi Hiden, then regarded as the best in Europe. However, when Hiden landed at Dover, he found himself refused entry, thanks to the combined efforts of the Ministry of Labour and the FA, keen to take a stand against the threat of foreign players to homegrown talent.
So when Chapman turned instead to a Dutchman, the suits were outraged. But as Keizer was already in the country, and was signed as an amateur, there was nothing that they could do. “Thus we had a club of untold wealth who could well afford to get a professional [British] goalkeeper, who in turn would make room for another unemployed [British] professional, playing a player with an alien permit and without pay,” fulminated football administrator, Charles Sutcliffe in the influential Topical Times”
Eventually the bureaucrats struck back. As a direct response to the Hiden and Keizer affair, on 1 June 1931 the FA passed a rule effectively banning all foreigners (unless they had been in residence for two years), which remained in place until 1939.
Keizer, though, made his Arsenal debut on 30 August 1930 in the season’s opener, a 4-1 away win at Blackpool, and a brave single-handed save earned him a mention in dispatches.
Despite playing in just one defeat over the next 12 games, including Arsenal’s Charity Shield victory over Sheffield Wednesday, his propensity for error meant he soon fell from grace with Chapman. After brief stints with Charlton and QPR, he finally headed back to Holland, and Ajax, in 1933, where, over the next 15 years, he notched up 302 league appearances (only 10 players have made more). He was though to return to Arsenal once more, on urgent business for the Amsterdam club.
“When Ajax were getting back on their feet directly after the War, they had some problems finding strips for the team to play in,” his grandson, Peter Keizer, a well-known Dutch artist, told me a few years back. “My granddad offered to contact his old friends at Arsenal to see if they could help. He flew to London, and, sure enough, they provided him with a set of kits.”
And so it was that for a short period Ajax played in Arsenal colours. “My grandmother did the laundry and washed all the kits,” continues Peter Keizer. “Then one day she mixed up the washes and the sleeves ended up pink, so Ajax stopped wearing them.”
There was, however, one more twist in the tale. The entrepreneurial Keizer continued to make regular shuttle flights between Amsterdam and London, each time bringing back consignments of football kit, which were still deficit in Holland. However, it transpired that this was not all he was bringing back. On his return from one such trip in late 1947, Dutch customs discovered that, concealed within a set of footballs, was a substantial quantity of foreign currency. An illegal offence, and it earned Keizer a fine of 30,000 guilders [the equivalent of around £3,000 back then] and six-month prison sentence, bringing an abrupt end to his playing career.
It was a temporary setback. Keizer eventually went on to build one of the best-known greengrocers businesses in Amsterdam, and in 1955 was invited to serve on the Ajax board, a position he held for seven years. He died, aged 70, in 1980. A pair of his old boots hang in the Ajax Museum as a tribute to his 15 years of service, as does one of those pink-sleeved Arsenal shirts - a cryptic clue to the influence of Arsenal’s original Flying Dutchman.
Dan is one of the UK's best football journalists and writes regularly for FourFourTwo, When Saturday Comes and World Soccer magazine. You can follow him on twitter @DanBrennan99