THE EVOLUTION OF AJAX: 1945 - 2012

Following on from part one (available here), we work our way up to the present day 

It took just three weeks for Dutch football to get back up and running again following the country’s liberation from German occupation. The previous five years had been a harrowing period of time for the country, an experience that had afflicted an immeasurable amount of damage to its inhabitants. The decision to usher the return of football so soon after the conclusion of war was sagacious, as a need to get life back to some form of normality was required.

The first national title was won by the now defunct HFC Haarlem, with Ajax, back under the leadership of Jack Reynolds, finishing as runner up. The following year, Reynolds and Ajax would win their eighth national title, their first since 1939. This championship win would be the last under the guidance of Reynolds; the manager had decided to call time on his third and final spell in charge of the club.

Reynolds’ contribution to Ajax and Dutch football as a whole can never be overstated; his ideologies not only transformed the fortunes of the club during the early years of the century, but also laid the foundations for the most glorious period of football in Holland and one of the greatest club sides ever seen in the game during the 1970s. Quite simply, without Jack Reynolds, the history of Ajax would not appear so resplendent.

Ajax now had to plan life without their mercurial leader; and for a while, this proved to be a difficult task. The succeeding years brought a period of transition, a time to rebuild the squad. Little of note happened for the rest of the 1940s, and, aside from a regional title at the start of the decade, the early part of the 1950s also failed to bear fruit for the club.

In truth, Ajax weren’t alone in their period of alteration. The whole of Dutch football was evolving during the mid 1950s, and two changes were implemented around this time. The first came in 1954, when professional football was introduced in Holland. The second was the formalisation of the Dutch national championship, now known as the Eredivisie.

Ajax would win the very first ‘Eredivisie’ title in 1957. This was the first time in exactly a decade that the club had been champions of Holland. Another three years of mediocrity passed before championship success was tasted again in 1960. Under the guidance of Englishman Vic Buckingham, the manner of this title win was particularly palatable for Ajax fans.  

Having finished their league campaign level on points with arch-rivals Feyenoord, a play-off was required in order to determine which team would lift the championship trophy. Ajax crushed their opponents 5-1 on the day, with striker Wim Bleijenberg scoring a hat-trick. This victory delivered the club’s tenth Dutch championship, and once again, they were the kings of Holland. Feyenoord would gain vengeance for that humbling defeat with two successive title wins.

After winning the Dutch cup in 1961, Ajax would again fall into a state of decline. In 1965, the club came perilously close to falling into the abyss of Dutch football. Ultimately, the battle against relegation would be won. However, the tribulations of the club’s decline would cost Vic Buckingham his job and he would be replaced by former player Rinus Michels; an appointment that would soon turn out to be hugely significant. Although 1965 turned out to be a year that Ajax fans would choose to erase from their memory, the return of Michels, as well as the emergence of a young player named Johan Cruyff would soon bring fortunes that would transform the club from being a domestic power to a puissant European force.

Michels’ impact at the club as manager was swift. Quite simply, he brought about a revolution at Ajax football club. With the foundations he embedded, such as a new attacking approach to their football, the next two decades would bring awesome success to Amsterdam. Michels’ employment of ‘Total Football’ was what this side was built around, and under his leadership, this lauded tactical system would ascend from being the innovative ideology introduced by Jack Reynolds decades before, to a theory that one of the game’s greatest club sides used as a predicate for success.

Domestically, Ajax blew away any competition for the next three years. The title win in ’66 was their first in six years; in 1967 they scored a national record of 122 goals, 33 by Johan Cruyff, as they secured their first ever domestic double, beating NAC Breda in the final. The following season saw the completion of a title hat-trick, with Feyenoord once again finishing as runner-up (the third time in as many years).

Ajax was in the middle of what was an exceptional period of time for the club. Revered for their advocacy of flowing, attractive football, the club could also point to the trophies that were being collected to back up their grandeur.

Despite not tasting any success in 1969, the club made significant strides in establishing its name in European competition. The previous season’s European Cup defeat to Real Madrid had caught the attention of spectators outside of Holland, and Ajax’s journey, but ultimate defeat to AC Milan in the final of Europe’s elite competition in 1969 enhanced what was already a burgeoning reputation.

Ajax success would soon return in plethoric form. In 1970, they completed their second double in three years. After once again succeeding in wrestling the trophy away from the hands of Feyenoord, the club went onto claim the Dutch cup, beating PSV in the final. Despite the glory of achieving a domestic double, Ajax would finish the season lusting after the European Cup; a craving intensified after Feyenoord lifted the trophy following their victory over Celtic in Milan.

In 1971 however, the European Cup would finally rest in the Ajax trophy cabinet. Domestically, the club’s remarkable battle with Feyenoord continued; this time it was the Rotterdammer’s turn to win the Eredivisie.  The defeat of Sparta ensured a second successive Dutch Cup triumph, but it was victory over Panathinaikos at Wembley, on June 2nd 1971, that finally gave the Amsterdammers the title of ‘European champions.’

This title would not be relinquished the following season; in fact, 1972 provided Ajax with their greatest year. The loss of influential manager Rinus Michels failed to deter the club from ascending to the peak of greatness. A fifteenth national title, as well as a seventh Dutch cup had been secured by the time two Johan Cruyff goals defeated Internazionale 2-0 in the European Cup final. The celebrations of winning a second consecutive European title were euphoric; but what distinguished this triumph even further was the fact that the trophy had been won at the De Kuip – the home of their great rivals Feyenoord. By the end of 1972, Ajax had won every competition they entered, adding the Intercontinental cup and UEFA Super Cup to their list of triumphs.

Ajax was now the foremost club in European football. The class they oozed on the pitch was matched by the end product they were achieving. No team, it seemed, could match them.

The task in 1973 was to replicate the previous year’s phenomenal success. By the end of the season, Ajax came so close to doing just that. The Eredivisie was secured once again, as was the European Cup. For the second year in a row, Ajax had beaten Italian opposition in the final. On this occasion, it was an early Johnny Rep goal that defeated Juventus in Belgrade. The only trophy missing was the Dutch cup. Alas, Ajax missed out on a second consecutive treble, and therefore had to make do with the two trophies that season.

When a team reaches heights that had previously been insupposable, it’s inevitable that somewhere along the line it has to disintegrate. Ajax’s dominance weakened after the 1973 triumph, and it all began with the departure of Johan Cruyff to Barcelona. His exit signalled the end of the ’12 apostles’ and soon the club’s grasp on football, both domestically and abroad, would begin to loosen. The era of ‘Gloria Ajax’ was coming to a conclusion.

It wouldn’t be until 1977 that Ajax would win the Eredivisie again, repeating the success again in 1979, along with a triumphant Dutch Cup campaign. The club ended what had been a glorious decade on a high.

The 1980s began domestically as the 1970s had ended. Further titles were won in 1980 and 1982. In 1983 the club won its fifth domestic double since 1967.  However Ajax, who between ’81 and ’83 had Cruyff back amongst their ranks, failed to challenge in Europe as they had done in the previous decade. Cruyff left again in 1983 following a clash with the Ajax board, but in 1985 he would return, and this time, it was as manager.

His impact was immediately recognisable throughout the 1985/86 season; as an attacking Ajax side went on to score 120 goals during their league campaign. Amongst the contributors was a young player named Marco Van Basten. Despite the free-flowing, offensive football on display, Ajax failed to depose PSV as Eredivisie champions. European success was tasted in 1987, however this time it was in the Cup Winners Cup, as Cruyff’s men defeated Lokomotive Leipzig.

Ajax’s league form gradually declined under Cruyff in 1988, and soon he departed the club. Prior to his exit had been Marco Van Basten’s move to AC Milan. Without these two, the club soon fell even further behind PSV, who dominated domestically, as well as matching Ajax’s feat of 1972 by achieving the treble in 1988.

PSV’s Eredivisie ascendancy was only checked momentarily, when in 1990, a Leo Beenhakker led Ajax would narrowly beat Rood-witten to the title. The high of winning their 23rd title would be matched by the low of their yearlong European suspension the following season. UEFA had castigated the club for an incident in a UEFA cup tie against Austria Wien, where their goalkeeper was struck by an object thrown by the partisan Ajax crowd.

Beenhakker would depart for Real Madrid in 1991, and his replacement would be his assistant, Louis Van Gaal. With their new erudite manager, a man rich in tactical knowledge, and a new crop of technically gifted young players coming through the ranks, the 1990s would provide Ajax with something of a renaissance.

Van Gaal’s tenure began with immediate success, as his Dennis Bergkamp inspired side would win the UEFA Cup. The following year Eredivisie success would return to Rotterdam, with Ajax having to make do with the Dutch Cup.

In 1994 however, Van Gaal would deliver the first of three successive league titles, and in 1995, after an unbeaten Eredivisie campaign, Ajax would once again, be the kings of Europe. A 1-0 win over Milan, thanks to a late goal from 18 year-old striker Patrick Kluivert, delivered the crown back to Amsterdam. Ajax was now enjoying their second ‘golden generation.’ Of the 11 starters for the final in Vienna, 9 were Dutch. The likes of Van Der Saar, the De Boer brothers, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf would go onto achieve more success around Europe later in their careers.

A year later Ajax impressed in Europe again, reaching their second successive final in Rome. Unlike the great team of the 1970s though, the reigning European champions couldn’t defend their crown, as Italian giants Juventus defeated Van Gaal’s men on penalties to take the trophy to Turin. This defeat had far reaching consequences for the team, as many of the individuals integral to the success brought to the club over the past three years departed. Amongst those that left were manager Van Gaal, who took over at Barcelona, Seedorf went to Sampdoria and Davids joined Milan. By the end of 1998, the likes of the De Boer brothers, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert had all vacated Amsterdam.

Despite the regular exodus of stars from their side, 1998 did see Ajax achieve yet another domestic double.

Up until 2011, Ajax has enjoyed success in fits and starts. Dutch championship wins in 2002 and 2004, as well as four cup wins have just about kept their trophy winning tradition alive. Success on the pitch has hugely been threatened with unrest behind the scenes in recent years; the likes of Ronald Koeman, Marco Van Basten and Johan Cruyff have all come into the club in some capacity, but departed soon after in acrimonious circumstances.

The club has always continued to bring through players from their esteemed academy, but have always been forced to sell on when clubs from around Europe have come up with offers, giving Ajax the undesirable tag of being ‘a selling club.’

Title wins in 2011 and 2012 under manager Frank De Boer have catapulted Ajax to the top of Holland’s football hierarchy once again. At present, things look particularly positive for Der Amsterdammers, but to create a future that’s anywhere near as glorious as its past, maybe a near impossible task for one of the game’s staple clubs.

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