Ajax 1971 – men of their time
Posted on September 18, 2020
AMSTERDAM was a “cool” place in 1970. It was one of the last cities to dispense with hippy culture, the hair was long, the clothes bright and the mood upbeat. It was liberated and easy and the Dutch were among the most mellow folk in Europe. It was no coincidence that Amsterdam was where John Lennon and Yoko Ono decided to launch their “bed-in” to promote world peace.
From a football perspective, Dutch football was in the ascendancy. In 1969, Ajax had reached the European Cup final and in 1970, Feyenoord had gone one better and won the trophy. An emerging style of football, which later became known as “total football” was starting to change the face of the game.
When Ajax reached the 1969 final, it was something of a surprise, but the world was starting to recognise Dutch talent, notably Johan Cruyff. Ajax were fairly well hammered in Madrid by AC Milan, their inexperience showing through as the more savvy Italians ran out easy 4-1 winners. Ajax went on to lift the Eredivisie in 1969-70, holding off the challenge of Feyenoord, and completed the “double” by beating PSV Eindhoven in the KNVB Final.
Just how ready Ajax were to compete with the top clubs of Europe was open to debate – they had been easily beaten by a mid-table Arsenal side in the Inter-Cities’ Fairs Cup in 1970 leading the Gunners’ manager Bertie Mee to comment the Dutch seemed rather naïve. But something was stirring as England discovered when they endured two very difficult games against the Netherlands, a 0-0 draw at Wembley and a narrow 1-0 victory in Amsterdam.
Since 1969, Ajax had added Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Gerrie Mühren and Arie Haan to their line-up and the ethos being developed by coach Rinus Michels and championed by his protégé, Cruyff, was gathering momentum. The team represented a new European order, one that would challenge, and eventually defeat, the stifling catenaccio peddled by the Italians and also make the English game look quite pedestrian.
With their flowing hair and flowing football, not to mention the iconic white and red shirts, Ajax were certainly of their time. In fact, Ajax and the Dutch national team are often compared to the Beatles and Liverpool in terms of their cultural importance. Journalist Jaap De Groot, in assessing the golden period of Dutch football, said the early 1970s were a free spirit time in Amsterdam and Ajax were a free spirit team.
Michels had joined Ajax in 1965 and transformed Ajax from a club with a laissez-faire culture to a professional outfit brimming with invention and charisma. Piet Keizer described Michels training programme as “the hardest preparation I ever had. We sometimes had four sessions a day”. Cruyff described his mentor as a perfectionist. The pair often squabbled but as the famous number 14 said, “we were becoming a machine for producing football”.
The “total football” approach saw Michels encourage players to adopt any position – full backs moving into attack, forwards dropping back into midfield and goalkeepers making full use of their area. It was all about versatility and that meant Ajax had 11 dangerous players on the pitch at any one time.
Michels’ technique began the rise of Ajax, but the 1970-71 season was to be his last in charge of this particular team. He moved to Barcelona after considering his job done for the time being.
Ajax’s European campaign began with a relatively easy tie against Albania’s 17 Nëntori, but in the first leg, they wasted the two-goal lead Wim Suurbier had given them. A fortnight later, Ajax won comfortably 2-0. The second round saw them beat Basel, the Swiss champions, 5-1 on aggregate, sending them into 1971 as quarter-finalists where they were paired with Scotland’s Celtic, the 1967 winners.
In 1970-71, Celtic were still one of Europe’s top sides and had the core of their Lisbon Lions side still intact, but it was starting to age. They had won through to the last eight in prolific goalscoring mood, netting 14 in the first round against Finnish champions KPV and another 10 against Ireland’s Waterford.
Ajax received a scare before the game in that Indonesian separatists had threatened to kidnap their players. On the evidence of the first leg, this did little to curb their confidence.
Celtic’s David Hay was asked by Jock Stein to man-mark Ajax’s star man. “Their whole team was world-class but Cruyff was exceptional,” recalled Hay some years later. Hay’s role hinted at a defensive strategy on Celtic’s part and that’s exactly how they approached the game in Amsterdam. Both Cruyff and Michels were surprised at how uncharacteristically cautious Stein’s men were.
Celtic’s defensive wall hung on until the 62nd minute when Cruyff finished off a move that started with a long ball. Interestingly, the Scottish media felt Ajax were not the match on Feyenoord in the quality of their football, that Michels’ team were more direct. That was not the general consensus, Ajax were considered to be the more enterprising of the two.
Ajax scored two more goals, a free kick by Barry Hulshoff and a Cruyff-created effort by Piet Keizer. A three-goal lead had almost killed-off Celtic, but Michels refused to contemplate the semi-finals. Celtic won 1-0 at Hampden Park in front of more than 80,000 people, but Ajax were praised for their performance.
Meanwhile, Ajax were trying to retain their Eredivisie title, but old rivals Feyenoord were matching them game-by-game. From the end of February 1971 to the penultimate game of the season, Ajax did not concede a single goal, a run of 11 games in which they scored 34 times.
Ajax were drawn against Atlético Madrid in the semi-finals. The Spanish champions were being challenged all the way in 1970-71 with Valencia and Barcelona better placed to win La Liga. Atléti won the first leg in Spain 1-0 and made Ajax work hard for their second leg victory, two of the three goals coming in the final 10 minutes. Ruud Krol, who had been so pivotal in Ajax’s season, would not be in the squad for the Wembley final as he broke his leg in the KNVB Cup semi-final against NEC Nijmegen.
Ajax’s 3-0 victory took them through to meet Greece’s Panathinaikos, a team managed by Ferenc Puskas, a man who knew all about European Cup finals. If some people were surprised by Ajax’s return to the final, Panathinaikos were absolute outsiders, even though they had beaten Everton and Red Star Belgrade, the latter after the Yugoslavs had surrendered a 4-1 first leg victory.
Ajax won the KNVB Cup, beating Sparta Rotterdam, but their next game would be against Sparta’s rivals, Feyenoord. Six days before the European Cup final, Ajax, who were top of the Eredivisie but level on points with Feyenoord, filled the Olympic Stadium in the penultimate game of the campaign. It was effectively the title decider. Ajax took the lead through Keizer, who bundled the ball home from close range, but he was injured and had to be replaced. Ove Kindvall, one of Feyenoord’s goalscorers in the 1970 European Cup final, levelled early in the second half and just on the hour, full back Dick Schneider put the visitors ahead. Ajax pushed forward, but Schneider netted a spectacular third with six minutes remaining. Feyenoord were as good as champions with one game to play.
It could be argued that Ajax had more than one eye on the Wembley encounter with Panathinaikos, but they had slipped-up right at the end of the campaign. Krol’s absence may have contributed, but Feyenoord must have been sick of hearing about Cruyff and his team of cavaliers who were now the darlings of the European media.
Ajax were red hot favourites for the European Cup and their fans poured into London, many of whom created good-natured mayhem in the city centre. In some respects, the final was meant to anoint the new prince of European football, Cruyff, and the fluid Ajax side that had become a breath of fresh air after years of stale, defence-minded football.
The noisy and colourful crowd didn’t have to wait long for the first signs that a Dutch team would win for the second successive season. Keizer swung the ball over from the left and Dick Van Dijk glanced his header past Panathinaikos goalkeeper Takis Ikonomopoulos. Ajax controlled the game, but had to wait until the 87th minute to clinch victory, substitute Arie Haan’s untidy goal finishing-off the Greeks.
While Cruyff treated the fans to one of his famous 180 degrees turns, the Dutch master’s control of the game, pointing, gesturing, directing and cajoling, gave the football world a glimpse of what was to come in the following few years.
Ajax and their fans enjoyed their first European triumph, a team that would shape football in the early-to-mid 70s and form the heart of the Dutch national team that ranks as the finest never to be world champions. As for Ajax, they were deserved and wonderful European champions.
The Ajax team that won the 1971 European Cup: Heinz Stuy, Velibor Vasović (captain), Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Nico Rijnders (Horst Blankenberg), Johan Neeskens, Sjaak Swart (Arie Haan), Dick van Dijk, Piet Keizer and Johan Cruyff.