From Cruyff to Ten Hag: Ajax’s rich coaching history

As Ajax players and fans were celebrating the double on 16th of May, they were also thinking about the same thing. “We could be in the Champions League final.” Ajax were counting down the seconds for the final whistle on 8th May but Lucas Moura’s last minute goal changed the buyer of the Champions League final ticket to Madrid. It was Ajax’s first semi final since 1997 and the success of the team made major clubs to buy two of the starting line up players.

As Frankie De Jong transferring to Barcelona and Matthijs de Ligt to Juventus proved, this process was like the destiny of Ajax since the early 1970’s. After their first ever European Champions Cup victory, manager Rinus Michels went to Barcelona to formalize the first steps of total football in his new team. With Stefan Kovacs replacing Rinus Michels, Ajax continued their glory years in Europe and won the European Cup two more years in 1972 and 1973. But the following year, with Johan Cruyff transfering to Barcelona and Stefan Kovacs going to France to manage the national team and by 1975 with the departures of Arie Haan and Johnny Rep and Piet Keizer retiring, the first golden generation of Ajax came to an end.

After more than a decade of the first golden years, Ajax won the Cup Winners Cup in 1987, this time Johan Cruyff was the manager and the leader of team was Marco Van Basten. 1987 was also the year that Johan Cruyff going to Barcelona and Marco Van Basten joining Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan. Ajax played final in Cup Winners Cup in 1988 and won the UEFA Cup in 1992, the same things happened as in early 1970’s, star players like Dennis Bergkamp, Aron Winter, Bryan Roy transferred to other teams. But glory years of the 90’s were yet to come. Louis Van Gaal was preparing a new golden generation of club history.

Ajax topped the group stage in 1994/95 season and beat Hajduk Split and Bayern Munich on the road to final to play Fabio Capello’s Milan. Louis Van Gaal started the game with 4-3-3 formation nine of the players from youth academy and two non-Dutch players Jari Litmanen and Finidi George. Patrick Kluivert’s 85th minute goal changed the scoreline and Ajax won the Champions League. With winning Supercup and Intercontinental Cup, Ajax reached to Champions League final in 1996 to make it back to back championship.  But Juventus won the final on penalties after a long drama in Olimpico. The following year Ajax finished Eredivisie in fourth position and were knocked out in Champions League semi final, departures showed up in the summer of 1997. Louis Van Gaal joined Barcelona, Patrick Kluivert, Michael Reiziger and Edgar Davids transferred to Milan and Marc Overmars to Ajax. In 1999 after finishing sixth in Eredivisie, by the departures of Edwin Van der Sar, Jari Litmanen and Danny Blind retiring the golden generation of 90’s came to an end. 

Early 2000’s were reconstruction period for Ajax. After winning the double in 2001-02 season, Ajax reached to Champions League quarter final in 2003 and eliminated to Milan by Jon Dahl Tomasson’s last minute goal. Meanwhile, Erik ten Hag was in his first year as football coach in Twente and would be the manager of Ajax years later. Although the 3-2 loss against Tottenham Hotspur was a dramatic one, it might be the begining of a new “golden generation” era as Ajax are now leading the group stage. Maybe the glory years are yet to come. Time will show.    

By: Onur Bilgic

Photo: ANP