With the famous red band on the front of their white shirt and a history that began in 1900 Ajax of Amsterdam captured the imagination of a generation of football fans in both the 1970’s and the 1990’s with their ” Total Football ” philosophy that brought European Cup and Champions League success and also produced a number of great Dutch internationals as well as a string of young gifted players from their precocious youth system that has been envied and copied by many football clubs all over the continent of Europe.
Before the late 1960’s Dutch club and international football was not something to write home about and before 1969 Ajax were certainly little known to most football fans outside their native Netherlands. In 1956, the first season of the Netherlands’ new professional league, the Eredivisie, was played with Ajax participating as a founding member. The Amsterdam club became the first national champions under the new format and made its debut in the European Champions Cup the following year, losing to Hungarian champions Vasas 6–2 on aggregate at the quarter-final stage.
The team were again Eredivisie champions in 1960 and won a third KNVB Cup in 1961. However, Ajax did not develop into the European powerhouse we know and love straight away and the three years 1962 to 1965 saw a slump in fortunes for the famous Amsterdam club. A new direction was needed and with deadly rivals Feyenoord of Rotterdam starting to gained momentum Ajax had to do something to develop beyond a club well known in Holland and Belgium but little regarded beyond those borders and certainly not in the UK where Scottish teams were even surpassing the achievements of Dutch club sides.
Celtic [ European Cup Winners ] and Rangers [ Cup Winners Cup Runners-Up ] both got to European club finals in 1967 and Kilmarnock almost made it a clean sweep for Scottish sides in Euro finals that year but the Ayrshire club from Rugby Park were ousted at the semi final stage of the Fairs Cup.
While Scottish football would largely slip back in European club competition after that pinnacle in the late 1960’s the Dutch would rise like a phoenix into the 1970’s culminating with the Netherlands national side reaching back to back World Cup finals in 1974 [ defeated by West Germany ] and 1978 [ lost to Argentina ].
This success would be largely driven by an all powerful Ajax side in the early part of that decade.
Rinus Michels rewrote the rule book on tactics at AFC Ajax of Amsterdam, laying the ground for his side to be European champions for three successive seasons in the early 1970s.
Appointed in 1965, coach Rinus Michels transformed Ajax from relegation candidates in the Netherlands to the best side in Europe, his ‘Total Football’ system making household names of the likes of Johan Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Sjaak Swart, Wim Suurbier, Barry Hulshoff, Gerrie Mühren, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol, Velibor Vasović and, of course, Dutch football’s favourite son Johan Cruyff. Losers in the 1969 European Champion Clubs’ Cup final, Ajax were left reeling in 1970 when Feyenoord became the first Dutch club to win club football’s biggest prize shocking 1967 winners Celtic in the final in Milan and winning 2-1 after trailing 1-0 to a Tommy Gemmell goal.
However, they drew level with their arch-rivals, beating Panathinaikos FC 2-0 in the 1971 decider in London at Wembley Stadium, prompting Michels to leave for Barcelona, saying: “I have achieved everything that I could – it is impossible to do better.”
Celtic would fall at the Quarter Final stage to Ajax in 1971 with the Scottish Champions losing 3-0 in Amsterdam but gaining some pride back for Scotland with a 1-0 vicoty in the 2nd Leg in Glasgow. Michels successor Stefán Kovács arguably proved him wrong. Cruyff scored twice as Ajax overcame FC Internazionale [ Inter Milan ] 2-0 in the 1972 final in Rotterdam, and they made it three in a row by edging Juventus 1-0 in the 1973 showpiece in Belgrade. Ajax would also win the first ” Super Cup ” in 1973 when they met Cup Winners Cup holders Rangers in a two-legged tie winning 6-3 on aggregate.
That 1973 European Cup final success arguably remained the pinnacle of Ajax’s achievement; they had ousted Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals and Real Madrid in the semis before Johnny Rep’s early header proved enough to get the better of Juve at the FK Crvena Zvezda Stadium. Glory proved to be fleeting. Cruyff left to link up with Michels at Barcelona, and the two paired up again as the Netherlands reached the 1974 FIFA World Cup final.
However, it took Ajax another 22 years to become European champions for a fourth time, Louis van Gaal overseeing their 1995 UEFA Champions League triumph. Rangers came up against Ajax in the Champions League a year later with the Dutch winning 4-1 at home and 1-0 at Ibrox in the group stage.
The philosophy of ‘Total Football’ hinged on a 4-3-3 formation, with attackers on the wings. Attacks started from the goalkeeper, the ball being played around very quickly, with midfielders and defenders urged to push forward, making Ajax’s players devilishly difficult to man-mark. Heavy pressing and an expertly marshalled offside trap ensured Ajax did not lose possession for long.
“We played a kind of football that was not normal at that time in Europe,” Cruyff recalled. “We played our own style – something you did not see in other countries.”
Ajax v Panathinaikos.1971 European Cup final at Wembley.