Ajax and the Irish connection

Ajax’s first professional coach was Wicklow native John Kirwan, who allegedly played a key role in choosing the club’s iconic white shirt with a red vertical strip.

Ajax and the Irish connection

John Kirwan had already accomplished quite a lot before he arrived in Amsterdam in 1910.

Sixteen years earlier, the Wicklow native was part of the Dublin senior team that claimed the All-Ireland football championship in contentious and controversial circumstances.

Facing Cork at Clonturk Park in Drumcondra, the first game ended in a draw while the replay was abandoned after players from both sides – and spectators too – brawled with only a few minutes left.

When order was restored, Dublin refused to play on. Central Council later decided a second replay should take place but Cork refused and, disgusted, subsequently withdrew from the GAA in protest.

As a result, Dublin – and the 17-year-old Kirwan - were crowned champions.

Kirwan played for the Young Irelands club, based in Meath Street, which — owing to its proximity — boasted many Guinness employees as team members.

Surrounded by strong, uncompromising men, a teenager would’ve required a steely toughness to merely survive and even more to flourish.

It’s not known if he had shown a prowess for the game before but within a number of years, Kirwan had moved to Merseyside, was rechristened Jack and joined local football team Southport.

A pacy, exciting left winger, it wasn’t long before Everton began to sniff around.

One of the founding members of the Football League in 1888, they won a first championship three years later. They were a dominant force, so, when they approached Kirwan and signed him in 1898, it was a big deal.

They had just lost a marquee striker – John Cameron – who, as an early advocate for players’ rights, turned his back on the Football League’s plans to introduce a maximum wage and keep a vice-like grip on their employees.

With the top tier dominated by clubs in the north of the country, the Scot moved to the Southern League and signed for Tottenham, taking over as player/manager in 1899.

One of the first things he did was sign Kirwan. It proved an inspired move. He won a league title in 1900 and his form in London saw him receive a first international cap the same year.

Then, the following season, Spurs made history and became the first non-league club to win the FA Cup, beating Sheffield United in a replay. Kirwan made over 350 appearances in six seasons for Tottenham before he moved to Chelsea.

He enjoyed three years there before finishing out his playing career with stints at Clyde and Leyton FC.

And then, upon retiring in 1910, he, rather inexplicably, turned up at Ajax and was appointed the club’s first professional coach.

“As Britain was rightly considered the ‘Land of Football’ at the time, Ajax looked for a British trainer, as the Dutch Football Federation and many other clubs in Holland had already done,” says David Endt, a writer, columnist and former Ajax player and executive.

“I’m ashamed to say that, at first, he was taken for an Englishman.”

Ajax had only been in existence for a decade at that point and were plying their trade in the second division. What motivated Kirwan to take the job?

For Kirwan, he had the chance to use his opinions and methods to try and shape the fortunes of a club in its infancy. It was a wholly unique environment for everyone involved. Especially Ajax.

“In order to be able to pay Kirwan, a special fund was installed by the club,” Endt says.

“General members gave money while board members set a good example by donating a week’s salary. An unknown member of the club even donated the then extremely large sum of 100 guilders.

“Kirwan was the first foreign trainer but, what’s more, he was the first real trainer. In previous years the sessions had been led by the players themselves.”

The new man did bring about some instant success as Ajax achieved promotion to the top-flight in his first campaign.

“Kirwan was celebrated,” Endt says.

“The president of the club, Han Dade, made a speech in Dutch! Obviously, Kirwan only understood a few words but he got the idea and there was a celebratory parade through Amsterdam.”

And, in 1911, Kirwan oversaw another major milestone in the club’s history.

Previously, Ajax had played in red and white stripes. But, to avoid confusion with Sparta Rotterdam, they were forced to change their design.

And, with Kirwan allegedly playing a key role in choosing it, the now-iconic white shirt with a vertical red stripe was born.

Ajax spent a number of seasons admirably keeping their heads above water but in the 1913/14 campaign, they suffered a humiliating 9-1 defeat to FC Dordrecht – their heaviest in history – and Kirwan was on the ropes. When relegation was confirmed, so was his departure.

Later, there was a stint in charge of Bohemians while, in 1923, his curiosity returned and he briefly took over as boss of Italian side Livorno.

However, around that time, Kirwan – like so many players and coaches of that era – seemed to suffer financial difficulties.

In an Irish Football Association Finance Committee minute book from 1924, it’s noted that Kirwan had asked for a £10 donation to help his situation — a request that was granted. But the following decade, he was still asking for help. This time, his friends in Amsterdam stepped up to the plate.

“After leaving, Kirwan always kept in touch with the club,” Endt says.

“But in the 1930s, due to The Great Depression, he got into financial trouble. Ajax members raised an aid-fund to help him. Kirwan was moved and reacted with an emotional statement which was later published in the Ajax Club Magazine.”

Kirwan settled in London and passed away in 1959, his legacy as both a superb player and historic Ajax coach assured.

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