From the moment in the 17th minute when a giveaway throw-in ended up with Paul Pogba opening the scoring via a deflected shot, the impossibly youthful boys from Amsterdam were clearly struggling to cope with both the big occasion and the streetwise savvy of Manchester United. By the end, it was a bit like watching an academy side going up against the first team.
Opting for a direct, no-frills, intensely physical approach, United out-muscled and, ultimately, outplayed their opponents. It was hardly ‘the United way’ but then, for all those who care to remember, this wasn’t ‘the Ajax way’ either.
When I was young and easy under the apple boughs and happy as the grass on the pitch was green, the European football landscape, as the 60s swung to a close, had a solid and seemingly permanent look about it to my innocent eyes.
The giants were the teams which were closest to home, Celtic and Manchester United, respectively, the first Scottish and English clubs to win the European Cup, in 1967 and 1968, just as I was beginning to reach the age of reason as a football fan. Then, there was the Benfica of the mighty Eusebio and there was Inter and AC Milan – I knew from my studies that, between them, the three clubs had monopolised the glittering prize from 1961 to 1965.
Real Madrid, who the history books recorded, had owned the trophy for the first five years of the competition, were briefly back on top in 1966, before the British clubs made their celebrated break through. Next it was the turn of AC Milan in 1969 and then, the following year, the first significant sign something might be stirring in the Netherlands when, in the final in the San Siro, Feyenoord beat Celtic 2-1 in extra-time.
But it was in 1971 a new team, club and force in European football first fully imprinted itself on the consciousness of my generation, as Ajax of Amsterdam won the first of their three-in-a row European Cups, beating Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley. In the schoolyard we were struck by their unusual strip and knew no better than to call them ‘A-jacks’, like the cleaning product. But we were quick learners: by the time the beat Milan 2-0 the following year – before confirming their supremacy by seeing off Juventus in the 1973 final – we all knew to pronounce their name ‘Eye-yacks’ and understood too that, in Johan Cruyff, football had a new icon to rank alongside Pele and Best. Thus was introduced to the world the philosophy of what came to be called ‘total football’, a fluid, dynamic, shape-fitting variation of 4-3-3 which was masterminded by coach Rinus Michels and made thrilling flesh and blood reality on the pitch by the incomparable Cruyff and his comrades in arms, many of whom would also become household names: Johann Neeskens, Piet Keizer, Johnny Rep, Ruud Krol and the rest.
At international level, the concept was embraced and refined by the Dutch team which reached the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978, their intoxicating style — which was universally hailed as a vibrant European response to Brazil’s elevation of the game to a new level in 1970 — ensuring that, even if they didn’t succeed in lifting the silverware on either occasion, they would be forever and fondly remembered as among the game’s most beautiful losers.
It has been both the honour and burden for all succeeding Ajax teams to seek to light anew the torch of the early 70s, as Louis van Gaal’s side of 1995 succeeded in doing – albeit more in substance than style - when beating Milan 1-0 in the Champions League final in Vienna, the winning goal coming from the foot of an 18-year-old substitute by the name of Patrick Kluivert.
Last night in Stockholm, the links between past and present at the club extended to the presence on the bench of one Justin Kluivert, son of Patrick. Under manager Peter Bosz, this startlingly young Ajax team has consciously sought to reconnect with the creative, attacking and high-pressing vision of Michels and Cruyff, so much so that, in the run-up to the Europa League Final, David Winner, author of the superb ‘Brilliant Orange’, was able to quote this reaction from Cruyff’s biographer Auke Kok on seeing Ajax play Schalke off the park in the first leg of this year’s quarter-final:
“It was like watching the 1974 World Cup team. I never thought I’d see an Ajax team play this way again.”
They might not have even come close to replicating that performance last night but, in the likes of Davy Klassen, the skipper at just 24, playmaker Hakim Ziyech (also 24). left-sided attacker Amin Younes (23) and prolific 19-year-old striker Kasper Dolberg, Ajax have players who will surely enjoy better nights – though not necessarily in Amsterdam where retaining rising talent has proved difficult in the past.
And if they’re seeking consolation and encouragement after last night’s shock to their system, they need only look back to another night of crushing European disappointment in the club’s history when, in the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid in 1969, AC Milan beat them 4-1 in the European Cup Final. ‘Men against boys’ was the consensus at the time, just as it was again last night in Stockholm.
And, just for the record, that was an Ajax side which contained a young Johan Cruyff.