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The Golden Generation of Ajax

Tue 29 March 2022 | 16:30

In every football club’s history, there is a period that the stars got aligned in it and led them glory. In football terms, this is often referred to as the golden generation and the following article is about the golden generation of Ajax - one of the most influential clubs in European football.

As one of the most famous clubs in the world,

Ajax

has quite a rich history behind it. The club was founded in the March of 1900 in Amsterdam and started its glorious journey from the lower divisions of Dutch football. It took Ajax 18 years to win their first national trophy in 1918. Since then, the club cemented their place as one of the big three clubs in Dutch football and now after a century, they are by far Netherlands’ most successful club both on domestic and international level.

With 35 championships in Dutch first tier – 11 more than

PSV Eindhoven

and 20 more than Feyenoord, Ajax certainly has been the dominant side in Netherland’ football history. They also have been a powerful figure on European front as well with winning four European Cup / UEFA Champions League titles and a single UEFA Cup title. In achieving those trophies, Ajax relied on their homegrown talents and their unique philosophy of football that emerged at the club throughout decades. So, without further ado, let’s talk about the golden generation of Ajax that conquered the European football.

When Was the Golden Generation of Ajax?

In fact, Ajax was blessed by two golden generations in its history. The first one came around early 70s which is Ajax’ most prosperous era up to this day. The second one came 20 years later with the start of 90s and many Ajax legends had their part in it. In this article, we are going to cover both of those generations by reviewing how they shaped up, the managers and key players in each generation, and their road to glory. 

Ajax Golden Generation in 1970s

Golden generations do not create themselves over a year or two. Often it takes nearly a decade for a club to build a solid squad that can compete at the highest level and bring home the titles. For Ajax, it all started back in 1965 when the legendary Rinus Michels got appointed as the head coach of the club. Michels was already a popular figure amongst Ajax fans since he spent his whole 12-year playing career at the club from 1946 to 1958.

At the time Rinus Michels took charge at Ajax, the club was not having its best of days. It has been five years since they last won a trophy and they were considered as a relegation candidate on Dutch first tire table. But Michels turned things around immediately and won the league title on his debut season. He introduced the

Total Football

at Ajax which was a style of play that in it all of the players on the pitch should have contributed both in attack and defense. 

The versatile players that could play on multiple positions were the crucial part of Michel’s Total Football and fortunately enough, he had a bunch of them at Ajax at his disposal. His initiative style of football was the cornerstone for

the golden generation of Ajax

in 1970s. During his tenure at the club, Rinus Michels has won 4 straight league titles and 3 KNVB Cups. He also led Ajax to a European Cup final in 1969 but they lost the match to Milan. Two years later, Michels saw his side in another European Cup final against Panathinaikos and this time they won the trophy with a 2-0 win over the Greek club.

Michels left Ajax for Barcelona after that final and the Romanian Ștefan Kovács succeeded him in 1971. Kovács managed to build on what Michels left at the club and guided Ajax to two consecutive European Cup finals and won both of them against

Inter

and Juventus respectively. Now Ajax was only the second club after Real Madrid (which won the first five editions of the tournament), that won three consecutive European Cup titles. The combination of Total Football and the golden generation of Ajax led to 3 European Cups, 6 league titles, 4 KNVB Cups, and a UEFA Super Cup from 1965 to 1973.

Key Players in The Golden Generation of Ajax (1970s)

The team that won three back-to-back European championships from 1971 to 1973 was arguably the

best Ajax team

of all time. During this time span, there were so many great players that helped the coaches Rinus Michels and Ștefan Kovács to implement their ideas on the pitch; Players such as Velibor Vasović who captained the club on their 1971 final, the defender Barry Hulshoff, midfielders Johan Neeskens and Gerrie Mühren, and the list goes on. But to keep it short, below we listed a few of the standout Ajax legends that had a key role in winning so many silverwares.

Heinz Stuy

Goalkeepers are an essential in having a golden generation and Ajax was blessed with one of the best shot stoppers from 1967 to 1976. The Dutch Heinz Stuy started his career at

Telstar

in North Holland. Stuy was 22 years old when he joined Ajax and it didn’t take long for him to wear the number one shirt in Rinus Michel’s team. During his time at Ajax, Heinz Stuy stood between the posts in 178 matches and kept a clean sheet in 98 of those games and only conceded 119 goals.

Another impressing stat for the capable Dutch goalkeeper is about his appearances in European finals. In the 1969 final where Ajax lost the European Cup final to Milan by 4 goals to 1, Stuy was the reverse GK and was sitting on bench. But on all of their three consecutive finals from 1971 to 1973 it was Heinz Stuy who guarded the net for Ajax and kept a clean sheet in all of those three finals against

Panathinaikos

(2-0), Inter (2-0), and Juventus (1-0) respectively. So, Heinz Stuy has a record of keeping a clean sheet in European Cup, Champions League finals for 270 consecutive minutes and only Sepp Maier from Bayern Munich has a better record with 276 minutes which he accumulated in four final matches.

Johan Cruyff

Today the number 14 shirt is retired at Ajax and that’s because

Johan Cruyff’

incredible legacy at the club. Arguably the best European player ever, was an Ajax product who joined the club youth academy in 1957 when he was 10 years old. Seven years later he got promoted to the first team when he was still a teenager. Even from his early days, his enormous talent was obvious and playing in the best Ajax team helped him to develop his skills even more. As a creative and versatile player, Johan Cruyff had the ability to perform admirably in several positions including attacking midfielder and forward.

Although Cruyff was a prolific goal scorer and even was the tournament’s top scorer in 1971-72 European Cup, his influence on the game was much more than that. He was just the perfect profile for the Total Football and it’s hard to imagine what

the golden generation of Ajax

could achieve without him. During his time at Ajax, Johan Cruyff won two Ballon d'Or awards in 1971 and 1973 and won the third one in 1974 while he was playing for Barcelona under his former coach, Rhinos Michels. Decades later, in 1985 Cruyff returned to Ajax to build the foundations of the next golden generation of Ajax which we’ll get to it.

Piet Keizer

Piet Keizer is one of the other players that not only has a place on Ajax all time XI but also, he is one of the best Dutch players of all time. Keizer was an agile left winger who spent 6 years on Ajax academies before joining the first team in 1961 at 18 years old. For the next 13 years, Piet Keizer didn’t change colors and stayed at Ajax for his whole career. Piet Keizer, Barry Hulshoff, Sjaak Swart, and Johan Cruyff are the only players that were on the Ajax starting line up in all of their four European Cup finals from 1969 to 1973.

After the Serbian defender Velibor Vasović retired in 1971, Keizer received the captain’s armband and lift the famous Big Ear trophy in 1972. Keizer also has a successful career on international level and represented Netherlands national team on 34 occasions and scored 11 goals for them. In 1974 and after finishing second in the World Cup, Keizer announced his retirmenet from the game at the age of 31 which was quite unexpected. Keizer hanged up his boots while having 19 titles to his name that all came with Ajax.

Ajax Golden Generation in 1990s

As mentioned above, Ajax was lucky enough to enjoy two golden generations. The golden generation of Ajax in 1990s was not as decorated as the 1970s team in terms of European trophies, but still, many believe that it was the best Ajax team ever. It all started with the return of Johan Cruyff to the club in 1985 when he started his coaching career. During his 3-year spell at Ajax, Cruyff introduced a modern Total Football which was used later during the 1990s and was the basis of their successes during that era.

From 1988 to 1991, Ajax saw five different managers on their bench, Leo Beenhakker being the latest. During Beenhakker’ last season at Ajax, he had the Dutch

Louis van Gaal

as his assistant. Van Gaal was a former Ajax player himself during their successful 1970s run but he didn’t get the chance to play for the first team and left the club. As an average midfielder he spent most of his playing career at Sparta Rotterdam before retiring in 1987. With Leo Beenhakker parting ways with Ajax in 1991, it was time for the 40-year-old van Gaal to step up in his coaching career and cut his teeth as a head coach. 

On his debut season, van Gaal led Ajax to a UEFA Cup final by beating Osasuna, Gent, and Genoa in the knock outs. On final, Ajax came on top against Torino thanks to the away goal rule and that was just the beginning for

the golden generation of Ajax

in 1990s under the coach Louis van Gaal. In the following seasons, van Gaal started to build up his squad around players such as Edwin van der Sar, Danny Blind, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Michael Reiziger, and Jari Litmanen.

From 1990 to 1999, Ajax added 14 titles to their trophy cabinet which 11 of them came under Louis van Gaal. Including three straight Eredivisie titles and a UEFA Champions league in 1995. The 1994-95 season was the highlight of van Gaal’s successful era as his side went unbeaten for 48 games. That unbeaten run led to winning both the domestic league and the Champions League without a single defeat which was an unprecedented achievement and no other team has managed to replicate that up to this day. Ajax also reached to the 1996 UCL final but lost the match to Juventus only on penalty shoot outs. 

Key Players in The Golden Generation of Ajax (1990s)

Ajax has a reputation for their top-notch youth academy that has always provided the club with world class players. Therefore, the golden generation of Ajax in 1990s had so many homegrown players in it who climbed the ladder from Ajax youth system. Many of those players made their way to the Netherlands national team: The de Boer brothers, Frank Rijkaard, Patrick Kluivert, Clarence Seedorf, and

Edgar Davids

was the key players of Netherland national team as well for almost a decade.

In addition to academy products, Ajax also had some successful purchases during this era such as Edwin van der Saar, Jari Litmanen, and the famous Nigerian due Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George. Those smart moves in the market helped them to replace the departure of some of their influential players such as Dennis Bergkamp in the early 90s. All things considered, we picked out these three names as the most remarkable figures of the best Ajax team:

Danny Blind

Danny Blind started his career as a right back at Sparta Rotterdam in 1979 and converted to a Centre-Back a couple of years later. In 1986 and during the Johan Cruyff tenure, Ajax bought Blind by the direct approval of Cruyff. It was an out of the blue signing since Blind didn’t have much of a reputation back then and even Marco van Basten complained about it to Cruyff and suggested that the team had higher priorities than an unknown defender. But Danny Blind proved his worth and became one of the

Ajax legends

who have won all of the UEFA club competitions during his 13 years at Ajax.

He was the leader of van Gaal’s squad and lifted 14 trophies as the captain of Ajax in the 1990s. Blind was a rock of a defender and getting passed him was a nightmare for every striker. Thanks to starting his career as a right back, Danny Blind was quite capable when he had the ball on his feet as well. He also was a reliable penalty taker and converted some crucial spot kicks for Ajax. Including the last penalty in the Intercontinental Cup final against the Brazilian side Gremio, and two penalties during the match in the European Super Cup Final against

Real Zaragoza

.

Marc Overmars

Marc Overmars was one of the first signings of van Gaal’s era in Ajax. He joined the club in 1992 from 

Willem II

 as Louis van Gaal insisted on buying him describing him as a multi-functional player. Overmars was an extremely gifted winger who could perform on both sides. His pace and dribbling skills made him one of the most dangerous players in Ajax line up. More than 80 goal contributions in 140 matches in Ajax colors is a proof of that.

Marc Overmars had a remarkable international career as well and played 86 matches for Netherland with scoring 17 goals and in the 1994 World Cup, he was awarded as the best young player of tournament at the age of 21. Although Overmars suffered a horrible ligaments injury in the last days of 1995, he was named the Ajax player of the year in 1996 and maintained his place as one of the best wingers across European football. Marc Overmars left Ajax for Arsenal in 1997 but still, he will be remembered as one of the pillars of Ajax team in those prosperous years.

 Jari Litmanen

If you were about to create the best

Ajax all time XI

, you might ignore the Finnish striker Jari Litmanen since Ajax had so many legendary players in that position such as Marco van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp. But the fourth all time top scorer of AFC Ajax with 133 goals in 255 matches, was leading the attacking line in the golden generation of Ajax in 1990s. After the phenomenal Dennis Bergkamp joined Inter from Ajax in 1993, Louis van Gaal decided to trust his 22-year-old benchwarmer who had showed great potential on trainings. Scoring 26 goals in 30 league matches in the 1993-94 campaign showed that he deserved the opportunity.

 During the 1994-95 Champions League season that led to Ajax’ fourth championship in the tournament, Jari Litmanen had 6 goals and one assist to his name. In the next season after that, he became Champions League’s top scorer with 9 goals in 10 matches but losing the final to Juventus spoiled that achievement for him. The greatest Finnish footballer of all time was bagging goals for Ajax but unfortunately, injuries had its influence on his game in the late 90s. Nevertheless, his brilliant performances for Ajax and being the club’s top scorer in European competitions with 26 goals in 54 matches (3 goals more than Johan Cruyff), are what made him one of the Ajax legends.

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source: SportMob

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