Monday, July 30, 2012

By 1976 everybody was taking Holland for granted. But the Dutch soccer entered shaky transitional period – the great clubs were not so great and badly needed rebuilding. Ajax and Feyenoord lost their leading position. PSV Eindhoven somewhat stuck and halted. The problem was new talent – somewhat it was not on the level of the great stars of the first half of the 1970s. It was differently molded – not so technical, but physical kind of players, more like Germans. New talent was either too young, inexperienced and unripe, or it was not all that fabulous. Tellingly, the promising players were more of the defensive kind – imaginative playmakers and lethal strikers were absent. There was something else: the moment of changing the squad was missed. First Ajax slumped badly and building of new team was going painfully slow. Feyenoord followed, and by 1976 it was clear than Feyenoord was in a crisis, getting dangerously old, and unable yet even to begin real rebuilding. PSV Eindohoven was the brightest team in the last few years and the youngest as well. But, although they were about 25-26 old, the Phillips boys already played a lot and it was clear that they reached their prime as a team and could do no better. They finished at second place in the spring of 1977, 5 points behind Ajax.

PSV Eindhoven probably summed Dutch troubles best: it was the same squad for quite a few years. Kees Rijvers was good coach, but his sometime reckless brand of football did not bring convincing results in Europe. PSV always failed short of real success, which meant some changes were needed. But since the team was still young no big changes were done. By now they were beatable at home, largely because everybody knew them very well and the key players were rather predictable, particularly van de Kerkhoff twins. As for new talent, it was represented by two defenders: the 23-years old Huub Stevens and the 21-years old Jan Poortvliet. Both eventually became national team players, but neither was baring similarity to Hulshoff – they were more like Schwarzenbeck, strong, reliable, and dull.

And that was the case all around: aging Feyenoord was fading rapidly, depending on familiar names Eddy Treijtel (30 years old), Ger Reitsma (28 and still just a reserve of Treijtel, himself not much of a goalkeeper), Theo de Jong (29), Mladen Ramljak (31), Dick Schneider (28), Joop van Daele (29), Harry Vos (30), Wim Jansen (30). None of them was getting better; most were not called for national team duty for years. The future seemingly was defensive – Wim Rijsbergen was only 24 years of age among the established players; the new talent been the 21-years old Ben Wijnstekers and the one year younger Michel van de Korput. Both similar to the PSV Eindhoven promissing players... The biggest change was the new coach – Vujadin Boskov. The Serbian was hardly able to produce magical change with such a squad, having not a single strong striker. Feyenoord finished 4th..

Bronze medals went to AZ'67 Alkmaar. The modest club made the best of the shaky state of Dutch football – they utilized best the available talent, combining old stars no longer needed by the big clubs with unknown promissing youngsters. It was a beggar's banquet to a point – scavenging what others did not need, but also amalgamating well enough team, giving second breath to graying veterans and inspiration to the young colts. AZ'67 was yet to play its best football and become known in Europe, but the frame was already at place: Hans Kraay was the new coach. He hardly impressed an year earlier coaching Ajax, but AZ'67 was invigorated by him. Wim van Hanegem, the captain of the great years of Feyenoord, was recruited – at 32 years of age, he was no longer suitable for Feyenoord, but just right for Alkmaar. The former Yugoslavian national team goalkeeper Rizah Meskovic, 29 years old, provided stability between the goalposts. Theo Vonk (29), Hugo Hovenkamp (26), and the Danish import Kristen Nygaard (27) completed the core of experienced players. The rest were young and promising: Ronald Spelbos (22), Peter Arntz (23), John Metgod (18), and Kees Kist (24). Playing together, the old got second wing and the young were flourishing. It was winning combination, but it was also notceable who runs the show: van Hanegem was first fiddle; the young boys were anything else but playmakers. The Dutch problem was fundamental – even the most promising team at the time was limited, clearly not on the road to becoming superclub. It was just to be exciting small club, smart enough to build strong squad and keep it for awhile, but no more. It was showing a way for revival, though: make a new team from discarded veterans and young brooms. Don't keep no longer improving core of stars, was the message. A message routinely lost on big clubs not only in Holland.

Late and not radical at all makeover was perilous, and nobody knew it better than Ajax: they fell so rapidly from the very top of world football, they hardly had the time to think about it. Crisis settled down, the club agonized and the convulsions were far from over. By now only three players of the old superteam remained: Hulshoff, Suurbier, and Krol. All defenders, as if to point one more time at the Dutch crisis... true, Hulshoff moved to midfield, but he was 30 years old, constantly troubled by injuries, and fading. It was to be his last season for Ajax. The attempt to elevated the team by getting established names was not really successful: Schrijvers, Notten, and Geels were more or less good enough to keep Ajax among the top Dutch clubs, but hardly classy enough to win titles, let alone dominate in Europe. Geels was perhaps the brightest, but he was aging as well, and clearly not in the same class with Rep and Keizer, let alone Cruijff. Johnny Dusbaba was better addition, and younger too, but although he eventually played for Holland, he was not so great of a defender. Such was the core of the team in the summer of 1976, when new coach was hired – Tomislav Ivic, the maker of perhaps the greatest squad of Hajduk (Split). Up and coming coach, talented and ambitious. He was to restore the glory of Ajax, that was the idea. His debut was strong – Ajax won the championship and quite comfortably at that: 5 points above PSV Eindhoven.
After two miserable years champions again. Phoenix rising from the ashes? Fans were not duped: in Ajax's history, this is still the 'dark years'. So-so team. Hardly great. At best – promising, transitory, and surely unfinished and unpolished. Hulshoff, Suurbier, and Dusbaba were leaving. Krol was next in line. Schrijvers, Notten, van Dord were good only for domestic football, hardly inspirational players. Geels, the most exciting player at hand, was getting old and easily injured. The future depended on promising youngsters bursting with talent – two Danes, Lerby and Arnesen, complimented by domestic feet: Tahamata, La Ling, and Schoenaker. Unfortunately, they were too young yet to make real difference... the team was still transitional and shaky, not ripe for revival. Not able to dominate. This squad is not memorable, although individual players are. They are, but... great Soren Lerby is not exactly associated with this squad and this title. And that's the long and short of it. Ajax was typical Dutch club of the time.