For those who can’t get enough football on every single other day of the week, Thursdays have once again been hosting the cousin of the Champions League and of the wonders which the Europa League entails. From a meeting of two Pogba brothers who communicate through their hairstyles, to a resilient Ajax side, clinging on to their place in the tournament and simultaneously the reputation of Dutch football whilst doing so.
Lead by some of the brightest talents to emerge from their famed academy in years, 19-year-old Dane, Kasper Dolberg, 17-year-olds Kluivert and De Light, mixed in with the experience of Schone and a peaking Davy Klaasen, the current crop’s success so far in Europe has provided an opportunity to reminisce of a time when Ajax ruled the world.
In a time before Russian gas companies smeared their advertisement all over the UEFA Champions League, Europe’s premier club competition in its current form was just a toddler, three years old to be exact. It was at this time that Ajax, a club that had been existing in the shadows cast by three consecutive European Cups some two decades earlier, rose back to continental glory with vibrancy, style and an Umbro kit worthy of dressing such a timeless squad of players.
A fresh-faced, Louis van Gaal was the manager, then something of a young maverick as opposed to the older coach on the brink of retirement who was entrusted with the reigns at Manchester United. His Ajax squad at this time was equipped with players to make those who pine for mid-nineties football nostalgia weak at their skinny-jean-covered knees, formatted into a beautiful, 3-4-3 diamond formation which should be deemed art – hung up in the Rijksmuseum next to Rembrandt and a projected Youtube montage of Jari Litmanen goals.
The likeable and reliable Edwin van der Sar stood in goal, protected by a back three made up of ball-playing, savvy defenders who could not only beat strikers in the tackle, but also with their dribbling. The strong defence on which they built their expansive, attacking mentality is often understated, such was the strength going forward. But to underestimate the importance of the defence, lead by skipper, Danny Blind, wouldn’t do justice to the all-round strength of this team that went the whole Eredivisie campaign unbeaten. The now ex-Dutch national coach, whose whimper of a spell in charge of the national team sums up the current slump in Dutch football, was a much happier man back in the mid-nineties. Then, he swept up in a libero-fashion, picking up loose balls instead of sad defeats to Bulgaria. His experience was vital to a young side that enveloped Michael Reiziger and Frank De Boer either side of him. Neither of whom were afraid to launch counter attacks onto the wings where one ‘Flying Dutchman’ and one extremely quick Nigerian were operating the flanks – Marc Overmars and Finidi George.
The two wingers’ pace can only really be justified by the football cliches of both ‘electric’ and/or ‘lightning’, and this mixed with the agility and footwork of the pair made them two of the most exciting components of a captivating squad. Overmars would knock the ball yards ahead of him and opponents, only to eat up the turf and be the one in possession once again only closer to the possibility of assisting or scoring yet another goal for this swaggy collection of professional footballers. Finidi could do the same, switching the ball onto whatever foot he’d prefer crashing the ball into the net with.
However, the jewel of the crown was the four-man-diamond in midfield. The second half of one of football’s finest double acts, Ronald de Boer, would usually hold one of the spaces if not leading the line, with his and others versatility and footballing intelligence helping this side recapture the ‘Total Football’ swagger of Holland and Ajax in the 1970s ala Cruyff. Frank Rjikjard, a key part in Lionel Messi’s development in later years, was also present with his experienced, dreadlocked head a crucial aspect in helping the younger players excel. It was he, with vast cup final memories in his fiercely competitive brain, already, that apparently rallied a nervy dressing room in the Champions League final, itself. A player in the long-list of Dutch-footballing chain-smokers, he allegedly calmed his own nerves with cigarettes. Among those in that dressing room and in the Ajax midfield, a pre-glasses Edgar Davids; a teenager combining tough tackling with silky touches in possession who would, of course, springboard from Amsterdam to an illustrious career spanning Turin, Barcelona and North London. Players don’t come much more eccentric than Davids. Today, players can afford to have extravagant hairstyles and turn their arms into tattoo murals without requiring the toughness to spare them ridicule. Davids, though, for all his style be it through his footwork or those shades, was terrier-like in his tenacity and thus christened ‘The Pitbull’ by Van Gaal. In other words, if you have the ball he will get you. This toughness was key across the team, as the Champions League draw sent them far and wide to hostile atmospheres such as the Poljud Stadion in Split, where Hajduk’s Torcida supporters rally their side to do all but kill their visitors – an arena in which red flares mean that Davids iconic specs would have inadvertently come in handy in hindsight.
Alongside Edgar through the youth ranks all the way to the final was Seedorf, another player whose physical skill was matched by his technicality. This triumph was to be his first of four European Cup wins, the only man to win the biggest prize in club football with three different clubs who in Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan, all pack illustrious history that this fine player is a part of. Fans love Seedorf, so do managers and teammates. But, Seedorf? Seedorf loves football. He is still only recently retired after taking his footballing career to Brazil in its final years, like a veteran artist seeking inspiration for one last record before bailing out, he sampled life at Botafogo to close a highly-decorated career.
Occupying either the number ten role of this glittering diamond or often the main striker position, too, was a man whose qualities are clear through his brilliant niche title, as the ‘greatest Finnish footballer of all time.’ The title belongs to Jari Litmanen, whose six goals were crucial in Ajax’s ’95 Champions League campaign and include chips, half-volleys and top-corner seeking finishes. Litmanen was dealt the thought-to-be-impossible task of replacing Dennis Bergkamp at Ajax, a creative, majestic player, himself, he was in the right model, but few could have expected the legacy he would leave in Amsterdam. His goals and his achievements propelled him to a status at the club that has only been matched by the likes of Dutchmen like Bergkamp, van Basten and Cruyff. Yet, the Finn embodied the Ajax style as much as any of this natives, playing with a fearlessness and a class that will forever be associated with the club.
It was Patrick Kluivert though, at the tender age of just eighteen who scored the winner in the final versus Milan – a fairytale story for a player who came of age in this season much like the young Dane, Dolberg is doing on the European stage in today’s era. Kluivert, another player who would grace further, enormous clubs as someone who represents Ajax’s links to the likes of Milan and Barcelona. He shared the responsibility of leading the line with the familiar face of Nwankwo Kanu, whose gangly yet co-ordinated frame proved another useful asset as well as evidence of the successful scouting network in force during this era. Spotted on the dry pitches of Owerri in Nigeria, Kanu, like George and Litmanen, embodies the perfect marriage between scouting and youth development that birthed this golden team.
This Ajax team encapsulated everything that is good about Dutch football, playing with heart-warming teamwork and togetherness, present both in build-up play and in celebration together, doing so in one of the most iconic kits of that decades, as well, just as the national side of 1988 did. Similar to the United team of 1999, this was a case of all the right ingredients coming together at the right time. A determined, highly intelligent manager, a batch of academy products that would go on to become legends, wise old heads to guide them through the hardship of European football and some foreign talent that understood what it means to play for the club.
The scenes of victory both at the Ernst-Happel Stadium in Vienna, and within the canals of Amsterdam as the side celebrated with it’s city upon return, marked a truly happy ending to an incredible season that saw achievements rarely replicated. Three trophies, zero defeats, 106 goals and a squad made of legends and legends-to-be make the Ajax side of 1995 one of the footballing stories of the 20th century.
As such, it’s not fair to compare this team with the current side. It was a different era and a batch of players which are unlikely to all align quite how they did back in 1995. However, seeing the famous red and white shirts back in the latter stages of a European tournament, playing the exciting brand of football that the club prides itself on, is a beautiful and nostalgic sight.