Ajax – Continuity or Revolution?

Speaking to the BBC’s World Service in October 2015, Ajax Head Coach, Frank De Boer highlighted his intention to leave Ajax in the near future, targeting a move to the Premier League writes Steven Davies.

“Yes I think every year [the prospect of leaving Ajax] comes closer of course. I’m looking maybe for another adventure. If there is an interesting club that I think with my quality I can make that team better – if I can, then I will take that chance.”

An Impressive Coaching C.V.

De Boer’s coaching credentials, in addition to his illustrious playing career at: Ajax, Barcelona and Glasgow Rangers, make him a strong candidate whenever a vacancy arises across Europe.

Taking the helm at the Amsterdam ArenA on 6th December 2010, following the resignation of Martin Jol, initially only as caretaker manager until the winter break, his first game in charge was a UEFA Champions League match against A.C. Milan at the San Siro, where Ajax upset the Italian giants 2–0 through goals from Demy de Zeeuw and Toby Alderweireld.

Having been given the job full-time, De Boer then went on to lead the club to the 2010-11 Eredivisie title following a 3–1 home victory over FC Twente (the reigning champions) on the final day of the season.

Three more titles followed in as many years with the last of these being secured on 27th April 2014, following which, De Boer became the first coach ever to achieve this feat in the Dutch league. Ajax’s 33rd league title also marked the first time the Amsterdam giants had ever won four successive titles. On a personal level, the 2013-14 title triumph was De Boer’s ninth championship with Ajax – another record, while he also bagged the Rinus Michels Award for the second successive year.

Time to Go?

Despite losing out in the Eredivisie title race to a dominant PSV Eindhoven last season, De Boer’s Ajax have fought their way back into contention this term and, should a fifth title in six years be secured in 2015-16, it would mark a fitting end to a glorious reign in Amsterdam for the 45-year-old.

Along with being linked to the Liverpool job prior to the appointment of Jurgen Klopp, De Boer has also been linked with a move to take over from under-fire Newcastle United boss Steve McClaren, and the Dutchman praised both clubs in his interview with the BBC’s World Service.

“They are fantastic clubs. Liverpool and Newcastle, with supporters behind them, is a fantastic environment to coach – but this year it is important for me to do well at Ajax and then we will see.”

De Boer’s suggestive comments would indicate that his time at the helm in Amsterdam may finally be coming to an end, being noticeably more non-committal  than when previously approached by Liverpool’s owners, Fenway Sports Group, in 2012, prior to Brendan Rodgers’ appointment – saying he was “very honoured” to be considered for the role. However, he had deemed it “too early” at the time.

Now, having seemingly come to a point in his career—with four Eredivisie titles in five seasons—where he needs a change of direction, De Boer appears to be casting his net in readiness for a summer departure.

Most recently, De Boer admitted he was interested in holding talks regarding the vacancy at Swansea despite having more than a year to run on his contract in Amsterdam and is expected to make a decision on his future in March.

When quizzed by the Dutch media about his next move, De Boer said: ‘First you have to see what the plan is at a club and what I and the people I would take with me could add to it. The last club I was linked with was Swansea City. I have had no contact with them at this time. But what if these people paint me a pretty picture that they are in that category of clubs with which I could do something beautiful? Like clubs such as Tottenham and Liverpool. Those are the sort of clubs with which you would want to work. But the most important thing would be the feeling I get (But) I will (finish) the season with Ajax.”

So, with the Frank De Boer era in Amsterdam seemingly coming to a close, where now for Ajax?

Continuity – Promotion from within

Football is a philosophy in the Netherlands and nowhere more so than at AFC Ajax where the club have long clung doggedly to the principals of developing talent from within.

These principles, or abandonment thereof, have more recently, of course, come under fire from none other than the man whose name is most synonymous with the club – Johan Cruijff.

In November 2015, Cruijff announced that he was leaving his role as an adviser to the club sighting the fact that his vision to improve Ajax’s youth structure is no longer being implemented and insisting that his name and any connection be removed from a playing and development philosophy he had led for years.

Cruijff’s announcement came hot on the heels of the departure of former Dutch international, Wim Jonk as head of youth development at De Toekomst – Ajax’s famed academy.

Renovating the club’s academy had been at the heart of plans Cruijff laid out for the former European champions with the Dutchman using his weekly newspaper column in De Telegraaf to announce his decision to step down and criticise the club’s directors.

Cruijff,68, who is being treated for cancer, won eight league titles and three European Cups with Ajax from 1964-73 before returning to manage the Amsterdam giants from 1985-88 – during which time the club lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, had bemoaned the state of the club in a typically outspoken manner in De Telegraaf after watching Martin Jol’s Ajax wilt in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu against Real Madrid in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League in 2010.

This isn’t Ajax anymore. Let me get to the point: this Ajax is even worse than the team from before Rinus Michels’s arrival in 1965.

The score might have only been 2-0 on the night but the gulf in class and the ease in which the Spanish giants cruised to victory over the four time European Champions led Cruijff to act.

A so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ was set in motion with Cruijff calling for the replacement of the Ajax Board of Directors including general director, Rik van den Boog and chairman, Uri Coronel, saying that in their place should stand former Ajax players and enlisting the likes of Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp to be his hands-on advocates on the training fields in Amsterdam.

Cruijff believed a club like Ajax could not hope to compete with the biggest clubs in Europe for players; paying exorbitant transfer fees, wages and dealing with unscrupulous agents for players in their mid to late twenties and early thirties was a fool’s errand. Instead, the road back to the summit of European football for Ajax was to stop signing overrated foreign players and build a team around youth that was developed from within.

In Cruijff’s vision, Wim Jonk, Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars and coach, Frank De Boer would be afforded complete control in terms of both personnel and implementation.

Yet, the Ajax Board of Directors were not about to go down without a fight, and, by appointing Louis van Gaal as general director behind Cruijff’s back in November 2011, they ensured a public and bloody battle through the courts ensued; the acrimonious war of words eventually being resolved in February 2012 with a judge ruling that van Gaal’s appointment had been illegitimate.

In the wake of this monumental ruling, the old order was replaced by the new; Cruijff had won.

Coach, Frank De Boer and Director of Football, Marc Overmars, now no longer allowed to purchase players for large sums of money, had to identify replacements from within when key players were sold.

In an era of domestic dominance for de Godenzonen, European club success became the barometer of progress, but, four years on from that monumental court ruling, Cruijff’s blueprint has ultimately failed to deliver on European club football’s biggest stage.

The 2010/11 UEFA Champions League campaign included not only that much maligned 2-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the Bernabéu but also a comprehensive 4-0 thrashing in the reverse fixture at the ArenA in addition to a poor 2-1 loss to Auxerre in France. However, the club did prove to be competitive elsewhere, holding the mighty AC Milan 1-1 in the ArenA, where they also beat Auxerre 2-1, before, now under the guidance of Frank de Boer, they upset Milan 2-0 at the San Siro.

All in all, three defeats, two wins and one draw meant that Ajax finished just a point behind Milan who qualified for the latter stages of the competition in second place in Group G behind Real who posted an unbeaten group campaign; winning five and drawing just one.

A short run in the UEFA Europa League followed in the New Year, with the Amsterdam giants dispatching Belgian side, Anderlecht 5-0 on aggregate in the round of 32 before being dumped out by Spartak Moscow 4-0 on aggregate in the round of 16.

A frustrating campaign in 2011/12 culminated in another third place finish; this time on goal difference with Lyon progressing to the latter stages from Group D.

Drawn in a far more favourable group than in 2010/11, Ajax could only manage two wins, both coming at the expense of Croatian side, Dinamo Zagreb and two goalless draws with Lyon. In the remaining fixtures, the Dutch champions endured two more thrashings at the hands of eventual group winners, Real Madrid for the second season in succession.

Another foray into the UEFA Europa League followed, where, despite exiting the competition in the round of 32 at the hands of Manchester United, Frank de Boer’s men posted a memorable 2-1 victory in the second leg at Old Trafford.

The draw did Ajax few favours in 2012/13 as the Dutch champions were placed in a true ‘group of death’ which included: Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and, for the third season in succession, Real Madrid.

Ajax struggled to gain any traction in the group, managing only a single victory, a 3-1 home success against Manchester City and a draw in the reverse fixture in Manchester. Four defeats home and away to both Dortmund and Real rounded out a dismal campaign and left the Amsterdam club lagging behind in a distant third place.

The club found little solace in the UEFA Europa League where they were eliminated in the round of 32 on penalties after their tie with Steaua București ended all square on aggregate.

Ajax were again drawn into another ‘group of death’ in 2013/14, or a group more appropriately dubbed the ‘group of champions’ with: Barcelona, AC Milan and Celtic, like Ajax, all boasting UEFA Champions League success in their respective illustrious histories.

A close campaign ensued with qualification coming down to the wire between Ajax and Milan once more. This time just a single point separated the two European giants; Ajax’s record of two wins, two draws and two defeats just losing out to Milan’s record of two wins, three draws and one loss.

The 2013/14 UEFA Champions League campaign proved to be Ajax’s strongest thus far in the De Boer reign, with the Dutch champions holding the Italian’s both home and away in addition to posting victories over Celtic and humbling the mighty Barcelona at the ArenA.

In the end though, a disappointing 2-1 reverse in Glasgow and an inability inflict the killing blow in either match against the Rossoneri left the Amsterdam giants once more facing a UEFA Europa League campaign in the New Year.

But their interest in the competition would be short-lived – Red Bull Salzburg inflicting a resounding 6-1 aggregate defeat over two legs in the round of 32.

Another tough draw followed in 2014/15, with Ajax drawn in Group F alongside: PSG, APOEL and, for the second season in succession, Spanish giants, Barcelona.

The club could only muster a single victory; a 4-0 success at the ArenA against APOEL on 10 December 2014, the Cypriotes having surprisingly held the Dutch champions 1-1 in Cyprus at the end of September. Ajax also posted a creditable home draw with PSG but fell apart in the other three games, losing home and away to Barcelona as well as in Paris; ending up a massive eight points behind second placed PSG in the group.

The club progressed beyond the round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League for the first time since 2010/11, overcoming Legia Warsaw 4-0 on aggregate before being eliminated by eventual finalists Dnipro on the away goals rule despite beating the Ukrainians 2-1 in the ArenA following a 1-0 loss in the first leg in Kiev.

In 2015-16, Ajax’s interest in European club competition ended prior to Christmas, having failed to progress from their UEFA Europa League group – finishing a disappointing third behind Molde and Fenerbahce in a group that also contained Scottish champions, Celtic. This, after dropping into the competition following elimination at the hands of Rapid Vienna (5-4 on aggregate) in the Third qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League in early August, left a sour taste in the mouth of many associated with the club – not least Cruijff himself.

Although not consistently able to hold its own against the elite of European club football season in and season out, De Boer’s charges have, on occasion, been able to bridge the gulf in finances and personnel to give these clubs a run for their money – most notably in: 2010/11, 2011/12 and 2013/14.

Similarly though, the club failed to progress out of the group stages of the UEFA Champions League in five of the last six seasons while also fizzling out in the UEFA Europa League in each of the last six.

Even prior to this seasons’ debacle on the European stage, Cruijff’s disgust was perhaps rooted in the fact that in 2014/15, the Amsterdam giants actually found themselves in a far worse position compared to the much lamented 2010/11 UEFA Champions League campaign. In 2014/15 Ajax posted a record of just one win, two draws and three defeats, scoring 8 goals whilst conceding 10 and amassing just five points. In 2010/11 they posted a more competitive record of two wins, one draw and three defeats, scoring 6 goals and conceding 10; amassing seven points in a group that, it could be argued, was far more difficult to qualify out of than its 2014/15 equivalent.

In fact, it could be argued that Cruijff’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ has actually made little difference in terms of the personnel on the field – a point not lost on the Dutch footballing icon.

If we compare the Ajax match day squad named by Martin Jol that was dispatched 2-0 on 15th September 2010 at the Bernabéu in the UEFA Champions League to the one selected to face PSG at the ArenA by Frank de Boer on 17th September 2014 in the same competition, it is interesting to note how many players were actually products of the Amsterdam clubs’ academy and how many were brought in from outside the club.

Ajax team (vs Real Madrid 15/09/10): Stekelenburg (Zandvoort ‘75/ Schoten/ Ajax) , Van der Wiel (HFC Haarlem/ Ajax), Alderweireld (Germinal Beerschot/ Ajax), Ooijer (SDW/ SDZ/ Ajax), Anita ( CVV Willemstad/ VV Maarssen/ Ajax), Enoh (Little Foot FC), Sulejmani (Partizan), El Hamdaoui (Excelsior) , de Jong ( DeGraafschap/ Ajax) , Emanuelson (Voorland/ Ajax), de Zeeuw (AGOVV). Subs: Verhoeven (BFC/ Ajax), Eriksen (Middlefart G&BK/ OB/ Ajax), Blind (AFC/ Ajax), Lindgren (Landskrona BoIS/ Ajax), Tainio (TP-47), Oleguer (Gramenet), Jozefzoon (Ajax).

Ajax team (vs PSG 17/09/14): Cillessen (NEC/ De Treffers), van Rhijn (RKSV DoCoS/Ajax), Veltman ( VV Ijmuiden/Ajax), Moisander (TPS/ Ajax), Boilesen (Skovlunde/ Brondby/ Ajax), Sigþórsson (Vikingur/ HK/ AZ Alkmaar), Klaassen (HVV de Zebra’s/HSV Wasmeer/ Ajax), Andersen (Aalborg Freja/ AaB), Schone (Lyngby/ sc Heerenveen), Serero (Senaoane Gunners/ Ajax Cape Town), Viergever (Sparta Rotterdam). Subs: Boer (Flevo Boys), van der Hoorn (SC Buitenboys/ FC Omniworld/ FC Utrecht), Duarte (Sparta Rotterdam), Milik (Rozwój Katowice), El Ghazi (BVV Barendrecht/ Feyenoord/ Spartaan ‘20/ Sparta Rotterdam/ Ajax), Denswil ( Hellas Sport/ Ajax), Zimling (AB 70/ Tarnby/ Fremad Amager/ KB).

Twelve players selected in the match day squad to face Real Madrid on 15th September 2010 were products of the Ajax youth system, while only eight (seven if you discount Ajax’s association with Ajax Cape Town) who came through the Amsterdam clubs’ famed academy were selected to face PSG on 17th September 2014.

If anything, in terms of the promotion of young talent from within, Ajax appears to be going backwards – a point confirmed when, in 2014/15, Cruijff’s blueprint apparently discarded, the club fell back into old habits in terms of transfer policy, shelling out substantial sums of money to revitalise a squad ravaged by the annual selling of key players. This lack of faith shown by key decision makers in those coming through De Toekomst was ultimately the straw that broke the camel’s back in Cruijff’s eyes.

During the turbulent and ultimately disappointing 2014-15 campaign, Frank De Boer regularly bemoaned his players’ performances and took the opportunity to recruit, when and where he could, players from outside the club. In came: Arkadiusz Milik (Bayer 04 Leverkusen – loan), Niki Zimling (1. FSV Mainz 04 – loan), Richairo Zivkovic (FC Groningen – 2.5 million euros), Nick Viergever (AZ Alkmaar – 2 million euros), Diederik Boer (PEC Zwolle – 750,000 euros), James Fofana (PSV) and Robert Muric (Dinamo Zagreb) in the summer transfer window while the club added: Daley Sinkgraven (sc Heerenveen – 7 million euros) and Andre Onana (FC Barcelona – 200,000 euros) when the window reopened in January 2015.

With Arkadiusz Milik’s season-long loan proving to be a success (netting 11 times in 21 appearances) the Polish international was signed permanently for a reported 2.5 million euros at the start of April 2015, taking the former champions’ overall spending for 2014/15 to around 12.45 million euros; which, for a Dutch club, whose television and sponsorship revenue is limited when compared to their counterparts in Spain, England and Germany, is akin to a fortune. This exorbitant expenditure was mitigated only by the fact that the club recouped around 29.72 million euros during the 2014 summer transfer window which included the big money sales of de Jong (Newcastle United – 7.5 million euros) and Blind (Manchester United 17.5 million euros) as well as the frustrating loss of the highly rated 16-year-old forward, Mink Peeters to Spanish giants, Real Madrid for a paltry 110,000 euros.

The 2015 summer transfer window was also a busy time in Amsterdam with the club repurchasing left back,  Mitchell Dijks for around 1 million euros from Willem II – just a year after ushering the gangly defender out of the door, while also welcoming a slew of other new (and old) faces: Nemanja Gudelj (AZ Alkmaar – 6 million euros), Francesco Antonucci (RSC Anderlecht – 500,000 euros), John Heitinga (Hertha BSC – Free transfer), Dragisa Gudelj (NAC Breda – Free transfer) and Kaspar Dolberg (Silkeborg IF – Free transfer); spending 7.5 million euros in total and recouping over half of this outlay by selling Icelandic marksman, Kolbeinn Sigþórsson to FC Nantes for a fee of 3.5 million euros.

Despite not being the hundreds of millions of euros that some of the continent’s elite turn over year-upon-year, this sort of frivolous spending in a perilous economic climate, in the full knowledge that qualification to the group stages of the UEFA Champions League was (as it turned out) anything but guaranteed and with limited other means of income in comparison to Europe’s top clubs, appeared nothing short of foolhardy – little wonder that Cruijff demanded that his name be removed from any association with such a strategy.

In light of this, it can be said that continuity is impossible in Cruijff’s absence and could only be loosely termed as such if a member of either De Boer’s current technical staff or another, currently employed lower down working with the younger age groups at De Toekomst were to step up and take the reins.

Of those, only two names stand out as real contenders for the role.

Dennis Bergkamp

Upon retiring, the ‘non-flying Dutchman’ initially insisted he would not move into coaching and turned down an offer to scout for Arsenal to concentrate on travelling and spending time with his family.

However, in April 2008, Bergkamp began a fast-track coaching diploma for former Dutch international footballers and undertook a trainee role at Ajax. Having completed the Coach Betaald Voetbal course, Bergkamp was appointed assistant to Johan Neeskens for the newly formed Netherlands B team on 26 October 2008.

For the 2008–09 season, Bergkamp returned to Ajax in a formal coaching position with responsibility for the D2 (U12) youth team. Following the promotion of Frank De Boer as manager of Ajax in December 2010, Bergkamp was appointed assistant manager to Fred Grim, dealing with Ajax’ flagship A1 (U19) youth team before becoming De Boer’s assistant in August 2011.

With such a distinguished playing career and having been an integral part of the successful De Boer era at Ajax, one would therefore assume that Bergkamp’s name wouldn’t be far from the top of any list compiled when De Boer’ successor is eventually required.

Despite this, Bergkamp’s lack of managerial experience at first team level leaves him at a disadvantage, while his much publicised aviophobia would present its own issues when it comes to continental competition.

Jaap Stam

Following an illustrious playing career, former Dutch international defender Jaap Stam returned to Manchester United in October 2008 as a scout for the club, responsible for most of South America.

In 2011, Stam became an assistant coach for PEC Zwolle; a position he held for two seasons after Kieron Hogendoorn vacated the role before taking a three-year contract with AFC Ajax as an assistant coach and defensive trainer in 2013.

Stam and Andries Ulderink currently share the head coaching responsibilities for Jong Ajax in the Jupiler League – a side as typically inconsistent as any reserve outfit, who have managed unremarkable mid-table finishes in each of the two seasons since the introduction of a trio of Eredivisie reserve teams into Dutch football’s second tier.

While Stam’s C.V. possesses more experience of coaching and decision making in a first team environment (albeit in a joint capacity), the fact that this has come in the second tier of Dutch football, with what, to all intents and purposes is a reserve team, serves to add little weight to his application for the most high profile job in Dutch football.

Revolution

With suitable candidates seemingly thin on the ground within the current coaching set-up in Amsterdam, could AFC Ajax instead look to make a complete break in the wake of the departures of not only Frank De Boer, but the omnipotent, Johan Cruijff as well?

De Boer’s reign, while littered with silverware, has become a tad tedious as much to the impartial onlooker as to the ardent Ajax fan, with an all too often ponderous, uninspiring, low scoring and all round dull style of play being favoured as the club attempt to bludgeon their way to a fifth Eredivisie crown in six years.

As such, could the time be ripe for a change and, if so, who would the key decision makers in Amsterdam charge with meeting the sizeable expectations demanded year-upon-year at the ArenA?

The Frontrunners

If a list of likely candidates to succeed Frank De Boer were to be drawn up today, a number of names would surely be very near the top whose credentials will shortly be profiled in detail. However, some omissions deserve at least a little justification.

For instance, had Peter Bosz not opted to accept an offer to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv in January 2016, his application would surely have been given some consideration by the Ajax hierarchy. Similarly, despite an impressive C.V. that includes stints at: FC Twente (with whom he was awarded the Rinus Michels Award in 2008), PSV and Schalke 04, it would appear unlikely, given a disappointing 2014-15 at the helm of Feyenoord and lack of any tangible success in terms of silverware, that Fred Rutten, would be considered for the top job in Amsterdam either – his star firmly on the wane. Likewise, it would appear unlikely that veteran coaches like: Guus Hiddink, Bert van Marwijk or Dick Advocaat would be considered as none could be viewed as a viable, long term successor to De Boer, while Wim Jonk, despite (until recently) having occupied a position similar to that of De Boer when he was elevated to the top job in 2010, would also be unlikely to throw his metaphorical hat into the ring.

John van den Brom

A former Ajax player; AZ Alkmaar head coach, John van den Brom initially became head scout of De Graafschap and head coach of amateur side Bennekom following retirement as a player, before becoming coach of the second team at Ajax, on 29 April 2004.

From 2007 to 2010 he served as head coach of unfashionable, AGOVV Apeldoorn with impressive results, winning a place in the promotion playoffs in his last season in charge before, in May 2010, being unveiled as new head coach of ADO Den Haag, with whom he qualified for the 2011–12 UEFA Europa League. The following year, van den Brom repeated the feat, this time while at the helm of Vitesse Arnhem.

Van den Brom’s ability to conjure impressive results from meagre resources brought many admirers, but it was Belgian heavyweights, Anderlecht who took a chance by appointing van den Brom as head coach on 29 May 2012.

More success followed as van den Brom’s Anderlecht were crowned Jupiler Pro League Champions in 2013 whilst also lifting the Belgian Supercup in successive seasons in 2012 and 2013.

However, a disappointing first portion of the 2013-14 campaign saw van den Brom’s tenure brought to a premature end with the club sacking the Dutchman on 10 March 2014 prior to his succeeding of Marco van Basten as the new manager of AZ Alkmaar on 27 September 2014.

A surprise third place finish that ensured a place in the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League at the expense of Feyenoord in the last few weeks of the 2014-15 season saw van den Brom’s star once more in the ascendancy.

Thus far in 2015-16, despite a poor showing in the UEFA Europa League, where, after reaching the group stages, AZ could only manage one win and one draw while suffering four losses to finish bottom of Group L with just 4 points and having made a slow start in the Eredivisie, van den Brom remains held in high regard and, with both a proven track record and experience of coaching in continental competition, will most likely find his name on any list of potential successors to Frank De Boer.

Ron Jans

PEC Zwolle head coach, Ron Jans initially started his coaching career as far back as 1991 – the former striker cutting his teeth with SJS Stadskanaal, ACV and Achilles 1894 before assuming the role of assistant coach at BVO Emmen in 2000.

His big break came in 2002 when he was appointed head coach at  FC Groningen in 2002, and went on to become the Eredivisie’s longest-serving head coach while also delivering two consecutive UEFA Cup qualifications in 2005 and 2006 before eventually moving on in 2010.

Surprisingly, in February 2010, Jans opted to join Groningen’s great rivals SC Heerenveen – signing an agreement to take charge at Abe Lenstra Stadium for the 2010-11 season.

Jans’ first season in charge of Heerenveen was mostly considered a disappointment, as he only managed to achieve an unimpressive twelfth place in the league table. However, his second season turned out to be much better; thanks to his ability to get the most out of forwards Bas Dost, Luciano Narsingh, and Oussama Assaidi, Jans guided the club to a fifth place finish in 2011-12 that was enough to ensure the club’s entry into the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League for the following season.

Like John van den Brom, Jans too headed over the border to Belgium where he signed with Standard Liège on 29 May 2012, but, following a torrid start to the season, Jans agreed with the club to end his contract on 22 October with Standard 12th in the Belgian Pro League.

The following season Jans returned to coaching, this time at unfashionable PEC Zwolle and in his first season he won the KNVB Cup (the club’s first major silverware) after beating Ajax 5-1 in the final, which in turn brought qualification to the UEFA Europa League. After which he led PEC to the cup final once again in 2014-15 where they were beaten by his old club FC Groningen. PEC also beat Ajax once again in the 2014 edition of the Johan Cruijff Schaal.

Jans possess an impressive C.V. but perhaps lacks the experience of meeting the demands of a large club – with all his success having come while at the helm of unfashionable teams.

Frank Rijkaard

Boasting an impressive C.V. as both a player and a coach, Frank Rijkaard could also come into the reckoning for the Ajax job.

Rijkaard’s coaching career began when he was appointed bondscoach in 1998 having previously served as an assistant coach, alongside Johan Neeskens and Ronald Koeman under Guus Hiddink. At the time, he was not taken seriously as a manager because of his inexperience, but he was able to guide the Oranje to the Euro 2000 semi-final where they lost to Italy on penalties, after which Rijkaard resigned immediately.

During 2001–02, Rijkaard was appointed coach of Sparta Rotterdam but was unable to avert relegation to the Eerste Divisie for the first time in the club’s history and was fired as a consequence.

But Rijkaard was not out of a coaching role for long, and less than a year after leaving Sparta Rotterdam, he was appointed manager of Barcelona for the 2003–04 season – arriving at the club as it entered a new phase, with the election of a new President in Joan Laporta and a new managerial board.

Rijkaard endured a disappointing start in the Catalan capital that saw some sections of the club’s fans call for his resignation. However, Rijkaard persevered and, from 2004 onwards, the team went from strength to strength. Barcelona finished runners-up in La Liga in 2003–04 as Rijkaard built a new-look side around Ronaldinho, complementing the Brazilian talisman with the talents of: Deco, Samuel Eto’o, Rafael Márquez, Ludovic Giuly, Víctor Valdés and Andrés Iniesta before securing back-to-back La Liga titles in 2004–05 and in 2005–06.

Rijkaard also achieved success on the European stage – winning the 2005–06 UEFA Champions League with a 2–1 win against Arsenal in the final. With Barcelona 1–0 down for much of the match, Rijkaard’s late tactical substitutions proved decisive, as the introduction of Henrik Larsson and Juliano Belletti contributed directly to Barcelona’s two goals. The success made him the fifth individual to have won the European Cup both as a player and as a manager, alongside Miguel Muñoz, Giovanni Trapattoni, Johan Cruijff, and Carlo Ancelotti – a feat also later achieved by his eventual successor, Pep Guardiola.

After his departure from Barcelona in 2008, Rijkaard endured largely uneventful reigns in charge of Turkish giants, Galatasaray and the Saudi Arabian national team before stepping away from the professional game.

In March 2014, in an interview with Voetbal International, Rijkaard announced that he had no plans to return to the game in a coaching capacity and it appears unlikely that, given the opportunity, the 53-year-old would opt to take up the reigns in Amsterdam.      

The Outsiders

When discussing the future coaching direction of a club of the stature of AFC Ajax, you will always find that big names of the past will be linked by the press whenever a coaching vacancy becomes available. Often, those linked with the job have little more than name value or past glories as a player for said club to qualify them for what is, arguably, the most important role at any professional football club. As such, with Frank De Boer having himself been a distinguished former player, the temptation may be to look once again in this direction.

Indeed, there are a number of former Ajax players currently making their way at various levels and locales across the globe.

  • Patrick Kluivert, who recently helped Curacao to their best performance yet in FIFA World Cup qualifying before stepping down on 10 September 2015, has amassed extensive experience as an assistant at a host of top Dutch clubs as well as a short stint at Brisbane Roar in Australia’s A League under Ange Postecoglou.
  • Clarence Seedorf spent four turbulent months at the helm of AC Milan between 16 January 2014 and 9 June 2014 before being replaced by Filippo Inzaghi.
  • Aron Winter, who spent a number of years working within the youth system at Ajax before embarking on an unsuccessful stint in charge of Toronto FC in MLS, has, since 2014, been the head coach of the Dutch U-19 national team.
  • Edgar Davids accepted the role of player manager on 11 October 2012 at English League Twoside Barnet, initially alongside Mark Robson, who subsequently left the club on 28 December 2012- leaving Davids in sole charge. However, the former Dutch international could not stop Barnet from being relegated from the Football League on the final day of the 2012-13 season. Davids remained in charge the following year until resigning on 18 January 2014 with the club struggling in the top tier of non-league football.
  • John van’t Schip began his coaching career in 2001 at FC Twente before returning to Amsterdam to work with Jong Ajax. From August 2004 he assisted Marco van Bastenin coaching the Dutch national team, until Van Basten left the position of head coach following Euro 2008. Van ‘t Schip followed Van Basten back to Ajax, becoming assistant coach alongside Rob Witschge, for the 2008–09 season and, on 6 May 2009, after  van Basten’s resignation, was appointed interim head coach until the end of the season. He has since embarked on somewhat of a coaching odyssey, plying his trade in Australia’s A league for Melbourne Heart between 2009 and 2012 – a spell punctuated by a short stint in Mexico with Club Deportivo Guadalajara before the Dutchman returned to Melbourne in 2013 to coach the rebranded Heart – now known as Melbourne City.

But, with all due respect, none of these former greats appear a likely successor to De Boer and, looking beyond the big names and obvious choices, there are a number of coaches who have made waves in the Netherlands in recent seasons that could, in theory at least, be factored into the coaching equation as someone who, while not being afforded the sort of sway Frank De Boer is currently given in Amsterdam, could perhaps work in tandem with a Director of Football. Names such as Willem II’s Jurgen Streppel, Heracles’ John Stegeman, Sparta Rotterdam’s Alex Pastoor and NEC Nijmegen’s Ernest Faber all fit this sort of mould, but it is a relative unknown who may prove to be the most likely candidate to truly bring about a revolution at AFC Ajax.

Erik ten Hag

FC Utrecht’s Erik ten Hag may appear, at first glance, to be a surprising name on a list of candidates for what is arguably the biggest job in Dutch football, but the 45-year-old’s place on the list is, in my opinion, very much warranted.

The former centre back cut his coaching teeth serving as an assistant, first between 2006 and 2009 at FC Twente and then from 2009 to 2012 at PSV Eindhoven before landing the top job at Go Ahead Eagles who he promptly led to the unlikeliest of promotions to the Eredivisie for the first time since 1996 – via the promotion playoffs.

But, instead of savouring the moment and guiding the club in the Eredivisie, ten Hag was snapped up by Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich where he served as head coach of the Bavarian giants’ second team, Bayern Munich II for two seasons before being appointed as head coach of an FC Utrecht that had previously underachieved for a number of seasons on 23rd May 2015.

Having implemented an attacking brand of football reminiscent of Guardiola’s Bayern, ten Hag’s Utrecht have surprised many in 2015-16 – not least Ajax themselves who came unstuck at Stadion Galgenwaard on 13 December 2015 and, with the club currently in the thick of the European playoff scramble on the back of seven wins in their last eleven games in all competitions which included progression into the semi-finals of the KNVB Beker at the expense of PSV on 4 February 2016, the previously unknown ten Hag is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best young coaches in the Netherlands and could well prove to be an inspired, if unusual choice of successor to De Boer given the right set of circumstances and a strong finish to the season.

The Winds of Change

It appears that change could well be afoot at AFC Ajax, both on the touchline and in the director’s box.

Following the departure of Johan Cruijff and his ‘vision’, there is now a role that needs to be filled – a role that requires someone larger than life who possess both the vision and the sheer bloody mindedness to reinvent and remodel the club and its world renowned academy in their own image.

It can be argued that the reason that Cruijff’s vision failed to endure was due to the fact that the Dutch footballing icon had little appetite for the day to day working of a football club, preferring instead to paint his visions from afar and lambast those on the ground when these visions did not play out in reality the way they had in his thoughts. Thus, the person who fills this void must be a visible presence at the club on a day to day basis, holding regular meetings with not only the head coach, but also the entire technical staff at not only first team but all levels of De Toekomst to ensure that their vision is implemented effectively at all levels on a consistent basis.

It is here that appointing an experienced coach may hit a potential roadblock as it would become a question of who was really in charge with a potential for resentment at being undermined by such a figure as the new coach attempts to meet the expectancy of the supporters and match the success of the De Boer era domestically while also looking to take the club to the next level in continental competition.  It is also here that the notion of appointing a younger manager with progressive ideas that fall in line with that of a potential Director of Football at AFC Ajax appear more and more palatable.

Of course, there is only really one man who could hope to fill the vacuum left in the wake of Cruijff’s departure – the man whose appointment as general director at the club behind Cruijff’s back in November 2011 led to a public and bloody battle through the courts which was eventually resolved in February 2012 – Louis van Gaal.

Currently enduring a torrid time at the helm at Old Trafford, van Gaal could well cut his losses in the summer and head into a well-earned retirement following a decorated coaching career that has seen spells at not only Ajax – who he most notably guided to UEFA Champions League glory in 1995, the UEFA Cup in 1992, the Intercontinental Cup in 1995, the UEFA Super Cup in 1995, three successive Eredivisie titles between 1994 and 1996, the KNVB Beker in 1993 as well as three consecutive Johan Cruijff Schaal’s (93,94 and 95) – but also Bayern Munich (one Bundesliga title, a DFB Pokal and a DFB Super Cup), two spells at Barcelona (two La Liga tiles, one Copa del Rey and a UEFA Super Cup), AZ Alkmaar (one Eredivisie title in 2008-09) and two spells as bondscoach.

However appealing retirement may appear to the 64-year-old, van Gaal would surely relish such a project given the opportunity.

The Future?

Whatever the future holds for AFC Ajax one thing is clear, there must be a carefully thought out plan of succession put in place sooner rather than later – be it from within the current coaching structure or beyond the confines of De Toekomst. Or else the most decorated club in the Netherlands could well be heading for another considerable period in transition in the wake of Frank De Boer’s departure.

 

Name-StevenDavies

Click on Steven’s name above to follow him on Twitter

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