De Boer readies himself for the snakepit
Picture the scene. You are the coach of a youth team when you get a call from the chairman: ''Our manager is gone, the team is a shambles and we have a big game tomorrow in Italy against the leaders of Serie A. Can you come and help us?" And there you are, in your first ever match as a club manager, standing on the touchline, cameras flashing and 50,000 hostile fans abusing you. You can just about hear over the noise as a journalist asks you whether it is such a good idea to keep your top scorer on the bench.
It sounds like a nightmare, but for someone like Frank de Boer it is all in a day's work. The Saturday before, Ajax escaped with a draw against mid-table NEC Nijmegen, while being outplayed for most of the night on home soil. Seeing no way out of the misery, Martin Jol handed in his resignation on Monday, a day ahead of the flight to Milan for their last Champions League group game. Immediately, as if he was waiting in the wings, De Boer, coach of Ajax's Under-19 team, took over.
De Boer had two days and one training session (on the pitch of the San Siro stadium) to pick up the pieces. Ajax had won only two games out of their last eight, scoring only six goals. De Boer's main change was to leave top-scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui on the bench and play with Luis Suarez and Miralem Sulejmani on the wings in the old-fashioned Ajax-style.
From the kick-off Ajax went forward, pressurised Milan in their own half and managed to frustrate the build-up of the Serie A leaders. It was not Milan's night and Ajax used it to their benefit, as good goals by Demy de Zeeuw and Toby Alderweireld made their entrance to the Europa League in February a certainty. Not bad for a first attempt.
De Boer will now stay in charge until next week's clasico against Feyenoord. After that, the Ajax board has to decide if they would like to make his job permanent or finish the season with a more seasoned coach like Morten Olsen or Frank Rijkaard.
Most fans prefer to continue with De Boer, who knows the club inside out. That, however, is not necessarily the secret to success. In 1998, Jan Wouters succeeded Morten Olsen halfway the season and, in 2005, Danny Blind took over from Ronald Koeman. Both had spent half a lifetime at the club - Wouters was kicked out within twelve months, while Blind, who was believed to have what it takes by some famous collegues, made it at least until the end of the next season. Recently it was Marco van Basten who left as national coach to go to Ajax - again someone with a deep knowledge of the club. But Van Basten chucked it in after ten months and is now a pundit on Sport 1, a pay-tv network.
Only one man has kept the Ajax job for more than three seasons since Rinus Michels in 1971. Louis van Gaal started in September 1991 and left for Barcelona in 1997, winning three titles, a Dutch cup, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup. Even he almost did not make it to his first Christmas in charge, when a couple of bad results in November fired up the calls for Johan Cruyff to take over. Van Gaal was saved by a decent UEFA Cup run and some strong backing by the board, chaired by Michael van Praag.
Certainly, whoever takes the job faces a big challenge. Ajax have never gone so long without winning the Dutch title while, financially, they need the Champions League to survive. Transfers are the second source of income with the homegrown boys as prizewinners. If the youth academy has a barren spell, pressure mounts on the scouting system to bring in top talents from elsewhere, most of them with a large price-tag on their heads. And that is their Achilles heel. Over the last ten years, Ajax have turned into a buying club, which empties their coffers rapidly.
The legendary 'Total Football' was based partly on two wingers on the touchline, the 4-3-3 system. Ajax feel the need to keep this typically Dutch tradition alive from the youngest teams to the first squad; as Johan Cruyff puts it: "Our system is unique. Foreign clubs find it difficult to defend as they are not used it."
That is so true but, on the flipside, Ajax forks out huge sums of money to buy foreign talents, only to find out that they are unsure of how to play in the club system. Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic spent more than two years at Ajax before eventually settling, testing the patience of the majority of the club's fans. Niklos Machlas, Albert Luque, Georgi Kinkladze, Dario Cvitanich, Wesley Sonck, Markus Rosenberg, Angelos Charisteas and recently Miralem Sulejmani and Mounir El Hamdaoui, are all multi-million euro transfers who never settled or still struggle to do so.
And, if it is not going well (which, in terms of the Ajax faithful, is not winning each game comfortably performing with breathtaking style), the ruthless fifth column raises its ugly head. There is always the shadow of Johan Cruyff hanging over the club. Sometimes it is the man himself voicing opinions from Barcelona in his weekly column, but there are many groups of ex-players, hangers-on or investors coming out of the woodwork once results go haywire. They often drop their vitriol near a microphone or a notebook of a befriended hack, often starting with 'Johan said.. ' or 'according to Johan.', although the great footballer himself is blissfully unaware.
For a coach, life in and around the Amsterdam ArenA is a snakepit, in which expectations are limitless. On the very first day of his interim appointment De Boer was hailed as the man who would let Ajax play like Barcelona. Just a week before, after Barcelona's beating of Real Madrid, former Feyenoord player and coach Wim van Hanegem wondered on TV why clubs did not all play like the Catalans. Marco van Basten answered from his Ajax experience: "You can train on this one-touch tica-taca play for months with a squad, but when some of them lack the quality, it is useless."