“Does anyone like football?” – Part 5: Johan Cruyff and Total Football

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The WOAP series looking at football’s greatest moments continues, as Ian Hemmens takes us back to the 1970s and tells of how the growth of colour TV was perfectly timed to capture glorious Orange Total Football – and the emergence of a legend who sprinkled his stardust in Bradford. 

This season is my 50th year watching Bradford City but the biggest and influential moment in my footballing life had nothing to do with the Bantams.

By 1970 we had a colour TV (don’t look so startled anyone under 30 or so!), that’s how it was in a time before mobile phones etc! I watched the 1970 World Cup from Mexico in wonder at the festival of colour. At this time though I was still growing towards being a teenager who had opinions and thoughts of my own.

My footballing epiphany came whilst watching the midweek ‘Sportsnight’ programme with European Football. By 1973, my eyes and thoughts were becoming obsessed by a wondrous team coming from a previously thought of backwater of football. The Netherlands.

My focus was the Ajax Amsterdam team which won three consecutive European Cups playing what was called ‘Total Football’. It had its roots, I found out later, in the post war English coaches of Ajax – Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham – whose chief disciple was player and future legend Rinus Michels.

Michels fine-tuned the theory and was lucky to have at his disposal a group of willing students of high intellect, and even higher talent and technique. At the head of this group was a scrawny little 16-year-old with the mind and personality of a man far beyond his tender years.

This boy was Johan Cruyff, a boy steeped in Ajax from birth as his mother had washed the club kit for several years. His wiry frame belied his inner strength as he could ride the fiercest of tackles by old timers unwilling to be shown up by this new young upstart.

Apart from his superb balance and technique Cruyff had the brains and foresight and the magical talent for seeing two moves ahead of everyone else. The perfect vessel for Michels’ to put his theories into practice.

Alongside the likes of Keizer, Swart, Haan, Krol, Neeskens, Suurbier, Hulshoff and the rest, Ajax dominated for three years – until the spectre of money and ego broke up the team.

This group also formed the base for the 1974 Dutch World Cup team, arguably the best team never to win the Jules Rimet Trophy. Once again, the Dutch traits of stubbornness and arrogance, plus an overriding will to beat the eternal enemy of West Germany, became their downfall. But for me, the dye was cast and I fell in love with this football. To this day, the Dutch Master Johan Cruyff is my all time football hero.

It’s said that if you meet your heroes you are often disappointed but I had the honour of meeting Cruyff when, after his move to Barcelona, the Catalans actually stayed at a hotel in Bradford and trained at Thackley for a European Cup tie with Leeds United. A group of us skipped school and shot down to Dennyfield to watch them train.

Cruyff’s old team mate Johan Neeskens had joined them also, and it was the start of a glorious era for the club as they finally came out of Real Madrid’s shadow. Apart from Neeskens, there was Charly Rexach, Angel Corominas, The blonde Brazilian full back Francisco Marinho. But I only had eyes for Cruyff. as after training had finished the players showed off and practiced their superb skills for the group of kids that had gathered.

We were invited amongst them as the signed autographs and handed out souvenirs. I shook my hero’s hand and told him I thought he was the greatest. Despite his huge ego and opinionated public face, he was very humble and signed my colour photo and Barcelona pennant – which I still have to this day.

Cruyff told me to think about the game and not just accept what I saw, but what else could happen and how could it be improved. He tried to explain his philosophy of space and movement on the pitch being the core of everything good about the game. I came away feeling elated by my small audience with my idol, and thankfully he was everything that I hoped he would be.

Ever since that day I followed his stellar career as a player and coach, and now administrator and commentator. Although many fine players have come and gone since Cruyff, for me, will always be the best.

I still follow Ajax as my “second team” and their dedication and club ethos to a certain way of playing, whilst bringing young players through, is something to be proud of in these days when money seems to be ‘king’ in the game.

They may not rule the European game any longer but Ajax’s influence is still there and evidenced by the amount of players who are developed and then sold on to the giants of the game.

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