Interview with former Ajax forward #3… This was and is not a series… Just happened to be three stories in a row of people with a story to tell.
And that this post is about Ajax and not Oranje is relevant, as this story would be much bigger – in disappointment terms – if Oranje had qualified for the Euros, as expected.
But Ajax is the second behemoth of Dutch football to have a disastrous year. On the pitch, all seems to be going ok (PSV is the current champs but Ajax is still in the race this season and Frank de Boer can be happy with 4 titles on the trot). But off the pitch, Ajax is a mess.
Results are ok, performance quality is not and Frank de Boer does seem to have had it with his job at Ajax. And while critics enjoy debating Ajax’ football style and people guessing where Frank will go next (and who will succeed him at Ajax), the shenanigans behind the scenes (board level and youth academy) got everyone quite flabbergasted.
A number of years ago, Cruyff initiated the “velvet revolution” in the club. Back to the roots in playing style, utlising young talent as the foundation and making a return – of sorts – to the European elite. Well…. It didn’t work.
Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk,a phenomenal pairing on the pitch, not unlike Neeskens – Cruyff, Davids- Zidane, Mahrez – Vardy or Iniesta-Xavi… Jonk the playmaker deep and Bergkamp the goal scorer high up the pitch. At Ajax, Oranje and Inter Milan, they collected victories, trophies and kudos.
They both were the flag bearers of JC’s revolution. But this year, Wim Jonk was fired from his role at Ajax, as director youth academy and Dennis Bergkamp was one of the people behind that decision. Bergkamp: “The youth academy turned into an island within the club.”
Where did it go wrong?
Dennis Bergkamp: “Let’s start at the beginning. Before Martin Jol was fired, I got a call from Aron Winter to come to a meeting to discuss the football of Ajax. The word “revolution” wasn’t used, it was all about the identity and the youth development of the club. Later Johan asked me if If I was keen to take a role in the technical staff. Wim was already working as individual coach at Ajax and based on our past I invited him into those meetings. We had a small group of people and started to make plans. Johan used to ambush meetings, as he called it. Sometimes certain people would block what we aimed to do and Johan would just come into those meetings to confront people and have the debate. It soon became the Cruyff Plan, but Johan didn’t invent this. He wasn’t keen to become the name giver. He is not as dominant as people say he is. He just wanted to get clarity about the club philosophy. And he used to say “I don’t need you to agree with all I say. I just need you to hear me out.” I still back Johan’s vision, don’t get me wrong, but Johan does want people to bring their own ideas in. And I like to work like that. Johan always stimulated people to follow their own plans, as long as it fit the bigger picture.”
But the club articles of association determines that the management team decides… And Cruyff installed the so-called Technical Heart. Wasn’t this like setting yourself up for failure?
DB: “From a formal perspective, yes. True. But we had agreements with the management that we would focus on technical aspects and our directives would be followed. The management would then ratify these decisions taken by us. Wim and I negotiated with the management team for a year before we signed our deals. And this was not about money but purely about responsibilities and authority. When we won that courtcase and Marc Overmars joined, things turned for the better. The board of directors, the management team, everyone embraced the new direction. To me, that is more important than the articles of association. When everyone has the same aim, it should not be hard to sort things out.”
And that appeared to be not the case?
DB: “The first technical heart consisted of Wim, Frank de Boer and myself. When Marc joined, we had a new meeting – with Johan present – and determined that the head coach shouldn’t be part of it anymore. Coaches are passerbys. The head coach needs to focus on results of the first team, that is his focus and objective. So Frank left, and Marc came. This worked well. Although Marc had some issues to resolve between the technical heart and the management team. But that was his role. We also determined that we would vote if we couldn’t see eye to eye on certain topics. And who ever lost the vote would simply have to accept that.”
If you look at the paper work it is quite a complicated spagetti of responsibilities and authority… Wasn’t that an accident waiting to happen?
DB: “Not necessarily. If you communicate openly and talk things through, it can and should work. But Wim got more and more disgruntled about Mark and my opinion about the youth academy. We would all have oversight in one another’s fields. But Wim started to shield what he did in the Academy. We started to get more and more… discussions and disagreements about this.”
JC and Dennis shoulder to shoulder….
Jonk says that you and Marc hardly came and watched the youth teams play and weren’t up to speed what the youth coaches were doing or even who they were… So how can you judge them?
DB: “We never judged the performance of the youth coaches. That was purely Wim’s responsibility. We also didn’t concern ourselves with players moving up from one youth team to the next. We couldn’t have a real opinion about that. But we did have an opinion about the selection of new coaches. At a certain point, a whole series of people were hired whom did not have a real impact or role in the football side of things. We saw a culture chance happening at the youth academy. Performance coaches came in, physiologists and it went too far. Football was and is and will always be the foundation. Too much happened without communication. The mentor system, the appointment of coaches, the department methodology, organisation charts were changed, reporting protocols were changed… Wim basically just informed us. Some of these ideas were probably very good but we felt we needed to have at least some form of say in it. The youth academy became an island. The connection between the first team and the academy weakened.”
And your role, partly, was to form the bridge between youth academy and first team?
DB: “Exactly. And that role became harder and harder. We had this situation for more than two years! And my focus was the flow through from the older youth teams to the first team. I focused on watching the A juniors. I don’t need to watch games of the 10 year olds. Irrelevant to me. I can’t be at three places at the same time. So I watched all A team games, with a focus on “which players are knocking on the door?”. I repeatedly asked for some youthful talents to be able to train with the first team. But I did feel and still do, that some A juniors were not good enough, in terms of tactical and physical development. And I had ideas how to improve this. But it doesn’t help if the director youth academy won’t come to meetings. And in the meantime, they ignored our ideas and requests and started to work differently. The first team was supposed to be leading, that is a key element in Johan’s vision. The benchmark is, are the lads ready to deliver at top level, in terms of skill, handling speed, tactics, physically, etc… ”
Club icons in management: Overmars as technical director, Van der Sar groomed as general manager
But it is also important to look at the signings Ajax has done. Did Jonk have a say in this?
DB: “Of course. Wim was part of the technical heart. The starting point in determining the squad is always “who do you have coming up?”. This helps to determine the gaps we could expect and the positions we needed to fill. And we don’t sign players to broaden the squad or strengthen the bench. We needed players to make Ajax better and that is not always easy with a limited budget. And I think it is great if we buy a player but he is surpassed by a young talent. Fantastic. But you can’t just expect to sell players like Eriksen, Siem de Jong, Vertonghen and Alderweireld and expect four youth players to take their role.”
Jonk didn’t claim this. He complained about the way those decisions were made…
DB: “But I return to what I said earlier. If the director youth development decides to ignore the technical heart meetings, communication is getting hard. Take Daley Sinkgraven. We believe in him. He is still young and a talent still, but he has played a lot of games for Heerenveen already and he came with a price tag. We checked with Jonk and he admitted that Donny van der Beek and Nouri were not yet ready for that spot. We took that advice and decided to fork out the millions for Daley. And now Donny van der Beek is starting to play his games too! Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing. It’s a luxury.”
Buit Ajax has had a number of failed signings… Why sign Heitinga for 1 mio euros p.a. if you have Veltman and Van der Hoorn?
DB: “For starters, you need 4 center backs. You can play two, but you need to have two players at a good level to take over when needed. Johnny trained really well and added value to the group even if he didn’t play. See him as Andre Ooijer in the past. If he needs to play, he is there. But we do want to give the youngsters the chance to prove themselves.”
Frank de Boer publicly said he would happily share the responsibility for the signings with Marc Overmars. How is that for you?
DB: “The same of course. And I don’t agree with players on the bench being labelled “failures”. It’s silly. Robin van Persie took some time at Arsenal to get into the team. Is Memphis a failure? Of course not… Players like Viergever and Van der Hoorn help to bring the level up but we only can play eleven players. You need a balanced squad. And our aim is to have as many home grown players as possible. The aim used to be for the Youth Academy to supply three new players every season and one player from the partner clubs. This is much to ambitious and puts a lot of stress on the academy. It almost forces the academy to have players move up that actually aren’t ready yet. But you always end up in a situation where you need to sign a player. When Sigthorsson left, our youth strikers weren’t ready. Simple. So we went out to get a player on loan. Sanogo of Arsenal…. Well…that is not a success, I know, but it is the way how we will need to maneuver.”
Two former rightwingers: club legend Mr Ajax Sjaak Swart and rebel Tscheu La Ling
Tscheu La Ling developed a report for Ajax, on the request of Cruyff, and his report says that most signings are done after a quick conversation between Frank de Boer and Marc Overmars?
DB: “That is not correct. I was always present and Wim could have been present too. Even before he formally said he didn’t want to come anymore, he was often absent. Too busy. While those meetings are key for the club. Do you really think Frank makes a list of players and Marc goes out to get them? That whole report Ling made is a preposterous and futile excercise.”
DB: “Ling is biased. It was clear what he wanted and whose side he was on. Before he wrote it, it was clear what his conclusions were. I had a 20 minute conversation with him. When I said “Let’s discuss the real issues here” he hastily grabbed his notebook and his bag and said he was in a hurry but he would call me back for another meeting. I have yet to hear from him. We would do follow up interviews, etc…we never heard from hims since. he wanted to have a broad look into the organisation. And suddenly, he presented his report. Ling had a 1 minute conversation with Frank de Boer! Can you believe that? The guy won four titles in a row and was just ignored like he was the coffee lady. Ling had a 30 minute meeting with Marc and had not even one conversation with Edwin van der Sar! Not with Jaap Stam. We never saw him at the training ground. And there were two versions of this report. A short version for the board and they leaked a longer version to the newspaper De Telegraaf. People played games, is my conclusion. I don’t even believe Ling wrote the report. It was a farce and this is the end result.”
Wim Jonk supporting Cruyff in his court case versus Ajax
Cruyff thinks the Ling Report is valuable….
DB: “That makes it so weird. I spoke with the management team some six months ago to give them my opinion on our issues. The general manager went to see Johan in Barcelona . I wrote a letter to Johan with 12 points we needed to focus on. And we spoke about that letter later. He gave me compliments for the analysis. I saw him in the summer about this as well. But Johan didn’t want to pick sides. It became awkward and when Wim was asked to go, Johan always protected the former players. while the board was playing the blame game. It is disappointing that we, as former team mates, weren’t able to resolve it. Kinsbergen, the general manager, who is friends with Johan couldn’t sort it out and the three board members who tried to mediate failed as well.”
Wim is an old team mate. You used to have this psychic connection almost. How was it get into conflict with him?
DB: “Highly regrettable. Wim, Johan and myself were the founders if you like… We battled and fought for reform in Ajax. I think the management back then underestimated it all. We had court cases and rifts and when it was finally behind us, the management team basically said “ok, that’s it, lets move on” but it doesn’t work like that. The distance between Wim and myself happened over a longer period. It was intense and emotional at times. Which was hard. But this wall was being put up between us… Don’t get me wrong, as a youth coach, in his vision and as a human being, I think Wim Jonk is a top bloke. But as a manager I think he listened too much to others. In the Academy we started to get people who had less focus on the actual football and more on the side aspects. I never said I didn’t believe in Wim, but I don’t believe in his entourage. Wim, Marc, Frank, Johan and myself were focusing on the technical decisions and I really didn’t need Wim to suggest all the time to bring in the performance coach and ask his opinion. We are a football club. With a lot of experience in the organisation. I think that Frank, Marc and I are quite capable to see if an A talent is ready for the big team. I really don’t need Ruben Jongkind’s report for this (Jongkind was Ajax’ performance coach). Wim got influenced by these people, while his view on the game is unsurpassed.”
Better days for the ex Ajax and Inter team mates, winning the UEFA Cup
Everyone at Ajax says that they follow the Cruyff plan. But according to Cruyff this can only be said about Wim Jonk….
DB: “I think in essence we all do. It really hurts me in my soul if people doubt my loyalty to Johan’s vision. We all want to play attractive football, with home grown players and working on these players individually to make them better. But there ought to be some protocols, some methods as to how you do this. The first team needs to be leading and the youth academy is the source of future first team players.”
Johan officially stopped as Ajax advisor and recently is even a great criticaster of Ajax’ performances…
DB: “I think it is wonderful that he still follows Ajax closely. I want him to be critical. It’s great to talk football with him and although we share the same vision, we don’t always agree on certain things. We have different opinions about the midfield situation. I prefer to play with a number 10. I like the fact that there is a shadow striker available when the wingers pass their opponent. Also, with a number 10 in Litmanen style, you can put pressure on their build up high up the park. But, in some case a deep lying center midfielder is better. Depends also on the opponent. I do believe midfielders need to be able to play all those roles. Like Strootman, Pogba, Fabregas… Multi functional and we haven’t developed that well enough in the Academy. It applies to the forwards as well, for me. I’m talking working on their two feet, technical skills, explosivity, lungs and legs and the capability of finishing.”
The psychic connection gone….
So, do you create talent or does talent simply come to Ajax?
DB: “Both! Real talent is God given. But to develop them with the broad spectrum of skills and capabilities is a different thing. I believe the foundation always is ball skills. Most other things we can train them in. And sure, there is room for a performance coach in that process, but only to support, not to be the leading guy in it all. There are a couple of 15 year olds now who can bench press their own weight. Great!! But I rather have them work on their weak foot or on heading or on set pieces… The rest will come. And our youth teams need more resistance. They need to learn how to battle. It was good for Tete, Riedenwald, Veltman and Bazoer that they had to make their games with Young Ajax in the Jupiler league. There is a lot of battle going on there. They learned a lot there. More than they could from statistics or videos or performance analysis. We wanted to bring young A juniors to the A team to let them work with more resistance. Higher pace. But Jongkind blocked that as he felt they weren’t physically ready, and he let them go into the fitness room. They need to find their resistance on the pitch, not in a gym. When Johan coached us he was tough as nails. He was toughest for the big talents. Van Basten, Rijkaard. I was there…. And Ajax has been spoiling the biggest talents. They were told to skip training if it was all getting too much for them. Ajax’ youth academy has gone far beyond what their charter was.”
Now Said Quaali is taking over from Jonk. Why him?
DB: “He is interim. But we have him with us now for four years and he has impressed. He coordinates the older talent teams and did his practicum with us at the first team. Frank and I were impressed with him. He’s neutral, objective and loyal. You can rely on him. And it’s not like Wim Jonk did everything wrong. He did great things and we want to keep those. But I will get more involved now. I have started my assessment meetings and I will be more involved with the youth academy. The lines between the pro and junior departments are open again. The objective is clear: making sure our youngsters get ready for the first team, with Cruyff’s vision as the leading vision.”
How are you going to do this?
DB: “For starters, we need to bring harmony back. I also want to re-balance the ratio between ball practice and performance training. I want to skip a number of those for individual technical training. I heard some players actually get individual training outside of the club! That is the world upside down. I am also convinced the youngsters can handle more practice. When I was young, I hated a day without practice. It blocked your rhythm. We need to play more 11 v 11 practice games. Even if it is just 30 minutes. It creates strength. It all happens in the game. I also believe we spoil them too much. We have almost one physio per youth team. No wonder players suddenly feel all the little pains more. They tend to pick days to just get massages. It’s rubbish. Just run it off! Get on with it.”
Do you want the new Youth Academy director to be a man with an Ajax background?
DB: “Yes, that is ideal. We are working on a profile now. We’ll have some more meetings and make up our mind. I am not saying we don’t want to innovate with nutrition and medical approaches, but the football need to be central.”
Is it disappointing that this Ajax has difficulties against small European clubs, like Molde?
DB: “It is, but it is the result of an ever weakening of the Eredivisie. You see the level drop, due to different reasons, and as a result our levels drop too. There is less resistance. And when you play European, against Scandinavian teams or Turkish teams or Czech teams, they might have less real quality but they’re physically and mentally mature. We play with too many young players who still only focus on their own game. When you are around 35 years old you start to see more of the pitch, more of the team. Our lads have difficulties in toughter games, when the duels are tougher and the pace is higher. In Holland we win most of our games at 90%, we score two goals in the first 30 minutes and the pace drops. We simply play the game out. In tighter games, vs Feyenoord, PSV or European opponents, we find this tough. We need to be on the ball and focused for 100% and our players struggle with this. It’s no coincidence that we play well vs Man City and Man United and AC Milan but struggle against Molde…”
And when players get to that age and can do all what is needed, they’re signed by richer clubs….
DB: “That is our fate. Yes… And players will be tempted to go sooner, because big clubs make it hard for them to ignore those offers and because our level is dropping. If you can train daily with Aguero, Silva and Toure, that is quite attractive.. And play against Rooney, Ramsey and Kane… So we will need to work harder to keep them with us and to allow them a growth path. My career was a good example. I played in the Ajax youth and made it into the first team when I was 18 years old and I stayed for five years. When I was 23 I left and then you are starting to see the game. My first years at Inter were hard and when I got to Arsenal I was 25 years old. Great age to play for a big big club. I see myself as the culture guardian of Ajax. I will make more time for individual coaching and guidance and will form that bridge between youth and first team. I like to get a more free role in the organisation, with strategy being dealt with in the technical heart of the club and with individual focus with the talents. A lot that Jonk has done was excellent. But we need to re-focus ourselves to serve the bigger Ajax vision. That is our main mission.”