On the 7th of December, it was exactly 50 years since the first signs of Total Football, that short-lived but glorious chapter in the evolution of the game, were spotted in Amsterdam.
That was the night that Ajax beat England’s champions, Liverpool, 5-1 in the Olympic Stadium in the second round of the European Cup. It was the first glimpse that the British media had of Johan Cruyff, the pivotal figure in the development of a progressive brand of football. And it was a dent in England’s confidence just a few months after being crowned world champions.
Ajax had won the Dutch title in 1965-66 by a seven-point margin over their fierce rivals, Feyenoord. They had lost just twice in the Eredivisie and Cruyff made his mark with 25 goals in 23 league and cup appearances.
Cruyff became a firm acolyte of Rinus Michels, who had been appointed manager in January 1965 after the departure of Vic Buckingham. Michels worked with a 16-man squad and looked for versatility and flexibility in his players, encouraging full backs to attack and forwards to operate in midfield. It was from this that the seeds were sown for what became total football.
In the mid-1960s, nobody took Dutch football too seriously, hence the Ajax result against Liverpool sent shockwaves through English football, despite Bill Shankly’s somewhat dismissive attitude.
Cruyff himself points out in his posthumous autobiography that both the Liverpool manager and Nuremberg boss Max Merkel had claimed no knowledge of the Dutch champions, preferring to reference the kitchen cleaning product, Ajax.
English clubs were still very one-dimensional with regards to European football and by 1966, only Tottenham in 1963 and West Ham in 1965 had won any of the three major prizes and in both cases, they had lifted the less celebrated European Cup-Winners Cup. In the European Cup, England were still waiting for a champion.
Nevertheless, Liverpool, League Champions in 1965-66, were expected to beat Ajax very comfortably. Bill Shankly considered that Michels’ Ajax had the makings of a good team, but he took Liverpool to Amsterdam with very little knowledge of them.
It was a foggy day, one that might have inspired such isolationist headlines as “continent cut off”, and the game was doubtful. Even the Ajax players didn’t expect the tie to go ahead and arrived at the ground just 45 minutes before the scheduled kick-off.
Italian referee, Mr Shadella, allowed the match to go ahead as the players could see each other. Anyone watching from the side was out of luck, so the 55,000 people in the Olympic Stadium had to guess what they were watching. It became known as the Mistwedstrijd – the fog game.
Ajax had less trouble adapting to the murky conditions and took the lead after three minutes, Cees de Wolf, making his debut for the club, headed home after a Cruyff throw-in had been headed into the air. The Amsterdam crowd went berserk, underlining that their team was indeed the underdog.
But Ajax went two ahead after 17 minutes through Cruyff, who finished off after a goalmouth scramble. By this time, Liverpool were looking very leaden-footed, moving one reporter to compare the white-shirted Ajax side to “ghosts flitting through the mist”.
Ajax were four-nil up by the 42nd minute, with Klaas Nuninga adding two. In the second half, Henk Groot netted Ajax’s fifth and it was only a last minute effort from Chris Lawler that reduced the deficit. Final score, Ajax 5 Liverpool 1 – Merseyside could not quite believe it.
Shankly tried to blame the defeat on the fog. “They are used to playing in fog” was one of his throwaway comments. Yet both Ajax and Liverpool had wanted the game to go ahead – the Reds had a big game against Manchester United the following weekend and wanted to get this clash out of the way.
“I wasn’t too impressed with Ajax… they got lucky. They played defensive football on their own ground. Next week in Liverpool we will beat them 7-0” insisted Shankly. Meanwhile Ajax winger Sjaak Swart recalled some years later the wonder of that night in Amsterdam: “It was a fairytale, no one believed it actually happened”. Cruyff got it right in his book: “In a technical sense, the English champions were blown away”.
If the Anfield fans thought that Shankly’s prediction of a seven-goal win was credible, they were soon put right. The return leg ended 2-2, with Cruyff scoring both goals for the Dutch side. The press said that Liverpool were beaten over the two games because “they ran into their superiors”. Shankly was now graceful in defeat, visiting the Ajax dressing room afterwards and congratulating each player.
The return game was marred by injuries to two-hundred Liverpool fans because of a terrace surge at the Kop end. The Daily Mirror described it as a “human landslide” that had been caused because of a “haze hanging over the Kop”. The fans pushed forward to get a better view through the mist and at the front, dozens were injured by the crush, spilling over the barriers,
Liverpool’s pride was also dented that night, but English football also caught sight of the future in more ways than one.