Story by Aaron Bliss.
In honour of our ‘Party for Kanu’, let us cast our minds back to where he first entered the global football conscious. Our story takes us to Holland, specifically Amsterdam, in the season 1994-95, where one of the finest squads ever assembled wrote their names in folklore by capturing the European Cup at the end of a season in which they won the Eredivisie undefeated, scoring over 100 goals in the process.
When Louis Van Gaal moulded a squad composed almost entirely of products from the Ajax youth system, few could have predicted just how successful these wet-behind-the-ears prospects would turn out to be on the global stage. Forget the Arsenals Invincibles or Barcelona’s tiki-taka marionettes, Ajax were doing it before it became fashionable, and they captured their fourth European trophy before Barcelona had won their second, also only losing a successive final on penalties.
Ajax’s victorious European final vs AC Milan.
What made this squad even more compelling was the fact that, bar two Nigerians and a Finn, the entire squad was homegrown. This would have been a squad to dominate Dutch football for a decade, had the league been able to retain such talent. It should have heralded a decade of success for the national side, had egos not consistently overridden team spirit.
From the cool composure of a young Edwin Van Der Sar, through the class of Michael Reiziger and the De Boer twins, the hard-as-nails Danny Blind, the tenacity of Edgar Davids, the guile of Clarence Seedorf, the flying wingplay of Marc Overmars and the exceptional finishing of Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen, the Ajax squad had gone from strength to strength following the sale of Dennis Bergkamp a couple of seasons previously.
With the older heads of Captain Danny Blind and Frank Rijkaard, Ajax faced AC Milan in the European Cup final, their line-up, despite these two, possessing an average age of just 23. A late goal from substitute Kluivert finished the Rossoneri, and wrote the young squad’s names in the history books. But where are the key players now, and just how big have their marks on the game been ?
Ajax’s ice-cool goalkeeper was 24 at the time of the European triumph, similar to teenage years in goalkeeping terms. Despite the exodus of stars following their success, Van Der Sar stayed loyal to Ajax until 1999, when he moved to Juventus, becoming their first non-Italian goalkeeper. After a couple of trophyless seasons there, the Old Lady purchased Gianluigi Buffon, and Van Der Sar moved for the sake of his career. Taking into account his sterling reputation, many were shocked at his move to newly-promoted Fulham, where he performed superbly, until Sir Alex Ferguson did what he had failed to do in 1999, and lured Van Der Sar to Old Trafford a full decade after his European Cup pomp with Ajax. Despite approaching the winding down of his career, there was still time for Van Der Sar to capture another European Cup, along with four league titles, two league cups and a World Club Cup. As for individual awards, Van Der Sar won Best European Goalkeeper in 1995 and 2009 and UEFA Club Goalkeeper of the Year in 2009. He is the Netherlands most capped player of all time with 130 appearances, and, though most noted for his impressive list of trophies for the first and last clubs of his career, he in fact also won a trophy with both Juventus and Fulham: the Intertoto Cup.
Just 22 at the European Cup final, Reiziger made his name as a roving right-back, strong in the tackle and positionally sound. He left Ajax for AC Milan in 1996, playing a single season there before joining the ‘Ajax reunion’ at Barcelona. After a very successful spell there in which he was also a mainstay of the Dutch national side, Reiziger’s career went downhill somewhat as he passed 30. After retiring from international football in 2004, he then moved to an indifferent spell at Middlesbrough, before coming home to PSV Eindhoven. Reiziger won an array of European and domestic trophies with Ajax, before adding two league titles, a Spanish Cup and a UEFA Super Cup with Barcelona, and even two league titles with PSV in the twilight of his career, finishing a highly decorated player and renowned as one of the finest right-backs in the modern era.
Blind was the rugged elder statesman at the back, and captain of the glorious Class of ’95. Despite his status as a solid tackler, Blind was also comfortable on the ball, and commanded the centre of defence whilst also being adept at filling in at left-back, both for the national side and Ajax. Blind came to Ajax from Sparta Rotterdam in 1986, and stayed at the club until his retirement in 1999, drawing to a close the final embers of the great Ajax team. He is currently assistant coach of the national team, and incredibly is one of only five players to have won all major European trophies sanctioned by FIFA and UEFA: Champions’ League, Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cup, Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup; all with Ajax.
With his resemblance to Laurence Fishburne, Bogarde was a man-mountain of a defender, playing either in the centre or left-back, though he started his career as a goalscoring winger. After leaving Ajax in 1997, he made a miserly 3 appearances for AC Milan, before Bogarde joined the large Dutch contingent at former Ajax coach Van Gaal’s Barcelona side of the late 90s, and proved a success once more, winning two league titles, a Copa Del Rey and a UEFA Super Cup. After the Dutch influence at Barcelona faded, Bogarde felt the time right to leave. Eerily similar to Reiziger, his career descended in his 30s, as he moved to Chelsea, where his name became synonymous with bench-warming mercenaries. The legend of Bogarde haunts Chelsea, as they signed him on lucrative terms, before a change of manager saw him out of First Team contention. Despite an attempt at constructive dismissal, Bogarde did not look a gift horse in the mouth. He is quoted as saying: ‘This world is about money, so when you are offered those millions you take them. Few people will ever earn so many. I am one of the few fortunates who do. I may be one of the worst buys in the history of the Premiership but I don’t care.’
Frank and Ronald De Boer were lynchpins of the Dutch national side for a decade, and followed each other to most clubs. They were an immense package, with Frank a strong and technical centre-back/left-back, and the older Ronald a goalscoring midfielder with an eye for a set-piece. After the 1995 European Cup win, they both stayed in Amsterdam until 1998, where they moved to Van Gaal’s remoulding of the Ajax side in Barcelona. Frank went on to become manager of Ajax, where he has won consecutive titles in the last two seasons. Ronald meanwhile, who also won an array of trophies at Rangers, post-Barcelona, now works as a tv analyst in Qatar, where both he and his brother completed their playing careers.
Nicknamed ‘The Pitbull’ by Louis Van Gaal for his tenacious tackling and man-marking ability, dreadlocked warrior Davids was an imperious midfielder, breaking up play and setting counter-attacks in motion. He could also strike a mean free-kick, and became characterised by the sport goggles he wore later in his career due to glaucoma. Davids left the glorious Ajax team in 1996, where he endured a frustrating season at AC Milan, before a glittering spell with Juventus, in which he won 3 Serie ‘A’ titles, an Italian Super Cup and Intertoto. Marcello Lippi once described the Surinam-born midfielder as ‘my one man engine-room.’ Despite being sent home for insulting Guus Hiddink at Euro ’96, Davids remained integral to the Dutch national side for many years. After this peak of his career, Davids went on to have an impact at Internazionale, Tottenham and Ajax once more, before ending his career on a ‘pay-as-you-play’ contract at Crystal Palace, bizarrely describing it as one of the greatest experiences of his life! He has also been chosen by Pele as one of the 100 greatest living footballers.
Fleet-footed winger Overmars was a rare breed, in that he was comfortable on either foot and pacy too, as well as contributing impressively with goals. After Ajax he signed for Arsenal and won the double in his first season, most memorably skinning Gary Neville en route to nutmegging Peter Schmeichel for a crucial goal in their clawing back of a 10-point deficit. This was bizarrely the end of his success, as in 2000, he then joined the later stages of the Dutch renaissance in Barcelona, though incredibly did not win a trophy, as the Catalan giants suffered a financial crisis at the start of the millennium. After an initial retirement at just 31 due to injury, he surprised everyone by announcing the resumption of his playing career with his first club Go Ahead Eagles in 2008, though once again retired after a season. He won the Dutch Football Talent of the Year in 1992, the Dutch Golden Shoe in 1993, and Best Young Player Award at the 1994 World Cup.
The elder statesman of the ’95 vintage, he returned to Ajax after a hugely successful five-year spell at AC Milan, where he had picked up ten trophies. He was 34 at the European triumph, and despite being an integral part of the Euro ’88-winning Dutch national side as a centre-back, he mainly performed as a defensive midfielder with a touch of class. After a playing career laden with honours, Rijkaard went on to become the coach of his country, guiding them to the semi-finals of Euro 2000 with a swashbuckling style, before going to Barcelona. Despite a torrid start, Rijkaard went on to successfully manage a transition which culminated in two league titles, before the momentum tailed off, and he gave way to Josep Guardiola. He currently coaches the Saudi Arabian national team.
Classy Clarence became Ajax’s youngest ever debutant at 16 years and 242 days in 1992, and has had an astounding career since. He is also one of the few of the Class of ’95 to still be active as a player. His list of clubs reads like a who’s-who of world football: Ajax, Sampdoria, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, and more recently Botafogo. His litany of club honours almost rivals his individual honours; he has won league titles in three different countries, and is the only player to win the Champions’ League four times, with three different clubs. He also has the unfortunate habit of missing crucial penalties, including a Euro ’96 quarter final and Champions’ League final. However, most things Seedorf touches turn to gold, and he has also proved his worth as a charming and articulate pundit. We can only imagine what the silky playmaker/right midfielder will make of his future managerial career. If we needed any more reason to admire him, his middle name is Clyde.
Finidi was one of the two Nigerians in the notorious Ajax squad, the other being our own cult hero Nwankwo Kanu. Renowned as a tricky right winger, he also had an impressive goal scoring habit. He left Amsterdam for Betis in 1996, and seemed to have found his ideal club, registering double digits in goals almost every season for the Spaniards. His spell at Real Betis ended sadly in relegation, after which he spent a season at Mallorca before joining Ipswich Town in the Premier League. This also ended in relegation, with Finidi underperforming overall. After a trial and second spell at Mallorca, he retired at 32. He was always more impressive at international level, being a crucial part of the ‘golden generation’ of Nigerian footballers, who also impressed at World Cups, won the African Cup of Nations in 1994 and finished runners up in 2000. He is currently Real Betis’ Director of International Football.
Kluivert was a gifted striker almost as renowned for his playboy lifestyle as his finishing prowess. Emerging onto the scene at just 18, he was remarkably good in the air and clinical on the ground, with a sublime first touch and bag of tricks to enable him to find room in the box. He top scored in the unbeaten 1994-95 league season for Ajax, before coming off the bench to score the winner in the Champions’ League final against Milan. Off the pitch he was charged with manslaughter in 1997, after smashing into a parked car and killing a theatre director, who strangely was also an Ajax fan. Despite this, he only received community service, and resumed his career. Like Seedorf, his clubs during the peak of his career were amongst Europe’s elite: Ajax, AC Milan, and Barcelona. He struggled somewhat in the defensive Serie ‘A’, but at Ajax and Barcelona he maintained a better than one-in-two goalscoring ratio. He arrived at Newcastle at the peak of his powers, and had a decent season, but the two parties agreed he would leave after a poor league finish for the Toon. After this period, injuries began to take their toll. He had patchy spells at Valencia, PSV and Lille, before calling it a day. He was a huge success for his national side with a better than one-in-two ratio: remarkable at international level. He remains the Dutch all-time top scorer with 40 goals, but fell out with Dick Advocaat and lost his place, after a superb Euro 2000 tournament in which he finished joint top scorer. He currently coaches the FC Twente Reserve side, and won their championship in his debut season. He was another of Pele’s picks as a greatest living footballer, and was also curiously born on the same day as his international rival Ruud Van Nistelrooy, who replaced him as head of their attack in the noughties.
Possibly the greatest Finnish player ever, Litmanen was almost released from Ajax by Louis Van Gaal, before being anointed Dennis Bergkamp’s replacement. He took up this mantle brilliantly, and became Ajax’s top league scorer in 1993-94, and their overall top scorer in 1994-95. Floating behind the striker, Litmanen was nicknamed ‘Merlin’ for the spells he cast all about him. He played a starring role in their 1995 European triumph, and their European Cup Final loss to Juventus on penalties the season after, in which he was the tournament’s top scorer. He was Netherlands Footballer of the Year in 1993, and came third in the Ballon D’or in 1995. He had won a Finnish Championship and two Finnish Cups pre-Ajax, and his arrival at Liverpool coincided with their five trophies in 2001. Overall, he won a cup treble with Liverpool, a double with Ajax and a double with HJK in Finland. To illustrate his acclaim in his homeland, he won Finnish player of the year nine times over the decade 1990-2000. He is the all-time most capped player and goal scorer of the Finnish national team, and Ajax’s all-time European top scorer. As his international career lasted from 1989 until 2010, he is the only footballer to have played international football in four different decades. Sadly, his spell with Liverpool was dogged by injuries, curiously like other Ajax stalwarts as he turned 30, and since then it has been the same with a litany of clubs, although he has yet to officially retire as a player, into his 40s.
Our own party animal Kanu has something of a dubious birth record. Legend has it he has died and lives again, and continues playing into his 50s, though statistics show he was just 17 when he signed for Ajax in 1993, and was a prodigious talent, scoring 25 goals in 54 appearances in his second season with the club. He came on as a substitute in the European Cup final victory over Milan, but was sold to Internazionale in 1996, where he struggled. Arriving at Arsenal in 1999, he formed part of their four star strikers at the turn of the millennium: the others being Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Davor Suker. He was at times unplayable, and became known as an impact substitute, with his gangly demeanour and unpredictable feet. His successful period at Arsenal is perhaps best encapsulated by an outrageous fifteen minute hat-trick against Chelsea, turning a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 victory. After he was deemed surplus to requirements at Arsenal, he joined West Bromwich Albion. He was best remembered at the Hawthorns for an incredible last-minute open goal miss from a yard, which would have given the Baggies a precious point against Middlesbrough, though he was part of creating history, as WBA became the first side bottom at Christmas (and the last day) to survive relegation. From here, Kanu’s journey took him to Portsmouth, where he once more wrote himself into folklore, as Harry Redknapp’s expensively-assembled squad won the FA Cup for the first, and perhaps only, time in their history, with the winner coming from the Nigerian. Sadly, his tenure at Pompey recently ended acrimoniously, and he is now suing for unpaid wages. Kanu has won a UEFA Champions League medal, a UEFA Cup medal, three FA Cup Winners Medals and two African Player of the Year awards amongst others. He is also one of few players to have won the Premier League, FA Cup, Champions League, UEFA Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal. The charismatic Nigerian holds the record for most substitute appearances in Premier League history, coming off the bench a mammoth 118 times. A Unicef Ambassador, he also founded the Kanu Heart Foundation, after his own heart defect was corrected at just 20. And finally, Kanu’s rarely used first name, presumably for being close to the bone in English, actually translates as: ‘Baby boy born on Nkwo Market Day’ in the Igbo language. So now you know.
Only modern Barcelona come close to their individual and collective talents. Will we ever see the like of Ajax ’95 again? Not unless we mean the brand of household and industrial cleaning products.