Tales From The Johan Cruyff Arena

Ajax vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2019.

It had been a surprisingly long and tedious journey to the stadium from Amsterdam’s Central Station – standing room only, everyone pushed together, all of us getting warmer by the minute, around fifty minutes all told including a change of trains en route – and at last the towering roof of the stadium appeared to my left. I was with PD, who I had travelled out with from Bristol the previous morning, and Alan and Gary too. The train stopped. We exited en masse. We were back at the site of our Europa League Final victory against Benfica in 2013. It was just after five o’clock in the evening and night was yet to fall.

There was the usual rush of adrenaline that accompanies the arrival at a stadium, especially a foreign stadium, especially the home stadium of Ajax, one of the most revered clubs of the European scene. We clambered down the steps and escalators at the station and were soon out into the cool of the evening. Everything was well signposted. Ajax straight ahead. Chelsea to the left. I stopped to take a few long distance shots of the stadium – some twenty-three years old now – and my gaze focused on the image of Johan Cruyff that welcomed all. The stadium was simply called the Amsterdam Arena in 2013, but since the passing of the Dutch master in 2016, the place has been re-named in his honour.

Johan Cruyff.

What a name.

What a player.

Cruyff, along with Netzer and Muller and Beckenbauer and perhaps Eusebio, was one of the very first European players that had caught my eye in the early ‘seventies. These players, revered by the football commentators and TV pundits of the day, stirred our senses. The Ajax team, which provided many of the Dutch side, were simply in a class of their own. They oozed style. Their football was fluid. The long-haired maestros played liquid football. Everything was so seamless. Those of a certain vintage will remember Cruyff guesting at Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 1978/79 when we played New York Cosmos. Cruyff also pitted his skills against us when we played the Los Angeles Aztecs in 1979/80. And he also guested for the little-known team DS79 in 1980/81. I had mentioned the DS79 game to my friends Mark and Paul – from England, now living in The Netherlands – when they took time out of their day to meet the four of us for a pint on Rembrandt Corner, away from the masses, earlier that afternoon. It was a game that most will have forgotten. His appearance at Stamford Bridge during three consecutive seasons was one of the oddities of those years. His name, perhaps because of this, was often linked with our club.

Back in those years – oh we were awful in 1978/79, millions of the new fans of today would not have touched us with a barge pole – I was always amazed that we were linked with Johan Cruyff, and Kevin Keegan of Hamburg too, even though we were playing in the Second Division. I suppose it illustrates the point that we have always been a glamour club, and have always been linked with some of the great players. When Keegan announced that he was leaving West Germany for Southampton in 1980, I am sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea supporters who felt snubbed.

I let the others walk on as I took it all in. After I had taken a couple of photos, I showed my ticket at the security check, but was then forced to hand in my SLR. My far from comparable phone camera would have to suffice for the game.

I met up with the others again and they told me that we were getting the lift up to the upper tier where the 2,600 Chelsea were to be housed. A female steward had seen PD limping and had walked straight over, bless her. We walked through some security gates, and took the lift up to the seventh floor. She told the funny story of how a few of the Ajax stewards had travelled to Lille a few weeks back, but had been met with hostility when the local police saw their yellow tabards.

We walked through the home concourse – an odd feeling – and joined up with our own.

I was more than happy that we were in the upper tier. For our game in 2013, we were stood in the lower tier behind the goal. At least we were watching the game from a different viewpoint. Memories of Fernando Torres and Branislav Ivanovic came flooding back. It was never on the same scale as Munich the previous season, but it was still a mighty fine night out in Europe.

I remembered one song from that night which never stood the test of time :

“Strippers and whores, Ivanovic scores.”

The “we won in Munich, Munich” chant never lasted too long either.

All these memories, what lucky souls we are.

2013

The stadium was as I remembered it. Two simple tiers, but a towering and presumably ridiculously heavy roof. Under the trusses were banners illustrating the many trophies that Ajax had won over the years. It was quite a haul.

I was aware that they had played at the much smaller De Meer stadium for the period of their huge successes in the ‘seventies. I had almost seen Ajax play for the first time in 1988 when I was on one of my badge-selling circuits around Europe. I plotted up at the Olympic Stadium, which PD and I had passed in a taxi from Schipol on the Tuesday morning, for the Ajax game with Young Boys Bern, but did not sell a single bloody badge. There were other stalls selling British football badges; the niche market that I had exploited in Italy was nowhere to be seen. I was gutted. Had I sold some, I might have chanced getting a ticket. As it was, I returned back into town with my tail firmly between my legs.

The younger element aired a relatively new, if not overly original, song.

“Tammy’s on fire. Your defence is terrified. Tammy’s on fire.”

As kick-off neared, the stands filled to bursting. There were hardly any seats not in use. There was the dimming of the lights, then a dramatic use of spotlights focused on the Champions League logo. It was time for both sets of fans to perform. The noise in the Chelsea end had been sporadic, but as the yellow “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” flag was hoisted over the heads of us in the central area, the chanting increased. I took a few photos through the flag. One shot, for some reason, turned the flag green. It was as if the haze of marijuana that had followed us around central Amsterdam was now clawing at us in the stadium.

The home areas were full of white and red mosaics.

One huge banner was draped at the opposite end.

“VASTBERADEN.”

Determined.

The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea would be wearing the all black kit, with a touch of Dutch – orange trim – for good measure.

The team, I guess, had chosen itself.

Arrizabalaga.

Azpilicueta – Tomori – Zouma – Alonso

Jorginho – Kovacic

Willian – Mount – Hudson-Odoi

Abraham

I looked around and spotted a few familiar faces, but there were many people that I did not recognise. Many had come over without tickets, lured by the city of Amsterdam and all of its usual charms and pleasures. PD and I had spent a leisurely few hours on a gentle pub-crawl around our hotel in the Vondel Park part of the city on the Tuesday. We had visited three bars, and in the second one, close to the Rijksmuseum, we chatted to the barman who was an Ajax season ticket holder and who would be at the game. He produced a photograph of Johan Cruyff on a visit to the pub. It seemed that we simply could not escape his presence. In the first bar that we visited in the city centre on the Tuesday night, there was an iconic photo of Holland’s greatest son in the classic kit. There was even an image of Cruyff welcoming visitors to the city’s “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.” Later that night, I had met up with plenty of the usual suspects in the Red Light District. The drinking continued long into the small hours. I am not saying it turned into a crazy night but I did witness Wycombe Stan buying a round. Good times.

The game began with Chelsea attacking our end, the North Stand. The noise from the Ajax fans, especially those in the South Stand, was impressive.

In front of the lower tier, there were other banners illustrating the sub-culture of European football.

Amsterdam Casuals.

A Stone Island logo.

F-Side.

Perry Boys.

A mod logo.

I loved the goal nets; white with a central red stripe.

The Ajax kit has to be one of the greatest ever.

Talking of kits, I posed a question to Mark and Paul during our afternoon meet-up.

“Why do virtually all of the top Dutch teams have red and white kits?”

Ajax : red and white.

Feyenoord : red, white and black.

PSV : red and white.

Sparta Rotterdam : red and white.

Utrecht : red and white.

AZ Alkmaar : red and white.

Twente Enschede : red.

Any ideas?

Mark and Paul struggled to name any team in The Netherlands that plays in blue. You would think, with its reputation, that Amsterdam might have at least one blue team. Well, I have managed to find one. We played DWS Amsterdam back in the Fairs Cup in 1967/68 – losing on the toss of a coin – and they play in white and blue stripes, albeit in a very low league these days.

It was a very lively start to the match. Before the game, we had all uttered “we’ll take a draw now” and as the play flowed from end to end, it felt that it would be a night of goals. An early handball shout against Marcos Alonso was waived away, and we then got stuck into the game with Mason Mount looking loose-limbed and lively as he brought the ball out through the midfield on a few lovely bursts. One shot from him forced a low save from Andre Onana at his near post.

Fikayo Toomori looked a little edgy at the start of the game but certainly grew as the first-half continued.

On many occasions, Callum Hudson-Odoi found himself in favourable positions, running into parcels of space in the inside-left channel, but on nearly every occasion he seemed to choose the wrong option. He either held on to the ball too long, took an extra stride before shooting, played a ball to an unsuspecting team mate or poorly controlled a simple ball. His shooting was off too. With each error, we saw his frustration rise. That little patch of around twenty square yards of space at the angle of the penalty box seemed to be his very own, horrible, Bermuda Triangle. The frustration was shared by the fans in the away section.

We were all stood.

We sang when we could be heard.

Thankfully, the noise from the Southern end was subsiding.

Gary continually took the piss out of Daley Blind.

“You should stick to walking football, Blind.”

The game ebbed and flowed. I was not overly impressed with Ajax’ defence. They looked neither tight nor awake. Their attacks often petered out too. In the middle, Kovacic impressed me with his quick runs and intelligent passing.

With ten minutes of the first-half remaining, a cross from the Ajax right took a deflection and the Chelsea defence seemed unable to recover. The ball squirmed through to the six-yard box – “oh no” I uttered – and Quincy Promes prodded in. I must admit I quickly glanced over to see if the linesman on the far side was going to raise his flag but it stayed down.

The home fans made a bloody racket alright.

Bollocks.

We were 1-0 down.

But, wait.

After a while, we realised that there was going to be a Godforsaken VAR moment.

I will be honest, as honest as I can be. At that moment in time, such is my hatred of all things VAR that I remember thinking to myself “let it stand, for fuck sake, let it stand, I can’t be having with this nonsense impinging on so much of football.”

We waited. And waited.

No goal. Offside.

I did not cheer.

Alan and myself just looked at each other.

Alan : “I’m never going to cheer a VAR decision in our favour.”

Chris : “You and me both.”

Hundreds did cheer though.

Soon after, Dave made a beautiful tackle – the epitome of guts and timing – to thwart Promes. This drew marvellous applause from the away contingent. He may have endured a difficult start to this season but this was evidence that he still has a place to play during the current campaign.

The stats at the end of the first-half showed Ajax dominating possession by 56% to 44% but we had carved out more chances.

It was goal-less at the break, and we wondered how. Just before the game recommenced, “Three Little Birds” was played on the PA. This Ajax song was adopted by us in the latter stages of 2009/10 and it always takes me back to a hideously rainy night at Fratton when we won 5-0 and the away end sung it. Great memories.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

As the second-half began, I mentioned to Gary that I had seen Ajax play Chelsea once before; way back in the summer of 1993 in the Makita Tournament at White Hart Lane.

“Did you go to that Gal?”

“Yeah.”

It was, in fact, the first time that I had ever seen Chelsea play a foreign team. It was also Glenn Hoddle’s first game in charge. I had travelled up with Glenn from Frome, had met up with Daryl, and we watched as Chelsea drew 1-1 in normal time before winning 4-2 on penalties. The Chelsea team that day seems from another age.

Hitchcock

Hall – Johnsen – Sinclair – Dow

Donaghy – Hoddle – Wise – Peacock

Cascarino – Fleck

The Ajax team included Edwin van der Sar, Frank de Boer, Edgar Davids, Ronald de Boer, Finidi George and Marc Overmars. Within two years they would be European Champions under Louis van Gaal. It was a joy to see the Tottenham fans squirm as Glenn Hoddle played for us. It was the first of a two-game set on the Saturday, but while Glenn and Daryl stayed on to see Tottenham beat Lazio in the second game, I shot off to see Depeche Mode at Crystal Palace that evening. It was a perfect Saturday for me.

Oh, we beat Tottenham 4-0 in the final on the Sunday, but I suppose that is a given knowing our history with “that lot.”

1993

The second-half continued. The intensity wasn’t at the previous levels, but it was still a good enough game. On the hour, a low corner down below us was met with a diving header from Edson Alvarez and we watched in horror as his effort grazed the far post.

Phew.

“COME ON CHELS.”

There was less attacking intent than in the first-half.

On sixty-six minutes, Christian Pulisic replaced Willian, who had toiled all night long. I remembered one phenomenal gut-busting run from deep to support an attack which left me breathless let alone him. Then Michy Batshuayi replaced Tammy Abraham who had not had the best of service. We did think that Callum was lucky to avoid being substituted.

With twenty minutes remaining, Pulisic gathered the ball and ran confidently at the Ajax defence. He cut in and sized up his options. His shot from outside the box was deflected up and right into the path of Batshuayi.

This is it, we thought.

This is fucking it.

His wild shot ballooned up over the bar and probably ended up in one of the city’s concentric canals.

Bollocks.

Behind me, an altercation between two fans about Michy.

“He should be burying them chances if he wants a place on the team.”

“Give him a break, he has only been on the pitch for ten minutes.”

Pulisic, looking lively on the left, again advanced with pace and intent. His pass to Batshuayi was returned to him, but he dragged the ball wide. With just four minutes remaining, we again worked the ball down the left flank. Mount to Pulisic, and a fine piece of skill to carve out a yard of space. His low cross was dummied by Alonso and the ball was rifled high – but not too high – by Michy into the roof of the Ajax net.

BOOM.

GET IN YOU FUCKER.

The screams from myself and others were wild and unrelenting.

We yelled and yelled, it seemed that we were all as one, the same body shape, the same fists up punch.

The euphoria of a late winner in Europe. What can beat that?

The final whistle was met with wild applause from us all.

The Chelsea reprised the Bob Marley song.

“Cus every little thing…is gonna be alright.”

This was our equivalent of Manchester City playing “One Step Beyond” every time they beat us at their gaff.

This was a fine team performance. I was especially impressed with the four defenders, who looked in control and played as a unit, but kudos to all. All of a sudden, after losing our first game at home to Valencia, we now look to be favourites to go through with two of our last three games at Stamford Bridge.

They kept us in for a good thirty minutes or so, and the return trip to the city was interrupted by a few delays. But we were back in the claustrophobic hub of the city soon enough.

It had been, surely, one of our greatest nights in Europe.

2019

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