Ajax and Newcastle seek solace from legends

Last week, Ajax effectively checked into rehab. Newcastle United, by contrast, are still in the early Amy Winehouse "no-no-no" denial stage. The surprise of the Geordie Messiah’s return to Tyneside pales beside the astonishing twist that sees the saviour of Ajax returning to rebuild the club he inspired to three European Cups in a row between 1971 and 1973. Most Ajax fans were further cheered to hear that another Ajax icon Marco van Basten will coach them from next season.

Keegan’s appointment was an intriguing, back to the future, move by a board that needed to make peace with its fans. But the strain is showing. On Match of the Day last weekend, Keegan looked like a man painfully discovering, like Jay Gatsby before him, that you cannot repeat the past. His trademark serene optimism was gone. He looked slightly manic, pop-eyed and, when noting that losing games could affect your confidence, seemed to be referring to himself as much as the players. Football eats people - even legends - and Keegan already seems sadly diminished after only a few weeks in the job.

The differences between Keegan at Newcastle and Cruyff at Ajax are instructive. Mind you, so are the similarities. Cruyff has ensured that his role as Ajax’s returning saviour is cloaked in ambiguity. He will be a technical adviser but will not be employed by the club, which could prove handy if it all goes wrong. Keegan, with typical bravery, has put his neck on the line.

The ground for Cruyff’s return was prepared by the Coronel report, an independent study of Ajax’s policy over the last 10 years , which was so damning that Ernst Bouwes, the brilliant Dutch journalist, headlined his story "Total Football? Total shambles".

Many of the Coronel committee’s criticisms of Ajax apply to Newcastle. The board’s failure to provide inspirational leadership, the lack of clear communication between club and fans, the distraction of a pointless stock market flotation, the firing and hiring of too many managers, the signing of too many ordinary players - all sound tragically familiar to any member of the Toon Army.

Indeed, the report warns against the kind of confusion generated by the arrival on Tyneside of Dennis Wise as director of football with a role - and a relationship with Keegan - that is almost as opaque as one of Cruyff’s maxims. (My favourite Cruyffism: "Before I make that mistake, I do not make that mistake"; see here for a riff on his way with words.)

Coronel recommends that either Ajax appoint a Louis Van Gaal-style figure who is effectively the coach and technical director or hires a powerful technical director who chooses a coach who shares his vision. Trying to harness, say, Louis Van Gaal and Ronald Koeman as director and coach when they resolutely refused to see eye to eye, proved disastrous.

For the Geordie faithful still hankering for Alan Shearer’s appointment as coach, two words seem appropriate: Danny Blind. He is one of several coaches Ajax appointed in their last decade of decline primarily because they were Ajax old boys and, the theory went, understood the club. Sadly, most of them didn’t understand coaching.

Ironically, a minority of fans on the main Ajax forum have suggested Van Basten might prove a new Blind alley. Though the Dutch qualified with relative ease for Euro 2008, the highlight of Van Basten’s reign as national coach so far has been the last 16 tie against Portugal in 2006 which produced four red cards and 16 yellows. Only a reassuringly thrilling Euro 2008 campaign can assuage these doubts. But Van Basten does have Cruyff - who has tipped him to coach his beloved Barça one day - on his side.

The good news for Ajax is that the board has faced reality and acted. Newcastle United are still looking for a quick managerial fix when huge structural reforms are needed. And that alone - plus the fact that Ajax’s youth system is still functioning pretty well - means Cruyff may have more luck competing with his own ghost than Keegan.

It is easy to be cynical about both men’s motives. But football would be much more monotonous without the likes of Cruyff and Keegan, legends who dare to try to achieve something which those with - as David Bowie said in Sons Of The Silent Age - "one-inch thoughts" have decided cannot be done.

Off the pitch, the football business has been revolutionised since their heyday. Their returns may go disastrously wrong. They may, a year from now, look like heroes out of time. But in my book, they’ll still be heroes.

PS: In my last blog, I misspelled the brand of beer Uli and I were drinking in Gelsenkirchen. It is Veltins. I obviously drank too much of it.

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