Barry Hulshoff on Rinus Michels and the tactical approach that underpinned Ajax
Barry Hulshoff looks notably older than his teammates. The central defender always was, a father-figure in the great Ajax side of the early seventies. He’s 69 now but, four decades on from winning three European Cups, he still plays for their veterans side. I met him in Trnava when he and the veterans side were playing a game against Spartak to open the new Anton Malatinský Stadium.
What was the key moment on Ajax’s journey from almost being relegated in 1964-65 to becoming one of the best sides in Europe?
There were two key moments. The first was changing the coach and the arrival of Rinus Michels and the second was players going from semi-professionalism to full professionalism. In one year, they bought only two new midfield players. Only two. And from that year to the next we were champions of Holland. And from then everything was going better and better. So the key moments were: two new players, a new coach and full professionalism.
It is said that Rinus Michels was very strict and he did not want to become friends with his players.
No, not exactly. He said, “I judge a player as a player, not as a person. And what he is as person, okay, that is private, but what he is as a player, I judge him on that. For my team I need a certain type of player for certain positions and they have to fulfil my ideas about how they have to examine that position. And I look for the right players to do that.” He was very strict and hard. He told us exactly how he wanted us to play and in what manner he wanted us to execute that. So he put pressure on players to do that. And he was very much about discipline. For example, when the bus had to leave at 12.30, the bus left at 12.30. If a player was not there, he was left behind and he did not go by bus with the team. Also, if a lunch was at 12.30 and you were not there, you were fined. He was very strict and very hard-line, yes. As a player, you got three games to perform well. If only one game was not so good, it wasn’t a problem, but if the next games were not good, he replaced you with another player.
The British anarchist Charles Radcliffe said that Amsterdam in the sixties was the capital of ‘youth rebellion’. Did the playing style that emerged at Ajax reflect the character of the city?
No, it was more the nature of the players, who were 80, 90% from Amsterdam. Also the atmosphere in the dressing room was very open because of that. The players were very straightforward with each other. If one player didn’t perform well, we told them that. It was the same in training, because if Michels saw that training was not good, he sometimes sent us in and made us come out later to do the same session again. He was very tough. We didn’t want that. We stimulated each other to do our best. The training was as hard as a game.
Do you agree with David Winner and Simon Kuper who wrote that Ajax had the same significance for Holland in the sixties as the Beatles had for England?
Of course, because when you say that we changed the style of football, then you are right as Beatles started a new era in music. I grew up with them, so I know that [he laughs]. Our coach [Ștefan] Kovács from Romania, who followed Michels, said later in an interview in L’Equipe that what he saw at Ajax was ‘Total Football’. Of course, that was a new way of playing football. Defenders – and I was one of the defenders – also went into attack. I scored six, seven goals in a season. That had been never done before my era. Defenders had been defenders.
When you went forward, some midfielder had to go back. Did the players do it automatically?
Yes, there was also a process of automation. What’s not possible these days is for a team to be built up over three, four or five years. In our era, we stayed together as a team. The players get used to each other and they know each other very well. But the team was built first on playing ‘one-versus-one’, so everybody had responsibility for the zone of the opponent. Sometimes we changed the positions and when we covered the ball; for example, I went into midfield to create a ‘one-man-more situation’ but other defenders stayed ‘one-versus-one’. The position didn’t have to be taken over, because there was one man extra for taking the man. So in the building up attack we created ‘one-man-more’ and at the back we played ‘one-versus-one’. When the opponent got the ball, we tried to put pressure on the man as quickly as possible. As we were covering the whole team, it wasn’t a problem. The pressure, what we did later on, was that when the opponent had the ball, we had one man extra at the back and he went decisively into the midfield to cover the man with the ball. Everybody covered the man, because Michels insisted we should do that, and then we put pressure on the man with the ball. Then we could score because we had one man more again against the teams that had one man fewer in the back. It was originally done by [Velibor] Vasović. He was from Yugoslavia and he played in midfield there, but at Ajax he was in the defence. It was very natural for him to go into midfield to apply pressure. He initiated our pressure that is common now in football, especially in Holland.
Can any of the modern giants copy Ajax’s approach and achieve similar results to what Ajax achieved in the sixties and seventies?
Look, players earn a lot of money and are more independent than we were. We earned money, but not that much. And therefore the system also changed. We played ‘one-versus-one’. We marked the man. These days they play in the zone. It’s because players do not want to follow the man anymore. They are more spoilt, they take it easier. They stay in position and leave the ground to another player. With zonal marking, if you have two markers in central defence, two stoppers, and you have a striker, he is always going between them. When he scores the goal, both can say to each other, “You should have marked him.” And the other guy can also say, “But you should have marked him.” That is a very different philosophy of football to what we had, because when I marked a man and he scored, it was my fault. It was my responsibility not to let him score. Now it’s a completely different attitude. If you could change it and introduce more marking into your game, you could succeed. But, of course, you have to have players who want to do that, to mark the man and to take responsibility. Nowadays players do their job in the zone, sometimes they also mark an opponent, but there is not full responsibility when he goes somewhere else. But I had to follow him – if he went left or right. The difference was that when you took the ball, you could attack. But the first job was always to have control over your man. Now, they prefer to have control over a team.
Why did this playing style emerge in Holland? Has it something to do with mentality?
No. We had success with it and Michels was strict and he would not have allowed us to do something different. Also we had an extra quality with Johan Cruyff at the front, of course. We allowed him to play in this system and to play his game. He was the most important player for us. We made it as easy as possible for him to score goals – we made important passes, tactics. That was the main stream in our team. We did our job first of all in defence and then gave him the opportunity to score goals. In Holland, we had great success with it, and then later on in Europe and then in the world. Everybody wanted to copy us, first of all in Holland.
Johan Cruyff left for Barcelona in 1973. Was that the most important factor in Ajax’s poorer results in the following years?
Johan Cruyff left and a year later Johan Neeskens also went to Barcelona. I got a knee injury, so we lost the most important players from the line-up. Therefore Ajax played worse than before. Everybody was going his own way and many players went the wrong way. You see that with the big teams. After us, it was Bayern Munich with three wins in the European Cup and after that their team also fell down. When you stay together for a long time and you have all success you can have, then things get worse and worse, players leave and you’re not able to get the same quality back.
What was the difference between Michels and Kovács?
Oh, worlds apart [he laughs]. They were completely different. We called Michels ‘General’ and he was very strict. Kovács left us free to do what we liked. Of course, we had to train. In the first year under Kovács, we had our disciplined style from Michels, so we knew what we had to do to get results. The team was very strong. We had the players’ committee of four players, including me, and we were always telling the team what to do. We were always in discussions with the board to tell them what we wanted. We always went to the coach to say what was not good, what was good, what we had to do, so we were very strong as a team and that kept us getting results for two years more. But after those two years, the discipline was a little gone and everything was less than before. You cannot let the team decide things, but it was happening. You need someone who decides, and Kovács was not the kind of coach who could do that. He was very friendly and very good at public relations. I mentioned before that he created the term ‘Total Football’. That was very important for Ajax. After Kovács, Ajax had a very strict coach again [George Knobel] and it did not work out well.
I have seen a picture from before the European Cup quarter-final in 1969 with Benfica players training on the field before the match, while Ajax players were playing with snow.
Yes, and we lost 3-1 [he laughs]. But then we won the second game 3-1 and also won the play-off in Paris.
Did you feel Ajax was like a family? Do you think that the atmosphere and relationships between Ajax players were better than in other clubs?
No, I do not think so. What we did was what we always did. Preparation was always the same and every team we met was the same.
Ajax were sponsored by the Van der Meijden brothers or Maup Caransa. Were they ahead of their time?
They were not real sponsors. What they did was cover the losses if Ajax had problems when they went from semi-professionalism to full professionalism. But it never happened. If Ajax had lost money, they would have given it to them. But Ajax never lost money, because people came to the games as we started to win. So people came and gave more money and that was our sponsorship. The other sponsorship was for example shirt sponsorship or media rights for our games. So they did not have to put up money, but they guaranteed against a loss. Of course, we were first team in the Netherlands with full professionalism and then we started to be champions not only due to our quality, but also thanks to our physical condition. When the game didn’t go well, we were able to win it in last half an hour, because we were more fit than the other teams, especially in Holland.
[Simon Kuper wrote in his book Ajax, the Dutch, the War that the Van der Meijden brothers paid for Ajax’s transfers, bought cars for players, paid them bonuses for matches and covered all the fines, given by the club to players. According to Kuper, when Caransa travelled with the team to the return match with Liverpool in 1966, he promised to pay extra money if they scored a goal in first fifteen minutes.]
Was Johan Cruyff on another level of skill to the other players?
No, you must look at it like this: every position in the team needs a specialist. I was a specialist at defending, at marking a player and I was really good at heading. We had Wim Suurbier, who was very fast and good in ‘one-versus-one’. A left-winger never had a chance against him. He was very good in attack, too. Then we had Johan Neeskens, who was very good at marking the opponent’s playmaker – he did not let him get the ball. After that, he also went forward and scored goals. We had Gerrie Mühren, who was the most technical player you can imagine and he could run the whole game. He had a pulse of 36 when he was resting. He never went over 116, when it is normal to go over 200. He had a radius of action that nobody else had in the game, so he could cover also Piet Keizer’s man. Piet Keizer was not strong at ‘one-versus-one’ - in attack yes, but not in defence. So Gerrie Mühren covered two men. Sjaak Swart did ‘one-versus-one’ well in attack. For example, Arie Haan had a very good shot from 30 metres. Unbelievable shot. In the World Cup 1978 he scored two goals like that. Cruyff was a specialist in his zone: he created the space and used it. He was very good tactically and speedy.
[One day earlier I had also talked to Theo van Duivenbode, the left-back and former teammate of Hulshoff, who left Ajax in 1969 to be replaced by Ruud Krol. Interestingly, when I asked him about the most important moment in becoming a world-class team, he told me, “I started playing for Ajax in 1963 and two years later a 16-year-old boy arrived at Ajax. His name was Johan Cruyff. This thin teenager was a great player. Quality footballers such as him are born once in a generation – for example Maradona, Messi or Ronaldo. Every player who played with Cruyff was one or two levels behind him – that’s how good he was. When he arrived, a team was complete. The performances of all players playing with him were far better than if they would have played for Twente, Haarlem or Utrecht. Often he was marked by at least three players. Then we, the others, had more space to play in.”]
You mentioned Wim Suurbier. I heard that he Ruud Krol joked together a lot.
Yeah, ‘Snabbel en Babbel’ [he laughs]. But they did that when they were in the national team in 1974, not at Ajax.
What did they do?
They were talking to each other, they made some rhymes, or whatever. Like poetry, especially dirty poetry. It was not publishable [he smiles]. It was nice. But I got injured a month before the World Cup. I should have played in the centre with Rinus Israel. Although he was also injured, he still went to the World Cup and played one game against Brazil. We worked together in a centre that was very strong. Then they had Arie Haan who was not a real defender, but a midfield player. He played in central defence with Wim Rijsbergen and had a good tournament.
Were matches with Germany, Holland’s biggest rival, different from matches with other opponents?
Yes, there has always been rivalry between Germany and Holland, but not so much these days. But that was also true with Belgium. In qualification for the 1974 World Cup we drew with them twice. We went through only on goal difference. Then I scored the winning goal away against Norway. We won 2-1. Johan Cruyff gave a backheel pass and I scored with my left foot 10 minutes before the end. At home we had won 9-0, but away I scored the goal that took us to the 1974 World Cup. And I did not go [he laughs].
Holland would probably have won the whole tournament if they had had a full line-up.
Yeah, so some people say. I would not say it, but I think so [he laughs].
The gap between top European clubs and clubs like Ajax is very big in terms of money. How can clubs like Ajax get on the same level as the best teams?
Maybe they could change the style of football, not to play the same system as the big teams but to try to invent a system that could beat them. And secondly, to educate your own players and keep them at your club until they are 23 or 24. As it is, players leave Ajax at 18, 19 or 20. When you are 18, you are not a complete player. Ajax have to try to do that. Smaller teams should make an effort to keep the best players at the club. When big teams see a good 20-year-old player, they take him, because they can pay money. Clubs like Ajax must give them money, create a sense of solidarity and they will stay a little longer. Then they could have results. Also, they have to care about other young players who can replace the older ones and give them money to stay. But it is difficult due to the budget. A club like Aston Villa in England has £120m from television, while Ajax’s total budget is £70m. They can buy two players for £30m and they have two big players. Ajax cannot afford to, because that is their whole budget.
This season Ajax were eliminated from the Champions League after two matches against Rapid Vienna.
Yeah, it was a big disappointment.
But they have a lot of good young players, like Riechedly Bazoer or Anwar El Ghazi. Is it necessary to give them time to perform or would it be better to bring in some experienced players?
That is a problem. An experienced player whom Ajax can afford is an average player who is not as good as the young players in terms of basics. So, why should you buy an experienced player who does not reach a level of Ajax’s player? They bought players like [Niki] Zimling with more experience, but they brought nothing. They cannot reach the level of Ajax players. A young player is always fragile – he will go up and down very quickly. If you want to have an experienced player to help the team, he must be a very good player. But Ajax cannot buy these players, because they cost €15 or 20 million. They cannot afford that.