This feature is a part of Hot Bovril and Cold Terraces, a series looking at first-hand memories of football before the flash.
If you get the opportunity to see a legend in the flesh, you do it. Back in 1978, I was 21 years old, and since the early years of that decade had been an unashamed adherent to the doctrine of Totaalvoetbal. I was seduced by the poetry of the Ajax team that dominated European club football, lifting the European Cup three times in succession.
The love deepened with the extravagant beauty, and ultimate fragility, of the bright flame of the Netherlands national team as they scorched the pitches of West Germany in the 1974 World Cup, before the fire became too fierce and their wings of wax melted. Football’s Prometheus. Icarus in Oranje.
This was no one-night stand sort of fumbling embrace. This was a lasting bromance. We all lock onto some paradigm of play that we believe to be the true faith. In 1978 mine was – and remains to this day – that having players with skill, that are comfortable on the ball with outrageous belief and commitment, regardless of the position they play, is the baseline requirement, and then you knit those talents into the fabric of a team.
Although second in my admiration to the titan that was Barrie Hulshoff when they both sported the iconic white shorts with the broad red stripe down the centre, Johan Cruyff was torch-bearer, keeper of the eternal flame, kindled by Rinus Michels. In 1978, Cruyff had absconded from Amsterdam and decamped to the Camp Nou, once more to hook up with his old manager and reignite the passions of Barcelona’s culés. Trophies had followed and, although not clear at that time, a new structure would be born that would change the club, and indeed European football, forever.
Cruyff had moved to Catalunya in 1973 and the 1977/78 season would be his last in Spain before what as almost a Sabbatical year in California with Los Angeles Aztecs. It was his swansong season.
In March 1978, Barcelona had been drawn to play Aston Villa in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup. The Blaugrana – and Cruyff – were coming to the West Midlands. Living just north of Birmingham, this was my chance to go and see the great man in the flesh and pay homage to one of the all-time great players. Was I going to miss the chance to watch the Dutch master paint some entrancing pictures in real life? Was I heck as like. Queuing for tickets was a cheap price to pay, as was the extravagant bus and train journeys to get to Villa Park.
Read | ‘That was Cruyff’: how one man changed football
Tickets obtained, there I was in the crowd, just behind the home dugout when Cruyff picked up the ball around halfway. With that unique style, he drove forward, swerving and gliding. Were his feet even touching the floor? I’m still not sure. One he went, evading rather than beating defenders, then drove a cross-shot into the far corner of the net.
The pitch was wet and not exactly like the snooker table surfaces of today, but it was the perfect stage for Cruyff. Whilst other slogged on, he was the Will-o’-the-wisp skating on the surface. Sometimes when you have high expectations of something anticipated, there’s an almost inevitable anti-climax. Not on that night. Not with Johan Cruyff.
With eight minutes or so remaining and Barcelona two goals clear, Cruyff – wearing number nine, rather than his iconic 14 – limped away to the dressing-rooms. Although their team had been unable to cope with his majesty leading to the deficit in the scoreline, the Villa park fans rose and applauded him off the pitch.
For me, that was enough. Along with more than a few disappointed Villa fans, I headed for the exits and the long, convoluted journey home. Walking away, I heard two roars suggesting a comeback from the home team that hadn’t really looked on the cards for 80-odd minutes. The game ended in a 2-2 draw. Barcelona would progress after winning the second leg 2-1 but would lose in the semi-finals to PSV Eindhoven, the eventual winners of the tournament.
Cruyff would return to Barcelona as manager and create a template that set the club on track to glory, as well as creating the Dream Team that won the club’s first European Cup.
Before and since that time, I’ve seen many great players strut their stuff in the flesh; Ronaldo (both), Messi, Ronaldinho, Best, Charlton, and others too many or too debatable to mention. For me, though, the greatest privilege was watching the high priest of the way I believe the game should be played showing that occasionally, something you hoped would be amazing can still blow your socks off.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze
While you’re here, Gary’s new book, Cheers, Tears and Jeers: A History of England and the World Cup, chronicling the story of England’s national team and the planet’s biggest football tournament from the early days of the game right up to the present day is out now. Order a copy and look beyond the same-old media post-mortems every few years into what has truly gone on with the Three Lions over the history of the World Cup.