Johnny Rep: the natural Total Footballer who weaved his way into legend

Johnny Rep: the natural Total Footballer who weaved his way into legend

“With so many great players in one team, you make art. You don’t mean to but you do.” These were the thoughts of one of the crucial cogs in the Dutch totaalvoetbal machine of the 1970s, the flying forward, Johnny Rep; a man for whom the complexities and sophistication of total football was, in his own words, “natural”.

With his long, tousled blonde locks flowing as he glided down the wing, Rep stood out not only for his ability and his lethal right foot, but for the rock star image and reputation as something of a bad boy – albeit a reputation he held no sway with.

The name Rep sits alongside those of Cruyff, Neeskens and Krol when you cast your mind back to the brilliant orange images of 1974. Swathed in a glow of 1970s cool, with free-flowing football and free-flowing hair, the gloriously doomed squad that delighted and dazzled featured Rep as one of its key attacking weapons.

Add in the swagger and bravado of a man with supreme confidence in his ability and you have all the makings of an iconic, era-defining player. He was a late addition to the all-conquering Ajax side of the early 1970s, but he was arguably as instrumental in the dominance of Total Football as anyone bar Johan Cruyff.

It was in his on-field links with Cruyff that Rep formed a formidable attacking trio initially at club level alongside Piet Keizer, and subsequently at international level alongside Rob Rensenbrink, that took him within striking distance of the ultimate footballing summit.  He remains the Netherlands’ leading scorer at the World Cup with seven goals – four on the way to the final in 1974 and another three as the Dutch fell agonisingly short again in 1978.

Even in the agony of defeat, Rep was the key man. For all the sublime goals and outrageous talent, the highs of his career will always be set alongside the three tragic chances he missed in the 1974 final.

Rep had arrived at Ajax as a 16-year-old in the late 1960s from the humble, unassuming surroundings of Zaandam. There he had come to the attention of Ajax thanks to his performances with the local amateur team in the Dutch second tier, a club who had nurtured the future star from the age of eight.

Spending a year in the Ajax youth team and two years in the second team, Rep settled comfortably into the Ajax way during those formative years. “All the teams wanted to play the same system,” he said, reflecting on his time with Zaandam. “But at Ajax, the players were better, so it was easier to play with them.”

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As tempting as it may seem to seem to label Rep as being another Ajax product schooled by the legendary Rinus Michels during this time, that wouldn’t be quite accurate. He may have joined the Amsterdam giants during Michels’ time in charge, but Rep’s initial breakthrough in the first team came at the start of the 1971/72 season, some months after Michels had left Ajax for Barcelona, having just delivered the first of the Amsterdam club’s trio of successive European Cup wins.

The new Ajax coach, Romanian Ștefan Kovács, gave the gangly, awkward looking Rep his debut on the right wing. Rep went on to make sporadic appearances in his first season, occasionally deputising for Ajax legend Sjaak Swart – Mr Ajax as he was known. Rep’s big breakthrough would come a year later.

Early the following season, after Ajax had added another European Cup triumph, they took part in the Intercontinental Cup, having declined to do so the previous year. An hour into the second leg of the clash with Argentine side Independiente, Rep was brought off the bench to replace Swart. The game was very much in the balance at that stage, Ajax leading 1-0 in the night and 2-1 on aggregate.

The benefit of hindsight allows us to flag this moment as the changing of the guard, the passing of the baton from the old to the new. Swart had been a stalwart of Ajax and Dutch football for so long, but his ageing legs were beginning to feel the toll of the intensity. Rep, now 20, came off the bench that night and swaggered onto the right wing, his long blonde highlights flowing and shimmering under the lights.

Within four minutes he had announced himself to the world, scoring his first major goal for Ajax, swinging the match decisively in their favour. Ten minutes from the end of the match he repeated the trick with a sublime, graceful goal, running from the halfway line, past the Argentine defence, and shimmying past the goalkeeper to score. That sealed a 3-0 win, and the global title for the exuberant Dutch.

As first steps towards international renown go, Rep’s weren’t so much a tentative, timid foray into a higher level of play, but were more akin marching headlong into an arena to which he immediately belonged. Swart’s days on the Ajax right may have been numbered by the passing of time, but the emergence of Rep meant that the club wasn’t merely in safe hands, but there were the makings of an electrifying, exuberant, front line alongside Cruyff and Keizer.

On the field, the young Rep was gelling well with his two colleagues, both players he had considered his heroes in his teenage years. But this productive playing relationship was a much more strained one that it appeared on the pitch.

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“I had problems with Johan,” said Rep. “We did not get along well, except on the ground. I was a little bit young and Johan was always telling me what to do. Do this, do that. And I was a boy but I spoked back to him. He was stubborn and so was I – that was our problem. And Johan doesn’t like that. You must always say ok. But I did it instinctively because I didn’t like him telling me what to do.”

Rep was not alone in having such issues with the perfectionist Cruyff. On the field, the Cruyff-led Ajax seemingly continued from strength to strength, but the successes masked a dying of the light for that great team. The end of an era was nigh. Rep had become an essential member of an Ajax team that was entering the final flings of their golden age.

They had one more glittering flourish to their years of continental dominance later that same season, in defeating Juventus in Belgrade to win a third successive European Cup.  For Rep, it marked another significant moment in his rapid rise to the top.

He had already been instrumental in the European campaign, particularly in laying on Gerrie Muhren’s stunning semi-final winner away at Real Madrid. He then scored the only goal of the final after only five minutes with a delightful, looping header past Dino Zoff to further enhance his burgeoning reputation, and handy knack of scoring vital goals in the most significant matches. The young Rep’s status in Ajax folklore was now assured.

But in spite of their historic achievement, the Ajax fans returned home from their latest triumph rather subdued, even disgruntled. “Juventus were so frightened,” Rep remembers. “We were surprised. A good team but they did nothing. They seemed satisfied to lose 1-0. We were waiting for them. Come! But nothing. For the public, I’m afraid, it was a very bad game.”

The game had been a dull one, and the manner of victory left many fans, and indeed many of the players who had been there throughout this glorious era, dissatisfied. Having fallen behind, Juventus made little effort to strive for an equaliser, leaving Ajax needing to do little more than pass the ball among themselves for large swathes of the match, playing keep-ball until the clock ticked over to 90 minutes.

“The biggest problem was that everything was so easy,” recalled Rep. “It was such a good team. The players had won everything. They needed another challenge, another team, another club. We had won everything.” For Rep individually, it was a triumph, but for several of his colleagues, it was not the same any more. Many of the team had become jaded and would soon seek new challenges elsewhere.

For Cruyff, the end at Ajax was hastened soon after by an ill-conceived captaincy election, instigated at the start of the following season by the new manager George Knobel. Keizer won the vote by a significant margin. “We just wanted to take someone else,” recalled Rep. “But I think it broke something for Johan. That was it for him. We went further with Johan as a player. But the talking, it was terrible.”

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While there was a clear clash of personalities, on the field Cruyff had been a huge influence on the young prodigy. “I learnt a lot of my own play from Cruyff,” Rep would later recall. “Of course, the most important things for a footballer to have are instinct and talent. When you can play football, you don’t need to learn. If you don’t have the instinct, you cannot be a good player. But I learnt a lot from Cruyff. When I was 19 years old he was my mentor. If I was a little bit too relaxed, he was always behind me, always pushing.”

But Cruyff was soon on his way to Barcelona for the 1973/74 season. The great man’s departure allowed Rep to flourish that season with Ajax – freed of the shackles of Cruyff, he relished his new role and the team’s primary attacking focus. This time apart also seems to have allowed relations to mellow somewhat, as by the time the Dutch stars gathered together in the summer of 1974, everything blended together in near perfection.

Aged 22, Rep was a mainstay of the 1974 World Cup team that so captivated the watching world. In their first World Cup appearance for 36 years, the Dutch team clicked from the opening kick-off. Rep marked himself out immediately as their key attacking threat with two neatly taken goals against an overly defensive Uruguay. He scored again in a 4-1 thrashing of Bulgaria as the Netherlands stormed into the second round top of their group.

Ostensibly playing on the right-hand side of a three-pronged attack line, Rep had a tendency to cut inside, very much akin to one of his more recent successors in an orange shirt, Arjen Robben. Added to this were frequent bursts into the box, to be in effect the main striker, making Rep the key source of Dutch goals. He added another – a flying header in the torrential rain to score the Netherlands’ third goal – in the most captivating display they had produced so far, beating Argentina 4-0 to open the second round group stage.

Against Brazil, in the intense and at times brutal de facto semi-final, the young Rep left his mark on the great Rivellino, refusing to be bullied or to back down. Having been jostled by the Brazilian, Rep waited a few seconds and delivered a retaliatory elbow to the face. “He had done it to me before and that was my reaction,” said Rep. “Of course, you look to make sure the referee doesn’t see it. But he started it!” There was a steely side to Rep to complement the silk.

When it came to the final with hosts West Germany, confidence was understandably high. Rep was one of six in the Dutch side to have been schooled in the Ajax way that Michels had now transferred to the national team. The German side was also strongly influenced by just one club, in their case with six players from a Bayern Munich background. But the Ajax contingent had regularly been victorious in clashes between the two.

Having scored four times to bring the Dutch this far, Rep would be central to the lost opportunity of 1974.  In the 24th minute, with the Netherlands leading 1-0 thanks to their early penalty, Cruyff broke clear of the German defence and drew the goalkeeper Sepp Maier towards him. He slipped the ball to Rep to add the final flourish and put the dominant Dutch into a deserved and commanding lead. For once, at such a crucial moment, Rep’s normally accomplished finishing deserted him. He stabbed the ball straight at Maier, and the chance was gone.

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Up until that point, Rep had been on the periphery of the action in the final, limited to just a few fleeting touches that left him not quite up to speed with the game when this golden chance came along. “I was not very good in the game at that moment,” said Rep. “Not many balls, nothing important. And then you have a very good chance.”

His miss was to prove a real sliding doors moment in the match. Barely a minute later, West Germany won a dubious penalty at the other end of the pitch, and the match was levelled. By half-time the Dutch were trailing, paying a heavy price for their earlier complacency.

Rep was a central character to the second half. Breaking clear on the right, he shot narrowly wide, ignoring the better placed Willem van Hanegem. He later hit the post and had another effort that Maier saved at his feet, in amongst a string of other Dutch chances that went begging.

It was not to be for the dazzling Dutch that day. For Rep, the chances he couldn’t take would linger with him, but the real fault was a collective one, as he described some years later. “We wanted to make fun of the Germans,” he said. “We didn’t think about it but we did it, passing the ball around and around. We forgot to score the second goal. When you see the film of the game, you can see that the Germans got more and more angry. It was our fault. It would have been much better if West Germany had scored in the first minute.”

Many of the same players, Rep included, were back four years later when the global showdown made its way to Argentina. Again, Rep was crucial to the Dutch forward line, along with Rensenbrink and René van der Kerkhof, this time playing more centrally than he had done in 1974 given the absence of Cruyff.

It was a very different experience to that of 1974, where thousands of orange-clad Dutch fans dominated the crowd whenever they played. “It was far away from home and people didn’t have the money to go,” said Rep. “We spent three weeks in a training camp in the Andes. Nobody there. We went crazy. In the first game against Iran in Mendoza there were 5,000 people – not many Dutch. No atmosphere. We played very badly. Against Scotland, 10,000. Again no atmosphere.”

They had started the group stage hesitantly but had seen off Iran with a 3-0 victory. But following a 0-0 draw with Peru, the Dutch were staring down the barrel of elimination as they trailed Scotland 3-1 in the high altitude and bumpy pitch of Mendoza. Archie Gemmell had zigzagged his way to his glorious solo goal, and the Netherlands were on the ropes, with just one more Scottish goal enough to send them home.

Up stepped Rep with the strike that he is probably best remembered for. Dropping deep to collect the ball from Neeskens in midfield he ran into space before unleashing a sumptuously ferocious piledriver that flew into the Scottish net and made the Dutch safe. “A little bit of a lucky goal,” said the man himself. It was a strike of pure instinct, given a lack of other options.

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He would score two more in the second phase 5-1 thrashing of Austria, as the Netherlands hit their stride just at the right moment on their way to another date with disastrous destiny in the final with Argentina.

“In 1978 we had a good team,” recalled Rep. “But we were happy just to play the final.” Expectations were somewhat different to those of four years before, of course, when Total Football swash-buckled its way to almost total dominance. The tournament, too, had a different feel to it – almost sinister.

After the sparsely attended early games, when the Dutch moved on to Buenos Aires in the latter stages, the crowds packed in and the atmosphere turned febrile and volatile. “There was 80,000 for the final, but that was terrible too. Argentina had to win. It was bizarre. Not a normal situation. There was some fear too. A lot of people said that if we won the game, there would be a big problem afterwards. All the military, not a good atmosphere. It was too heavy.”

Rather than for Rep as in 1974, the sliding doors moment this time fell to Rensenbrink, hitting the post in the last minute of normal time with the scores level, before the hosts prevailed in extra-time.

In the years between his two World Cup final appearances, Rep had moved on from the now broken-up Ajax team and gone off to earn a salary more in keeping with his abilities in the wealthier leagues of Europe. He had two highly productive seasons in Valencia where he joined forces with his future World Cup final opponent Mario Kempes, as well as Paraguayan striker Carlos Díaz, where Rep averaged almost a goal every other game. “That was the best attack I played in,” said Rep. “Better than with Cruyff and Keizer.”

But for a player as cultured as Rep, the training laid on by the coach, another Paraguayan, Heriberto Herrera, was less than fulfilling. “Discipline? Good. Coaching? Terrible,” was Rep’s verdict. “We never played with a ball in training. Always running.” Amid financial tensions with the Valencia hierarchy, Rep made the very unusual move of paying £150,000 to buy out his own contract so that he was free to move on.

He next shipped up in Corsica to play for a Bastia team that was a rising force in the French game, and had more than a little influence from the local mafia, rumoured to be involved in financing the deal for the high-profile Rep. With Bastia’s play built around their Dutch star, Rep looked instantly more at home.

Just prior to the 1978 World Cup, he’d been not only instrumental in Bastia’s epic run to the UEFA Cup final, but had almost single-handedly dragged them there himself. It was an experience that Rep would describe as “fantastic – the whole island was crazy for one year.” They would ultimately lose to PSV Eindhoven, but such was Rep’s influence on one of the French league’s lesser lights that he earned a move to the principal French club of that era for the start of the 1979/80 season: Saint-Étienne.

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There he would form a fearsome combination with the youthful Michel Platini and Dominique Rocheteau. Rep was an instant hit, scoring a hat-trick in one of his first appearances for the club in a UEFA Cup tie with Widzew Łódź, when they had been trailing 2-1 from the first leg.

The impressive output from the gloriously productive front line was best exemplified by another UEFA Cup tie in which Les Verts put six past PSV, including three in the first four minutes of the game. The team were electrifying going forward, and Rep was at its very heart, pulling the string and bringing the best out of the talents surrounding him.

They would go on to win the French title in 1981, but two years later it all came to an ignominious end when the club president became embroiled in financial scandal. However, this French escapade was one of the finest spells of Rep’s career. “If you ask me where I was happiest, the answer will always be Saint-Étienne”’ he noted.

On the international front, Rep’s career had hit a lull in the aftermath of the 1980 European Championship, not being a part of the team that began a tough qualifying group for the 1982 World Cup. Under Ernst Happel’s stewardship, the Dutch were phasing out many of the remaining stars of the 70s to allow a new breed to come through. But after a disastrous opening to that campaign, Happel was replaced by Kees Rijvers, who had been initially reluctant to recall Rep, among others, partly thanks to some outspoken comments Rep had directed at him surrounding that 6-0 thrashing of Rijvers’ PSV by Rep’s Saint-Étienne.

But as the campaign continued to stutter, Rep came back into the squad for the final five qualifiers. It would prove too late for the Dutch, however. In losing to France, they would miss out on reaching the tournament in Spain. It was a failure that would signal the end of Rep’s magnificent international career at the age of 30.

Returning to the Netherlands after it had all gone sour in France, Rep played for PEC Zwolle before having a final fling at the sharp end of the league with Feyenoord. But the best days were behind him and other influences were now taking their toll. The claws of alcoholism were taking over and led to a raft of personal traumas, with more than one failed marriage and being left penniless and homeless. It was a sad end to what had been a remarkable career.

Rep had been central to all that the Dutch achieved in the 1970s, and indeed all that they failed to achieve. As David Winner noted in his Dutch football epic Brilliant Orange, speaking to Rep about the high points of Dutch football: “For me, you are in most of them.” Rep, naturally, wholeheartedly agreed with this assessment.

He was a fabulous footballer who had it all. Skill in abundance, a compelling confidence bordering on nonchalance, an eye for a goal, and a vicious right foot. Total Football had come naturally to him as he stood prominently among one of the finest generations of footballing talent one country has ever produced.

By Aidan Williams @yad_williams

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