As featured on Guardian Sport
It was with a fit of pique, revenge in mind and a double-winning flourish that Johan Cruyff brought the curtain down upon his remarkable playing career. He also crossed one football’s greatest divides to do it.
Cruyff was 36 in the summer of 1983 and in his second spell at Ajax, having just helped the club clinch the domestic league and cup double. It was an achievement which was rewarded with the news that he was to be cast aside by the powers that be at De Meer. A new contract was not to be offered to the man that had given so much power, status and prestige to the club, not to mention a sparkling array of trophies.
With a point to prove and anger levels high, Cruyff opted for the previously unthinkable. The Dutchman signed for Ajax’s increasingly bitter rivals Feyenoord, a club that had laboured for much of the previous decade since winning the league and UEFA Cup double in 1974. The Rotterdam giants, the first club from the Netherlands to win both the European Cup and the World Club Championship, had only managed to add one KNVB Cup success to their honours list since the league and European double glory almost a decade earlier.
You could argue that Feyenoord were in need of Cruyff more than Cruyff was in need of Feyenoord. They wasn’t in a position of simply being subjugated by an all-encompassing Ajax; it was a little more complex than that. PSV Eindhoven had progressed strongly during the second half of the 1970s, with three title wins in four seasons to add to a UEFA Cup success of their own in 1978. AZ Alkmaar also arose at the beginning of the 80s to take their first title win and contest the 1981 UEFA Cup final against Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town. By 1983, Feyenoord had been swamped by the new kids on the block as much as they had by their old nemesis from Amsterdam.
The somewhat uneasy union between Cruyff and Feyenoord took a lot of getting used to, not just for the fiercely partisan fans of both clubs but also the players themselves, along with the stunned representatives of the nation’s media and beyond. Over 30 years later, the sight of Cruyff in a red and white halved Feyenoord shirt is still one that has the power to make you look twice, just to make sure your eyes aren’t deceiving you.
The world, however, did get to see Cruyff in a Feyenoord shirt, and the players and fans at De Kuip soon started to warm to the alien concept unfolding in front of them. Feyenoord started the season impressively, winning five of their first six Eredivisie fixtures and dropping just one point before they made the trip to Amsterdam for the first De Klassieker of the season, a game which was played out at the Olympisch Stadion.
Feyenoord had scored a remarkable 14 goals in their opening three league fixtures. The return of Cruyff to Ajax in Feyenoord colours was never going to be a static occasion.
Just a few short days after a midweek UEFA Cup trip to Scotland to take on St. Mirren, Feyenoord walked into De Klassieker full of confidence. It would, however, prove to be a chastening experience as they slipped to a record 8-2 defeat at the hands of their greatest rivals and the defending champions. Feyenoord didn’t play that badly during a game that was marred by crowd trouble; it was instead a case of a number of simple errors being punished in the most emphatic manner by their opponents.
It was a result that could have derailed their outstanding start to the campaign, yet it did just the opposite. Feyenoord emerged from their mauling at Ajax as a team increasingly empowered. The trip to Paisley to take on St. Mirren at Love Street a few days before the loss to Ajax had ended in a 1-0 victory for Feyenoord, the goal scored by a man just two days short of his 21st birthday. That man was Ruud Gullit.
This Feyenoord was by no means a one-man-band. Cruyff was joined not just by the emerging Gullit, but also by talented players such as the goalkeeper Joop Hiele, the understudy to Hans van Breukelen at Euro 88. It was also blessed with the free-scoring Peter Houtman, who would later go on to become the De Kuip stadium announcer. André Hoekstra blossomed during the campaign and the defence was marshalled effectively by Sjaak Troost and Michel van der Korput. Ben Wijnstekers, Danish international Ivan Nielsen, Pierre Vermeulen and Bulgarian international Andrey Zhelyaskov all made telling contributions.
It would be five months before Feyenoord lost again in the league as they launched into a 15-game unbeaten run that included 12 wins. When they eventually slipped up at Groningen in late February, it would prove to be the last time Feyenoord would taste defeat in the 1983/84 season.
With steady progress being made in the KNVB Cup, including knocking out Ajax in a replay in the last-16, the only blot on the Feyenoord copybook was their UEFA Cup exit at the hands of Tottenham. An imperious Glenn Hoddle at a decade younger than Cruyff proved too much during both legs of their second-round encounter. The Londoners went on to lift the trophy.
A week after the loss at Groningen came the acid test. Ajax arrived at De Kuip still hoping a win would provoke Feyenoord to hit the self-destruct button. Feyenoord, in an uncompromising mood, had other plans. Gullit opened the scoring with a spectacular free-kick and Cruyff emphatically blasted another of the goals home from close range, during a 4-1 victory where Jan Mølby snatched the only Ajax goal of the game. It was a result that confirmed Feyenoord had the mental durability to match the ability they had shown since that fateful 8-2 defeat in Amsterdam.
The following week, Feyenoord dropped a point in a draw away at Go Ahead Eagles in a game they largely dominated. Feyenoord’s scorer that day was Stanley Brard. Brard was a left-back by trade but, on Cruyff’s insistence, had been deployed as a left-winger. He was often awkward and uncomfortable in the position and would provoke the frustration not just of the Feyenoord fans, but also some of his teammates.
Brard, however, played a pivotal role in the side as his positioning higher up the pitch meant that opposing right-backs didn’t have the freedom to go forward. This meant there was less pressure on the ageing Cruyff to track back. It was a key switch. Brard celebrated his goal that day with a well-aimed hand gesture towards his tormentors in the away section.
Feyenoord won eight and drew three of their last 11 league games after the victory over Ajax. They effectively clinched the title with two games to spare after a 3-0 win at home to Utrecht. Three days later, they defeated Fortuna Sittard in a closely contested KNVB Cup final on home soil at De Kuip to clinch their third double. Houtman scored the winning goal midway through the second half, just three minutes after climbing from the bench.
It was a stunning riposte from Cruyff towards Ajax who had cut him adrift just 12 months earlier, having helped them to the very same league and cup double. Cruyff was also named Player of the Year by the nation’s football writers. Gullit won the equivalent award as voted for by his fellow professionals. It was a remarkable and fitting way to bring an end to his playing career – just not at the club he necessarily expected to do it with.
As Cruyff walked away from Feyenoord in the summer of 1984, they signed another ageing Ajax icon in a bid to repeat the success. A then 33-year-old Johnny Rep was lured from PEC Zwolle in a bid to fill the void left by Cruyff. The 1984/85 season would be one of disappointment, however, as Feyenoord fell at the first hurdle in the European Cup, going out of the competition in Athens against Panathinaikos. There was also an early exit in their defence of the KNVB Cup, toppling out at home to Excelsior.
Although Feyenoord finished a reasonable third place in the league, it was yet another blow to have to hand the title back to Ajax. The final insults for Feyenoord to stomach in the summer of 1985 were the departure of Gullit to rivals PSV and the return to Ajax of Cruyff as coach.
Unlike Cruyff’s incredible success, the last three decades haven’t always been kind to Feyenoord, with the Eredivisie title returning to De Kuip only three times, the last of those in 2016/17. Financial difficulties and even flirtations with relegation have almost been as prevalent in the minds of fans and neutrals than sustained title challenges, yet Feyenoord continue to chase the ghosts of their glorious but lost past.
Domestic success will elude them this season once again, sitting closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League spots. Compounded by finishing bottom of a navigable Europa League group that included Rangers, Porto and Young Boys, Feyenoord fans will be hoping for better under 72-year-old Dick Advocaat.
Sadly, it’s difficult to envisage a time when Feyenoord will reign supreme in the Netherlands once again, but as Ajax showed in the 2018/19 Champions League, sleeping giants can most certainly awaken.
By Steven Scragg @Scraggy_74