The Fall of Ajax: How one of the world's best run clubs fell into disarray

The Fall of Ajax: How one of the world's best run clubs fell into disarray
Ajax's fans have had enough
Ajax's fans have had enough
For years, if somebody wanted to know how to run a football club, they'd look to Ajax as an example. But now, all they're showing the world is what not to do.

In Greek mythology, Ajax the Great is one of the most formidable warriors of his time, so strong that no opponent he faces is able to bring him down. 

He dies as a young man nevertheless though, choosing to take his own life after the armour of the legendary Achilles is given to Odysseus instead of him towards the end of the Trojan War.

It's not one of his many enemies that defeats him, but himself, and the same thing can be said about the football club named after him at the moment.

Marc Overmars and Edwin van der Sar walk down the touchline

With their reputation, youth academy and financial muscle, Ajax have the means to dominate Dutch football when operating well and did just that for four seasons from 2018 to 2022, winning six trophies including all three available league titles in that period (the 2019/20 campaign wasn't completed due to the pandemic). 

With Erik ten Hag emerging as one of the best managers in the world and Director of Football Marc Overmars making the right calls time and time again in the transfer market, things couldn't have been going any better. But then on one cold February night, the bubble began to burst. 

On that night, it was announced that Overmars was found to have sent a number of inappropriate text messages and photos to female members of staff and had thus been relieved of his duties. Parting ways with him was, of course, the right decision, but it was followed by a string of bad ones that would turn dominance into disaster. 

CEO Edwin van der Sar opted against quickly finding a direct replacement for Overmars, instead handing the duties over to Technical Manager Gerry Hamstra and hiring former player Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to assist him while becoming more involved in sporting matters himself, despite having no experience in the area asides from his playing career.

It was a surprising call given that one of the trio's first big jobs would be one of the utmost importance: finding a replacement for Ten Hag, who was leaving to manage Manchester United. 

They opted for a somewhat unimaginative option, hiring Alfred Schreuder, who had once been Ten Hag's assistant at the club and had just won the Pro League with Club Brugge. While he'd done well in Belgium, the manager had struggled at FC Twente and Hoffenheim before that, and many were therefore unconvinced by the appointment.

The sceptics were proved right with the Dutchman sacked in January following a winless run of seven league matches that followed a humiliating 6-1 defeat at home to Napoli earlier in the campaign. However, he wasn't the only problem, with Van der Sar and Co. selling Lisandro Martinez and Antony - two players the manager had expected to keep - at the start of the season and failing to find adequate replacements. 

The technical brilliance of Martinez was replaced by the brawn of Calvin Bassey and the board had to step in to veto a £20 million move for Lucas Ocampos, only allowing him to be signed on loan. Given he went on to play just four matches before leaving in January, it was a good call, but the fact that such a deal had even been considered in the first place was concerning. 

By the end of the 2022/23 season, the club had not only failed to defend their title but had missed out on Champions League football altogether, and both Van der Sar and Hamstra had handed in their resignations. 

One of the last things Van der Sar did before leaving was finally appoint a new Director of Football, hiring former Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal man Sven Mislintat in the hopes that he'd be the Overmars replacement the club had longed for, but it proved to be yet another bad move. 

Mislintat didn't last long in Amsterdam

The German quickly decided that interim manager Johnny Heitinga wouldn't stay on permanently and set about looking for a replacement. Most assumed that Peter Bosz, the man who led the club to the Europa League final in 2017, would be appointed after he said on national television that he'd be open to returning, but Mislintat wasn't interested.

Instead, he shocked just about everyone in the Netherlands by hiring the little-known Maurice Steijn, who had just led Sparta Rotterdam to sixth in the league. That was admittedly an impressive achievement, but he'd done little else in his short career and had no experience of working at a club anywhere near as big as Ajax. 

With that sorted, Mislintat then turned his attention to the transfer market, and one of the first things he did was sell Jurrien Timber to Arsenal before lining up a replacement. That infuriated captain and club legend Dusan Tadic, who felt the club weren't being ambitious enough and thus terminated his contract. 

By the end of the summer, Mohammed Kudus, Edson Alvarez, Davy Klaassen and Bassey had also left, and rather than relying largely on the youth academy for replacements as Ajax usually do, the Director of Football spent just over €100 million on 11 players that had never played in the Netherlands before and were largely unproven at the highest level.

With the manager and players that Mislintat chose, the club then made one of the worst-ever starts to a season in their 123-year history, getting just five points from their first four matches. To make matters worse, Bosz had been appointed by PSV and had them top of the league with a perfect record. 

There weren't only issues on the pitch either, with Mislintat being investigated by his own club for buying a player - Borna Sosa - whose agent's management company was a shareholder in a data analysis company founded by the German, meaning he could have made a large sum of money from the transfer personally. 

With so much turmoil, what Ajax now needed was a positive result on the pitch to provide some much-needed calm, but unfortunately for them, their next match was against arch-rivals Feyenoord

The chaos at the club had increased yet again before De Klassieker even kicked off with reports from the press stating that Mislintat had been at the training ground the day before telling players that the manager would be sacked if they lost and that he himself was going to make sure those not performing would be dropped from the starting XI, unhappy that some who were struggling were being selected ahead of his signings. 

Keen to heap more misery on their rivals, Feyenoord then went 2-0 up within 20 minutes in Amsterdam, at which point an Ajax fan threw a cup onto the pitch. When it became 3-0 20 minutes later, supporters threw flares instead, causing the match to be suspended in line with KNVB (the Dutch FA) laws introduced in response to such events becoming more common throughout the nation last season.

10 minutes into the second half, more flares were thrown, causing the match to be abandoned entirely, but disgruntled sections of the Ajax fanbase weren't done there. Rather than going home, they set about vandalising their own stadium with some trying to break into sections of the ground off limits to them. 

Police quickly arrived on the scene in large numbers and had to use tear gas and horses to clear the area such was the level of the riots, the likes of which had never been seen before. 

Throughout the day, fans were calling for both Mislintat and Steijn to be sacked, and they got one of their wishes that evening with the former parting ways with his employers less than a year after joining, but much more will need to be done to end this time of crisis. 

Throughout Greek myths, when they need it most, heroes will receive assistance from the Gods. 

Ajax the Great is one of the heroes to benefit from such assistance. Struggling to take the body of Achilles back to camp from the battlefield during the Trojan War, he's helped by Athena, the Goddess of War. 

AFC Ajax need such a saviour now, but just who it will be is unclear. 

When his former team was struggling in 2010, Johan Cruyff stepped in as an advisor and staged what became known as the Velvet Revolution, installing former players including Overmars, Van der Sar, Frank de Boer (manager) and Dennis Bergkamp (youth coach) in key roles and instructing them to focus on developing young talent and playing attractive football. Four of the next four league titles were won by the club. 

With Cruyff no longer with us, most are hoping that Louis van Gaal will return to stage a revolution of his own this time around, but while he has reportedly been offered the keys to the club, he's already ruled out taking a day-to-day role due to his health - he's currently undergoing treatment for prostate cancer. 

The man who won them their last Champions League back in 1995 could perhaps come back in a less hands-on capacity, serving as an unofficial advisor rather than a manager or director. Whether his love for the club outweighs the stress such a role would inflict on him at a time when he could do without it is very much uncertain. 

What is certain is that things have rarely if ever been so bad at Ajax, and they only have themselves to blame. 

News Editor


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