Bob Marley’s three little birds are associated with Ajax.
Before matches and during half-time, it is sung with passion around the Johan Cruyff Arena, regardless of the opponent, the form or the result. One line from the song – “It’s gonna be okay” – particularly resonates with fans.
Recently, however, things haven’t been going well, which is a new – and unwelcome – feeling around Amsterdam. Not so long ago, everything seemed to be going well.
But on January 26, shortly after the 1-1 home draw against humble VolendamAjax announced the dismissal of head coach Alfred Schreuder, the man charged with the daunting task of keeping up with the successful – and wildly popular – Erik ten Hag, now of Manchester United.
The job was not easy. Schreuder took over from a man who had won three league titles, two Dutch cups and guided Ajax to the Champions League knockout stages twice, including the semi-final in 2019.
At the time of his sacking, Ajax had been winless in seven league games – their longest run since 1965.
During the game against Volendam, the white handkerchiefs were out in full force, which is never a good sign.
For a number of previous home games, anti-Schreuder chants were prominent. He looked out of his depth and fans were happy to let their feelings be known.
There was a sense of relief around his sacking and a positive reception for John Heitinga, the former Everton defender who has now been appointed as interim head coach for the remainder of the season.
The problems go beyond the head coach, however. For Ajax, there still have to be wholesale changes.
“Random Football Decisions”
It starts above the gaming team, with the supervisory board.
For a long time, there was no clear line of detailed communication and efficiency between them and the football side of the club. The Supervisory Board makes all the decisions – from approving transfers, to overseeing appointments, to calling for layoffs.
Its current chairman is Leen Meijaard, who has been on the board since 2016, and his position has recently been criticized for taking his hands off the football side, leaving everything to the club’s chief executive, Edwin van der Sar.
From the dismissal of Marc Overmars as technical director last year, Ajax’s football decisions were haphazard.
Overmars had to leave – his actions, where he repeatedly sent inappropriate messages and photos to female members of staff at the club – were unacceptable.
However, his departure left a void at the club as there was no direct replacement for the former winger.
Instead, the club named the technical duo of Gerry Hamstra, a former player who held several managerial and scouting positions at clubs like Heerenveen and Vitesse, and former Ajax striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar , who had trained as a director under Overmars.
Despite this, the duo didn’t have as much power or responsibility. That stuck with Van der Sar, who called the shots.
Decisions taken by Van der Sar (and part Hamstra and Huntelaar) over the past year include overseeing the transition from Ten Hag to Schreuder, a turbulent transfer window that has seen more than €110m spent on signings – something unprecedented for an Eredivisie side – and €210m worth of talent, including Lisandro Martinez, Antony and Sebastien Haller, are leaving.
Ten Hag pushed towards United
Van der Sar has a lot of heat on him – and on a level he’s never experienced before at Ajax.
Last week, it was reported by Algmeen Dagblad that he was in charge of appointing the new head coach, and the operation was botched.
Ten Hag was open to staying last year but was not given a clear long-term plan, pushing him to Manchester United.
Ajax were also in talks with Go Ahead Eagles technical director Alex Kroes. He was set to join in July, even selling his shares in the Eagles as required by the rules to start, but Van der Sar appointed Schreuder without consulting Kroes, which put him off.
It has now been rumored that Van der Sar wanted to be the club’s de facto managing director and technical director, with Hamstra and Huntelaar backing him, but it didn’t go well. The fact that Ajax waited so long to sack Schreuder, despite a Champions League exit and poor league form, was not welcome.
Now they are all under fire for the way it was handled. Fans want things to focus on football again, and that requires a permanent technical director and a head coach appointed by said director with a similar view of football. The ideal way for all of this to happen is threefold.
First, an interim boss sees out the rest of the season. It’s already official that Heitinga will be that man, despite the fact that Ajax and Van der Sar didn’t think he was ready for the role not too long ago.
Heitinga hopes to at least win Ajax Champions League football and has Dwight Lodeweges, the former PSV and Netherlands national team assistant, to help him as his own assistant.
In the meantime, a new member or chairman of the supervisory board brings club and football affairs closer together. Meanwhile, a new technical director is appointed, ready for the summer.
Ajax haven’t been in such a mess for about a decade. They need results to clinch and they can’t miss Champions League football. This is essential for the financial sustainability of the club.
Getting a technical director is probably a higher priority than a head coach. They have gone almost a year without one and the effects are noticeable.
Heitinga has done well with Ajax’s youth teams, but whether he is capable of leading the senior side for the rest of the season and landing Champions League football is in doubt.
It remains to be seen who will be the new head coach. For the first time since 1997, Ajax are considering appointing a foreign person to this post. Marcelo Gallardo has been linked, but ruled himself out.
Ambitious names like Marcelo Bielsa and Luis Enrique have also been whispered about, but they are incredibly unlikely to join. The return of Peter Bosz has not been ruled out, but he had bad relations with Van der Sar last time out. There will be several months of rumors ahead.
In 2010, club legend Johan Cruyff called for the ‘velvet revolution’ at Ajax – a series of changes that saw the club go from wrestlers to serial national champions and challenge on the European stage.
It worked successfully, but with a lot of trial and error. Something similar is required now.
For a few months now, everything has not been going well at Ajax, and that must change quickly, otherwise the Dutch champions risk falling.