As the players finish their warm-ups prior to kickoff at the Arena, “Freed From Desire” blares out and the stadium shakes with Taadeech on fiiiire! It’s the same routine before every match, so even though I’m busy buying a pint, I know that Dušan Tadić, captain of Ajax, is the only remaining player on the pitch. I know that he gets the ball just outside the box and takes a few touches before cutting inside on his weaker right foot. He shoots, looks up towards the fans, and applause ensues. The Serbian forward has given his best playing years to the club and the mutual respect between the two is palpable; he is still the talisman of the Ajax attack. But it is now a forward line that has failed to achieve a victory in the league since October. Tadić is not actually on fire, but that’s okay. Nobody is these days.
The referee blows to start, and, after five minutes of scoreless action, hundreds around the stadium reveal white tissues, a coordinated protest of the club’s poor management. The F-Side procures white banners emphatically calling for the sacking of head coach Alfred Schreuder. From that moment on there is no winning. It doesn’t matter who the opponents are. The Ajax fans have not surrendered, just shown the true state of the club. It seems like only yesterday that Edwin van der Sar, the club’s technical chair, was throwing all of his support behind Schreuder; despite the poor results, he hadn’t been given the proper resources to rebuild the team last summer, so the line went. The mass action on Thursday proved that most supporters in Amsterdam call bullshit.
After struggling to a 1-1 draw with league leaders Feyenoord, one would hope the team could at least manage a win over FC Volendam, the high-functioning relegation candidates who last played in Amsterdam in 2009, losing courtesy of Luis Suárez and Thomas Vermaelen. Alas. Ajax academy graduate Carel Eiting would captain Volendam in a stoic performance, leading a defensive unit which heavily constrained Ajax’s creativity, and provide the assist on the go-ahead goal, scored by another former Toekomst player, Damon Mirani. The home team could only muster one in response, after the introduction of Mo Kudus and Francisco Conceiçao. Lorenzo Lucca, the 6-foot-7-inch forward, also came off Schreuder’s bench to provide the assist, heading the ball on for Kudus to snipe a shot past the keeper. It was Lucca’s substitution for Devyne Rensch in the 76th minute that saw the last thrash of Schreuder’s regime, the final flicker of a fire struggling to ignite a sopping wet log. When Schreuder jogged down the tunnel as the players went to applaud the fans, he must have known his fate.
Half an hour later, he was sacked. Or, as the club says, “removed from active duty”. How militaristic. Tadić was questioned in the car park after the sacking, which rarely happens on the day of a match. “I feel sorry for him. I still think he’s a good coach. But this is normal if you don’t win so many matches at such a big club. That’s what [Schreuder] said himself. We talk too much, we talk about everything. I don’t know what to say anymore. We need wins, that’s the best medicine.” For months it seemed that talking was all Schreuder could do, in lieu of actually winning. Image maintenance is important for an army general, I suppose, but it’s in no way a substitute for material success on the field of battle.
Weeks ago, club legend Daley Blind was ousted after the technical staff backed Schreuder in a dispute which seemed to be raging for months. In an October match against RKC, the coach polled the team on their advice for creating a stronger pressing structure. Blind, in an interview with Algemeen Dagblad, remembered standing up and saying “Coach, be clear! You decide how we will execute it!” Schreuder told Blind to shut his pie hole and Ajax’s best creative defender was relegated to a reserve role for the rest of the year.
With Blind already off to Munich and many players, like Brian Brobbey, Steven Bergwijn, and Jurrien Timber, looking quite unlike their talented selves, Schreuder’s removal was inevitable. But it’s a complete shame. That it took so long for Van der Sar, Hamstra, Huntelaar and company to make the decision; even more so that these directors refused to listen to the squad’s complaints in a timely manner, if at all. Blind reflected how nobody at the club tried to right this wrong, to discuss it like adults, but simply “made it look like I was the one who wanted to get out.”
A club legend, a mooie vent (a nice chap, as the Dutch say) ousted from the club of his family, of his childhood, and of his highly successful elite playing career. I can’t think of something to make hardcore Ajax fans more furious. And what’s more, firing the same coach only weeks later, not because the players and fans had lost all trust. No! But because of the poor results which, if you’ll remember, have been occurring ever since that RKC match in October. The groans of Jezus! by the Dutch man sat next to me that evening at the Arena, witnessing a complete failure of a football team, feel especially on-the-nose.
Johnny Heitinga is no second coming of the saviour, but his instalment as interim manager this week is a good first step towards recovery. He’s not interested in making boisterous statements to the press or delegating coaching responsibilities to the players. He sees Ajax sitting fifth in the league and demands a change. He drops Brobbey and Calvin Bassey against Excelsior Rotterdam, gives Kudus the keys to the ignition, and watches the Amsterdammers roll over their opponents 4-1. Not perfect, but already there seems to be a development of sorts. A paradigm shift of mentality, from both the team and their supporters.
For the first time in a long time, Ajax is freed from desire (for a coaching change). They have half a season to turn a miserable campaign into one worthy of a “Tadić on fire” chant.