Soccer International’s The Ajax Way

Australian football’s love affair with all things Dutch has previously been confined to the national set-up, leaving the A-League relatively unaffected. However, competition newcomers Melbourne Heart FC has ensured its debut next season will also display a distinct orange tinge.

By Soccer International Magazine
For someone who has scaled world football-s greatest heights, a move to Australia, and a relatively unknown competition in the A-League may appear to be a rather peculiar career option.

But for former Ajax star John van ‘t Schip, relocating half-way around the world to raise and nurture a football club from its conception was an opportunity not to be missed.

“Maybe I’m a little bit strange in that, but I love the game,” van ‘t Schip said. ”I’m passionate for the football and the challenge I see here is unique and I can help build a club from scratch.

“It’s very important for me. I have worked in Holland…but the thing that was good was the challenge to go abroad again. It’s really all about loving the game and I think you could do the same things here also.”

However, van ‘t Schip did admit family considerations played heavily when deciding to opt for the top job with the A-League-s latest expansion side.

“The other reason (for joining the Heart) is I had a talk with my family and decided we wanted to go abroad for a few years for the experience,” he said.

“We also spent four years in Italy and found it nice, very interesting and good for the family. The children are at an age now that we can easily decide to do the move.

“I think it is very interesting to be part of a nice and new organisation and that is what I have found here at the Heart led by good people and good professionals. The board has left a fine impression on us as my wife was also with me for the first week I was here.”

A former Dutch international, van ‘t Schip was a member of the Oranje-s victorious 1988 European Championship squad and played at the 1990 World Cup before making his final appearance for the Netherlands in 1995.

At club level, the 45-year-old claimed a Cup Winners- Cup and UEFA Cup champions- medal during a time when Europe-s second tier competitions retained a high level of prestige. Van ‘t Schip then closed out his career with four years in Italy at Genoa.

Alongside former German World Cup winner Pierre Littbarski, the Melbourne Heart-s inaugural coach is arguably the second biggest name to coach in an Australian domestic competition, sitting behind only footballing legend Ferenc Puskas, who led South Melbourne between 1989 and 1992.

Developed at Ajax-s renowned youth academy, van ‘t Schip is a product of one of the most revered schools in football and has played alongside some of the game-s greats, including Frank Rijkaard, Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp, and Johan Cruyff, who later became his coach, and is cited as his greatest mentor.

As a player, Cruyff was without peer in Europe, revolutionising the game as an exponent of Rinus Michel-s ‘Total Football-, dazzling with his wide array of trickery and trademark turn.

But as rarely is the case for talents so precocious, Cruyff also established himself as a leading tactician, winning the European Cup, UEFA Super Cup and Cup Winners Cup with Barcelona, in addition to the three trophies he claimed at Ajax.

“(Cruyff influenced my career) in a very big way because from when I was 17, I trained with him and then even played with him in the first team. A few years later he also became my coach and had a very big influence on our generation, and he still has a very big influence on European football,” van ‘t Schip said.

The Dutch master-s profound influence on the disciples of his footballing philosophy has perhaps forever altered the complexion of the modern game and the approach taken by the outfit many hold as world football-s benchmark, FC Barcelona.

Following the disappointment of Louis van Gaal-s reign at the Nou Camp, former Cruyff pupils Rijkaard and Josep Guardiola, remodelled the team in his image, returning Barcelona to the free-flowing, fluid attacking brand of football which earned praise in the late 80-s and early 90s.

Although the duo each incorporated their own nuances and fashioned the Barcelona side accordingly, Cruyff-s influence is unmistakable, with each successive version of the team obviously bearing his imprint.

Van ‘t Schip said: “If you see the way Barcelona plays at this moment, that-s his philosophy, his way that he started with his dream team, and the coaches who followed him, Rijkaard and now Guardiola are still practising his philosophy.

“At Ajax, they also still do that and the former players who have worked with him are still very much influenced by his vision.”

Consequently, Melbourne-s new A-League outfit will undoubtedly display Cruyff-s mark as evidence of the substantial impact he has made on van ‘t Schip-s coaching career to date, which has seen him fine tune his craft as assistant to van Basten over four years with Holland and Ajax.

While the ability to build a team and play in Cruyff-s style is largely dependent on the calibre of footballers at a coach-s disposal, van ‘t Schip says he will attempt to parlay the expansive Dutch 4-3-3 system across to the Heart.

“I have grown up in Holland with Ajax. I played for 16 years in youth and in the first team as a player and after that I worked in total for eight years as a trainer, with the youth and under 20s and the first team.

“That’s in my blood, the way of training, the way of playing, the way I see the game and I think it’s similar to how you saw the Dutch team play (against the Socceroos in October).

“It’s all about having the ball, possession, attacking and trying to defend in the opponents half. They are all good and nice words, but it’s, of course, a long way to be at that level. I hope I can work with the boys to go to that level and help them improve.”

He added: “I want to play the Ajax system but we have to find the players to play that game. It’s not that we are going to play that every time. My intention is to play 4-3-3 because that’s the way I learned it, I was brought up with it.

“They still play that way in Holland, and not only in Holland. If you see Barcelona, the best team in the world at this moment, they also play that system.”

With the A-League-s transfer window now open, Melbourne can commence courting players in an attempt to form the skeleton of a squad unlikely to be completed until the end of next year-s World Cup.

While the Heart has refused to establish any time frames in building its squad, van ‘t Schip is keen to initiate his recruitment program in earnest and has already travelled around the country in search of the best available talent.

“It-s difficult to say whether the squad will be ready on time or whether we still have to get players just before the start of the league. We hope to have some, the most players already a long time before that,” he said.

“(The player I target) could be someone who can play multiple positions, but it-s also good to have players who are specialised because for example with wingers, there aren-t many players who are strong in that position and trained in their work and way of playing.

“(But) we have to first find players who are multi-functional because we only have a selection of 23 players and if we have players who are hurt, we need somebody to move into that position.”

The signing of a marquee player is integral to an A-League club-s attempt to raise its profile, and firmly establish itself in the marketplace, playing a pivotal role in the sculpting of a club-s identity.

For example, Sydney FC-s cocksure, bling-styled approach to season one was accurately reflected in the selection of its marquee player, Dwight Yorke, the former Manchester United superstar affectionately known as ‘All-Night Dwight-.

However, the exercise has provided mixed results so for, with the likes of Mario Jardel and Brian Deane stern reminders that clubs need to be vigilant in identifying potential players to lure down under and precede with caution.

The Heart though appears to be taking a measured approach, and has been linked to a variety of Victorian-born Socceroos, including Mark Bresciano and Josip Skoko, who currently plays for Hajduk Split in Croatia.

“I would be happy to have a (marquee) player who will be an example, and if he were Australian, it would be nice, but if it is not possible we are prepared to look elsewhere,” van ‘t Schip said.

“We are still discussing about that, but the player needs to be a leader, an example and someone who can make a difference on and off the pitch.

“I-m not going to say which position, it could be any, but if of course if you can find someone who plays in what we call the spine of the team, it could be more interesting.”

As coach, van ‘t Schip-s role may be confined to the sidelines, but his appointment will undoubtedly gather the attention of rival Melbourne Victory and intensify the battle for the proverbial hearts and minds of Victorians in a firm indicator of Melbourne Heart FC-s lofty ambitions.

Van ‘t Schip-s resume is substantive, and more akin to someone seeking a senior role in the national team set-up than a head coaching job in the A-League.

Indeed, the man who is undaunted by a challenge, may have just redefined the boundaries of expectation for the rest of the competition.

This article appeared in the November edition of Soccer International magazine. Click here for the full version.

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