Welcome to Last Word on Football’s ‘Returning Players’ series. In this edition, we focus on the legendary Johan Cruyff.
The Dutchman is one of the greatest footballers of all time and despite playing for several teams, two clubs saw Cruyff become one of the greatest. Cruyff had two successful spells at Ajax, spending 11 of his playing years at Dutch giants. He would eventually go on to bring further success to Ajax as a manager in the mid-1980s.
As well as making his name at Ajax, Cruyff also become a legendary player and manager for Barcelona. In total, he spent 13 years in Spain, winning several trophies on and off the pitch as well as establishing one of the most exciting styles of football we have ever seen.
Returning Players – Johan Cruyff
First Spell at Ajax
Cruyff broke through at Ajax in 1964 having spent his entire youth career with the Amsterdam club. He was just nine years old when Ajax spotted him and would join their academy on his tenth birthday.
His first spell at Ajax saw him establish himself as one of the greatest players of his generation.
He spent nine trophy-laden years with the Dutch giants, winning several personal accolades. In total, Cruyff won six league titles, four league cups, three consecutive European Cups as well as two super cups. His first spell saw him make 329 appearances, scoring 257 goals for his boyhood club.
A golden era for Ajax saw Cruyff play a significant role in all of their success. Perhaps their most dominant era was the early 1970s which saw Ajax win three successive European Cups. Their first was a comfortable win over Greek side Panathinaikos in 1971 before they saw Inter Milan in 1972 and Juventus in 1973.
Unsurprisingly, Cruyff won several accolades, including the first of his three Ballon d’Ors in 1971. He also finished top scorer in the Eredivisie twice and the Dutch Cup four times. Cruyff was also named Dutch footballer of the year twice during his time with Ajax.
Cruyff left Ajax a true legend. He departed the club in 1973 to join Barcelona for a world record transfer fee.
The Cruyff Playing Years at Barcelona
Unsurprisingly, like his time at Ajax, Cruyff became one of the greatest to don the colours of Barcelona. His five years at the Nou Camp saw Barcelona return to the glory days.
He helped Barcelona to a first La Liga title in 14 years in his first season with the club. His five years were hugely successful and included a Copa del Rey triumph.
Cruyff also collected his two other Ballon d’Ors at Barcelona although his triumph in 1973 was for his final year at Ajax. His final triumph was for his impact during his first year at Barcelona. He also finish third in 1975.
Cruyff also collected the Don Balón award, which is given to players who make a significant impact in Spanish football. The legendary Dutchman collected this accolade twice in his career. His first in 1977 with the second coming a year later.
In total, Cruyff made 231 appearances for Barcelona, scoring 86 times before his departure in 1978.
Brief Retirements, Spell in the United States and Return to Ajax
Cruyff left Barcelona in 1978 and had initially retired, but due to poor investments, Cruyff returned and spent three years playing in the United States.
Cruyff turned out for the Los Angeles Aztecs and Washington Diplomats. He returned to Europe in 1981 and joined then second division Spanish side Levante. The Dutchman endured a turbulent year with the club, scoring just two goals in his ten appearances. He left after failing to secure promotion to La Liga.
He returned to Ajax in late 1980, initially as a technical advisor to Leo Beenhakker. Cruyff would eventually don the kit of Ajax once again in 1981. His second spell while not as trophy-laden as the first was still hugely successful.
He scored 16 times in 46 games and helped Ajax to two league titles and a Dutch cup before departing again in 1983. He was bitterly hurt by the club after they decided not to offer him a contract extension.
So he moved to Ajax’s arch-rivals Feyenoord. He spent a season in Rotterdam and helped them secure a first league title in a decade. In his sole season, they would go on to secure a league and cup double. His final game as a player was in May 1984 and unsurprisingly, he marked his retirement with a goal.
The Johan Cruyff Manager Years: Ajax
Cruyff’s love affair with Ajax continued after he hung up his boots. He returned to his boyhood club in 1985 for a third spell but this time it was to take over the managerial hot seat.
His three years at the helm brought success but he couldn’t manage to secure a league title. He lost out in his first season to PSV Eindhoven.
Despite the lack of a league title, Cruyff would implement a style of play that would go on to bring success to future sides. He also nurtured some of Dutch football’s greatest players.
Essentially it was a back three system that utilised all the players and got the best out of them. He nurtured a talented team that included Frank Rijkaard, Dennis Bergkamp, Marco Van Basten, Danny Blind and Jan Wouters.
His style would last generations of Ajax sides and the crowning moment was the 1995 Champions League success. While he may not have managed the side, many put down that triumph to the style put in place by Cruyff.
He left an amazing legacy both as a player and manager of Ajax. He departed the club in 1988 to take over the other love in his life Barcelona.
The Johan Cruyff Manager Years: Building The Super Team at Barcelona
Cruyff returned to Catalonia to took over the managerial reigns at Barcelona in 1988 following the dismissal of Luis Aragones. Before Cruyff’s arrival, Barcelona had endured a difficult season which saw them go through two managers and finish sixth in La Liga.
Cruyff’s return brought one of the most glorious periods in the history of Barcelona. His eight years in charge brought several trophies as well an attacking style of football we are used to seeing today.
Cruyff built vibrant, attacking Barcelona sides which include some of the greatest players of all time. The likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mari Bakero, Txiki Bergiristain, Romario, Michael Laudrup, Gheorgie Hagi and Hristo Stoichkov were amongst Cruyff’s arsenal in a glorious period.
In his eight seasons, Cruyff won four league titles, one Copa del Rey, two Spanish super cups, one super cup as well as Champions League title in 1992. His time at Barcelona ended on a sour note when he failed to win a trophy in his final two seasons and was eventually sacked in 1996.
Despite that, Cruyff built a legacy that is forever cemented on Barcelona and to this day, they continue to try and play the same way. He’s a true legend of the Catalonian club having done so much both as a player and manager.