The father of Total Football: the story of Jack Reynolds & Ajax

jack reynolds ajax

Recently, football has seen a drastic emphasis on the tactical side of the game more than any time previously. Coaches such as Erik ten Hag, Pep Guardiola and Julien Naglesmann have recently set their teams up to dominate opponents. Many see these coaches, and this style of football, as the men fulfilling Johan Cruyff’s idea of ‘total football’. However, one man, in particular, is not spoken of enough about his impact on the football we see today. That man is Jack Reynolds, the father of Ajax’s innovative footballing philosophy that gave birth to the idea of ‘total football’.

Humble beginnings

Born on the 23rd of September, 1881, Jack Reynolds was the son of Elisabeth Guinness and John Reynolds. Reynolds home resided in Whitefield, a town in the Metropolitan borough of Bury, now known as Greater Manchester.

As a lover of the beautiful game from an early age, Reynolds began his playing days for the reserves of a local side, Manchester City in 1902. However, a lack of first team involvement at the club saw him make the switch to Burton United in 1903. During his only campaign with Burton, Reynolds scored 3 goals in 32 appearances but soon found himself on the move again. Spells at Grimsby Town, Sheffield Wednesday, Watford and Rochdale followed from 1904-1911.

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In total, Reynolds scored 16 goals in the 108 appearances he made during his 9 year playing career. However, it was the coaching side of the game that really appeased him and at the age of 30, he would embark on his first coaching role. It saw the Englishman move to a foreign land, to coach the Swiss side St. Gallen in 1912, where he showed impressive potential.

Two seasons of strong results with St. Gallen, saw the German FA take note of the young Englishman and offer him the role of the national team coach. In Reynolds, the Germans saw the perfect coach to prepare the national side for the 1916 Olympics, held in Berlin.

With everything agreed upon and notice given to St. Gallen, the breakout of the First World War saw the games cancelled that year and the German national coach role withdrawn for the time being.

A golden opportunity

Now in search of a new role, Reynolds felt like a man “all dressed up with nowhere to go” as he later described. This quote eludes to his anticipation of becoming the new German national coach, only for the role to be withdrawn. Around this time, a relatively new amateur club in the Netherlands saw their own British coach return home from the war.

Founded in 1900 by Floris Stempl, Carel Reeser and Han Dade, Ajax Amsterdam were a team with no identity. Not until 1910, when an Irishman named Jack Kirwan took charge, which saw the club’s ascendance begin. A year after joining, Kirwan led Ajax to the Tweede Klasse (English Second Class) title. Further success followed with a playoff victory resulting in promotion to the top flight for the first time in the club’s short history.

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Relegation in 1914, the only one in the club’s history to date, coincided with the war and Kirwan’s decision to return home to London, where his family were based. These events meant there was a vacancy for a new coach, one Jack Reynolds could not refuse to go for.

His appointment at Ajax is seen as a major turning point for the club, one that still shows the foundations of a footballing philosophy that changed football.

The birth of a philosophy

Reynold’s approach to coaching his new club was unlike any seen in the Netherlands before. The English coach implemented professional methods to his amateur players, who were unpaid at the time, as he wished to play skillful attacking football, as opposed to the physical power game that was the norm at the time.

With an emphasis on fitness, as well as technical play, Ajax’s players learned to carry out the Englishman’s innovative attacking formations. These attacking formations saw his wingers utilized more and implemented the idea that every player should be able to play the same position and formation.

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Another innovation brought to the Netherlands by Reynolds saw the introduction of youth development policy at the Amsterdam club. This project came as a result of his firm belief that every player within the club, from the various youth sides to the first team, should all train and play the same way. By doing so, it ensured a seamless transition as players progressed through the various ranks and, more importantly, laid the foundations for the same footballing ethos throughout the club.

Reynold’s vision to build long term success with Ajax came to fruition in the 1916/17 season, as the team gained promotion to the Eerste Klasse as winners of their division. As champions of West 1, Ajax avoided a playoff due to the agreed expansion of the first division prior to the 1917/18 season.

The start of a dynasty

Now back in the top division, Reynolds drilled his side to perfection in order to avoid the club being relegated like in the years before his arrival. Another division title followed as Ajax now had the opportunity to play for the 1917/18 National championship, for the first time in their history.

Waiting in the final was Willem II, who had been the National Champions in 1916, so had an edge on their rivals in experience. Ahead of what was the most important game to date in the club’s history, Ajax would be without their first star player, Jan de Natris. The player ended up missing the train to Tilburg, where the final was to be played, so opted to stay in Amsterdam. This act resulted in him receiving a fine of 10 cents.

Ajax went on to beat Willem II 3-0, to become the National Champions for the first time. The innovative English coach had taken this amateur Dutch side from occasional division champions to the champions of the Netherlands. Furthermore, he led his side to the KNVB Dutch cup by beating VSV Velsen 5-0.

Historical feat

The following season saw Reynolds lead his side to another national championship, again without de Natris. This time, the player was banned for 6 months for reasons unknown but this did not stop Ajax from making history. In what went on to be another first, Ajax would regain their division title alongside the national championship in unbeaten fashion. The English coach’s innovative footballing philosophy had now caught the attention of those in the Netherlands and around Europe as no one had ever won the Dutch First Division undefeated.

To show how impressive this achievement was, the next time this feat was repeated in the Dutch league was 76 years later, in 1995, when Ajax again won the title without losing under Louis Van Gaal.

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The end of an era

Due to back to back success, Reynolds’ services saw him chosen by the Koninklijke Nederlandse Voetbalbond (Royal Dutch Football Association) to coach the national side in their first match post WWI. The Netherlands went on to win 3-1 against Sweden, further displaying the magic touch he possessed when it came to coaching his sides.

Despite back to back titles, one being an unbeaten season, further national success eluded Ajax due to conflict behind the scenes at the club. For the next 6 years, Reynolds and the board had many disagreements with the direction the club should take, with the Englishman wishing to further integrate his philosophy to make Ajax a power in Europe. These disagreements came to a head at the end of the 1924/25 season, with Reynolds deciding to resign as coach of the club.

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The Englishman was not alone in leaving Ajax, as de Natris decided to call time on his tenure at the club by joining Vitesse Arnhem. Dutch club FC Blauw-Wit Amsterdam decided to acquire Reynolds’ services in the hopes he could take the club to the next level, as he did their city rivals.

Filling the void left by their innovative coach saw Ajax look to two fellow Englishmen; Harold Rose and Stanley Castle. The latter led Ajax to back to back divisional titles in his two years at the helm, however, national success still eluded the club in the post-Jack Reynolds era. Castle then led Ajax to a third place finish in 1926/27 and a runners-up place in the 1927/28 national championship.

Across the city, success did not follow Reynolds in his three years with Blauw-Wit, due to his heart not being in the project as, deep down, he truly missed his beloved Ajax.

Rebuilding Ajax

With a growing desire to return to the side he transformed from just another Dutch club to the most famous club in the Netherlands, Reynolds reached out to Ajax at the end of the 1927/28 season. Despite decent success with the club, Castle found his time was up as soon as Reynolds contacted Ajax, as how could they resist?

Contrary to 1925, Reynolds was not alone in his return to the club as he was joined by de Natris in being welcomed back to the Amsterdam club. After 4 seasons with Vitesse Arnhem, he felt the time was right to come back to where he became a star, but at 33 years of age, he was nowhere near the player he once was.

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The 1928/29 season saw him make a total of 8 appearances with only two goals to his name, before deciding to call time on his illustrious career and retire from the game. It was no surprise to those at the time of de Natris’s lack of involvement, as Reynolds was in the process of rebuilding an aging side around two key players.

Midfielder, Willem ‘Wim’ Anderiesen and goalscorer Piet van Reenen were the players Reynolds saw as the nucleus of his new Ajax side. In Anderiesen, Ajax had the holder of the pre-war Dutch international appearances record with 46 caps and in van Reenen, a goal machine. To this day van Reenen is the all time leading goalscorer for Ajax with 278 goals in 240 matches, averaging a goal a game in the nine straight seasons where he was the top scorer at the club.

The ‘Golden Age’ of Ajax

As with any rebuilding of a team, time was needed in order for Reynolds to impart his footballing philosophy on a new squad of players. The 1928/29 and 1929/30 seasons were not successful for him and Ajax, but instead, allowed the Englishman to build a side that could not only win the national championship once again but dominate it for years to come.

The 1928/29 season in particular got off to a very dismal start for Ajax, with the team on only one point from their first five games of the season. Like his first spell in charge, Reynolds decided to implement his philosophy of having every player learn to play numerous positions. This dismal start resulted in him shuffling the team slightly by moving some players to new positions, in what was seen as a revolutionary move.

These slight changes went on to improve Ajax’s fortunes in the second half of the season, with the side climbing from joint bottom of their division to four points above the relegation places.

It was not until the following season, in the 1930/31 season, that Reynolds’ genius in this positioning tactics came to fruition, as he led Ajax back to the top of Dutch football, claiming the national title by four points in the Championship play-off table. 1931, in particular, saw Ajax record what is still their biggest victory in a competitive match to date with a 17-0 win over VUC.

Four more national championships followed in 1931/32, 1933/34, 1936/37 and 1938/39 alongside a few cups and eight regional titles, in what many at the time called the ‘Golden Age’ of Ajax. Only due to growing competition by newly settled clubs such as Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven, did Ajax not win more than was expected. However, this era gave birth to rivalries that are still prominent in the Dutch Eredivisie today.

Second World War

On September 1st, 1939 saw the Second World War break out in Europe, with football fixtures in most countries coming to a halt. Despite the mobilisation of troops and tanks throughout the streets of the Netherlands, the Dutch league continued, but constant disruptions to the league meant it was eventually deemed ‘unofficial’.

By the end of the 1939/40 season, the Netherlands found itself under the occupation of the German Nazi forces. This change in occupation saw things change drastically for not only the league, but also for Reynolds himself, as he was arrested in June 1940 as a prisoner of war due to his nationality. Once arrested, he was sent to a prisoner camp in Schoorl, on the North Sea coast of the Netherlands, where he remained until September 1940.

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From here, Reynolds was transferred to a labour camp in Tost, Poland, where he ended up becoming involved in the arrangement of ‘international’ football games between the various foreign groups of fellow prisoners in the camp. Despite being a prisoner of war, Reynolds was treated fairly well and was allowed to correspond with his coaches at Ajax via mail and his ‘Tactical Tips’ column that appeared in the club’s monthly magazine.

It was not until 1944 when Russian forces advance into Poland, that Reynolds and many other POWs were transferred to various other labour camps. He was sent to a camp in the fortified region of Belfort, along the River Rhine. Imprisonment at this secluded camp, saw Reynolds find himself amongst a group of POWs involved in a prisoner exchange with the Germans in December 1944.

Return to Ajax and Retirement

Now a free man, Reynolds returned to his home town of Bury, Manchester at the end of 1944, before boarding a boat to sail back to his second home, Amsterdam. Upon his return to the Netherlands in October 1945, with the war now over, the English coach was greeted by a huge contingent from Ajax who could not wait to re-install him as their coach once again.

The 1945/46 season saw Ajax win another divisional title in the West I and come second in the national championship play-off, missing out on the national title by one point. Not until the following season did Reynolds lead Ajax to his and the club’s eighth national championship. This eighth national title would go along with the 13 titles won by the English coach in his 24 years at the club. This season proved to be Jack Reynolds’ final one coaching the Amsterdam giants besides a brief return to help his replacement, Bob Smith, in October 1947. However, this was not enough for the sixty-six year old to return to the club full time.

In retirement, Reynolds remained in Amsterdam where he ran a cigar/tobacconist shop. As a famous figure around the city, the former coach was still found wearing his famous bowler hat that was synonymous with him during his tenure on the sidelines.

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As a thank you for his 24 years of service and commitment to the club, Ajax rewarded Reynolds with a lifetime membership to the club and a testimonial match against De Zwaluwen in June 1948.

John Reynolds passed away on the 8th of November 1962, at the age of eighty-one years old. He was buried in the city that had been his home for just over fifty years.


In honour of the man who paved the road for the club’s success both domestically and internationally, Ajax named a stand after him at their De Meer ground, which they moved to in 1934 during Reynolds’ time with the club.

Even today, at their more recent home of the Amsterdam Arena, the club’s innovative English coach is honoured with a lobby and lounge area named after him as a sign of keeping the man’s legacy alive.

However, it is not only off the pitch where Jack Reynold’s legacy has been honoured as one of his youth products, Rinus Michels, would take the foundation built by the English coach and project it to the world in the form of ‘Total Football’. Michels credits a lot of the concepts he enhanced to Reynolds and the principles he brought to the Ajax.

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One other area that still reflects the impact Reynolds had on not only Ajax but world football, is seen in the list of graduates from Ajax’s youth academy in the years since its inception under the English coach. Players such as the great Johan Cruyff, Rinus Michels, Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten, Edgar Davids and Clarence Seedorf have all been reaped the rewards of Ajax’s integrated academy system.

These ideas of ‘Total Football’ and continuous academy to first team style of play, have spread with these Ajax graduates to many clubs throughout Europe, before gracing the world stage in the form of the famous 1974 Netherlands World Cup side.

Many today will have not heard of Jack Reynolds, the Englishman who took an amateur Dutch club and built the foundations that has made them the European power they are today….but they should.