The other Johan: The Neeskens story – part one

Johan Neeskens

The name ‘Johan’ is one that is mainly synonymous with one man; Johan Cruyff. The Dutchman is seen as the man who revolutionised the game of football as both a player and a coach, with his tactics being implemented at the highest level even to this day. However, there is one other whose impact on the game cannot be ignored along with his role in the story of the Dutch Revolution of the 1970’s and his name is Johan Neeskens.

Early Beginnings and Ajax

Johannes Jacobus ‘Johan’ Neeskens was born on the 15th September 1951, in the town of Heemstede located in the province of North Holland near Haarlam. With an immediate love of the game growing up, the Dutchman was scouted to play for his hometown side Racing Club Heemstede in 1968. Heemstede were in the First Division (Level 2) and wasted little time in impressing with his physicality off the ball and elegance on it.

Despite only scoring two goals in his 56 appearances, over two seasons, for the club, Neeskens’ talent caught the eye of Dutch coach Rinus Michels. Michels was head coach at Dutch giants Ajax, who had lost 4-1 in the final of the European Cup against Italian side AC Milan, at the Bernabéu, in a very naive manner. With Michel’s philosophy of Totaalvoetbal (Total Football) leading Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles from 1965-1970, the innovative coach knew that if his side were to win games like this, then they needed to be much stronger in the midfield.

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At the time, Ajax’s midfield consisted of two ageing veterans in Ton Pronk and Henk Groot in a 4-2-4 formation but Michels desire to lead the club to European Cup glory meant changes had to be made. Firstly, a formation change to the now famous 4-3-3 allowed the coach to create more stability throughout the side but now the personnel needed to be recruited in.

The search for tough midfielders began, players who were tough and ‘hard as nails’ with some street cred to go with it. Michels stated:


In the summer of 1970, such a player was to arrive in the form of 19-year-old Neeskens.

The missing link to the promised land

Initially, upon signing for Ajax, Neeskens was deployed as a right-back in a back four that already consisted of club captain Velibor Vasović, Barry Hulshoff and Wim Suurbier. Despite his lack of experience at the top level, the Dutchman’s unique abilities made him an immediate starter and in his first season, he managed six assists but no goals in 33 appearances.

At right-back, Neesken’s ferociousness and tenacity in duels made him the ideal partner for Ajax’s Serbian ‘sweeping’ centre-back Velibor Vasović on the right-hand side of the defence. The youngster’s eagerness to press high up on his opponents allowed Michels to implement his functional offside trap, whilst being covered by the versatile Vasović should the ball make it past Neeskens, which was very rare.

In his first season, Ajax went on to finish second in the Eredivisie, four points behind winners Feyenoord, but managed to only concede 20 goals in 34 appearances which was second only to FC Twente, who conceded 18.

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Despite not being crowned champions in their homeland, Michels led Ajax to their second European Cup final in three years with their opponents coming in the form of Greek champions Panathinaikos.

With victory eluding them two years prior in Madrid, many felt the time had now come for Ajax to enter the promised land and that they had found the missing piece of the puzzle in the form of Neeskens. The youngster showed little sign of nerves as he played an integral role in his side going on to win 2-0 against Panathinaikos at the old Wembley, in June 1971, to finally reach the pinnacle of European football.

Michels had achieved his goal of showing that the philosophy, passed down to him by Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham, could prevail at the top level but all he needed was that missing grit, which Neeskens provided.

The first of his kind

Now, having tasted success at the top level, Michels felt his side could become even better and felt his dynamic right-back was the key. Neeskens’ unrelenting running ability saw Michels push him further up the pitch in order to utilise the Dutchman’s instinct to close down his opponents and hurry them into errors.

The decision paid off, as the midfielder slotted in alongside fellow international teammates Arie Haan and Gerrie Mühren but was seen as more of the catalyst in moving the team further up the pitch. His continuous closing down of the play made him the start of the attack in order to capitalise on the space behind the opponent, a very important cog in the ‘Total Football’ machine Michels was building.

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Ajax historian Menno Pot describes Neesken’s style as a player whilst at the club:

“he had the lungs of a horse, an unbelievable runner, he was very physical and notorious for being a bit of a thug. he also had great skill and was a very intelligent midfielder who could score a goal”.

Now in midfield, it is safe to say that Neeskens made quite the impact as many of his teammates and staff saw him as the ‘destroyer’; tasked with stopping any flow the opposition had and starting his own team off on the front foot. Then assistant manager at the time, Bobby Haarms, described the midfielder as a “kamikaze pilot” after his impressive display in Ajax’s 1-0 semi-final 1st leg win over Benfica, in the 1971/72 European Cup.

Further compliments followed in the form of teammate, and Ajax legend, Sjaak Swart who once joked that Neeskens could “play for two in midfield” during their time together from 1970-73. To many, this was true, as the Dutchman was seen as the first real box-to-box midfielder before the term was coined.

The chains are off

Having achieved the pinnacle of European success, Michels felt the time was right for a new challenge so decided to leave for Spanish side Barcelona, mid-way through the 1971/72 season. The Dutch coach left the club after winning four Eredivisie titles and three KNVB cups alongside the single European trophy, as well as a philosophy of play that was to become the foundations that the club was to be built upon.

In his place, Ajax hired Romanian coach Ştefan Kovács to be the man that was tasked with continuing the Dutch coach’s Total Football ideas. Under former Steaua Bucureşti coach Kovács, Ajax not only continued where they left off but surpassed it, and in some style, due to the Romanian coach’s decision to let his side play with more freedom than ever.

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One player in particular that embraced this style was none other than Neeskens, who continued the role of enforcer in the middle of the pitch but enhanced his game further by now adding goals. In the 1971/72 season, the Dutchman contributed 10 goals in his twenty-eight appearances and became a specialist at dead ball situations. Even with the great Johan Cruyff in the side, it was Neeskens who was tasked with the responsibilities from the penalty spot.

In his first season, Kovács led the Dutch club to their first Eredivisie title since the 1969/70 season and during this campaign the side scored 104 goals, conceding only twenty in the process to finish eight points clear. These impressive stats can be attributed to the relentless machine Ajax had now become, but also to Neeskens in particular who was the catalyst for both the attack and the protection in front of the back four.

European dominance

This dominance under Kovács continued into Europe as well, as the de Godenzonen swept aside teams such as Dynamo Dresden, Marseille, Arsenal and Benfica with ease, to book their place in a second consecutive European Cup final. One performance in particular, captivated the importance of Neeskens to the side, as it was his displays over the two legs in the semi-final that stole the show that game with his ability to make the great Eusébio fade into the background.

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In the final Ajax’s opponents were Italian giants, and previous back-to-back winners, Inter Milan who had finished the Serie A season in a disappointing 5th place. With the stage now set in front of 61,354 fans at the De Kuip stadium, in Rotterdam, this classic encounter commenced.

The match is seen by many as the greatest display of the Total Football philosophy as the Dutch side dominated the ball for the majority of the match, with Neeskens at the heart of every play. Despite being up against an Italian side drilled in the art of catenaccio (the ‘door bolt’ strategy), Ajax’s style paid off as none other than Johan Cruyff opened the scoring just after half-time. A second goal from the talisman, 12 minutes from time, secured a hard-fought victory for the Dutch side against a very stubborn Inter side and a back-to-back European cup.

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The following season saw the Dutch side dismantle more impressive sides such as CSKA Sofia, Bayern Münich and Real Madrid on their road to another final, in the then Yugoslavia this time. Here, another Italian side awaited them but this time in the form of the ‘Old Lady’, Juventus, who were looking to win their first-ever European title.

This time the contest was a much tighter affair, even though Ajax opened the scoring in the 8th minute through Johnny Rep, whose goal turned out to be the winner. Ajax had now become only the second side to win the cup three times in a row, the other being the Real Madrid side of the ’50s, which allowed them to keep the trophy permanently.

Ying and yang

With his presence proving to be Ajax’s missing piece of the puzzle to get to the pinnacle of European football, Neeskens also proved to be a key figure in allowing the club’s talisman Johan Cruyff to flourish further. During their 3 years together, the two complimented each other immensely despite being polar opposites, like Yin and Yang; Cruyff was Yang, the embodiment of the beauty in the game but he was short, thin and quite fragile, whereas Neeskens was the Yin was a warrior who always had the striker’s back.

Ajax historian Menno Pot describes the differences between the two superstars on the pitch:


The contrast between the two was also seen and experienced by their respective teammates, with animosity growing towards Cruyff. This growing tension came as a result of the striker making a documentary about himself, which further fuelled the ideas shared amongst most of the team that he got most of the attention at the club.

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In contrast, there was one man who kept to himself and whom no one ever confronted or fell out with, out of respect, and that man was Neeskens. The midfielder’s ability to do the hard graft for the team, in combination with him not having much of an ego, meant he was held in high regard amongst his teammates.

The bond between both Cruyff and Neeskens not only resonated for their club side, but for the national team as well, despite their respective debuts being four years apart. Similar to his start with Ajax, Neeskens made his debut for the Oranje in 1970 against East Germany and became a household name for them thereafter.

To be continued!

(I would like to thank Ajax historian Menno Pot and Barcelona journalist, and lifelong fan, Frederic Porta for allowing me to interview them and for the information they have provided so this series could be written.)