Sunday 18 August 2019

'We look at kids differently, we believe in youth' - De Boer

The 'Ajax way' is paying off again, their U-19 coach tells Luke Edwards

De Boer concern: ‘I do worry that this team will be broken up in the summer. It’s almost inevitable’. Photo: Getty Images
De Boer concern: ‘I do worry that this team will be broken up in the summer. It’s almost inevitable’. Photo: Getty Images

Luke Edwards

Ronald de Boer is pondering the question, what turns a promising young footballer into an Ajax player? There is a pause, a slight hesitancy at the risk the language might offend, but he decides to deliver it anyway.

"For me, an Ajax player is someone good technically, with good game awareness and, most importantly, someone with, how do you say, balls...

"They have to be strong mentally, brave, not be scared of making mistakes. That is what makes an Ajax player."

It is a description that sounds particularly delicious in De Boer's deep Dutch accent, but it is not said with a smile.

Ajax take the development of their young players extremely seriously, perhaps placing more emphasis on their academy than any other big club in Europe. It is more than a business model - it is the Ajax way.

Yet, it is also born of necessity. Ajax of Amsterdam remain one of football's more glamorous names, a club with a proud history, but they have had to adapt in a new commercial world.

Success

It makes their success in the Champions League the feel-good story of this campaign.

To put things into perspective, Ajax's annual wage bill, according to their most recent accounts, was just £46.6 million (€54m) - less than Aston Villa, Cardiff City, Middlesbrough and Wolves when they were in the Championship last season.

It is also around £6m (€7m) a year less than Celtic, a club of similar size and stature. Ajax focus on youth development because they must.

"There is no single reason why we are so good at producing our own players," says De Boer, who plays a significant role in nurturing the next generation of young players as Ajax U-19s coach.

"Broadly speaking it is because we look at kids differently, perhaps we train them a little differently, too.

"More importantly, we believe in our youth. We will always give them an opportunity, that's crucial. You never know how good a player can be until you give them a chance in the first team.

"We know in Holland we cannot compete financially with the bigger clubs in Europe.

"The default view is that it is better to look to one of our own than someone from outside.

"Often, when we scout players, we decide we already have a young kid who is as good or who, with the right handling, has the potential to be even better. That is the Ajax way.

"Why buy a player when you can produce your own? The way the market is now, I don't think you will ever see Ajax spending a lot of money on big stars again.

"The problem we have is that, as soon as they play two good seasons, or even one good season, they are gone. The bigger clubs watch us closely. But our model remains the same, if we fear we are going to lose a player, we look at our academy and we identify the best player coming through who can step in."

Ajax have already agreed to sell their best midfielder, 21-year-old Holland international Frenkie de Jong, to Barcelona at the end of the season for around £65m (€75m).

Others will follow. Every wealthy club in Europe are looking at the team who stunned Real Madrid, winning 4-1 in the Bernabeu last month, having narrowly lost 2-1 to the reigning champions in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

In both games, Ajax played a high-octane, hard-running, fast-passing style that overwhelmed Real's band of ageing stars.

It was exhilarating and, as De Boer explains, brave because they are a team designed to attack rather than defend and counter.

It is a style fine-tuned at every stage of their development.

Even if they beat Juventus in the quarter-final, everyone in the Dutch capital tomorrow night fears what happens next.

At the very least, classy ball-playing defender Matthijs de Ligt will depart to the highest bidder - there is a not better 19-year-old playing regularly anywhere in the world.

"What is so great about this team, they are a proper Ajax team, they all have balls," says De Boer.

"Even in the first leg against Real Madrid, they were superb, they did not get the result they deserved.

"It takes a lot of bravery to play like that against the European champions. There was no fear.

"In the second game, they got what they deserved. It was a great result achieved in the best Ajax style.

"I do worry this team will be broken up in the summer. Of course, it is similar to the Monaco side who reached the semi-finals a few years ago. It's inevitable."

De Boer does not sound sad. Instead, he sounds proud of what the club he played for 224 times, before moving on to Barcelona and Rangers, strives to do.

Nevertheless, he recognises this team have failed to win silverware, domestically or in Europe.

Barometer

That is the true barometer of success. It makes this season - in which they currently lead the Eredivisie on goal difference - before more stars are poached, feel like a now or never moment.

"The supporters, it is frustrating for them also," adds De Boer.

"But they understand. It would be great if we could keep this side together, for three or four seasons and see what they could win. That is the thing missing, they have not won any trophies.

"I don't think it is a wild statement to say Ajax will not win the Champions League. I hope I'm wrong, I really do. It would be a great achievement to reach the final four by beating Juventus.

"Having said that, it has been a long time since an Ajax side were in the quarter-finals of this competition, so you never know."

Most neutrals will want them to beat Juventus, to reward their faith in youth, to prolong the uplifting story, but it is probably best to just enjoy this Ajax team while we can.

Telegraph.co.uk

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