Monday 18 March 2019

Blind won't be compromised by Ajax family ties

Daley Blind
Daley Blind

Sam Wallace

Daley Blind was five years old when his father, Danny, in the autumn of his career, was captain of that famous Ajax team who won the 1995 Champions League under Louis van Gaal, completing the hat-trick of what were once the three great European trophies.

Danny had already won the European Cup Winners' Cup with Ajax in 1987 and then five years later the Uefa Cup, the modern descendant of which Daley hopes will be his first when he starts for Manchester United in the Europa League final against Ajax on Wednesday.

The 27-year-old Dutchman has 44 caps for his country, he has overcome the doubts that plagued the earlier part of his career, and now finds himself up against the club of his family's life.

You could say that Daley has played in bigger games - the 2014 World Cup semi-final against Argentina for instance - but there are few that have the potential to be more emotive for an Amsterdam boy who was brought up in the heart of Ajax. The son of a famous player, then an Ajax academy boy who was loaned out, brought back and booed by his own fans before establishing himself. He was voted the Dutch league's best player three years ago and earned a move to United as a consequence.

It is because of the connection with Ajax that Blind wants to be explicit about his feelings around the game. Yes, Ajax were the team of his first 24 years but he says, come kick-off in Stockholm, it will not matter who he is playing. He only wants to win - and, for the record, when we meet at the club's Carrington training ground, he says Danny, who has been player, manager and technical director at Ajax, will be supporting his son's team too.

"Of course everybody knows I support Ajax, I am from Amsterdam," Daley says.

"I played there since I was seven, everyone will understand that Ajax is in my heart. But on Wednesday night I am not Ajax. I am at United, I am a Red and I want to win the final more than anything in the world. There is only one thing that counts and that is winning the final."

Blind has been through a battle this season already to establish himself in the United team under Jose Mourinho and it would be right to say that if there were not so many injuries at centre-back - as well as Eric Bailly's suspension - then the Dutchman would be on the bench. He played 56 games under Van Gaal last season and is irritated at the perception he would not be Mourinho's type, pointing out that he has always done everything possible to justify a place in the team.

Blind has been through more difficult times at Ajax as a teenager when he experienced what might best be described as the Frank Lampard-West Ham syndrome. In short, he had a famous father who had played for the club and was subsequently on the staff, which rankled with a sceptical support base who felt they could detect favouritism towards a young player. In the past Blind has described it as a "shitty period" in his life, when he sought out help from a psychiatrist.

"When I started with the first team everything went well, then I had a period where it was a bit more difficult for me," he recalls. "I went on loan [to Groningen], came back stronger, then I had a hard time as well and fought my way back into the team. Ronald de Boer, the manager, showed a lot of faith in me, helped me a lot and I developed as a person and as a player. I tried to do my best in every training session and game and this is where I am now. I am very proud of that."

Will his progress have surprised a few at Ajax? "I think there are a few, yeah. No hard feelings towards them. I am just happy that I'm showing the talent I have and learning and playing better and better. I'm still hoping to get better every day or every game. That is special and if I stop now and look at it and think about it I am proud to play for a club like Manchester United.

"I felt a lot of love from the Ajax fans as well in recent years - it [the scepticism] was only for a small period. I think I got their support in the end, and that felt great. I came here and I felt the support from the fans as well, and I think that is one of the best feelings in the world . . . if you look at Lampard, he won a lot of trophies, so I can only hope for that."

He has watched the tape of the 1995 final so many times that, in his own words he sometimes sees the game in his dreams.

There is also another man who will play in that game on Wednesday for whom the 1995 Champions League final was a major family event. Ajax's 18-year-old winger Justin Kluivert was not born until 1999 but the winning goal against AC Milan that night was scored by his father Patrick, then just 18 and set to emerge as one of Europe's finest strikers.

"Of course I spoke to my dad about it, and it is very special to play in a European final," Blind says. "Not a lot of players reach that in their career, maybe once, but it is something you will never forget. This is what you fight for as a player - to win trophies, to play big games, and this is one of them. I know Justin a little bit, not really well, but it will be a little bit special when we see each other on the pitch. It is special to our dads as well."

He knows some of the players from his years at Ajax, and he is aware that Peter Bosz, the Ajax manager, is already framing this game as a clash between the relatively humble Dutch side and the English super club who are under severe pressure to secure a place in the Champions League next season. It is that final part of the equation that looms over everything at United these next three days "We are not really thinking about that," Blind says. "We have to take responsibility in the game and do everything we must to win because it is a final. You can't underestimate any team you play against, because it is not easy to reach a European final.

"We fight here as well and there is only one thing in everyone's mind, which is it is a final we want to win... we have to make sure that we are fully prepared and give everything we have got for the last time this season."

Blind says it is "too easy" to proclaim Ajax as the underdogs, although that is what they are. He will know better than anyone the spirit of a club that has always had to sell its players to more powerful European rivals, himself included - and all but one of that 1995 team.

The one who remained was his father who, having signed in 1986, stayed for the rest of his career and will find himself in the unusual position on Wednesday night of hoping Ajax do not come out on top.

As his son Daley puts it for both of them: "There are two clubs for me, but on Wednesday there is just one club."


The Throw-In: Dublin's issues, Corofin's greatness and Waterford's quiet development

In association with Allianz

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport