Ajax vs Liverpool: Remembering Cruyff, Shankly and the drama of 1966


Between the two clubs, Liverpool and Ajax have been champions of Europe 10 times. Remarkably, the teams have only met once in continental competition. The two-legged tie in 1966 contained enough incident to last a dozen games.

Ajax did not seem much of a threat when they were drawn against Liverpool in December of the year that England had won the Jules Rimet trophy. The Netherlands was a footballing backwater. The national side had not qualified for the World Cup since 1938 and their club teams had made scant impact on the international scene.

Bill Shankly’s men were battle-hardened in Europe. They had been knocked out of the European Cup semi-finals by Inter Milan in controversial circumstances two years earlier and lost in the Cup-Winners’ Cup final to Borussia Dortmund the pervious May. This was the season Shankly expected to conquer Europe.

The Scot is an iconic figure in the game’s history but Ajax had a coach whose stature outweighs even Shankly’s reputation. Rinus Michels had been in charge for little more than a year at De Meer Stadion and had turned a side that had been battling relegation into Dutch champions. He was in the early days of developing the concept that would become known as Total Football. Ajax were a team on an upward trajectory.

Unlike Liverpool. The first great Shankly team had just passed their peak but the Scot did not know that at the time. They were a little complacent, too, and had their minds on their next league fixture – Manchester United away three days later.

The game was moved from De Meer to the Olympic Stadium to accommodate the demand to see the English champions and on the day of the game a thick fog settled over Amsterdam. Even in the 1960s, everyone on both sides expected the match to be called off. Shankly, with one eye on Old Trafford, did not want the tie to be held over 24 hours until Thursday and favoured postponing the game until a later date. Antonio Sbardella, the Italian referee, decided to go ahead as scheduled because he could see both goals from the centre spot. The Liverpool manager could live with that. Until the kick-off.

In the murk the visiting side were chasing shadows. Ajax, with 19-year-old Johan Cruyff already a central figure, were a goal up within three minutes and had scored four by the half. At least travelling Kopites did not have to cover their eyes to avoid watching the horror show. Visibility was so bad that only those fans closest to the pitch could see any of the action.

When one of the Dutch players was injured and required treatment, Shankly sneaked on to the pitch to try and rally his team. He was able to pass on some instructions before the referee spotted him and demanded he leave the playing area.

Ajax, in their predominantly white kit, coped better in the conditions but even they lost track of what was happening.  Sjaak Swart, the Ajax, was heading down the tunnel at half-time after hearing the referee blow for the break but was stopped by a club official. The first half had not finished. The whistle had merely signalled that his side had just scored their fourth goal.

The crowd of more than 50,000 were delighted by Ajax’s 5-1 victory, although most heard about the goals by word of mouth. One of the ecstatic supporters was a 15-year-old Louis van Gaal, who was on the club’s books. Van Gaal sneaked into the ground after being unable to get a ticket. Everyone in Amsterdam seemed to claim to be present afterwards. De Mistwedstrijd – the fog game – went down in local legend.

While Van Gaal and his fellow fans celebrated after the final whistle, Shankly was full of his usual bluster. “I wasn’t too impressed with Ajax,” he said. “They got lucky. Next week in Liverpool we’ll beat them 7-0.” It was hard to be impressed with what he had not seen.

The second leg at Anfield was dramatic for different reasons. Galvanised by Shankly’s call to arms, the Kop was packed on another hazy night. Not long after kick off, hundreds of fans surged on to the pitchside track to escape a crush on the vast terrace. Some believed that a smoke bomb or firework caused the panic, although Peter Robinson, the club secretary, suggested that clouds of perspiration rising as steam from the clothes of supporters on a wet night was the reason for the incident. “People at the back couldn’t see and pressed forward,” Robinson said. “It sounds fantastic – but it has happened at big games here before.”

More than 150 people needed treatment and upwards of 30 were taken to hospital as the game continued. Shankly’s bravado in Amsterdam proved to be just that: Ajax led twice with two second-half goals from Cruyff in a match that ended as a 2-2 draw.

In mitigation for the great Liverpool manager, it was hard to gather information about foreign opposition 56 years ago. A scouting trip to watch a game or two before the tie was the best a manager could hope for and that provided limited intelligence. Few in European football were aware of Michels’ 4-2-4 tactics and that a player like the young Cruyff was emerging. Jurgen Klopp and his staff will have comprehensive dossiers and film about tonight’s opponents. It is unlikely Liverpool will be surprised by anything they encounter in the Johan Cruyff Arena.

Unless the fog settles in with a vengeance, that is. Klopp will be hoping for a clear, straightforward night in Amsterdam.  

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