Watching highlights of Ajax’s brilliant win over Juventus on Tuesday night brought back memories of a warm summer’s evening in 1996 at Tolka Park. The Amsterdam club’s famed youth academy was in town to take on the club formerly known as Home Farm Everton. There was a good crowd there that night as Irish football fans attempted to catch a glimpse of future European stars.
It was all part of our wider love affair with Dutch soccer at the time after we had been outclassed at Anfield the year before in a Euro ‘96 play-off. Ajax were by that stage the reigning European champions and looked set to defend their crown against Italian champions and last Tuesday’s opponents, Juventus, later that month in Rome.
That night in Tolka, the young Ajax stars passed in mesmerising triangles as Home Farm Everton chased shadows. At the full-time whistle supporters young and old ran onto the pitch to get autographs and photographs with the Dutch players in the belief that they too would go on to become European champions. It wasn’t to be for that crop of youngsters however, and defeat to Juventus would ultimately signal the end of Ajax’s last great first team.
Despite underage success with Brian Kerr, our love affair with Dutch development would continue. In fact, our last two High Performance Directors have hailed from the Netherlands - Wim Koevermans and Ruud Doktor. So far, however, we have failed to produce a Dennis Bergkamp, Edgar Davids or even a Ronald de Boer.
Having worked as a coach at grassroots level in two countries which have followed a Dutch blueprint (Ireland and South Korea post-Guus Hiddink), serious doubts remain as to whether it’s the right plan for Irish soccer.
The Dutch model is based on wonderful academies such as Ajax which enable coaches to have daily contact with committed youth players. Here in Ireland coaches see players perhaps twice a week and soccer is way down the pecking order in some counties.
There are of course elements of the Dutch way which can be mimicked here but as we prepare to start on a clean slate in the boardroom perhaps it’s time to reevaluate where we are in terms of youth development too. A certain former Republic of Ireland manager might be a good place to start.