The passing of the great Johan Cruyff has prompted genuine sadness among fans who grew up during his career, and with good reason. Those who had witnessed the man in his sumptuous pomp in the 1970s were forever captivated by the Dutchman’s glorious skills, and he provided formative football experiences for millions.
But Cruyff was a player who transcended the ages. While his style of play was very much identified with a certain time and place, he took his purist philosophy into his own years in management and his legacy is clear in the modern Barcelona he did so much to influence, and beyond. Yet Cruyff was also the inheritor of a fine footballing tradition - and one that had distant roots in Britain.
The label ‘Total Football’ was applied most conspicuously to the Dutch and Ajax sides of the 1970s, and for which Cruyff was the star exponent. The opening moments of the 1974 World Cup final between Holland and West Germany illustrated the lethal genius of the mode of play. From the kick off, amid a bewildering blur of players exchanging positions, the Dutch monopolised possession.
At the start of the move that led to the opening goal, Cruyff picked up the ball in his own half. The man who was nominally centre forward was the deepest Dutch outfield player, and after a series of passes, he set off on a run from the centre circle into the West German box. Unable to stop Cruyff by fair means, Uli Hoeness brought Cruyff down, conceding a penalty scored by Johan Neeskens. The first German to thus touch the ball was goalkeeper Sepp Maier picking the ball out of his own net. Total Football, indeed.
It was the style of play Cruyff had grown up with in the Ajax team he joined as a boy. Total Football was a system of ideals that prided movement, technique, flexibility, physical excellence, and supreme intelligence - individual and collective. In theory, every outfield player could switch to any outfield position, depending on the specific situation on the field of play.
At Ajax, an embryonic form of the approach had been pioneered by Jack Reynolds, the former Grimsby player who took over as the Amsterdam club’s coach in 1915. In 25 years with Ajax over three spells, Reynolds honed and finessed a theory and practice that gave birth to Total Football. One of the last players to learn at his feet was Rinus Michels, the man commonly identified as the coach who perfected the style both as Ajax and then Holland manager.
Michels was the sorcerer to Cruyff’s apprentice, with the student further developing Total Football and adapting it for the Barcelona sides he later managed to magnificent success, and which in turn inspired the all-conquering Spanish national side of the last decade and a host of contemporary coaches, including Pep Guardiola.
There were many other ingredients, connections and key figures that comprised the Total-Football mix. Jimmy Hogan, the former Burnley player whose coaching influence ranged across continental Europe is one, while the part played by the famous Hungarian post-war national sides managed by Gusztav Sebes, is clearly another.
There is another thread that extends even further back and pre-dates Reynolds and Hogan. One of Reynolds’ successors at Ajax was another Englishman, Vic Buckingham. He had taken West Brom to within a whisker of the league and cup double in 1954 before joining Ajax in 1959. In two spells with the club he won trophies using the Total Football method and gave Cruyff his Ajax debut, before handing over to Michels. Later Buckingham also successfully managed Barcelona, where Michels again succeeded him
Buckingham’s own footballing education had taken place with Tottenham Hotspur, for whom he played for seven years divided either side of World War Two. His contemporaries at White Hart Lane included Bill Nicholson, who would go on to become the North London club’s most successful manager playing a style not dissimilar to Total Football.
Both men were heavily influenced by Arthur Rowe, who had secured Tottenham’s first ever league title with a revolutionary style dubbed ‘push and run’. The two approaches placed great store by many of the qualities integral to Total Football, teamwork and possession chief among them.
The chain goes further back. Rowe had much of his footballing philosophy shaped by his previous experiences working in Hungary, where Hogan had been something of a coaching hero and had influenced Sebes. Rowe also played at Spurs under manager Peter McWilliam, a convincing candidate for the manager who defined the fabled ‘Spurs Way’.
McWilliam was a former Scotland international and Newcastle left-half who loved his players to express themselves. He did not over-burden them with tactical instruction, but that belied his own intelligence in team selection and identifying talent that suited his tactics.
McWilliam was one of those great Scotsman of the first half of the 20th century who did so much to help shape the British game. He was the inheritor of the tradition north of the border that favoured the passing game over the brute strength of the English amateur game deployed by the upper-class amateurs who first codified the sport.
McWilliam had a kindred spirit in another Tottenham predecessor in John Cameron, an innovative player-manager who signed technically accomplished footballers like fellow Ayrshire man and full-back Alexander Tait, born in the tiny pit village of Glenbuck, that was the birthplace of over 50 other professional including one Bill Shankly - another who placed great value on possession and technical skill rather than sheer physicality.
All of them owed a great debt to the pioneers of the Scottish passing game, Queen’s Park, who first realised the benefits of teammates passing the ball to each other in Glasgow in the 1860s.
Fast forward to October 1983 and a match under North London floodlights between Spurs and Feyenoord in the UEFA Cup. It’s a long time and distance away from Amsterdam and Catalonia, let alone Ayrshire. But on this night, Cruyff is being given the runaround by Tottenham’s Glenn Hoddle.
The Dutchman, playing as a sweeper for Feyenoord in the twilight of his career, had promised beforehand he could keep the English prodigy in check, but on the night Hoddle was unstoppable, orchestrating a 4-0 half time lead for Spurs.
Cruyff had the good grace to admit after the match finished 4-2 that “I was a shadow without any presence.” He had a way with words as well as his feet, and recognised quality when he came up against it because he had it himself in abundance, having learned from the coaching greats who in turn owed their talent to a long line of forbears, Britons among them. In the tributes to Cruyff he has been justifiably described as the father of modern football.
He sits in a family tree with many beautiful branches.