Football: Ajax culture versus Wilkinson's way

Norman Fox finds the FA's dream for youth training cuts little ice in Holland
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The Independent Online
BRITISH football clubs who have long wanted to take the coaching of potential stars out of the hands of amateurs, well-meaning teachers and parents will soon have the chance. But when, last week, they sent delegates to a seminar in Warwickshire to discuss the club-run football academies which begin this year, they ended up listening to the coach in charge of youth development at Ajax unwittingly but controversially casting doubts on many of their plans.

Hans Westerhof, whose videos of eight-year-olds weaving magic on the Ajax training grounds had the delegates gasping, said he had nothing against youngsters always playing on full-size pitches. That goes against FA policy, which wants to ease the physical strain on young players. He said Ajax imposed no limit on the number of matches children from the age of eight could play. The FA want a maximum of 30. Youngsters coached by Ajax are also put into competition against players two years older, another activity frowned upon in Britain.

Most disconcerting of all, Westerhof said that the expressive joys of Total Football had been superseded at Ajax by a rigid zonal style. It was as if the ball game had gone full circle and England should be re- employing pre-Johan Cruyff tactics. But the facts are that only a fortnight ago the set-in-stone Ajax system was turned over by Spartak Moscow in a Uefa Cup quarter-final, and that despite the famous youth system, which produced, among others, Cruyff, Bergkamp, Kluivert and Davids, there is now a need to import players.

Howard Wilkinson, the FA's technical director who called for the seminar in advance of the opening of the academies which will replace the FA National School at Lilleshall, quickly pointed out that Westerhof's views are questioned even in his own country. Yet with Ajax such an enduring power in European football and a source of great talent, Westerhof has to be taken seriously. Many of his revelations about "the Ajax culture" staggered some of the most experienced coaches in Britain. "When we look at, say, a seven or eight-year-old," he said, "we look only for speed. We say, 'not fast - no chance'. So we only ever scout for attackers, the fast players. All of our present defenders started out as attackers. We are not interested in slow players even if they think quickly."

From the age of eight, when the youngsters first come into regular weekly contact with Ajax, they are trained in what Westerhof called "house style", and parents are forbidden from touchline "coaching", in Britain often a euphemism for foul-mouthed drivel. He said: "It doesn't matter about changes of manager or other changes at the club, the house style remains. So a young player knows that the position in which he begins his career will almost certainly remain until he leaves the club." The tactical style is based on having a libero ahead of the back three. Each player knows his area of responsibility and has spent years of training linking with the player in the adjoining zone.

"Yes, naturally, we have players who sometimes say they want to do something different, like Brian Roy and Marc Overmars, but we just say 'If you want to play like that - play it at another club.'"

Westerhof admits that once the players reach 18 "some will want to rebel against the system and the discipline". He suggests, though, that the temptations for teenagers to accept offers from other clubs are not great. "The thing about being taken on by Ajax is that you become someone, in your family and in your street. But you also become someone other clubs know must be talented to have come all the way through the system. But we in Holland have a gentleman's agreement about poaching. It works, but I understand that it would be difficult in England. In fact, the clubs that have been trying hardest to poach our young players have been from your Premier division."

The prolonged "apprenticeship" obviously works for Ajax. Of all the youngsters who come under their coaching at eight and remain until they are 12, 90 per cent continue to be with the club until they are 18, although care in selection is the main reason. Each of their age-group squads has only 16 members. Their "talent days", when children from all over Holland are invited to show their skills, emphasise how tough it is to get accepted by the club. On one recent weekend 2,640 attempted to make an impression - four were accepted.