Pete Jenson: Ajax have fallen short in the Champions League again – will they ever rejoin the elite?

A DIFFERENT LEAGUE: Ajax used to lose players when they were 25 or 26 but now it happens when they are still teenagers

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The Independent Online

Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” will play out over the loudspeakers at the Amsterdam Arena in two weeks’ time when Ajax play their final Champions League group game against Apoel Nicosia.

As is traditional, the volume will be muted, and then 50,000 people will sing along to “every little thing gonna be all right”. As anthems go it beats the Uefa theme and it sums up the optimism that, in the face of another Champions League group-stage elimination, Ajax will one day make it back to the latter stages of the competition they have won four times.

“We have to be creative in the face of far wealthier rivals,” I was told at the club’s  De Toekomst (Dutch for “the future”) training ground after their last Champions League home game against Barcelona.

The drive to innovate never dies. Every six weeks coaches in the Ajax youth system are rotated so that each group of players from the Under-7s through to the Under-19s gets a new pair of eyes watching their progress.

The individual teams have fixed coaches but these additional floating coaches switch age groups so that young players’ growth cannot be stunted by getting on the wrong side of one particular individual.

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Ousaim Buoy (right) left Ajax for Juventus in 2012 but has played just once for his new club

It also helps the coaches as they adjust to the needs of different age groups, and takes away the emphasis on winning matches. If a coach only has the team for six weeks he can concentrate on improving players, not looking for results.

There are also position-specific coaches, with former Nottingham Forest striker Bryan Roy a former player now back at the club. And professionals from other sporting disciplines hold workshops – a martial arts champion lecturing on agility, or a pole-vaulter teaching spring techniques.

When will the invention get a Champions League knockout-stage reward, though? It will not be this season and along with their place in the last 16 they have just lost  16-year-old attacking midfielder Mink Peeters to Real Madrid. They could receive as little as €60,000 (£47,500) for the three seasons they coached him.

It is a wonder they do not lose the desire to invest in the future which saw them recently spend €12m (£9.5m) on remodelling their 12-pitch training centre with its covered pitch, swimming pool and sports laboratory.

They used to lose players when they were 25 or 26 but now it happens when they are still teenagers. Could Uefa do more? They might cap clubs’ freedom to buy up the best young players and then spend the next five years loaning them out.

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Talented teen Ricardo Kishna

Ajax lost 21-year-old midfielder Ouasim Bouy to Juventus in January 2012 on a free transfer after three years at De Toekomst and he has since been loaned out to three different clubs in three different countries and only played once for Juventus.

An increase in homegrown player quotas would also help, as would seeding teams who have won their leagues to give the Dutch champions an easier group.

The current crop is promising. Jaïro Riedewald, Stefano Denswil, Anwar El Ghazi, Ricardo Kishna, Davy Klaassen and Lucas Andersen have all been involved in this campaign and are all 21 or under. They just need to be convinced to stick together.

Coach Frank de Boer sets the example, now in his seventh year at the club. If he does leave, assistant Dennis Bergkamp is well-placed to take over, although he would need a No 2 to take the team long distance in European competition, because his fear of flying remains as strong as ever.

De Boer took over as coach in 2010-11, the season when Luis Suarez left to join Liverpool. He is another player they would like to have kept for longer.

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Ajax manager Frank de Boer

In his recently published autobiography Crossing the Line, Suarez says that his spell at the club was his “defining era”, writing: “I had always played with the accelerator pressed to the floor and I learned to put the brakes on and to read the game much better. Joining them was the best footballing decision I ever made.”

It would be nice to see an institution in European football that has been one of the game’s great educators stay in the Champions League beyond December, or at least be given a more even playing field to compete on.

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