25 years later…Ajax’s ‘unbeaten double’ remains nonpareil

Vickey Maverick.
9 min readMay 24, 2020

There have been clubs that have won their respective leagues without losing a game, like The Invincibles of Arsenal (2003–04 season) and Juventus (2011–12). Then there have been clubs that have won the Champions League undefeated, such as FC Barcelona (2005–06) and Manchester United (2007–08).

However, no club has managed to match the Godenzonen’s incredible feat of winning both the domestic title and Champions League unbeaten in the same season.

Image courtesy Twitter (@vdsar1970)

“Why couldn’t you beat a richer club? I’ve never seen a bag of money score a goal.”

- Johan Cruyff

The legendary Dutchman’s words may seem a tad far-fetched in modern-day football where the rich and the “newly-rich clubs”, owned by those can’t-win-but-can-own types of consortiums/countries have been dominant in recent years, while the not so affluent ones either serve as space fillers or are at best capable of causing an upset or two.

However, over the years no club has proved Cruyff’s words right more than the one where he honed his skills. While the 2018–19 season is the most recent example of Ajax punching well above its weight, there was another season where the Amsterdam club surprised all, including themselves.

In 1994–95 De Godenzonen not only won the domestic title undefeated, but also did not lose a match en route to their maiden Champions League title — their fourth win overall in Europe’s top club competition. It has been 25 years since but Ajax’s feat remains unmatched.

Cruyff may have been a vociferous critic of the “militaristic way of working” of Louis van Gaal but fact is, the latter did achieve significant success in Amsterdam using his methods. And did it from the scratch, with little financial backing.

A somewhat surprise appointment Van Gaal took charge when the time wasn’t exactly conducive for Ajax. Leo Beenhakker, his predecessor, had managed to ensure a first league title in five seasons (1989–90) but it was rivals PSV who had emerged as the best Dutch club during the period, almost doubling their Eredivisie title count (to 13) with six titles between 1985 to 1993.

Besides, the Eindhoven club had also become the European champions in 1988. On the other hand despite winning Eredivisie title in 1990, Ajax didn’t qualify for the following European Cup. An incident during their opening round defeat to Austria Wien in the 1989–90 UEFA Cup, wherein the rival goalkeeper Franz Wohlfahrt was injured by a bar thrown by one Ajax fan, meant the Amsterdam side was banned from European competition for a year.

After Ajax failed to reclaim their domestic title in 1990–91, losing out on goal difference to PSV, Beenhakker left for a second stint with Real Madrid.

With Cruyff, who managed Ajax to two KNVB-Beker titles (1986 and 1987) and a European Cup Winners’ Cup trophy (1987), doing well at Barcelona there were calls from some quarters to get the club legend back at the helm of affairs. To compound matters, Van Gaal initially struggled to impose his philosophy.

While the Eredivisie was again conceded to PSV there was solace in form of a maiden UEFA Cup (Europa League) trophy, won on away goals over Italian side Torino. The triumph made Ajax only the second team (after Juventus) to win all three major European competitions — Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Manchester United have since joined the elite list even as the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners Cup were merged to create one single competition in 2000.

However, Van Gaal’s second season witnessed Ajax slipping to third in the Eredivisie while their UEFA Cup defense was cut short in the quarter-finals, at the hands of French side Auxerre. The club did win the KNVB Beker for the 12th time — the only time in his career Van Gaal won the domestic cup in his native country.

It was albeit in his third season in Amsterdam that Van Gaal finally managed to guide his side to the Eredivisie title. The return of Frank Rijkaard had provided the team with some much needed experience. But the departures of the prolific Dennis Bergkamp, and the dependable Wim Jonk, before the start of the season meant Ajax lacked the resources to compete on all fronts. Their cup defense was curtailed in the last four stage (by NEC Nijmegen) while Parma got the better of them in the quarter-finals of the European Cup Winners’ Cup.

Image courtesy Twitter (@AFCAjax)

The 1994–95 season was always meant to be a significant one. Ajax’s impending challenge was two-fold. The first pertained to a title defense. The club had last defended an Eredivisie crown back in the 1982–83 season. More importantly, they would be playing in the European Cup — which had been rechristened the Champions League — for the first time in almost a decade.

Since their opening round loss to Portuguese outfit FC Porto in September 1985 Ajax had not featured in Europe’s premier club competition. Between then and the 1994–95 season the Amsterdam side had played in four UEFA Cup tournaments and three European Cup Winners’ Cup competitions, winning one title apiece. Not to forget they were banned from European competition in 1990–91, and as such excluded from the European Cup.

Ajax’s repeated failure to qualify for Europe’s premier club competition was also a reflection of their domestic struggles. That apart, their tournament record in the 1980s, when they did qualify, was anything but enviable. Since their semi-final defeat in the 1979–80 European Cup (to Nottingham Forest), the Amsterdam side had made it to the second round of the competition just once in four attempts. The 1993–94 Eredivisie title gave them the impetus to mount a serious challenge and set the record straight.

Another forward was deemed a necessity. Van Gaal would later admit Ajax made an attempt to sign Ronaldo from Cruzeiro. However, Dutch multinational Philips, PSV’s parent company, used their clout in the Brazilian market to ensure the prodigy headed to Eindhoven instead of Amsterdam. PSV also signed Belgian Luc Nilis from Anderlecht to form what seemed a potentially powerful strike-force. Ronaldo would go on to score 30 league goals in his debut season in the Netherlands while Nilis would find the net on 12 occasions.

Yet PSV didn’t win the title. Because instead of sulking the Ajax coach focused on the attacking options available at his disposal, the likes of Jari Litmanen, Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George. Fortunately for Van Gaal and Ajax academy graduates like Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars had already begun to impress.

Besides De Toekomst has always been a good fallback option if and when the need arose. One thing Van Gaal deserves to be credited for throughout the course of his career is the fact that he has never been reluctant to try out young players. In this case, with a striker being imperative, the coach didn’t hesitate to pick a young Patrick Kluivert straight from the academy and into the first team.

Kluivert, then only 18 years of age, didn’t disappoint. He finished as the top scorer — with 18 goals in 25 games — as Ajax comfortably defended their Eredivisie title. A tally of 27 wins from 34 games, and 61 points — back then only two pints were awarded for a win, and an incredible 106 goals (3.12 per game) gave the Amsterdam side its 25th league trophy.

While retaining the Eredivisie didn’t quite come across as a surprise Ajax’s run in Europe did shock many, if not all. In the group stages of the competition Ajax beat the defending champions AC Milan not once, but in both the home and away ties. Those two emphatic results ensured top spot in the group and a relatively easy quarter-final against Hajduk Split. The Croats did manage a point on home turf but Ajax was dominant in Amsterdam, a 3–0 win setting up a semi-final against tournament heavyweights Bayern Munich.

Again, Ajax could only manage a point away from home but back at the Olympic Stadium Giovanni Trapattoni’s side was demolished 5–2 — an apt revenge for the 1–5 thrashing at the hands of the Germans in the second round of the 1980–81 season.

The wins against Milan and Bayern served as an appropriate showcase of the transformation of Ajax under Van Gaal. The results, coupled with the consistency in terms of performances, had turned them from fallen giants to European contenders once again.

For Ajax it was their first European Cup/Champions League final since their glory days of 1971–73. They were up against Milan, the defending champions who had reached the final of the competition for a fifth time in the last seven seasons and had comprehensively beaten Cruyff’s Dream Team in the 1994 final, in what was also an unbeaten European campaign. Yet Van Gaal seemed pleased at the prospect of facing Milan vis-à-vis playing against Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), the team Fabio Capello’s men bested in the last four.

“Milan play as Ajax play,” he was quoted in the media. “They want to win the game, but PSG hang back and are primarily interested in avoiding defeat.”

Van Gaal’s side had impressed one and all with their fluid football. Yet Milan was palpably the favorites. Their expensively assembled squad was arguably the most high profile of those times, and they were up against a team that had an average age of just 23, with 13 of the 18 players involved being homegrown.

Image courtesy Twitter (@AFCAjax)

The final, played on May 24 at the Ernst Happel Stadium in Vienna, was a closely contested affair. In the 70th minute Van Gaal opted to substitute Ajax’s top scorer for the tournament (Litmanen) with Kluivert. Just 15 minutes later the youngster vindicated his manager’s decision, breaking the deadlock with what was the match winner. At 18 years and 327 days Kluivert had become the youngest player to score in a Champions League final.

It turned out to be a memorable tournament for Ajax. The club had secured seven wins and four draws in what was ultimately an unbeaten campaign. Add to it the 3–0 win over Feyenoord in the traditional season opener — the Johan Cryuff Shield — and the 34 undefeated games in the league, Ajax’s only competitive defeat of the season, in 49 games, was against their rivals from Rotterdam in the quarter-finals of the cup competition.

“Something happened at the start of that season,” Frank de Boer told FourFourTwo. “There was an incredible chemistry between the youngsters and more experienced players. Everything just felt right inside the team. There was a solid core of roughly a dozen players who could be in the first XI, and this core was then supplemented by three or four substitutes who accepted they weren’t in the starting line-up. I remember after we beat Milan, we all realized we didn’t need to fear anyone anymore.”

It has been 25 years since. In the intervening period there have been clubs that have won their respective leagues undefeated, like The Invincibles of Arsenal (2003–04 season) and Juventus (2011–12). Then there have been teams that have won the Champions League unbeaten, like FC Barcelona (2005–06) and Manchester United (2007–08).

However, no club has managed to win both the domestic title and Champions League unbeaten in the same season.

In fact in the 1995–96 season Ajax themselves looked set for an encore. The Amsterdam side continued from where it had left off in the previous season, winning their first 12 league games — and 17 of their first 18, and not dropping points till November when PSV managed a point in Amsterdam. In the 1995–96 Champions League the club extended its unbeaten run to 19 games with seven wins from first eight games, including two group stage wins over Real Madrid.

Having remained undefeated throughout 1995, both in the league and in Europe, Ajax suffered their first defeat in the 19th round of the Eredivisie, to Willem II in January 1996. Coincidentally the Tilburg club also happened to be the last team to beat Ajax in the league — in May 1994, before the Amsterdammers embarked on their 52-game unbeaten run in the Eredivisie. It was one of the only three defeats en route to a successful title defense in what was the first season when three points were awarded for a win.

The Champions League run of 19 games sans defeat ended with a surprise home defeat against Greek club Panathinaikos in the semi-final. It didn’t prove costly with Ajax comprehensively winning the return leg in Athens and thereby progressing to the final, where Juventus converted more penalties and took home the title.

Their impressive performances in 1995–96 notwithstanding even Ajax found it difficult to match their own exploits. The Amsterdam club’s unprecedented achievement, that unique ‘unbeaten double’ in the 1994–95 season has remained an unparalleled achievement.

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Vickey Maverick.

Ditch the Niche: My focus is to provide insightful narratives on diverse topics like culture, health, history, slice of life, sports, travel, work and writing