One midweek evening in London in the February of 1977, I made the pilgrimage required of anyone who deemed themselves to be a serious football fanatic.

However, I did not undertake the journey to what was then regarded as the Home of Football — the old Wembley Stadium — merely to watch a dismal England side slide to yet another defeat in an international “friendly”.

The management of the national team was then in the deadening hands of Don Revie. The former Leeds United boss had taken that club from the obscurity of the old Second Division to the top of the First Division (now the Premier League) — and, more importantly, kept the club up there.

But his stint as England’s manager fell far short of his success at Leeds. It was not a case of England lacking talent. Somehow Revie sucked the natural flair and inspiration out of players like (now Sir)Trevor Brooking, Trevor Francis, and even the marvellously quirky and independently-minded Stan Bowles, who was surely the best player ever to pull on a Queens Park Rangers shirt.

Revie’s style of football relied on sneaking a goal and then hanging onto that lead by hook or by crook.

And frequently there was a lot more crook than hook. Under Revie, Leeds had given new meaning to the words “dirty player”. In those days, referees were not so protective of strikers as is now the case now,

A Leeds’ defender’s Saturday afternoon was not complete without making a string of bone-crunching tackles crippling the opposition’s best forwards.

While Leeds did have some very good players like Johnny Giles and Allan Clarke, the club’s biggest crime was that it wasb just plain boring to watch.

And England likewise during Revie’s three-year tenure as boss. This was a bleak period for the England team which three times running failed to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup during the 1970s and early 1980s.

But all that misery was an ongoing story which was (briefly) incidental to what would be on display that chill English winter’s night. For soccer aficionados, this was the chance to witness the magic of one of the great, if not the greatest ever footballers.

Many will dispute the placing of such a crown on the head of Holland’s Johan Cruyff. But few would question his candidacy for such a title.

Cruyff., who died of lung cancer at Easter weekend, was instrumental in the Dutch club Ajax Amsterdam winning a swag of domestic and European titles in the early 1970s.

Subsequently sold to the then struggling Barcelona, he repeated his success he had achieved at Ajax.

When he had the ball, it seemed as if it was connected to his boots by a piece of string. When he had possession, he would tantalise defenders by tempting them to tackle him by seemingly putting the ball within their reach. Then just as quickly he would pull it back and swerve away, leaving the defender tackling nothing but air.

He could leave three or four defenders sprawled on the turf in his wake..

Such was his dexterity and ball control, he was difficult to foul.

He was a goalkeeper’s nightmare, such was the accuracy of his shots.

Much the same might be said of the likes of Pele, George Best, Maradona, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo. But none of those brilliant players possessed  or possesses quite the tactical acumen of Cruyff.

He could dominate proceedings, but was still a team player. He was the axle around which what became known as “total football” revolved.

That revolutionary style involved players moving in and out of different positions to confuse the opponent’s defenders, thereby openings gaps which unmarked players could exploit.

Cruyff used this freedom to play a deeper role as more of a midfielder than a conventional striker.

Most remarkable of all was his possession of some sixth sense of what was about to happen. Facing his own goal, he could turn and hit a 30 metre-plus pass right to the feet of a teammate whom it seemed impossible for him to have seen to be running into a gap in the opposition’s defence.

All such elements of this virtuoso’s repertoire were on display that evening at Wembley. England simply did not know how to contain Cruyff. Holland strolled to a 2-0 victory, leaving the crowd hurling abuse at the hapless Revie.

He was gone within months, taking up what was no doubt the more lucrative and less stressful job of managing the United Arab Emirates team.

Cruyff ended his a few months later, apparently because he was unwilling to play in the 1978 World Cup in Argentina which was then ruled by a military dictatorship.

However, his decision to retire may have been heavily influenced by an attempt to kidnap him and his family in Barcelona.

6 thoughts on “The Flying Dutchman

  1. Hi John

    I sometimes don’t see eye-to-eye with your political comments – BUT – CONGRATULATIONS on your deserved award 🙂

    You should be feeling exceedingly proud and probably humble at the same time.

    Kind regards



  2. Cruyff was an intelligent artist on the field.
    In deep contrast, following England on the field is as thankless as following New Zealand.
    Yet we do, because there is joy.
    I was happy to witness the All Whites beat Serbia in Austria, gaining me a small town of instant friends.
    This Sunday I will see the South Pacific’s version of El Classico as Auckland City FC take on Amicale of Vanuatu.
    The respect and joy of seeing something magical, mini Cruyffs, is worth hanging on for.


  3. First thought: Vague memory of an old Monty Python line: “And King Herod said ‘Bring me the head of Don Revie’ and it was done.” (Given that the final Python series ended in 1974, it can’t have been alluding to his 1977 departure to UAE)

    Maybe something to do with his move to the job as England Manager and his replacement at Leeds with arch-critic Cloughie by a Leeds boardroom that never much cared for Revie ?

    Which leads to my second thought: that notorious 1974 Austin Mitchell interview the night Brian Clough got sacked as Leeds manager – Yorkshire TV apparently ambushing Cloughie by also inviting Revie to the interview. (Recently watched both the original and The Damned United version on Youtube)

    Third thought: in terms of 1970s as a bleak period for English Football at the national level: Bill Bryson (NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND): suggested that on arriving in the UK in the 70s, he discovered certain idiosyncratic notions that you just come to accept after a while. One was the often repeated axiom that “The England Football team shouldn’t have any trouble with Norway”. The fact that people had to say that out loud to each other probably highlights their underlying uncertainty and need for mutual reassurance, given the all too bitter experience since England’s glory days of 66. A win against Norway on paper, maybe, but in practice ? …

    On Johan Cruyff: playing football as a kid and young teen in the 70s (here in NZ), it was just taken as axiomatic by us kids that Cruyff was officially the best footballer whose career was still in play. We all agreed (as self-evident) that Pele was the greatest EVER player, but he’d retired and Cruyff was simply known to have taken over the mantle (despite a great deal of respect for Georgie Best). Not that any of us would have seen Cruyff play mind you – well, not consciously anyway , we might have inadvertantly seen him in action during the 74 World Cup, without the significance entirely registering.

    Great to see you blogging John. As a Leftie, I might not always have agreed with your arguments in The Herald, but your analyses and opinion pieces were always incisive, astute and beautifully, efficiently, sparingly written. Look forward to reading more posts – and a very pleasant surprise to see you’re a fellow fan of ‘The Beautiful Game’. For a while there, I was thinking Steve Braunias might be the only journo in the entire Country who knew his Rosenborg Trondheims from his Viking Stavangers.


  4. Yup, the England team in the seventies were dire, Cruyff was worth more than the lot of them put together. However, to be fair, England only missed two World cups (’74 and ’78), not three, but for all the huff and puff shown in Spain in ’82, it might as well have been.



  5. Please write more on English football as your comments are so informative. My teams are Liverpool and Newcastle but I would be interested in Ipswich as I have little knowledge of their history.


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