dwin van der Sar can still picture the bemusement on the faces of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, his Manchester United teammates at the time and resolute one-club men. The Dutch goalkeeper, who arrived at Old Trafford in 2005 via Ajax, Juventus and Fulham, had wanted to know whether either fancied playing abroad. They could learn a new language, Van der Sar suggested, experience different cultures and climates, maybe even earn more money.
The short answer was no. Why would they do that? They were at a big club – their club in their city – with family and friends close by, winning big trophies and being paid big money. They had it all. “OK, the weather in Manchester,” Van der Sar says, with a smile. “But Paul said: ‘I don’t like the sun.’ I think David [Beckham] is one of the few [English players] that left United but he came from London.”
For Van der Sar, the dynamics were altogether different as he made his way in the game at Ajax, where he won the Champions League in 1995 and in his current role as the club’s chief executive he knows that they remain the same.
Players leave Ajax. They do so for sporting and financial reasons and the club is normally behind the decisions on the same grounds. He remembers how the 1995 team broke up, with everybody who featured in the final against Milan gone or retired within four years. He was in the last raft of departures in 1999, going to Juventus, and virtually every one of his teammates went to a bigger club – Milan or Barcelona in the majority of cases.
“If you wanted to further your career, you needed to go abroad,” Van der Sar says. “The wages were higher so for us in Holland, at a certain point, it’s important to take the next step.”
Van der Sar is now a central figure in judging that certain point for the players who emerge from the Ajax academy and, ideally, he will get it to play out each time, as it has just done with Donny van de Beek, the midfielder who joined Manchester United for an initial €39m on 2 September. The 23-year-old made his debut for United as a substitute on Saturday, scoring in the 3-1 home defeat against Crystal Palace.
Van de Beek might have left Ajax the previous summer, when Real Madrid were among the clubs that wanted him, only for Van der Sar to deem the timing wrong. He had overseen the departures of Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona for €86m), Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus, €75m) and Kasper Dolberg (Nice, €20.5m) and felt he could not effect any greater churn to the lineup.
Van de Beek was persuaded to stay for one more year and when the new season kicked off he found that his song from the Ajax support – to the tune of KC & The Sunshine Band’s Give It Up – had changed. “Don-ny nog een jaar!” they chorused. Donny one more year.
The Ajax fans understand the situation to the point where they can celebrate when one of their favourites gives them a little longer and, according to Van der Sar, Van de Beek understood it too. “He was fine. He was with us for 10 years. He loves Ajax. I think he needed maybe an extra year also.”
This summer the timing was right and when Van De Beek returned to Amsterdam to play for the Netherlands against Italy on 7 September a group of Ajax supporters lit flares and serenaded him outside the stadium after the game. Van De Beek got out of his car to applaud them.
“Let’s say we are Stanford University, we are Oxford, we are Harvard and after that you go to Merrill Lynch, to the big companies, where you can earn more money, there is more competition,” Van der Sar says.
“In the youth, Donny was always one of the two or three big talents. He was not a spectacular player, he was not making 12 stepovers or scoring bicycle kicks but his technique was very functional. He was always in the right position.”
Van der Sar’s goal upon stepping up from the role of marketing director to chief executive in November 2016 was to restore Ajax to their mid-1990s European pomp – the ensuing years had not been kind – and to do so on a relative shoestring.
He talks with real emotion about the Ajax shirt, how it is “one of the few that never change, it’s the red down the middle, it’s vertical, it’s not horizontal, it’s not in blocks”, and how his “main thing is to make sure that everybody knew again the shirt”.
He continues: “In the 1970s, we had Cruyff, in the 80s we had Rijkaard and Van Basten and in the mid-90s, it was myself, Rijkaard for the second time, the De Boer twins, Davids, Seedorf, Kluivert, Overmars. And after that period it was a little bit quiet. So for us it was to have a new younger audience to know: ‘Who is Ajax?’
“I want every supporter of every club in the world to have a second love for Ajax, to like our attacking play and how we develop young players – maybe one of our old players is playing for your club. The battle we have is to be a big name but with a much smaller budget and to fight against the giants. And that fight is fantastic to have. Sometimes even us Dutch can be romantic. We don’t have a big, wealthy guy behind us and that makes us almost unique.”
According to Deloitte, Ajax’s revenues for 2018-19 were €199m, which put them 23rd on the list of European clubs, and that figure was inflated by the unexpected run to the Champions League semi-finals, which earned €79m. For an illustration of the uneven playing field, consider their domestic TV money from the period: €10.6m. West Ham, who finished mid-table in the Premier League, made €145m in the same area.
Then came Covid-19, which forced last season’s Eredivisie to be abandoned and the new season to begin with smaller, socially distanced crowds. The attendance at Ajax’s 55,000-capacity Johan Cruyff Arena was capped at 12,000 for Sunday’s 3-0 win over RKC Waalwijk, with 11,948 turning up.
The club rely heavily on matchday income, which brought them €53.2m in 2018-19. “If I have only about 22% filling the stadium over the whole season – 22% of €53m is about €11.5m so I’m losing €41.5m,” Van der Sar says.
It is a significant dent and puts even more pressure on him to get his decisions right, to continue to create pathways from the academy, to strike the balance between youth and experience in the first team, to sell players at the most opportune moments.
“We don’t say it’s a business plan, it’s a football programme,” he says. “We want our success with the players we educate. And if in two, three years we win trophies with them and they get a higher level, the interest of other clubs should be there. And those clubs should be bigger. After two to three years, it’s time to move on. It’s also creating space for the next one. The other players need to see the same path.”
Van der Sar has overseen changes to the structure of Ajax’s youth set-up, hiring coaches, giving them more hours with the players, better integrating the school at the training ground. He has pushed a more proactive recruitment model, making signings as early as possible, selling later and budgeting at Champions League level before the team get there to increase the chances of their doing so, mitigating the risk against the bank reserves and the value in the squad.
He believes many clubs have invested on the assumption TV rights and commercial monies will “keep on rising 10% every year” and because of the pandemic “the bubble has burst a little bit”. It accentuates the importance, perhaps, of Ajax’s more lateral revenue-drivers, such as their work to help the academies at clubs in other countries, chiefly Sharjah FC in the UAE and Guangzhou R&F in China. Ajax are effectively selling their expertise in youth development.
But he radiates assurance about Ajax’s position and when he looks at clubs where the wage bill represents 80% of turnover or to the Championship in England where parachute payments are so fundamental, where there is a high level of risk-taking, it is tempting to presume he feels even better.
“It’s important to have a financial back-up, to be robust if we miss one year in the Champions League or we don’t sell players,” Van Der Sar says. “Our back-up is much bigger than the big clubs who are ruling Europe at the moment.”
He suggests those clubs are being opportunistic when they claim coronavirus has depressed the transfer market. “I presume they are still paying the same [big] salaries,” he says.
One thing is clear. Van der Sar and Ajax will not be pushed around. Van de Beek has gone and so has Hakim Ziyech, who joined Chelsea for an initial €40m. Any further business will be on Ajax’s terms. “We are not expecting a fire sale. We don’t need to sell. We can always sell players but not to fill the gaps [in a budget]. I want to sell players by strength, not because I need to make up numbers.”