“I say don’t run so much, football is a game you play with your brain.”
Outlined here is a basic principle which sparked unprecedented success for Johan Cruyff, and bequeathed upon the football world an opulent heritage of bewitching grace, artistry and spectacle that we are still gorging on today.
One man who played against Cruyff in his prime was Leeds United’s Eddie Gray, firstly in a 1971 Scotland friendly against an embryonic Dutch side about to showcase a brand of football that entranced millions, but most notably in the 1975 European Cup Semi-Final win for Leeds against Barcelona.
“He was a wonderful player” recalls Eddie, who was no slouch himself. “Great skills and he worked extremely hard. People don’t remember that. He had a good knowledge of how to play the game and he was one of the quickest players I’ve ever seen accelerating from a standing start with the ball. He could change direction very quickly, and we’ve seen the famous Cruyff-turn that everybody still talks about, and people still do it.”
In nine years at Ajax, Cruyff won eight Eredivisie league titles and three consecutive European Cups. He was the first player to win the Ballon D’or three times and became the world’s most expensive footballer in 1973/74 when he signed for Barcelona. He immediately ended an unimaginable barren spell and won them their first La Liga title since 1960, but Barcelona fans can thank Cruyff for an awful lot more.
“You think of the legacy he left,” says Eddie “I think Barcelona still play the type of football that Cruyff wanted to play, you know? ‘Pass and move, pass and move’. He was basically the man who started it.”
Imagine Messi, Xavi and Iniesta without the keep-ball doctrine, and imagine growing up without mimicking Cruyff, Neeskens, Krol, Rep or Rensenbrink on the local park as the ‘total football’ pioneers formed everybody’s second favourite team.
The Dutch national team that scattered fairy dust on football peaked in the 1974 World Cup. They cruised to the final against host nation West Germany, nonchalantly exchanging 13 passes immediately after kick-off before a weaving Cruyff run resulted in a penalty. The Dutch took the lead in the World Cup Final before their opponents had even touched the ball.
Cruyff’s men eventually lost that final 2-1, perhaps the reason he is only occasionally listed among the elite world greats like Pele, Maradona and Messi.
Eddie Gray’s Leeds also got the better of Cruyff’s Barcelona in that 1975 European Cup clash. Gray played in the first game at Elland Road, a 2-1 win for Leeds where Paul Madeley was employed to man-mark Cruyff, but missed the return leg at the Nou Camp. Given Leeds eventually lost the final to Bayern Munich, the nullifying of Cruyff effectively contributed to arguably the club’s greatest ever victory.
“What you need to remember at that time,” Eddie says “is that we thought we were capable of beating anybody. If you look at the games, he [Cruyff] didn’t really do much in either of them. The boys handled him very well because he was one of the most influential players in world football, no doubt about that.”
Indeed Cruyff was the pin-up boy of the 1970s, and his image was insouciantly honed through a singularly innovative spirit. From an early age he took to wearing the number 14 shirt, when nobody else considered anything outside one to eleven. The most evocative images of Cruyff playing for Holland show him wearing just two stripes on his adidas shirt, as he insisted on staying true to the boot deal he had with Puma. Unparalleled.
This stubborn trailblazing lead to the 1979 launch of his own clothing range. Once again he created something enduring, as slim-fitting football boot-style trainers became suitable for the pub, the terraces and the dancefloor.
“He always looked immaculate on the pitch,” recalls Eddie “he was always well-tailored, as well as being a great footballer. He was very slim but a big lad, he wasn’t small, but very clean cut and a great player. He was the type of player that if you were a young lad growing up you probably wanted to be, out on the playing field or in the street.”
This story first appeared on Scotts Menswear