By David Hall
How are the mighty fallen, reflects the Good Book, and though the total humiliation of Ajax did not quite materialise, it is hard to deny that the scriptures have a point. During the last few days of brinkmanship on Martin Jol’s part, it really did seem that the four-time winner of the European Cup, the former Super Cup and the World Club Championship, the club of Cruyff and Van Basten, the proverbially-shining example of how to play beautiful football, found itself less attractive as a managerial option for one of game’s most intelligent managers than Fulham.
Yes, Fulham: no domestic honours, never played in the European Cup, and (despite the remarkable run to the Europa Cup final last season) yet to penetrate the consciousness of most of the football world. What was Martin thinking? And what does even the partial humiliation that he dished out to Ajax mean for the club? This article explores these questions.
Much of the answer to the first question lies not with Fulham or Ajax, but with Tottenham Hotspur, which sacked Jol (photos) in October 2007, despite consecutive top-five finishes in the two preceding league campaigns, and domestic and European cup runs that were nothing if not impressive. Jol visibly relished the Spurs job and the high regard it brought him. Popular with fans and press (and adept at dealing with both), he was, by general consensus, good for the English game. He talked sense; people enjoyed listening to him. Then came his sacking, and an abrupt end to all that.
As with many sackings, it was not just the dismissal, but the way it was done that hurt: Spurs fans (in fact, half the country) heard about it before Jol did. The manager was informed by text – sent not by the Board, but a nephew, who had also heard the news. Jol left, humiliated, and his humiliation was intensified when his replacement, Juande Ramos, won (or appeared to win) the Carling Cup within weeks of taking the job. The players went on an almighty bender, the Chairman, Daniel Levy, basked in an undeserved reputation for shrewdness, and Ramos was prematurely lauded as a coaching maestro (in the end, he went the way Jol did, sacked after a poor start to the following season). Jol’s stock, which had remained high with Spurs fans, fell retrospectively. This was another blow to his pride, and to his sense of being undervalued, which was already acute. He carried this sharpened sense with him first to Hamburg, where he did well, and then to Ajax, where he did very well, coming second in the League (with a goal difference worthy of champions) and winning the Dutch Cup.
Yet even as he accepted the Ajax job, Jol was saying to any reporter who stuck a microphone under his chin that he wanted to manage in England. On hearing this, I gave him two years in Amsterdam. I still do. Throughout it all, he has retained his house in the Big Smoke, just as Mourinho has done (and you can bet your house that The Special One will be back, too). It seems that once you’ve had the buzz of being the main man in London (or, in Jol’s case, one of the main men), it is hard – if not impossible – to find anything, anywhere, to match it.
And then there is the Fulham factor. Granted, it is not a big name, but it is an English (not to mention a London) club, and it has Mohamed Al-Fayed as its owner. Having just sold Harrods for 1.5 billion pounds, he could be believed when he told Jol that a transfer budget larger than the one cash-strapped Ajax could afford was in place, and waiting for him. It has been claimed that when Jol signed his contract with Ajax, he did not know the exact size of the club’s debt (to which his predecessor, Marco van Basten, had added considerably). By the end of last season, Jol knew the full figure; hence the brinkmanship. Having agreed terms with Fulham, who sent representatives to negotiate with Ajax, Jol then told Dutch reporters that Fulham “were interested but in principle I will stay at Ajax”. Hear that? In principle, but not on principle. Jol signed a three-year contract, but hey – what does that have to do with anything?
Flirting with Fulham (more like full sex) left the Board at Ajax with two questions: (1) does Martin mean it? (2) Do we care? Since the answer to the second question was ‘yes’ and the answer to the first looked sufficiently close to being the same, Ajax found more money from we-know-not-where, and Jol agreed to stay on. He now has the cash he needs for a decent crack at the title. Reflecting on it all, he concluded: “it gave me some tough days”. Yes, Martin and not just you: the depressing process of bluff and counter-bluff can’t have been a barrel of laughs for the club and its supporters either. The official story is that Jol didn’t leave because Ajax wouldn’t let him. This is true, but it has nothing to do with his contract.
Stands Ajax where she did? Apparently not: by definition, brinkmanship is the art of getting your own way by threatening to do something you do not really intend to do. But if Ajax had not found the cash, Jol would undoubtedly have left her for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. It wasn’t really brinkmanship at all: more like a win-win situation for Martin.
Jol will be back in England one day, but for a bigger club. If he delivers the League for Ajax this season – and I believe he will – that could be all the proof a genuinely top club needs.