This story first appeared in the January edition of the Arsenal Magazine.
Right on cue, Marc Overmars pulls into his parking space just outside Ajax’s Amsterdam Arena. It’s 9 o’clock on a frosty Monday morning in Netherlands’ capital city and the only evidence of the previous day’s De Klassieker win over Feyenoord is the front page of De Telegraaf proudly displayed in one of the empty stadium’s windows.
That is until Marc exits his car with a huge grin.
Normally, the hour-long commute which takes Ajax’s director of football from his house in Epe to his office at the Amsterdam Arena involves conference calls and strategic planning for the week ahead but, on this morning, even he allowed himself the chance to relax after his side came out on top in one of Europe’s most fierce derbies. Pleasantries out of the way, Marc grabs his morning coffee and heads up to his top-floor office. Out of the window to his left sits De Toekomst, a state-of-the-art training complex for Ajax’s senior, academy and women’s teams, while in the room to his right sits Netherlands’ most-capped player, Edwin van der Sar.
It’s the perfect example of Ajax using their rich history to build a bright future. See, Marc is just one of a number of legends involved behind the scenes at Ajax. Van der Sar is the club’s marketing director, Dennis Bergkamp and Winston Bogarde are first-team coaches, six-time Eredivisie winning captain Dick Schoenaker is an executive board member and, until last summer, Frank de Boer and Jaap Stam were also heavily involved. Maybe being surrounded by iconic figures on a daily basis for the past few years is why Marc was able to fit in so seamlessly when he flew back to north London to star for us in Arsenal Legends’ 4-2 victory Milan Glorie in September.
On that particular afternoon at Emirates Stadium, though, it was another former Ajax player who stole the headlines. Back at his clinical best, Kanu’s well-taken hat-trick was the main talking point after the final whistle, but his performance came as no surprise to Marc, who remembers the first time he saw the former Nigeria striker play. “I don’t think Kanu had ever played on a normal pitch before he joined us at Ajax,” the Dutchman laughs. “He didn’t know where to run. I remember once he had to take a throw-in and we called for the ball, so he pushed the ball out from his chest!
“These guys didn’t have the education as young players but we saw in the first training session that they were special. Kanu had so much quality and it was the same with Finidi George. They had something that we didn’t have. We had all learned how to play football on the streets, but their football upbringing was much more raw, and you can see how they benefitted from that.”
Strangely enough, that was not the first time the former Netherlands international had come out of retirement, albeit temporarily. After a glittering career at Ajax, Arsenal and Barcelona, which saw him win four league titles, one FA Cup and the Champions League, a persistent knee injury forced Marc to hang up his boots in 2004, aged just 31. “My problem was that, when I wasn’t 100 per cent, I couldn’t deliver what I wanted to as a player,” he explains.
“That’s what I had a problem with because I had an injection in my knee for around two years to keep on going. “You know you can’t do that for another two or three years, so then you needed another surgery and you’re out for another season and I didn’t want that. Maybe later on you think, ‘You’re only 31 years old, maybe you should have had the surgery and the year of recovery’, but at that period I didn’t want to do that.” It wouldn’t be long before Marc was flying down the wing again, though.
Working as a football director at his boyhood club Go Ahead Eagles, the then-35-year-old was named in an all-star XI to face Ajax’s first team for Stam’s testimonial, and it’s a game Marc – and George Ogararu, the opposing right back – will never forget. “In 45 minutes we were 3-0 up and I’d given their full back such a run around that the next day the Go Ahead manager told me that we needed a winger,” he recalls. “Because it was a small club there was no money, no budget, so he asked me to help the team a little bit by playing sometimes.
“I made that choice, or mistake as you could say, and I tried to help them a little bit. I hadn’t played for three or four years I think. It was not a great success but it was good for the club because they had some good publicity. I played some matches but when you look back you have to ask whether it was a clever decision. I’m not too sure it was!” So how did Marc go from helping a club survive the drop on the pitch to helping another stay financially afloat off it? As he reveals, it was all thanks to the intervention of a late footballing great and a former team-mate back in 2012.
“Ajax offered me a position because they were trying to find the former players who had achieved a lot in their career after football,” he says. “Dennis, together with Johan Cruyff, was involved in that process so sometimes in life things come together. “Don’t forget that at Ajax three and a half years ago the financial situation was not that good. It’s stable now but at that period it was critical. Now of course everybody talks about us being a very strong club financially but our biggest target is to build up a team who can do well in Europe and that takes time.
“When we started three and a half years ago we only had one Netherlands international, and now we have seven. You can see the movement that we are going through. This is now the point where we have a strong team who can knock on the door in Europe.
“The most difficult thing is that there is no time in football, today is the only thing that people are interested in. Today we have to win and then we have to win again tomorrow. That is our biggest opponent because the fans expect us to do well every year. Of course we’ve won the league in the last few years, except last year, but to get that team into Europe again is difficult.
“If we reach that level, we know five players will be sold at the end of the season but we want to achieve that level. We have the quality and talent now in our group, I’m 100 per cent certain of that. Now it’s just about keeping them together for two years and then I’m sure we’ll have a very exciting team.”
Marc certainly has lots to get excited about this year. Not only have Ajax qualified for the knockout stage of the Europa League, the club’s under-19s are also looking good in the Youth League. With a first-team, academy, women’s team and the Ajax’s finances to oversee, you’d think Marc wouldn’t have the time to keep an eye on his former clubs’ results – but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
“I still love Arsenal and that is the same for my wife and two children,” he says. “We follow them, we support Arsenal and we also try to visit the training ground once a year to have coffee with the boss or Steve Bould. “It’s very important that there are still people working for Arsenal who were there 20 or 25 years ago. Ken Friar, who I know really well because in my time at Arsenal he was on the Board of Directors, is still involved in the club in a way and that keeps a culture. I like traditions and I have respect for the past. That’s why if we go back to visit Arsenal, it gives us a good feeling. “When you stop playing you want to have achieved something,” Marc adds.
“Emirates Stadium is not only home to football but is also the offices. At my time at the club there were probably only five or six people working in the offices but now there are probably 100.
It's the process of the club which makes me proud to have been involved in it. The joy I had as a footballer to play in the Premier League was also a highlight. It gives you so much pleasure. I will always say to the young players here that where you will enjoy football the most is in England. That’s a nice quote to end with.”
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