Words By: Jeff Lawrence
The World Famous Dutch Club Ajax of Amsterdam have had and well-known managers since their formation in 1900. Recently, the holders of the role have read like a who’s who of Dutch playing and coaching superstars: Leo Beenhakker, Louis van Gaal, Ronald Koeman, Marco van Basten and Frank de Boer among others. Going back a bit further, Rinus Michels led Ajax to their first ever European Cup title in 1971 as well as winning four Eredivisie titles in the late 1960s and three Dutch Cups. But the man who could well lay claim to being the greatest coach Ajax has ever had is the now little-known Englishman Jack Reynolds.
Reynolds was born in Manchester in 1881 and had a fairly undistinguished playing career. His career began in 1902 with a short spell in the reserves of local team Manchester City but he made no first-team appearances with the club before moving to Burton United, Grimsby Town and Sheffield Wednesday before finishing his playing career with various non-league clubs, including Watford.
In 1912, at the age of 30, he moved to Switzerland to take up his first coaching position with St. Gallen. Two years later he was approached by the German FA to help the national team prepare for the 1916 Olympics Games, due to be held in Berlin. The First World War resulted in these games being cancelled and left Reynolds, in his own words, “All dressed up with nowhere to go.” Thus, it was ideal circumstances that Irishman John Kirwan’s return to London left the position at Ajax vacant and Reynolds jumped at the chance of filling it.
It was to be the start of a career with Ajax that would last, on and off, over 30 years and would help them rise from just one of a number of local teams in the city of Amsterdam to the most successful club in the Netherlands. Reynolds would also lay the foundations that would eventually lead to Ajax becoming one of the greatest clubs in the world. Many sources give Reynolds the credit for first coming up with the concept that would later be developed into what is now known as Total Football.
His attacking formations, which made good use of wingers, made use of the philosophy and beliefs that would bring such success during his time at Ajax. In the 1920s, many Dutch newspapers praised Ajax as being very similar in tactics and playing style to the professional clubs in England, only missing the mentality of the English players.
Reynolds also introduced training methods that had not been used in Dutch football before, with the emphasis not only on the technical side of the game but also on fitness. Another item Reynolds implemented was youth development, with the club fielding youth teams at various different age-groups and having them all train in the same way as the first team players. Ajax would go on to lead the world in this field, producing many greats through their youth development structure over the years.
When he joined the club, at the beginning of the 1915-16 season, they were playing in the Tweede Klasse division following their relegation in 1914, the only relegation in Ajax’s history. In 1917, Ajax also won the Dutch Cup for the first time in the club’s history. Due to expansion of the Eerste Klasse they were awarded promotion prior to the start of the 1917-18 season.
Ajax would go on to win the West A section of the division, their first ever Eerste Klasses regional title, and would therefore compete for the national title along with the other regional division winners. In their final playoff game away to Willem II, thousands of Ajax supporters made their way to Tilburg to cheer on their team. They were missing their star player, Jan de Natris, who had somehow managed to miss his train. Nevertheless, Ajax comfortably won 3-0 and were the champions of the Netherlands for the first time in their history.
The following season they retained their title and went through the season undefeated, the first time this had ever happened in the Dutch league. Only one other team has a team gone unbeaten through a Dutch league season; that was 76 years later in 1994-95, and it was again Ajax who managed it. In June 1919, Reynolds coached the Dutch national side in their first international played after the First World War, a 3-1 home win against Sweden.
Following the 1924-25 season there was a major surprises when Jack Reynolds resigned as coach, following a fall-out with the Ajax board, and joined their city rivals Blauw-Wit. At the same time the club’s star player, Jan de Natris, signed for Vitesse Arnhem where his former team-mate Jan van Dort was now captain. Ajax’s run of title-less seasons continued under Reynold’s successors, Harold Rose and Stanley Castle, both also English.
Although Castle’s time in Amsterdam had been relatively successful, winning regional titles in both of the seasons he spent there, Ajax were only able to finish third and second, respectively, in the 1926-27 and 1927-28 national championship playoffs. Therefore, when Jack Reynolds expressed his wish to return to the club after three seasons with Blauw-Wit, Castle’s time was up.
As well as Reynolds, another old Ajacied also returned to the club for the 1928-29 season. Jan de Natris, now 33, returned after four seasons with Vitesse but was nowhere near the same player as the one who had left, with his best days truly behind him. He only played eight more games for Ajax, scoring two goals, and decided to retire once the season had finished.
Reynolds’ first season back was a disaster. In the first five games they managed only one point and at the start of 1929 they shared last place in the league with UVV, both with only six points from eleven games. Something drastic had to be done and Reynolds shuffled his team around, with various players being moved to new positions. It had the desired effect and in the second half of the season (delayed until March due to a harsh winter) Ajax’s results improved slightly and they ended up four points above the relegation place.
In 1931, they comfortably won the regional section, losing only one game and finishing five points clear of second place ZFC. In their away game versus VUC they won 9-0 and in the home fixture against the same opponents they matched this score by half-time. In the second half they put another eight goals past their hapless opponents and the 17-0 score line is still Ajax’s record victory in any competitive match. Piet Strijbosch scored seven of their goals with Piet van Reenen chipping in with five.
In total they scored 75 goals in their 18 regional league games, an average of over four goals per game and went into the national playoffs in great confidence. Their great goal-scoring form continued in the playoffs with a further 29 goals in eight games and they cantered to their Dutch title for twelve years. It was to be the start of a hugely successful era for Ajax.
The next season Ajax retained their Dutch title, helped by a 9-1 win away to Veendam in the playoff round. Van Reenen scored seven in that game and managed 39 in only 24 games for the whole season, a remarkable scoring feat.
The 1934 championship playoffs resulted in Ajax, KFC and Willem II finishing level on ten points and so a round of tie-break matches was required. Both Ajax and KFC defeated Willem II, which meant that the title would be decided in the final fixture between these two clubs. Ajax had won 4-1 compared to KFC’s 2-1 victory and so only needed a draw to take the title due to a better goal average.
One important person would miss the game; Ajax’s coach Jack Reynolds who was on holiday in his English homeland. His absence possibly had some bearing on Ajax’s poor start to the game and KFC took a 2-0 lead. Henk Bloemvliet pulled a goal back but it didn’t look to be enough until van Reenen popped up with his 30th goal of the season to equalise in the 89th minute. The Dutch title went to Ajax for the fifth time in total and for the third time in four seasons. This one had been the most difficult so far.
On September 1, 1939, war broke out in Europe but despite this the Dutch league continued, although disrupted by the mobilisation of troops and equipment around the country and so therefore given unofficial status By the end of the season, the Netherlands were under German control and things would change drastically.
One of these changes was the role of Ajax trainer. Due to Jack Reynolds’ British nationality he was arrested by the Germans on June, 1940, and sent to a prison camp near Schoorl, on the North Sea coast of the Netherlands. He was kept here until September of that year when he was transferred to Tost, a labour camp in Upper Silesia, Poland. Whilst he was there he helped to arrange ‘international’ football games between the groups of other foreign prisoners in the camp and also helped to lay a cricket pitch. At Tost he also apparently came into contact with the English author P.G Wodehouse who had been picked up by the Germans at a French seaside resort.
Despite his imprisonment, Reynolds was treated reasonably well and was able to keep in contact with Ajax with his ‘Technical Tips’ column appearing in the club magazine well after his arrest. He received regular correspondence from the club and its members and even joked that he received so much mail he would need a secretary to help him open it all.
In 1944, due to the Russian advance through Poland, Reynolds was moved again, this time to the Belfort camp in France. Here he took part in an exchange of POWs with the Germans. and was therefore able to return to his home-town of Manchester in December 1944. In October 1945 he returned to Amsterdam where his boat bringing him from England was met by a large contingent from Ajax who were only too happy to re-install him in the trainer role.
In 1947, Jack Reynolds coached Ajax to their eighth Dutch championship (along with 13 regional titles) in his 24 seasons at the club. It was to be his last full season in charge of the club, although he did return to help his replacement Bob Smith settle in out before finally retiring for good in October 1947. He was rewarded with a lifetime membership of the club and a benefit game against De Zwaluwen the following June.
After his retirement Reynolds continued to run the little cigar shop he had started during his time at Ajax. He also continued to wear the bowler hat that had become such a familiar feature on the sidelines of Dutch football pitches up and down the country. During his time in the Netherlands he came up with his own, rather mangled, version of Dutch but he was much-loved by many members of the Amsterdam society who often referred to him as ‘Sjek Rijnols’.
He died in Amsterdam in November 1962 at the age of 81 and was buried in the city that had been his home for half a century. Three years later one of the stands at the De Meer ground would be named after him in order to recognise the great success Reynolds had achieved at the club, as well as to commemorate the legacy he had left behind.