Ajax coach Heitinga too confident? ‘So was he as a 17-year-old rookie’

Ajax coach Heitinga too confident? ‘So was he as a 17-year-old rookie’
John Heitinga celebrates Rafael van der Vaart’s 0-2 against Feyenoord (2001)

NOS Soccer

  • Sam Porskamp

    Follows Ajax on behalf of NOS Sport

  • Sam Porskamp

    Follows Ajax on behalf of NOS Sport

“Of course we are the favorite.”

Almost as a matter of course, Ajax coach John Heitinga spoke those words about the Klassieker, which will be played at the Johan Cruijff Arena this afternoon (2:30 p.m.). That the visiting Feyenoord is the frontrunner in the Eredivisie and is currently running like hell while Ajax is playing a disappointing season for the time being does little to dampen his confidence.

Misplaced arrogance they find in most of Holland, logical thinks former teammate Richard Knopper, who now runs his own soccer school. “That’s Ajax, isn’t it. With that comes a certain arrogance. The club’s slogan reads: We are Ajax, we are the best. That’s not for nothing. Everybody is expressing that.”

Earlier, Heitinga said Ajax plays the most difficult soccer in the world. He also felt there was no need to practice penalty kicks before the Europa League game with Union Berlin; the inexperienced coach was confident Ajax would get the job done in ninety minutes. The Amsterdammers were eliminated ingloriously in Berlin.

Last Thursday, Heitinga said with his now familiar swagger that he hoped for the sake of Dutch soccer that Feyenoord would win against Shachtar Donetsk, but only after extension. It ended up 7-1 for the Rotterdammers.

Heitinga’s swagger: from ‘the most difficult soccer there is’ to not practicing penalties

Even in a season when things are not going well, Knopper believes the coach should not cave in. “Heitinga aligns perfectly with what Ajax stands for. That’s what fans want to hear and see. He is now winning seven games in a row. But even if he faces a setback, he has to keep propagating that mindset. By the way, that bravado is not played. He really is like that.”

Knopper can know. He saw Heitinga make his debut in Ajax’s first team on August 26, 2001. Against Feyenoord in De Kuip. Asked about that match, the former Ajax player has to dig into his memory. If we remind Knopper of the fact that he was very close to Rafael van der Vaart’s 0-2, a light goes on.

“Oh yes, I had just come in, I remember! I really wanted the ball at the 0-2. Van der Vaart was lucky to shoot the ball in, haha.”

Just before that, Heitinga had come in as a lock on the door after Hatem Trabelsi’s red card. He was only 17, but according to Knopper very mature in his game and vision. “He was a very serious, disciplined boy. You could hardly throw him off guard. That’s why he was able to just debut at Feyenoord away.”

At De Kuip, Heitinga showed he was not easily impressed. Soon after his substitution he knocked over routine player Pierre van Hooijdonk. He received a yellow card for that, but the tone was set.

Doesn’t let himself be swayed

“He has no awe and believes in himself. Someone stood right away. Then you can be Van Hooijdonk, with I know how many international games, but that doesn’t matter to him. From day one he made his mark as a player. He didn’t let himself be bullied, not even by the older players. I see that happening again now as a coach.”

Heitinga (17) makes his Ajax debut against Feyenoord (2001)

Knopper worked with Heitinga as Ajax’s youth coach from 2016 to 2020. Heitinga did the under 19, Knopper the under 18, where he saw how his colleague was always working to keep the relationship with the players good. He had an eye for everyone. For the vedettes, but also for the dropouts.

Need for type of Heitinga

“You see that now with Ajax’s first team. The dressing room rules are the same for everyone. Very clear. Then it doesn’t matter if you’re a newcomer or called Dusan Tadic. That is his strength. Perhaps that’s why it didn’t work with Alfred Schreuder either. Not that Schreuder is a bad trainer, but this group of players apparently needed a type-Heitinga more.”

Hedwiges Maduro, another former teammate, said when Heitinga was hired that he thought he was a real Ajax coach. It reminded Maduro of Frank de Boer. “But you can’t play that attacking game everywhere of course. So you’re only going to see the real coach Heitinga when he goes to another club.”

Knopper: “I’m sure Heitinga has the ability to adapt to the culture without denying his own vision. But I think he should just focus on Ajax for now. He got the team going in a very short time. That’s very clever. Especially when you see where Ajax is coming from. The players are happy, the club is happy, the supporters are happy. I would leave him after this season.”

Now should Ajax fail to win on Sunday, might it be wise to be a little less pompous in the times ahead? “No, that is so ingrained in the dna of Ajax. Heitinga is the personification of that. You shouldn’t want to change that.”

Kayleigh Williams