'Ajax, the road to victory'. It sounds like a DVD about entertaining football or a successful youth academy, but no. It is the title of a downloadable report on 10 years of mismanagement at one of Europe's most admired clubs.
After the noisy exit of trainer Henk ten Cate to Chelsea last October, and the publication of another severe set of financial losses, the club's board appointed a commission of wise men. Their task was to research whether the structure of the club had been able to cope with the flotation on the stock market and the downward spiral on the pitch since reaching the semi-final of the Champions League in 1997.
The report is very critical in every department. Even the highly praised youth academy turns out to be struggling.
So, is Ajax badly run? To make an honest judgement, we have to go back ten years in time to 1997.
On the back of the Bosman ruling the club suffers an exodus of home-grown talent who are out of contract. The club leave their traditional stamping ground for a futuristic stadium on the outskirts of town which triples the attendances but also demands a much greater front office administration.
From being a simple football club with just a couple of part-time board members, Ajax transformed into a big company with affiliate clubs abroad and a notation on the local stock exchange.
Furthermore Louis van Gaal, who determined everything from signing the next striker to selecting the new notepads for assistant coaches of the Under-9's, also left the club.
All that remained from the glorious past were their pedigree of titles won, the shirt, the supporters who crave for even more success and a bunch of sidelined seniors, who kept referring to the good ol'days.
Considering this, what chance did Ajax have to transform into a footballing powerhouse at the start of the new century? Actually, none.
It would have been difficult enough to recover from only one of these major changes, yet they all happened at once. In hindsight, and the commission report acknowledge this and suggest to reverse it, it was unwise to float.
More than fifty million euros was made, but much of it has evaporated through the investment in foreign affiliate club. Current Everton midfielder Steven Pienaar is the most famous name to have come out of these projects. He left Ajax on a free transfer to Borussia Dortmund some time ago. And with millions at hand there was little patience with the home-grown talents as the coaches rather invested in the ready-made products from elsewhere, hoping for instant success.
With the money came the task to inform the investors. Every move of the club had to be publicised directly. In the shady world of football with its obscure wheeling and dealing Ajax suddenly had to conform to broker's regulations.
Even this new report had to be publicised, giving an insight which is quite unique for a football club. Great for the interested follower, but it makes the club a laughing stock in the media.
Being a listed company Ajax had to compose a transparent management structure. There are economic handbooks to built efficient organisations in many branches, but football is not one of them. After ten years in operation the report concludes that employees on various levels don't have a clue who is responsible for what. There is no designated boss.
And what is the goal of the club? In the brochure of 1997 Ajax lured investors with the promise that they would play in the Champions League each year. In 2004 technical director Louis van Gaal still aimed to reach the second round each and one semi-final every five years.
In fact Ajax has won three titles and entered the Champions League only five times over the reported period. So what is lacking is a clear grasp of reality. As miracles are expected coaches never last long in Amsterdam nor do technical directors. They tend to panic and throw money at overvalued players.
The report states that over the last five years they have not bought anyone that made the team play better. Some of them were signed without a recent scouting report as the management trusted on their reputation. They frequently disappointed. Others could not reach the expected level and bubbled under, not helped by the critical punters in the stands.
Unwise as well, was to appoint former Ajax players as head coach or even as youth trainers without checking if they had the competence. Jan Wouters and Danny Blind started at Ajax as club trainers. Their Ajax background would suffice, according to the board. It did not. Both were fired after a torrid time and their reputations are scarred for life.
Interestingly, Ajax is now negotiating with Marco van Basten to become the next manager. Van Basten has never coached a club either.
With a turnaround of so many managers and technical directors there was free play for all kinds of murky agents, circling around the club, some of them even part of the network of the newly appointed. They were helped by frequent power struggles between technical directors and coaches. Adriaanse and Beenhakker, Koeman and Van Gaal, Ten Cate and Van Geel, none of them could get along with one another.
The commission now suggests two options. The first is to appoint a warm personality with a large football background who can run the club in a sort of Uli Hoeness-role. The second calls for a strong coach, Van Gaal-like, with managing abilities and to forget about the technical directors. These are great suggestions, but where will they find these people? Surely once he has glanced over the report, someone with those superb qualifications will think twice before he sets foot in the offices of the Amsterdam Arena.
Supporters and sponsors are unhappy as well, but that is a side issue, which hardly affects results on the pitch. The remaining interesting departments in the report are the scouting and the youth academy. It bluntly states that the level of their trainers is not good enough.
One of the recommendations in the report is to make up files on every youth player because parents have complained that there is hardly any follow-up on the meetings they have every six months with the coaches. Someone could have thought of that before, surely?
Finally, Ajax have appointed many former players as scouts, who have complained to the commission that they are not taken seriously and little is done with their advice. That may be so, but it is well known that there is a poisonous atmosphere around the club with lots of these ex-players, former board members and other hangers-on lurking in the background, feeding the media with their opinions.
And finally, but not mentioned in the report, there is the 'Oracle from Barcelona', Johan Cruyff, whose opinions frequently divide the club.
Cruyff said in his weekly column in newspaper De Telegraaf, that he was ready now to help the club out of trouble. At the same time in another paper he recommended Marco van Basten as the successor of Frank Rijkaard at Nou Camp. The same Van Basten that Ajax are about to hire as their new coach.
Some of the problems at Ajax remain uncovered by the commission, but it seems that this is only the tip of the iceberg.