When Johan Cruyff came to Paisley

Johan Cruyff finished his career at Feyenoord, helping the Rotterdam club to a long-awaited Eredivisie title and the Dutch Cup. Picture: Getty Images
Johan Cruyff finished his career at Feyenoord, helping the Rotterdam club to a long-awaited Eredivisie title and the Dutch Cup. Picture: Getty Images
Share this article
1
Have your say

His appearances at the three great citadels of Glasgow football may be more readily recalled when reflecting on Johan Cruyff’s high-profile visits to Scotland during his playing career. But the Dutch superstar’s less-heralded and final competitive outing on Scottish soil is just as firmly etched in the memories of those who were involved in it.

Having played at Ibrox, Hampden and Celtic Park for Ajax, Cruyff found himself heading to Paisley in the remarkable swansong season of his career which he spent with their great rivals Feyenoord.

St Mirren's former captain Tony Fitzpatrick said he was in awe of Johan Cruyff. Picture: SNS

St Mirren's former captain Tony Fitzpatrick said he was in awe of Johan Cruyff. Picture: SNS

Irked by Ajax’s decision not to offer him a new contract in the summer of 1983, the then 36-year-old Cruyff penned a one-year deal with the Rotterdam club which was reputed to be worth around £400,000.

It proved money well spent as Cruyff inspired Feyenoord to their first Eredivisie title for ten years, along with a Dutch Cup triumph, before hanging up his boots for good.

That 1983-84 campaign also saw Feyenoord paired with St Mirren in the first round of the Uefa Cup, an event which understandably created a massive stir locally.

“The very idea of a player like him coming to Paisley and gracing the Love Street pitch was very special for the town and our club,” recalls Tony Fitzpatrick, now chief executive of Saints and who went head-to-head with the great man in midfield in front of a fevered home crowd of over 10,000 in the first leg in September 1983.

St Mirren goalkeeper Billy Thomson flies throught the air to snatch the ball from Feyenoord's Hoekstra and Houtman. Picture: Brian Stewart

St Mirren goalkeeper Billy Thomson flies throught the air to snatch the ball from Feyenoord's Hoekstra and Houtman. Picture: Brian Stewart

“From the moment the draw was made, there was a tremendous amount of excitement about it.

“Just to get Feyenoord was a big enough thing in itself for St Mirren. But I know every player in our dressing room was absolutely buzzing at the prospect of playing against Johan Cruyff.”

For Fitzpatrick, who had just recovered from an injury to return to the Saints side, it was a daunting as well as a memorable experience. The hosts performed admirably, but lost 1-0 to a 29th-minute goal from emerging star Ruud Gullit which took a cruel deflection off defender Mark Fulton.

Fitzpatrick was detailed to man-mark Cruyff, although there were no specific instructions on how to carry out the task from manager Ricky McFarlane.

A young 
Ruud Gullit in action for Feyenoord at Love Street against St Mirren in the UEFA Cup in 1983. Picture: SNS

A young Ruud Gullit in action for Feyenoord at Love Street against St Mirren in the UEFA Cup in 1983. Picture: SNS

“The gaffer just said ‘All the best!’,” he says with a smile. “I think the closest I got to Cruyff all night was when he ran past me celebrating Feyenoord’s goal.

“You are in awe of a player like that at first, especially when you try and make your mark on him early in the game and he just spins away from you and leaves you standing.

“I knew it was going to be a hard night for me. I remembered Graeme Sinclair had done a good job of marking Cruyff when Celtic beat Ajax in the European Cup the previous season. But I found it tough that night. I know he was getting on in years then, but he was still the best player in the world in my eyes.

“He was able to go from just walking with the ball, seemingly posing no threat at all, to suddenly accelerating at top speed over ten yards. His passing and awareness were amazing.

“Every time the ball came to him, you could hardly get near him. He was spraying the ball about beautifully. His sheer grace and the way he ran with the ball was something to behold.

“I had watched him on TV when I was younger, doing the ‘Cruyff turn’ and lighting up European Cup finals and the 1974 World Cup.

“It was guys like him who inspired you to try and become a professional footballer. He was one of the guys I really admired, along with the likes of Kenny Dalglish and Michel Platini, and I was fortunate to end up playing against all of them at different times. I can always take those memories into my later years.

“Apart from being an incredible player, Cruyff was also a proper gentleman. Before and after the game at Love Street, he was a very nice guy to talk to. I didn’t get his shirt afterwards, I wish I had. If I remember rightly, I think he kept it.

“It was actually a really good game. We played well and should have got at least a draw.”

St Mirren lost the second leg in Rotterdam 2-0 to second-half goals from Wim van Til and Andrey Zhelyazkov, Feyenoord completing a 3-0 aggregate win in what would prove to be the penultimate European tie of Cruyff’s career.

He scored his last European goal in the next round against Spurs at White Hart Lane but Feyenoord lost 6-2 on aggregate to the eventual winners of the tournament that season.

Cruyff, though, would make one last appearance in Scotland before the campaign ended. In January 1984, Feyenoord took on Rangers at Ibrox in a challenge match sponsored by KLM Airlines.

For Jock Wallace, then in his second spell as Rangers manager, it was a reunion with Cruyff who had captained Ajax to victory against the Ibrox club in the inaugural European Super Cup 11 years earlier.

In the build-up to the friendly, Wallace recalled his audacious bid to sign Cruyff in 1981 when he was manager of Leicester City.

“He was a free agent at the time [after his spell in the North American Soccer League],” Wallace told Rangers News. “The deal was all agreed and I expected him just to phone me back and say ‘yes’.

“By 6:30pm on the day we had arranged to talk, he still hadn’t called and I began to get uneasy about the deal. I spent hours trying to track him and eventually got through to him about 10pm.

“He told me there were other factors involved and said ‘They are exercising their option’. I never asked who ‘they’ were. I didn’t think that was my business. But I wished him all the best, even though I was very disappointed that he wasn’t going to come to Leicester.”

Cruyff, who joined Levante in Spain rather than Leicester at that time, greeted Wallace warmly at Ibrox ahead of a match played despite near hurricane-force wind, rain and sleet. Almost 17,000 fans saw Cruyff shine in a 3-3 draw, setting up one goal and scoring another, before Feyenoord collected the KLM Challenge Trophy by winning a penalty shoot-out.

His future visits to Scotland would be restricted to his passion for golf. But as he did everywhere else in the world, Cruyff left an indelible impression on those lucky enough to witness him gracing a Scottish football stadium.