John Greig counts himself fortunate to have shared a pitch with a veritable Who’s Who of some of the greatest players of all time during his 17-year career with Rangers and Scotland.
As he digested the sad news of Johan Cruyff’s death yesterday, Greig could pay the Dutch icon no higher compliment than to declare he stood comparison with any of them.
“I played against Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas in 1963 when they were in the latter stages of their careers with Real Madrid and I had not long broken into the Rangers team,” said Greig.
“I was lucky enough to go on and play against fabulous players such as Pele, Eusebio, George Best and Bobby Charlton. But Johan Cruyff was definitely up there with the very best I came across, in terms of pure ability.
“He was definitely a genuine superstar in football terms and it was a privilege to be on the same pitch as him. I’m really sad to hear he has passed away. It’s a sad day for anyone who loves football.”
Greig’s encounter with Cruyff was an historic occasion for European football, coming as Rangers faced Ajax in the inaugural Super Cup in January 1973.
The home and away fixtures against European Cup holders Ajax, which then Rangers general manager Willie Waddell was instrumental in arranging, provided the Ibrox club with high-profile continental competition while they served a season-long Uefa suspension following the pitch invasion which marred their 1972 Cup Winners’ Cup final triumph in Barcelona.
Cruyff was 25 and at the peak of his playing powers as he led Ajax out at Ibrox, side by side with Greig, for the first leg.
In the year which would see him win the second of his three European Footballer of the Year awards, Cruyff scored the second goal in a 3-1 win for the exceptional Ajax side also featuring Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, Arnold Muhren and Johnny Rep.
Rangers were far from discredited and, in the return leg in Amsterdam the following week, they led twice through Alex MacDonald and Quinton Young. But they again succumbed to Ajax’s “Total Football” with Cruyff fittingly scoring the winner in a 3-2 victory.
“At that time, he was becoming one of the best players in the world, if not the very best,” Greig reflected. “Ajax were a fabulous side, as were the Dutch international team at the time. When you think about Dutch football, you automatically think of Johan Cruyff. He was the best of a really outstanding group of players in that Ajax side. I don’t know if you can ever describe being beaten as enjoyable, but it was a great experience to play against a team like that.
“We were a decent team ourselves and didn’t play badly over the two legs, so it tells you just how good they were that they beat us 6-3 on aggregate.
“Cruyff was unbelievable. He was the type of guy you would pay money to go and watch. Thinking about it now, I might have been better on the terracing at Ibrox watching him than trying to stop him!
“Throughout his career, I always looked upon him as someone special, like a Bobby Charlton or someone like that - the type of player and individual that everyone respected and admired. It didn’t surprise me in the least that he went on to become such an influential coach. He was someone who always wanted to be part of a total football situation and that will be his legacy.
“The current generation of fans will look at Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo as the greatest but you can’t compare them with Cruyff, or anyone else from the past, because, obviously, you can only play in the era you live in. But football will always produce talent which stands out from all the rest and Johan Cruyff certainly came into that category.”