Oranje Wednesdays: Stanley Menzo – The first ‘modern keeper’

Oranje Wednesdays is a new regular Dutch football feature on Just Football. Today we take a trip down memory lane to look at Stanley Menzo, the first modern keeper:

It was fitting that Athens was the backdrop of Ajax ending their fourteen year wait for European silverware – the Greek capital a stone’s throw away from Salamis Island where their namesake ruled as King – when they won the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987. Despite the calibre of players, the real star as far as Johan Cruijff was concerned was keeping goal.

The Dutch giants overcame FC Lokomotive Leipzig in a slender 1-0 victory, the goal from the head of skipper Marco van Basten (which proved to be his last in the fabled Red and White jersey) from a perfectly executed cross from right-back Sonny Silooy. Since his arrival in 1985, after being granted permission to take up the coaching post at Ajax by the Dutch FA (KNVB), Cruijff set about restructuring the team as close to his vision notably implementing a 3-4-3 formation (loosely as a 3-3-1-3).

But what set Cruijff apart from his predecessors was his methodological cerebral thinking of the specific roles and functions of every player including the man between the sticks.

By then goalkeepers weren’t thought of so much, with the greatest of respect, as long as they carried out their duties: making saves at the right time and keeping the ball out of the back of the net, everything was then fine. But that wasn’t enough for Cruijff he had a vision of the perfect goalkeeper: an outfield player in gloves.

It had always bothered Cruijff that keepers just stopped shots. It was a waste of a player, Cruijff thought. He wanted a keeper who could play football. Wouldn’t it be perfect, he thought; if you could have 11 footballers rather than 10, and it just happened that one of them could also keep the ball out? Thus the keeper effectively is the eleventh man.

The genesis of Cruijff’s idea traces to the mid 1970s when he and his mentor Rinus Michels presided over the national team during the 1974 World Cup. There he – controversially to some – took FC Amsterdam goalkeeper Jan Jongbloed, a close friend (where the controversy arose) and turned him into an extra defender. The player dubbed the total footballer’s biggest contribution to modern football may just be the inventor, and greatest exponent, of the sweeper-keeper.

The one that got the ball rolling, the one he’s kept in high regard was Stanley Menzo. He was fast, courageous two-footed and adept at the one-touch pass. At 6ft 1 he wasn’t the tallest but made up for that with other facets of his game that made him the first of a kind and later, at Ajax at least, the blueprint of the modern keeper.

Stanley Menzo

Born in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname, on October 1963, he joined Ajax at the age of 19 in 1980 from amateur club AVV Zeeburgia, but swiftly sent out on loan to HFC Haarlem before returning to be Cruijff’s number one not before establishing himself in goal at Haarlem. He was the one. The legendary number 14 felt he could be the first goalkeeper that really imprinted his contribution on the field of play.

Stanley Menzo first modern keeperIn time his reading of the game improved to the optimum level required, his swift footwork allowing the ball to move at a quicker pace as Ajax enjoyed playing ‘circulation football’. Menzo in truth could play excellent football, in accordance with Cruijff’s philosophy, which also insisted on keepers refraining as much as possible – if not totally – from picking up the ball if passed back.

Instead of launching the ball out to restart attacks, a trait commonly seen in most goalkeepers today, Menzo played it out – either to the sweeper or full-backs, or on some occasions bypassing them with a pinpoint pass to either winger – as the team gradually built an attack.

Ajax played the vast majority of games in the opposition half – with a high defensive line – so automatically there was a big gap between Menzo and his defence. This also gradually reduced the number of shots he had to face. If the ball was played back to him, he needed to recycle possession automatically and keep the ball moving. Something he did effectively.

Though Cruijff wasn’t always hands on, in his own words:

“As the coach of a top club, you cannot possibly be an expert at everything. The trick is to collect a team of the best possible specialist around you, to help with matters you know little about.”

A goalkeeping coach was appointed, Frans Hoek, who Menzo grew a special bond with. Hoek bought into Cruijff’s ethos on how the modern goalkeeper should operate. Hoek would later continue and enhance Cruijff’s ideals with Louis van Gaal and be Van der Sar’s mentor, forging a similar relationship he did with Menzo.

Early on Menzo was prone to the odd mistake – letting in what his manager described as ‘cheap goals’ – and wasn’t taken seriously. Despite these setbacks Cruijff stood by him on the grounds he didn’t have anyone else who could do Menzo’s attacking job. Gradually his confidence grew and he became the first effective sweeper-keeper. Former teammates would later say he was good enough to play outfield, in the second tier at least.

Cruijff’s Way

On domestic footing the Cruijff tenure’s only reward was two KNVB Cups, in fairness he was competing against a truly remarkable PSV side under the guidance of Guus Hiddink and his Ajax side was – as many before and since – very youthful.

With Menzo in goal Ajax were always in the top three best defensive sides in the league during Cruijff’s tenure, but that didn’t really matter to him. What mattered was Menzo’s contribution offensively. In the two seasons he played under Cruijff Ajax would average 2.26 goals per game: most of the patterns that led to their goals became predictable but still the opposition were repeatedly bamboozled.

Cruijff played three mobile centre halves plus one covering space, almost a holding midfielder rather than sweeper (from Peter Boeve, Frank Verlaat, Danny Blind, Sonny Silooy, Ronald Spelbos, Frank Rijkaard), two controlling midfielders (from Aron Winter, Jan Wouters, Arnold Mühren, Rob Witschge) with responsibilities to feed the attack-minded players and defend, one shadow striker (Johnny Bosman, Arnold Scholten), two touchline-hugging wingers (from Dennis Bergkamp, Johnny van’t Schip, Rob de Wit, Ally Dick) and one all-round centre forward (Marco van Basten).

This is the classic 3-4-3. His mentor Michels once dubbed Cruijff’s alteration “spectacular but risky”.

For example; the 1987 Cup Winners’ Cup starting XI was as follows: Menzo; Silooy, Verlaat, Boeve; Rijkaard, Wouters, Winter, Mühren; Van’t Schip, Van Basten, Witschge

Menzo’s impact was great and even though the team slowly disbanded he retained his position in the side under Cruijff’s successors including later Van Gaal until an injury in April 1991 against Sparta Rotterdam saw him limp off the field of play to be replaced by Edwin van der Sar. The rest as they say is history.

Though in fairness the succession wasn’t swift, it was a fateful night in the UEFA Cup quarterfinal March of 1993 that after four goals conceded against Auxerre, Van Gaal decided to start Van der Sar in the return leg. Ajax won; Menzo’s time in Amsterdam was drawing to an end.

Nerves would also play a part in his international career with only six caps to his name. During his peak years at Ajax he would understudy Joop Hiele and notably Hans van Breukelen, though when given his chance at the start of the 1994 World Cup qualifiers he didn’t take it with both hands and subsequently Van der Sar assumed duties.

However his legacy, even if overly forgotten, remains set in stone. Menzo heavily contributed to two of Ajax’s three European trophies won in under a ten year spell and his impact was great from the very first game he played. Through Menzo Ajax had a model example for any future number one, exactly in accordance with Cruijff’s vision.

Today the role of the keeper – to a certain degree – is more in line with Cruijff’s vision all those years ago. Cruijff you can argue sowed the seeds that would lead to keepers like Edwin van der Sar, Víctor Valdés and Piet Velthuizen of Vitesse, where Menzo today serves as assistant manager.

(photo credit: Roberto Maldeno via Flickr)

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