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Arsenal's first 'Flying Dutchman'

Published: Tuesday 27 September 2005, 8.00CET
As AFC Ajax prepare to welcome Arsenal FC, uefa.com looks back at the career of goalkeeper Gerrit Keizer, who played for both clubs in the 1930s.
by Dan Brennan
Published: Tuesday 27 September 2005, 8.00CET

Arsenal's first 'Flying Dutchman'

As AFC Ajax prepare to welcome Arsenal FC, uefa.com looks back at the career of goalkeeper Gerrit Keizer, who played for both clubs in the 1930s.

The Dutch have a phrase 'vliegende keep', meaning flying keeper, used to describe goalkeepers who are especially acrobatic. It was first coined, apparently, in honour of Gerrit Keizer, who played 302 league games for AFC Ajax between 1933 and 1948.

Arsenal link
Less well documented is the fact that, 65 years before a famous non-flier from the Netherlands first wooed Highbury, Keizer was the original 'Flying Dutchman' at Ajax's visitors tonight, Arsenal FC. "Keizer is an Ajax legend," confirmed Dutch football journalist Jaap de Groot. "But most people won't know he played for Arsenal."

Colour and controversy
Barely having turned 20, Keizer turned up at Highbury in the summer of 1930. Already on the books at Ajax, he had come to England to improve his English. And having "kept a splendid goal" in a couple of trial games, he impressed the legendary Herbert Chapman into signing him. Not only did he contribute to Arsenal's first ever league title, he also brought with him much colour and controversy.

'Crazy character'
His English moniker, the Flying Dutchman, referred as much to his travel habits as his feats between the sticks. Having turned out for Arsenal on a Saturday, Keizer would then fly back to Amsterdam that evening or the following morning, so that he could play for the Ajax second team on the Sunday. He was, in the words of team-mate Cliff Bastin, "a crazy character", who impressed teammates with his American sports car. On the pitch, he was by all accounts, acrobatic and erratic in equal measure.

Foreign threat
He was also the Gunners' first proper overseas player, something which caused a huge furore. Earlier that summer, Chapman had tried to sign the Austrian Rudi Hiden, then regarded as the best in Europe. However, when Hiden landed at the port of Dover, he found himself refused entry by the British Ministry of Labour, egged on by the Football Association, who were concerned at the threat of foreign players to homegrown talent.

Fait accompli
When Chapman turned instead to the Dutchman, the bureaucrats were outraged. But as Keizer was already in the country, and signed as an amateur, there was nothing they could do. However, the officals had their revenge. As a direct response to the Hiden and Keizer affairs, on 1 June 1931 the FA passed a rule effectively banning all foreigners, unless they had been in residence for two years, which remained in place until 1939.

Flying start
Keizer, though, made his Arsenal debut on 30 August 1930 in the season's opener, a 4-1 away win at Blackpool FC, earning plaudits for his display. Despite playing in just one defeat over the next 12 games, including Arsenal's FA Charity Shield victory against Sheffield Wednesday FC, his propensity for error meant he soon fell from grace and drifted into the reserves.

Ajax return
After brief stints with Charlton Athletic FC and Queen's Park Rangers FC, he finally headed back to the Netherlands, and Ajax, in 1933, where, over the next 15 years, he totalled 302 league appearances, eleventh in the club's all-time rankings. He was though to return to Arsenal once more, on urgent business for the Amsterdam club.

Kit supplier
"When Ajax were getting back on their feet directly after the War, they had problems finding strips for the team," recalled his grandson, Peter Keizer. "My granddad offered to contact his old friends at Arsenal to see if they could help. He flew to London and, sure enough, they provided him with a set of kits."

Wardrobe malfunction
So for a short period Ajax played in Arsenal colours. "My grandmother did the laundry and washed all the kits," continued Peter Keizer. "Then one day she mixed up the washes and the sleeves ended up pink, so Ajax stopped wearing them."

Prison sentence
There was one more twist. The entrepreneurial Keizer continued to shuttle between Amsterdam and London, each time bringing back consignments of football kit. It transpired that this was not all he was bringing back. On his return from one trip in late 1947, Dutch customs discovered, concealed within a set of footballs, a substantial quantity of foreign currency. An illegal offence, it earned Keizer a fine of 30,000 guilders and a six-month prison sentence, bringing a sudden end to his playing career.

Business success
It was a temporary blot. Keizer eventually went on to build one of Amsterdam's best known greengrocer businesses, and in 1955 was invited to serve on the Ajax board, a position he held for seven years. He died, aged 70, in 1980.

Club bonds
A pair of his old boots hang in the Ajax Museum as a tribute to his 15 years of service, as does one of those pink-sleeved Arsenal shirts, a nod to the bond he forged between tonight's opponents.

Last updated: 31/01/12 4.47CET

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