By Trevor Haylett
It needed only a glance at the ecstatic scenes inside the Olimpico Stadio at the end of AFC Ajax's decisive game against AS Roma in the UEFA Champions League to understand the size of the Dutch club's achievement in qualifying for the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
Ajax's joy represented both the delight of young players who had secured a notable achievement and also the surprise felt throughout the Netherlands at some overdue success in Europe's premier club competition.
Once, the involvement of the Amsterdam club in the tournament's latter stages was routine. European champions three years running in the early 1970s, they established a reputation as one of the continent's major forces. In the early 1990s Ajax were a shining example of the fruits that can follow investment of time and money in a youth policy. But, following successive appearances in the 1995 and 1996 finals, not only did Ajax's fortunes fade but no rival Dutch club emerged to take their place. Since the introduction of the second group stage in 1999, the Netherlands only once had a representative in the second phase and had no quarter-final participants - until now.
This season it was not expected that Ajax would get beyond the first group stage. Imagine then the reaction when in the second stage they finished as runners-up in Group B behind Valencia CF, with the might of Arsenal FC and Roma left trailing behind.
It is a romantic story for those who believe in the power of a club's production line rather than spending power, of the rewards that come from a policy of discovering young players and seeing them progress through sound coaching. In comparison with the seven other clubs who next week begin the sprint finish towards the final on 28 May, Ajax are miniscule players in the transfer market.
Schooled the Ajax way
This season, Andy van der Meyde, Steven Pienaar and Rafael van der Vaart, all schooled the Ajax way, have made vital contributions in the European adventure and 18-year-old Wesley Sneijder has already had a taste of competition at this level. There is also promising defender Nigel de Jong, who had just turned 18 when he scored the equaliser at Highbury to earn a point against Arsenal.
After an unsuccessful period of investment in the transfer market Ajax have once again put the focus on their academy system where former players such as Danny Blind, Marco van Basten and John van't Schip have had key roles.
Theo Ruizenaar, uefa.com's correspondent in Amsterdam, says it is not just the number of players that Ajax produce but the way the club have faith in them that is vital. "They are never afraid to use untried players in big fixtures and that dates back to Johan Cruyff's time," he said. "In the 1987 [UEFA] Cup Winners’ Cup final he named Frank Verlaat in his starting lineup even though he had not yet played a first-team game.
"Ronald Koeman has continued that philosophy. You never hear him moan about injuries or talk about players that are missing. He only concentrates on the players that are available and that means the new players going into the team don't look on themselves as stand-ins."
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