In part one I managed just about to sum up Gerrie Mühren’s career, his brother Arnold will be the focus of part two. As you are reading this I want you to try and envision them as an extension of each other. Both made their own great legacies in the game but their core beliefs and talents were much the same. Gerrie was the older brother, laying the base on the streets of Volendam where the brothers would first play together. Their played together at Ajax in the ’70s but when the Ajax team was dismantled and Gerrie headed for Spain, Arnold stayed in Holland keeping his brothers’ modesty and thunderous left foot but paving his own way and spreading the Mühren name across the continent.
Learning from the best
“My brother played with his friends, when I was five or six I started joining in” Arnold recalls back to his childhood in the ‘Brilliant Orange’ book by David Winner. “We weren’t exceptional. Everybody could play to a high standard. If you couldn’t play football, bad luck you had to go in goal.” Arnold also says that playing with a tennis ball most of the time is what gave him and his brother the great technique. The hard ground of the road meant that he learned to keep his balance to avoid being hurt when falling and the speed at which the games were played on the hard ground helped them play quickly. “No one ever told us how to play. It was all natural. When we joined Volendam when we were twelve, we already knew how to play.” Arnold’s attitude along with this experience of round the clock street football allowed him to become the perfect professional.
He met his wife when he was nineteen and never took his eye off the goal of becoming the best player he could be. “I was only interested in football – I lived like a monk! No smoking, no drinking, go to bed early. People say I didn’t have a youth but I’ve had the best life.’’ Arnold, despite his professional approach, maintained his core reasons for playing football were always as he enjoyed playing it. “It started off as a hobby, to take part with a group of players. When I ended my career it was still a hobby – a well-paid hobby. You have to see it as a hobby.”
After graduating from Volendam’s academy, Arnold followed in his brothers’ footsteps by heading to Ajax at the age of 20. Arnold was still young and didn’t make that many appearances, his older brother the preferred choice. Arnold was waiting for his chance. Armed with the same modesty as his brother Arnold once said “It’s in our character (the Mühren brothers), putting yourself in the service of others. Football is a team sport in which you have to use each other’s qualities. We were at the service of the better players’’. This quote shows the professionalism and determination of Arnold, something his team-mates would take note of, most importantly Johan Cruyff who would eventually end up calling on Arnold’s services 12 years after the two played together.
Despite his bit-part role, Arnold still managed to pick up some silverware in his first two seasons at Ajax. Picking up two league titles, the KNVB Cup and the last of the triumphant trio of European Cups with Arnold starting in the famous second leg in the Bernabeu. When the team was broken up the season after the third European Cup, Arnold was one of the few names that stayed. He played on earning more game time in the 73/74 season before leaving and heading for FC Twente in the summer of 1974.
On the opposite end of the country to Amsterdam and Volendam is the city of Enschede. This would be Arnold’s new stomping ground, spending for 4 years at FC Twente taking the club to the final of the UEFA Cup in 1975, losing to Borussia Mönchengladbach. He would also add another KNVB Cup to his cabinet as FC Twente won the competition in 1977. Now he was playing a more prominent role in the team compared to his role at Ajax he was starting to get the recognition that his talents deserved, although relationships with the management deteriorated at the end of the 1977-78 season. Arnold had hoped for a move back to his home FC Volendam but lack of funds prevented that, he spent the summer back at his home in Volendam contemplating his next move, when he had a knock at the door.
The Tractor Boys
His performances for Twente would catch the eye of the late great Sir Bobby Robson, so much so that when Robson heard of his availability regarding the fall out at Twente he got on the next flight to Amsterdam and headed for Volendam himself. Robson turned up at the door of the Mühren’s home in Volendam with the hope of persuading Arnold to join the club, after Robson left Arnold sat with his wife as they researched everything about the club and the area of Suffolk, he knew it would be a huge risk to play in England but it also would be a chance to jump-start his career.
The next day Arnold and his wife Geerie boarded a private plane hired by Robson to take them to Ipswich. A final touch from Robson was organised as the jet flew over Portman road and the training pitches adjacent. There was a training session being held, all the players and staff looked up and gave the welcoming guests a wave, upon landing the Mühren’s were welcomed with a swarm of fans chanting Arnold’s name. Bobby was trying all his tricks but when Arnold left to return home without agreeing to sign, Sir Bobby thought he had missed his chance. However, Arnold who was most impressed by Robson’s approach during the visit would call as soon as he got home to confirm that he would sign.
Robson had been at Ipswich for nine years before he signed Arnold, taking them to becoming a comfortable top six side in England’s top flight. However, despite winning the FA Cup in 1977-78 Robsons’ team needed some fresh blood. £150,000, a pretty hefty sum of money back in 1978 is what it took Ipswich to land Arnold Mühren.
In the following February, Ipswich went out and bought Frans Thijssen who was a team-mate of Arnolds at Twente, the duo formed a ‘semi-wide midfield’ partnership, anyone who’s familiar with the term ‘half-space’ will know the areas in which these two operated, well before the term became famous amongst analysts of the game. These two would ensure that Ipswich stayed away from the long ball style of play, their newly mastered fluid football would send the team flying up the league table.
Like all foreign imports to the English game, the first question is always ‘will they handle it?’ as if the game over here is far superior to anywhere else in the world. Well, Arnold replied to that question in the best way possible. He would ask the question, would England handle him? Instead of him adapting to the English game, he made the English game adapt to him.
He had the perfect manager to help him achieve this in Sir Bobby Robson, not known for his excellent tactical approach, but what made him one of the best was more his second to none man-management and ability to develop new players thanks to his caring and enthusiastic manner which would get the most out of his players. Arnold talked about his debut for Ipswich with David Winner for the book ‘Brilliant Orange’, he remembered it was against Liverpool and he was up against Terry McDermott, “He was a very good runner and we ran up and down the wing all day. Neither of us touched the ball because it kept going over our heads”. This was a major culture shock to Arnold who was now noticing the difference compared to that in his home nation.
After the game, Arnold went straight to see his manager and told Robson, “It’s better to put the linesman in instead of me. He can run up and down all day, too. If you want to get the best out of me, you have to give me the ball. That’s what I need. That’s why you bought me.” Now I talked about his humble nature and his ability to sit back and let others take the lead role, however, this act on his debut amongst a team that were all British and played in the same way for years, shows that Arnold also knew when to become the leader, not for his own personal gains, he didn’t want to be the star player he just wanted to get the most out of his teammates and that’s exactly what he did.
Ipswich eventually learned to feed Arnold the ball and when Frans Thijssen arrived the two Dutchmen gave Ipswich another dimension. Their vision and skill would bring and poise and intelligence to the team but Arnold also really admired the English players saying “They have things I didn’t have. So strong in the air, strong tacklers. You can run all day. If you could put Dennis Bergkamp’s skills with Tony Adams’s strength and spirit, you’d have the complete player.’’
In the 13 years in which Robson was manager of the club he only signed 18 players, instead of bringing in new signings he was able to promote players through the ranks of the well-stocked academy. One of those youth players is now my Sunday League team’s manager, he made the trip from Newcastle to Suffolk as a schoolboy and tells some great tales of his time at the club.
Kevin Dodds, a left-back looking to take the place of legendary full-back Mick Mills was part of the Ipswich set up for around 18 months and can vouch for the tales of Robson’s great nature and how it was Robson’s beliefs in making all players as equal as possible that would help create the great atmosphere that would bring the club so much success. Kevin recalls many a training session or match-day where members of the first team would stay behind to watch the youngsters and give them tips on their playing styles and attitudes. Kevin remembers Arnold Mühren being one of these players, even if it wasn’t always technical pointers Arnold and his team-mates would offer attitude and lifestyle tips on how to make sure they landed a pro contract. Arnold was the best man to give advice on professionalism as even by the time he reached England he still hadn’t changed his ways, it was still no drinking and early nights.
“Mühren was a wonderful passer, great vision. I cannot think of anyone I would rate higher as a professional than Arnold. No one works harder and when the match is over, he won’t go out drinking. He goes to bed.’’ To have this said about you from anyone would be credible enough to make you happy, these were the words of Sir Bobby Robson though, so they carry a lot more meaning and help show just the impact Arnold had on the Ipswich team.
Their first season together was slightly stop-start but that’s understandable considering Mühren and Thijssen were still settling and making their mark. The 1980/81 season is remembered by Ipswich Town fans as one of the best ever for the clubs despite them coming so close to winning their first title it was their performance in the UEFA Cup that booked the players into the history books. They won the trophy beating AZ Alkmaar 5-4 on aggregate. The competition was a two-legged final back then, Ipswich won 3-0 at Portman Road. Despite losing 4-2 in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, Ipswich had conquered Europe and Arnold Mühren had added the UEFA Cup to the European Cup he won with Ajax.
The Move Up North
In his final season at Ipswich, the club would again be pushing for the title and would again come up just short, finishing second for the second season in a row. Arnold felt like it was time for a change, Manchester United came calling. Arnold was now 31 so he thought a move to Manchester United would be his last chance to play for such a big club. His first season was certainly a success, playing to his trademark style, using his wand of a left foot to dazzle opponents and burst the net. The most famous of his United goals was to be in the FA Cup final where he would score a penalty in the replay against Brighton, handing Manchester United the cup.
Ron Atkinson would be his manager at Manchester United, a stark contrast to what he dealt with at Ipswich and Sir Bobby. The team was famous for its off-field drinking culture and as it’s not known whether Arnold kept up his no-alcohol lifestyle while at Manchester United, you can still guess that it was a bit of a different environment for Arnold to properly settle though. Remembered by fans as a fantastic player nonetheless and still spent 3 seasons in Manchester before he got a call from an old friend. Manchester United would not be his last chance at a big club in the end.
At the age of 35, with his career at Manchester United nearing its apparent end, when he wasn’t even named in the squad for the final of the FA Cup in 1985, Johan Cruyff was back at Ajax, but this time he was the manager. Cruyff called upon Arnold, after remembering those great qualities shown from their time playing together but also having seen just how great Arnold had become during his time in England.
Winning Everything UEFA had to offer
His time back at Ajax would give him the last European Cup competition that club football has to offer, the now-defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup. Ajax beat Lokomotive Leipzig, with a very young side excusing Mühren. Marco van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Dennis Bergkamp all featured but Mühren insisted he never felt like the father figure of the team. His performances back in his homeland would finally get him the recognition he deserved for his international side too.
For how great Mühren was performing throughout his career, it is criminal that he never made an appearance at a World Cup for his country, the only saving grace for Holland was the fact that they had such depth in quality players. It was just such a shame that Arnold was always overlooked and underrated as a player. However, he would end up having a bigger impact than many when he finally got a decent run in the squad and was called up for the European Championships in 1988.
Mühren as modest as ever never held any grudge on being overlooked, when the tournament came round he stepped up to the plate, as he had done throughout his career at club level. He was 37 when the tournament began and he played as beautiful as ever, helping or to word it better, assisting his country to their first major tournament win, as it was from a cross by Arnold Mühren that Marco van Basten would score the famous impossible volley that clinched the trophy in a 2-0 win over the Soviet Union.
This triumph meant that Arnold Mühren had won every competition that UEFA had to offer, bearing in mind his great assist helped his country win the title, surely Mühren would gloat a little, but no. “Everyone said it was the best cross I ever made but that’s nonsense. Marco made a not very good pass look very good. Before the ball reached my feet, I saw him running free near the penalty area. If I’d controlled the ball, there would have been another situation, so I decided to play the first time. I was trying to play the ball about two yards in front of him. I thought he would control the ball and bring it back into the penalty area. But he finished it! I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Arnold would return to Ajax for another season after the tournament, before retiring in 1989 aged 38. As mentioned in part one, upon retirement the Mühren brothers travelled Holland coaching. Arnold has kept his hand in the coaching pot and after stints at Volendam, he is now coaching full time as part of Ajax’s Academy set-up.
His legacy on the pitch will ring round the world forever thanks to the cross in that final, although Arnold himself also prizes the moment of lifting the Euro 88 trophy with Holland as his own personal career highlight, it must be said he has made plenty other memories to challenge them. Just ask Twente, Ipswich, Manchester United and Ajax fans. I guarantee they will all tell you how brilliant he was.
The Mühren way is the best way
To conclude this two-part piece on the great Mühren brothers, I want to finish with a quote from Arnold, found in the fantastic book by David Winner ‘the brilliant orange’. It helps understand the tactical thought process which helped Arnold become so fantastic, a thought process that he certainly shared with his older brother Gerrie.
“Its a thinking game. It’s not a running around everywhere and just working hard, though of course, you have to work hard too. Every Dutch player wants to control the game. We play the ball from man to man; we wait for openings. That’s how to play football: with your brains not with your feet. You don’t have to be a chess player, but you must think ahead. Before I had the ball I knew exactly what I would do with it. I always knew two or three moves ahead. Before I get the ball I can already see someone moving in front of me, so when the ball arrives I don’t have to think about it. And I don’t have to watch the ball because I have the right technique.”