Dutch football has blessed us with some great footballers, amazingly they also have a strong history in providing great families of footballers, with many famous brothers and also twins. The Dutch brothers I want to shine light on though are the Mühren brothers. Gerrie Mühren and his younger brother Arnold, whom British fans will recognise or at least they should. Arnold Mühren played in the Ipswich Town team, who under Sir Bobby Robson won the UEFA Cup as well as narrowly missing out on the league finishing second in England’s top flight two years running. He would then be transferred to Manchester United, helping them win the 1983 FA Cup and becoming a cult hero in the process, thanks to his thunderous left foot, he was also one of the few players outside the United Kingdom and Ireland who were playing in England in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
Gerrie, the older brother by 5 years, broke through into the Ajax set up before his brother and kept him out of the team, was also a left-footer, a real artist on the pitch whose travels took him to Spain. In Seville, for Real Betis, he was part of the Betis team that won the Copa Del Rey in 1977 but was denied a winners medal as foreigners were not allowed to play in the competition at the time. He would be named Spain’s player of the year despite the restrictions to his playing time, becoming a legend of the club having only played 3 seasons. Like many of the Dutch greats, the Mühren brothers learnt their trade on the streets, not far from Amsterdam (approx 18km) in the beautiful village of Volendam; a different world entirely from the capital.
The Spanish village
Volendam is a small, beautiful fishing village, a hit with tourists for its picturesque dwellings. In the early part of the 20th century, numerous artists would treat the village as a retreat, Picasso and Renoir both spending time there, but more amazing for such a small village it has created so many talented individuals. The pop groups Band Zonder Naam (Band Without a Name) and The Cats both come from the village. The Cats made noise all over the world in the 60s-80s, BZN although having limited international success is huge in Holland.
Living up to the British stereotype, everyone in Volendam seems to be related in some way, the founder and leading member of The Cats was another Arnold Mühren, the footballer’s cousin. Jan and Pé Mühren were twins in a family of twelve, Jan was the father of the footballers while Pé became a writer.
BZN helped produce another household name in Holland, Jan Smit a singer turned TV presenter and in 2013 he became a board member on the villages professional football team FC Volendam whose stadium announcer was once Pé Mühren and he now has a stand named after him.
The club in the 90’s was a prominent figure in the top-flight Eredivisie made up of homegrown players. However, fortunes changed at the turn of the millennium. The club has only spent two seasons in the top flight since 1998, being relegated straight back down in 03/04 and 08/09 respectively. Sheffield Wednesday fans will be very familiar with the name Wim Jonk, born in Volendam the centre midfielder who was also blessed with a fantastic passing range and a hard work ethic played for Ajax (winning the UEFA Cup in 1994), before heading to Inter Milan. After returning to Holland with PSV, Jonk ended his career in England with Wednesday where he too became a cult hero. Jonk after a stint running Ajax’s famous youth academy is now back home, managing FC Volendam with the vision of returning them to the Eredivisie.
As previously mentioned Volendam is situated just outside Amsterdam, however, its inhabitants have a very Latin feel to them – the village is one of the only places in Holland that is 100 per cent catholic. They say that during a war between Holland and Spain hundreds of years ago, the Basques were the ones who created Volendam, transforming it from a tiny harbour that served neighbouring Edam into the vibrant, well-knitted community it is now while leaving behind some of their Latin origins and beliefs. This helps interpret why this small village has generated so many great talents.
I’m going to start with Gerrie, not just because he is the older brother, having never played in England like his brother did his name will sometimes slip the memory when remembering the great Dutch players of the 70’s, also having both learnt their trade on the streets of their beloved home, playing together all the time means that Gerrie taught his younger brother Arnold a trick or two.
Keepy-ups in the Bernabeu.
Gerrie started his career at Volendam, in 1968 he moved to Ajax, spending 8 years in Amsterdam, 8 years that included pretty much all the trophies available to players at club level. Gerrie’s early career at Ajax was under the guidance of Rinus Michels, the man who developed and made famous the ‘total football’ brand of football. Ajax famously won three back-to-back European Cups in the years 1970-73, with Michels leaving after the first triumph to be replaced by Stefan Kovacs who led ajax to the latter two victories in Europe.
Ajax were dominating Europe even after Michels had left for Barcelona, it was still his beliefs and with help of the golden age of players Ajax were enjoying meant that Kovacs management approach, was that of taking a back seat. He made slight tactical tweaks but would let his assistant Bobby Haarms organize training and the day to day stuff. Johan Cruyff and Piet Kaiser were given extra power over the team, understandably when taking into account their talent, however, it was Gerrie who was given the duty of slotting penalties away, remembering that the Dutch are famously poor at spot-kicks, Gerrie was a master. Gerrie was an ever-present on the left side of midfield, his vision and technique brought great balance to the teams attack and his late runs into the box brought him plenty of goals, it’s his character and the way him, his brother and so many Dutchmen look at the game that I love most though.
Despite all the trophies, the dominating performances and fantastic individuals, the most cherished moment from this team, one of the greatest ever, happened in Madrid in April 1973. In the semi-final of the European Cup second leg, Ajax won the first leg at home 2-1 against Real Madrid.
In front of a hostile crowd of 110,000 in the Bernabeu, Gerrie was playing against the team he supported as a child, mainly because the great Madrid team of Puskas and Di Stefano was the first European football to be televised in Holland. “When I was young, we saw Real on TV. They played nice attacking football. It was my dream to play nice soccer against Real Madrid” Gerrie was quoted saying this in an interview for the book ‘Brilliant orange’. Gerrie, when he grew up from watching his heroes would go on to play Real Madrid seven times in his career. Winning seven times.
In the 1973 semi-final however it wasn’t just the victory that has stuck in everyone’s head. Gerrie scored in the first half to put Ajax ahead. In the second half, would be the moment that really stamped home that the most dominant team on the continent was no longer Real Madrid but Ajax. Gerrie received a looping cross-field pass from Wim Suurbier to the left of the centre circle, unbelievably he caught the ball on his left foot and proceeded to begin juggling the ball, left-right-left-right-left. In-front of 110,000, he was doing keepy-ups in the European Cup semi-final. The crowd erupted into contagious applause, it spread all over the towering terraces. A moment that seemed to last an age, Mühren ended it by simply allowing the ball to drop and played a simple pass to Krol who went charging in from left-back, charged from the moment he just witnessed he burst passed two Madrid defenders before narrowly shooting over the bar.
This sounds like the act of a showman, although it did rile up the Madrid players and Gerrie received some backlash from his teammates for doing it as they ended up being kicked up a height, you have to take into account the type of character Gerrie was. He claimed afterwards it was all he could think of doing while waiting on Krol to catch up with play.
After that game in Madrid, the Mühren brothers walked away from the stadium together, surrounded by Madrid fans who were discussing what they had just seen with great excitement. They saw the Mühren brothers but did not recognize them. In fact they thought they were merely fans of Ajax. They approached the brothers who couldn’t speak Spanish and started mimicking the juggling motion. Arnold pointed at his brother and went “this is the guy who did the juggling”. They didn’t believe him though as they couldn’t imagine that a superstar footballer would just be walking the streets with normal people. Gerrie’s beliefs on being a celebrity were very egalitarian and deeply Dutch. “A doctor came to me to ask for my autograph and I asked him for his autograph instead. it is only luck that we could play soccer; we could not see how good we were. We needed the crowd; the crowd needed us” Gerrie also went on to say, “Its better to be modest. In Holland, they are a little bit cool and I prefer that. No one here has ever asked for my autograph. I am one of them. In Volendam it is normal; everyone lives normal lives.”
Seville: a home from home.
At the start of the 1974-75 season, it was looking more likely that Cruyff would eventually join his old mentor Michels in Catalunya. After Ajax claimed there third consecutive European Cup, Kovacs left and was replaced by a new coach. George Knobel, who got off to a terrible start when he allegedly ordered a team meeting to decide who would be captain for the upcoming season. He decided to take Kovacs back seat approach to new levels, asking the squad to anonymously vote who they wanted to be the captain for the upcoming season (Knobel later declared he was only following the tradition of the club and that Haarms had telt him that’s how it was always done). It caused great divides in an already tired group. Cruyff lost his captaincy, receiving between 3-7 votes (the actual results have never been disclosed) and the squad was slowly dissolving. Cruyff left for Barcelona, igniting a mass exodus. Gerrie Mühren signed for Real Betis.
Gerrie was once dubbed the ‘forgotten football hero’ of Dutch football, something that he never really seen as a big deal due to his humble nature. In the city of Seville however, he is far from forgotten. “In Seville, they treat me like a king. I don’t like it. It’s better to be modest.”
Gerrie and his family loved their time in Seville, his wife talked about the similarities to Volendam. Grietje Mühren, talked fondly of the city they lived in during the time her husband spent playing for Real Betis “The people are hospitable just like in Volendam. When people meet outside on the street, we would have dinner with them in the evening, or they would come to us”.
Gerrie arrived at Real Betis in 1976, the Hungarian manager Ferenc Szusza was to be his new coach and they put together arguably one of the greatest ever Real Betis squads in their history. Legendary forward Rafael Gordillo also joined the squad in the same season, after being promoted from the B team. Real Betis would go on to win the Copa Del Rey that season, as previously mentioned without Gerrie due to the laws on foreign players. Remarkably though despite not being part of the cup winning squad, his class was rewarded from the federation as Gerrie Mühren was named the Spanish footballer of the year.
This was his most cherished award and sat in a prime position in his living room back in Volendam once he retired. The main reason he cherished it so much was he won this award when his old friends Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens were at Barcelona and Johnny Rep was at Valencia and it was Gerrie who won the prize.
In his first game, he was put up against city rivals Sevilla, on the first impression, Gerrie would win over the whole Real Betis fanbase in the most bizarre but most ‘Mühren way’ possible.
The fans knew of his footballing talents, but after a shocking team performance and more importantly a defeat at the hands of their fierce rivals, the Betis fans were furious at full-time, with several hundred of them surrounding the stadium to express their feelings. The players and staff were diverted to a back exit where they knew they wouldn’t run into any furious supporters.
Gerrie walked straight out the front door.
At first, there was silence, then they broke into applause, the fans dubbed him ‘hombre de cojones’ which translates to ‘man with balls’. In his first season, he played fantastically as a midfielder just like he did at Ajax, mainly operating on the left. He spent three seasons at Betis and towards the end started to play more as a defensive midfielder in a free role, picking the ball up and starting the attacks from deep. Betis were relegated the season after the cup triumph but were very unlucky to find themselves in the relegation zone, inconsistency proving fatal. They bounced straight back up in Gerrie’s final season. Betis fans are known for being quite aggressive but Gerrie Mühren certainly won them over and will always be remembered as one of their true greats.
Life after Betis.
Gerrie was given the perfect goodbye gift from Betis, in the summer of 1979, it was announced that Gerrie would be returning home. Real Betis organised a friendly match with FC Volendam to wave goodbye to their hero. In the first half, Gerrie was playing for Real Betis, after the break, he swapped the green and white jersey for the orange FC Volendam shirt. The fans in the crowd were brought to tears, they just weren’t ready to see him leave.
Gerrie had spent 10 years at the top of the European game, after making his debut for Ajax in 1968 to the transfer back to where it all started for him in 1979. He spent a season back at Volendam before moving to MVV Maastricht for a season in 1980/81. Seiko SA was the best team in Hong Kong in the ’80s and Gerrie Mühren added 2 league titles to his honours in the two seasons he played for them in 81/82. He returned to Holland with Football Club Dordrecht (DS’79) in 1982 in the two seasons he spent with them he won promotion before being relegated back down to the Eerste Divisie the following season. Before retiring Gerrie had one last stint at his beloved Volendam, he called it a day on the most spectacular but not widely enough respected career in 1985.
As club careers go his 10 years at Ajax and Real Betis should have been enough to cement him in football history books forever, maybe his lack of presence in the Dutch national squad prevented his name from being mentioned with the worlds greatest. He had a chance to announce his presence to the world in 1974 when Rinus Michels took Holland so famously close to winning the World Cup. Gerrie would have been one of the certified starters in that squad and was called up, however, he put his family first and decided not to go to the tournament as his son was ill, despite his wife telling him to play he decided against it and to stay in Volendam that summer. He made 10 appearances for his country leading up to that tournament but would never play again.
After retiring he never stayed far away from the game, he had a scouting job with Ajax, him and his brother Arnold also with financial support from Reebok travelled the Netherlands coaching. Visiting around 150 amateur clubs, teaching basic technique and passing skills. This sums up how Gerrie approached the game, not just as a spectacle but mainly a strategical game that the players must enjoy just as much as the spectators. ”I didn’t like the crowd making noise. You have to be able to listen. Atmosphere is good but if there was a noise near me, I would move to the other side of the stadium. I want to hear the game, the players, the ball…”.
Sadly on the 19th of September 2013, Gerrie Mühren passed away. He died of Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS) in his home town of Volendam. His legacy will live on forever but especially in the hearts of Ajax and Real Betis fans, his name did reach admirers from all over the world it must be said despite the previously mentioned nickname of the ‘forgotten hero’. In Jamaica at the Museum that accompanies Bob Marley’s grave is a book, In the book, are names of people whom Bob Marley admired. Gerrie Mühren is included.
I for one am glad I haven’t forgotten (discovered due to my age) the career of Geradus Dominicus Hyacinthus Mühren, to give you his birth name, as it has given me great joy in watching back that great Ajax team and discovering these great stories about him. If from reading this you think the name Mühren has given enough to the world of football then think again. To get the full picture of the Mühren legacy we have to look at his younger brother Arnold. But that’s for another day I suppose….