What was truly staggering about Dutch football between the mid-1960s and 70s wasn’t that this small nation produced footballers who could be classed as world-class; rather that they produced just so many of them in such a short timespan. This was an incredible generation of talent that like a well-tended garden in the early days of spring seemed to suddenly burst into life and bloom bountifully. Cruyff was its dazzling centrepiece, so radiant and attention-grabbing that it’s easy to forget just how eye-catching the rest could be.
This was an incredible generation of talent that, like a well-tended garden in the early days of spring, seemed to suddenly burst into life and bloom bountifully. Cruyff was its dazzling centrepiece, so radiant and attention-grabbing that it’s easy to forget just how eye-catching the rest could be.
Like Johnny Rep, for example, a footballer who really had just about everything: skill in abundance, a coruscating shot from ridiculous distances, a casual air of nonchalance about his game that just made him even more compelling to watch and, as if all of this wasn’t enough, movie star looks that caused girls across the continent to swoon.
Rep started out with Ajax in the early 1970s and settled comfortably into an attacking role as a winger-cum-centre-forward with the European champions. His skill and natural confidence that bordered on arrogance brought him into conflict with Cruyff, but his talent could not be denied.
An injury to the veteran Sjaak Swart gave him his opportunity during the 1972/73 season and he seized it willingly. Ajax were pursuing their third successive European Cup win and Rep was decisive in making this happen, laying on Gerrie Muhren’s famous semi-final stunner away to Real Madrid and then heading the early winner against Juventus in the Final itself.
Rep only truly flourished once Cruyff left for Barcelona and he relished his new role as the team’s main attacking focus. His stellar progress continued unabated and the following year he was one of his nation’s stand-out players in their run to the World Cup Final. Unabashed about publicly stating his desire to move abroad in pursuit of a bigger wage caused Rep and Ajax to be in constant dispute, at least until he finally got his wish and joined Valencia in 1975.
This was seen as a major coup for the Spanish club that had a historic Dutch connection through the legendary Faas Wilkes, who had played there in the 50s, but it was a move that proved deeply disappointing for both parties. Rep’s wife was back in Amsterdam having just given birth to their second child, so his mind was not fully focused on his football. Early struggles with the language and diet didn’t help either; indeed something he ate brought on food poisoning that forced him to miss the club’s own pre-season tournament.
The team struggled, too, and badly missed the influence of the Austrian Kurt Jara, ironically sold to free up a foreigner berth for Rep. Managers came and went and while Rep’s own form improved – he was Valencia’s top scorer with 13 goals in his second season – he never truly settled in the Spanish game.
In what was a revolutionary move at the time, Rep paid £150,000 to buy out his own Valencia contract so as a free agent he could negotiate his next move on his own terms. In keeping with his occasionally contrary nature, Rep’s next destination was a left-field one.
Corsican minnows Bastia were a coming force in the French game and with local sponsors prepared to finance a high-profile attacking signing to replace the departed Yugoslav star Dragan Dzajic, Rep was seen as an ideal candidate.
From the outset, Rep looked much happier with life at a Bastia team ready to build their play around the mercurial attacking star. Despite a three-month goalless spell, his first season was a success as Bastia finished near the top of Ligue 1 and surprised Europe by going all the way to the final of the UEFA Cup before succumbing to PSV Eindhoven.
Rep was again a key player for his national side at the 1978 World Cup and once again came away with a loser’s medal.
His second season at Bastia was as productive as the first, and by this stage he’d learned to cope with being targeted by opposing defenders and avoid the retaliation that had brought him several red cards. However, financial problems were starting to bite at Bastia meaning the Dutchman and his big wages would have to be jettisoned from the payroll. Rep had scored a magnificent goal away at Saint Etienne that season and the Ligue 1 giants moved to sign him in the summer of 1979.
The next four seasons were the happiest and most productive of Rep’s time abroad. Adored by the passionate ASSE fans, the Dutchman loved playing in front of such appreciative fans as part of an exciting and attacking team that also featured Michel Platini. Rep became a cult-hero with songs sung and poetry written to celebrate his brilliance.
By now, nearing the age of 32, Johnny Rep returned to his native Netherlands in 1983 for what was seen as a gentle winding down of his career. He joined little PEC Zwolle but impressed there so much that Feyenoord moved in for him the following year and he enjoyed two good seasons with the Rotterdam giants. This dazzling and adaptable attacking genius finally retired in 1987 after an injury-plagued last season with Haarlem.
Dutch football has produced many great players over the past three decades, but few who could effortlessly and seamlessly blend the role of winger and striker as Johnny Rep.