One of Sir Alex Ferguson's endearing characteristics is the veneration he still feels, despite his extraordinary longevity, for the grandest names in the sport. It is this appreciation of tradition that makes him insist that Manchester United's encounters with Liverpool remain the biggest matches of any Premier League season — regardless of what the league table might suggest — and he continues to be thrilled when continental competitions provide him with opportunities to visit Europe's most famous stadiums.
It was therefore no surprise to hear him speak in slightly hushed tones about the prospect of Thursday's trip to Europa League opponents Ajax, which will be only the third time the sides have ever met in a competitive fixture. Between the Ajax of the popular imagination and the club's modern incarnation, however, there is a widening chasm and Ferguson's acknowledged that the four-time European champions are "not having a great time at the moment" smacked of respectful understatement. To say that the Netherlands' greatest club are in crisis would be no exaggeration.
On Thursday, Ajax announced that their five-man supervisory board would step down after club icon Johan Cruyff succeeded in a legal battle to prevent the four other members of the board — of which he is a member — from appointing former coach Louis van Gaal as chief executive. Van Gaal's nomination had been announced in November, prompting Cruyff to proclaim that his fellow board members had "gone mad" after they convened to finalise van Gaal's appointment while Cruyff was away in Barcelona.
Central to the conflict is Cruyff's desire to impose his vision of Ajax's future upon the club. The 64-year-old drew up a blueprint in February last year calling for the club's youth training programme to be overhauled and for leading names from the Amsterdam club's glittering past to be installed as youth coaches in place of the incumbent staff.
The ensuing fall-out prompted chairman Uli Coronel, CEO Rick van den Boog and academy director Jan Olde Riekerink to resign, which enabled Cruyff to bring in former Ajax players like Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp to run the academy. Frank de Boer had already taken over as first team coach after Martin Jol stepped down in December 2010.
However, the four other members of the supervisory board clashed with Cruyff over his desire to appoint another Ajax old boy — Tscheu La Ling — as CEO, with the latest edition of World Soccer magazine reporting that Cruyff even brought Ling to a meeting with him despite open opposition from the rest of the board.
It has at this juncture that those other four board members — chairman Steven ten Have, Paul Romer, Marjan Olfers and Edgar Davids — went behind Cruyff's back to bring in van Gaal, whose relationship with Cruyff never recovered after the pair fell out during van Gaal's first stint as Barcelona coach in the late-1990s. Cruyff's very public opposition to the decision shone a light on the internecine squabbling between leading members of the Ajax hierarchy, while ugly stories surfaced alleging that he had told Davids that he was "only on the board because he was black" (an allegation that Cruyff denied).
As well as van Gaal's appointment, the four board members announced that Danny Blind would become the new technical director, even though Cruyff had petitioned for Blind to be sacked during the former Netherlands defender's previous tenure as assistant coach. Blind and interim director Martin Sturkenboom both reluctantly resigned from their posts on Thursday, with Blind commenting: "I have a clear vision of Ajax's future and van Gaal's arrival is part of that."
Ironically, turmoil has enveloped the club despite Ajax having last season ended a seven-year wait for the Eredivisie trophy. Nine months on, de Boer's side find themselves eight points behind league leaders PSV in sixth place. Prior to Saturday's 2-0 success at NAC Breda, they had been without a win in 2012.
It is therefore a fragile Ajax that United will confront at the Amsterdam ArenA on Thursday evening, and although Ferguson admits he is looking forward to watching 19-year-old Danish playmaker Christian Eriksen at close quarters, the backdrop will not make for a pretty sight.
Opta's European Team of the Week (click to enlarge)