Rubbing shoulders with a Dutch master
For a magical season Gary Darrell shared the dressing room with one of the greatest players of all-time.
It was 1980 and towards the end of the game’s first boom years in the United States when Darrell rubbed shoulders with Johan Cruyff as team-mates at the Washington Diplomats.
Bermudian Darrell was the club captain when the Diplomats signed a 33-year-old Cruyff from North American Soccer League rivals Los Angeles Aztecs.
The Holland forward had been voted as the NASL Player of the Year the previous season, scoring 13 goals in 23 matches, and his arrival at the Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium was greeted with fervour.
None was more excited than Darrell, who described Cruyff as “every bit as good as you could imagine”.
“It was just a thrill to be able to train with him every day and play alongside him,” Darrell said. “He was an unbelievable talent.
“Everything you see of him in the highlights is true. He was able to do things before everyone else had even thought about them.”
Darrell joined the football world in mourning the death of Cruyff on Thursday.
The three-times Ballon d’Or winner died at the age of 68 after losing his battle with lung cancer.
“I knew he hadn’t been well for a while, but I was still surprised to hear he had passed,” said Darrell, the former Bermuda head coach. “I didn’t know it was quite at that stage.”
At times a difficult character, according to Darrell, Cruyff refused to let his high standards slip at the Diplomats whose squad included Wim Jansen, the former Holland midfielder, and Bobby Stokes, who scored the winning goal for Southampton against Manchester United in the 1976 FA Cup final.
That relentless pursuit of perfection could rub some of his team-mates the wrong way, although Darrell insists Cruyff always had the team’s best interests at heart.
“He was such a perfectionist and could be very critical,” said Darrell, whose dressing room seat was in between Cruyff and Jansen. “He had a reputation for not getting along with everybody and I think you needed to be mature enough to listen to what he said and not how he said it.
“A lot of people reacted to the way he said things and as a result were turned off by him. But if you just listened to what he said he would make you a better player.”
Cruyff’s impact on the pitch at the Diplomats was not immediate, with Darrell remembering some of the media criticising the former Barcelona player for his lack of goals.
“After two or three games he hadn’t scored and I remember the press saying to him, ‘you’re meant to be this great goal scorer and you haven’t scored a goal’. So Cruyff said, ‘OK, I’ll stop trying to organise this team and actually score some goals’. The next two or three games he scored some of the best goals I’ve ever seen.”
As one of the team’s elder statesmen, Darrell believes he was able to get closer than most to Cruyff, who was notoriously aloof around his team-mates.
“Johan and I were the same age and sometimes we’d go for a meal together when we were on the road,” said Darrell, who often roomed with Cruyff on away trips.
“I kind of got to know him and he respected me. You could say we were a little bit friends, but he didn’t let too many people get close to him.
“You had to get him away from the team and the stadium because then he was quite different, a genuinely nice person. Around the team I don’t know if he felt he had to maintain a certain image. He wasn’t always the friendliest person.”
Darrell and Cruyff met once more after their playing careers were over when Darrell and his wife Jacqueline made an impromptu visit to the Ajax training ground in Amsterdam.
“After I finished playing I went to Amsterdam on vacation,” said Darrell.
“I didn’t know what Johan was doing at the time, so I went into a pizza place and asked the young lady serving if she knew Johan Cruyff.
“She said, ‘yes, of course I do, he’s the manager of Ajax right now’. She told me how to get to the training ground on the tram and when I got there he ended up inviting me and my wife for lunch at the stadium.”
Much like the season he spent playing alongside Cruyff, it is a memory Darrell will forever cherish.
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