Johan Cruyff

When Cruyff Almost Joined Leicester City

Thirty nine years ago today, Leicester City manager Jock Wallace announced the Club was close to signing the late Johan Cruyff. History tells us, of course, that Cruyff never did sign at Filbert Street, but why?

To understand the impact that this story had on Leicester, and on the football world, it is worth recalling Cruyff’s honours in the game.

Until Lionel Messi won the Ballon D’Or for the fourth time in 2012, Cruyff, along with Michel Platini and Marco van Basten, held the record of three triumphs, in 1971, 1973 and 1974.

Such was his reputation, he was voted ‘European Player of the Century’ in 1999 by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics.

He also came second, behind the incomparable Pelé, in that organisation’s ‘World Player of the Century’ poll.

With Ajax, Cruyff won the Eredivisie eight times and the KNVB Cup on five occasions. He was also in that marvellous Ajax side which lifted the European Cup thrice, in 1971, 1972 and 1973.

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Johan Cruyff

Johan Cruyff was part of the Netherlands side which finished as runners up at the World Cup in 1974.

His other honours at Ajax included the UEFA Intertoto Cup, the UEFA Super Cup (twice) and the Intercontinental Cup. He was European Footballer of the Year in 1971.

As a Barcelona player, meanwhile, before eventually managing the Spanish giants, Cruyff won La Liga in 1974, and the Copa del Rey four years later.

He was capped 48 times for the Netherlands, scoring 33 times. He led the Dutch side to the runners-up spot in the 1974 World Cup Final and was named the Player of the Tournament.

He was central to the concept of total football employed by Ajax and the Netherlands. In this system, players fluidly switched positions to devastating effect whilst retaining the team’s structure and pattern.

In 1978, on the other hand, Cruyff went to play in the NASL for two years, representing Los Angeles Aztecs and then the Washington Diplomats.

Then, early in 1981, at the age of 33, he entered into negotiations with Leicester City.

This was a very unlikely combination.

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Johan Cruyff

Following a spell in America, Cruyff was linked with several clubs, including Leicester City.

City, managed by Wallace, had been promoted to the old First Division as Second Division champions in 1980. Jock confidently predicted that his young side would win the First Division title.

Early results were indeed promising. There were victories over Liverpool - when young Andy Peake scored a wonder goal - and against Leeds United.

However, by the time that Leicester entered into negotiations with Cruyff, they were bottom of the table. Wallace believes, most likely rightly, signing the Dutch superstar meant relegation could be avoided.

It was intended that the financial outlay necessary to attract Cruyff to Filbert Street would be recouped by increased attendances.

The directors’ minutes from the time provide an insight into this proposed deal. They report that Wallace, who had known Cruyff since a European tie between his Glasgow Rangers and Ajax in 1973, had spoken to the superstar and had planned for him to come to Leicester on 12 February, 1981.

Hopes were high. Cruyff seemed to be interested. However, some doubts were creeping in that the deal might not happen.  

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Johan Cruyff

As a manager, Cruyff won two La Liga titles with Barcelona, including the European Cup in 1992.

On 25 February, Wallace reported to the Board that Cruyff had stated that he was now not interested in joining Leicester.

In an audacious move, the Foxes manager told the directors that he would therefore inform the press about the negotiations in an attempt to force the player’s hand.

He said that he expected a firm decision by the end of the week. He was still hopeful. This ploy, though, backfired. On 26 February, Wallace received a call from Cruyff’s agent saying that the Dutchman was going to sign for the Spanish club Levante. They had reportedly offered him, staggeringly, as much as 50 per cent of the gate money as part of the deal.

And so that was that. One of the most ambitious and audacious forays ever made by Leicester City into the transfer market came to an end.

For a brief time, though, the fans felt that the deal, outrageous as it was, might just be possible.

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