Johnny Rep: The Seventies rock star in Adidas boots

Words By Stephen Tudor Illustrated by Philippe Fenner
July 12, 2018

The year is 1997 and I’m in a pub with four mates. A couple of hours earlier we’d clanged our way through our very first band practise and now we’re discussing the coolest manner in which we should accept our inevitable Brit award.

“Why don’t we get Johan Cruyff to collect it on our behalf?”

The suggestion is met with approving nods but even so enthusiasm is somewhat muted.

“Nah, Cruyff is too obvious. How about we fly Johnny Rep over at the record company’s expense? Then we can party with him after.”

The table becomes animated with feverish excitement. This is exactly what we’re going to do. If you’ve never heard of Mexico ’70 that’s because we split due to ‘musical differences’ after playing precisely one gig.

Rep was the perfect choice for our fanciful delusion because he was the most rock ‘n’ roll footballer in the most rock ‘n’ roll international side ever conceived. You think Cruyff takes the title because the man didn’t give a singular f*** and there’s a few photos knocking around of him smoking in full kit? No, Cruyff was cinematic in his vision with the moody sensibilities of a maverick auteur in search of perfection. Cruyff was Werner Herzog. Rep, however, was Joey Ramone. Rep was Marc Bolan.

First there was the hair, a flowing off-blonde thatched creation that screamed creative freedom. So evocative is it of Seventies abandon that it’s almost fancy dress. Then there’s the svelte, lithe frame that would not have looked out of place prowling the stage of Whisky a Go Go. With the limbs of a locust and not an ounce of pork on him, it was a body built for singing. As for his name, dear God where do you start with that? Had Rep chosen a musical path and taken his demo to a suit behind a desk he would surely have heard once he’d announced himself: “That will work perfectly kid but we’re going to need your real name for the forms”.

Cruyff was Werner Herzog. Rep, however, was Joey Ramone. Rep was Marc Bolan.

In fact the Dutch striker did take a musical path, recording a single in 1980 called ‘Hey Johnny’. I’ve heard it. It’s… interesting.

Yet the barnet and physique and snappy moniker – not to mention his self-assuredness of opinion that was hardly untypical of that team along with his fondness for a drink – all of this is merely window dressing to the actual football. With a ball at his feet Johnny Rep was a superstar with the crowd in the palm of his hand. He was translucent.

Arriving fashionably late to the Ajax party, Rep broke through the ranks a matter of months after the Amsterdam giant had first conquered the continent but with their architect Rinus Michels having recently left for Barcelona. Two further European Cups followed in swift succession, with the boy from Zaandam scoring the winner against Juventus in the 1973 final, but it was two crucial strikes that downed Independiente in the Intercontinental Final a year earlier that first earned him the nickname het goudhaantje – the kingfisher – for his unerring ability to score important goals.

Rep’s proclivity for hugging the right touchline before cutting inside to deadly effect afforded the maximum expanse of space to be treasured for a side that valued such a gift more than most and the same principle applied on the international stage too, as Holland dazzled and perplexed the planet en route to two World Cup finals. Even so, it is too simplistic to pigeonhole Rep as a winger – especially so given his aerial presence and sumptuous shooting that so often gave Ajax and his country an end product to its mesmerising patterns of play. To this day he remains the leading World Cup goal-scorer for the oranje with seven spread across ’74 and ’78.

More so he was blessed with an intuitive, uncoachable understanding of movement that led to harmonious – and aesthetically pleasing, for that was, is, and should always be immensely important – relationships with his fellow forward fare. At Ajax there was Cruyff and a left winger in Piet Keizer, who had the unique trait of looking downright ugly in one still then Hollywood handsome in another. For Holland, Cruyff and Rob Ronsenbrink were his crafty counterparts. Later at Valencia, Mario Kempes and Paraguayan striker Carlos Diaz proved to be perfect foils and later still at Saint Etienne the young duo of Michel Platini and Dominique Rocheteau were cut from the same rare cloth. That is not to say of course that the comradeship fostered from their frolicking always extended beyond the pitch with Rep once saying of Cruyff, his mentor: “We did not get along, except on the ground”.

His time at Valencia was successful but it was also tainted with frustration, as he found himself shackled by Heriberto Herrera’s authoritarian ethos. A short spell at Bastia proved to be a much more fruitful period and after guiding the small club to a UEFA Cup final – thereby securing a god-like status forever in Corsica – Rep moved to Saint Etienne, his playground and home from home for four ace seasons that he always insists were the happiest of his career.

It was in France where Rep gained his second nickname – ‘De Blonde Angel’ – and so beloved was the player there that thirty years later, when Saint Etienne-supporting French band Mickey 3D decided to pen a football-themed song, they eschewed a musical honouring of Platini or Rocheteau; Mekhloufi or Jean-Michel Larque. Instead they celebrated the ‘angel who goes into the locker room’ and ‘tightens his studs’ before going out to dribble and score.

This was not the first time culture paid homage to the great man, having previously inspired a suite by a free-jazz pianist while his name – dear God, where do you start with that? – was given to a character in a Soho-noir work of fiction by novelist Chris Petit.

For all this, and the not insubstantial fact that fifteen years of rhapsodic football was played with his shirt hanging loose over his shorts; and there were his antics too, such as the time he threw a bucket of water over the head of the sleeping chairman of the Dutch FA; or the occasion he defused an incendiary situation that saw Holland’s first openly gay referee Frans Derks giving a string of contentious decisions against Ajax, by saying: “Cut it out Frans, or you’ll get no blowjob tonight”. Both the ref and players dissolved into hysterics. For all this, is there any doubt that Johnny Rep was a rock n roll star cast immortal in Adidas boots? Bona fide rock royalty if you please.

Why, you may wonder, am I hammering home this particular point? Well, in the build up to this summer’s tournament I was asked to write an article on Argentina’s infamous – and highly suspicious – thrashing of Peru in 1978. In researching the piece I stumbled upon an otherwise excellent bit of prose that suggested in the decade of glam, strikes, and Grifters, it was Mario Kempes who was the ultimate rock deity with the ball at his feet. I simply wasn’t having that, and I’m not alone.

“Kempes a rock star? Oh f*** no. I’m sure he has a nice side too but that Argentina team is basically impossible to forgive. They were a tool of the fascist junta and I don’t know how they have juggled that since.”

That’s David Winner, author of the brilliant Brilliant Orange, the seminal deconstruction of Holland’s total rise to prominence that takes in a country’s psyche and a philosophy born from its flatness and sense of claustrophobia. It is a book that claims to not be about football at all before going on to take its place as unquestionably one of the greatest books about football ever written.

In compiling the material for the book, David interviewed Johnny and struck up a friendship that eventually led to the player flying over to London to help promote the paperback launch. Unsurprisingly then, he is an affirmed fan and endearingly protective too, twice requiring assurance that this article will not have any studs showing.

“He has a free-spirit,” he tells Tifo. “The personality of that team is very important and he contributed enormously to that. It’s tough but very playful. Lots of skill but also lots of fun”.

“Johnny has had drink problems and a couple of broken marriages but that side of him is more a little boy lost than any malice. I’ve spent time with him and he’s a very benign and sweet-natured guy. The joy of doing the book was that the feeling you had from watching them play was exactly the same feeling you had from meeting them in person with no ball in sight. Somehow they expressed something quite deep about themselves and their values and their warmth. Johnny exemplified that”.

Tracking down Johnny Rep for a repeat performance is extremely hard and spoiler alert I failed to do so. The contact details of his long-time friend Theun de Winter – a famed poet who now runs a donkey sanctuary on the Isle of Texel – turns out to be on old number while a request put in to Saint Etienne is not acknowledged. There is a possibility of getting in touch with Frans Derk, the referee who remains on very good terms with Rep, but frankly the guy is in his late eighties now and probably doesn’t want to be bothered.

Pivotal seasons: 2005-06 at Ajax.

Perhaps though it is apt that my search was to no avail because, in the autumn of their years, it is expected of rock stars to be elusive, reclusive, mysterious or ideally all three of the above. Imagine writing about Brian Wilson or Sly Stone and they pick up on the first ring: you’d be thrilled for sure but also deeply disappointed, that part of you that cherishes the mythology as much as the man.

What we do know about Johnny Rep is that following his broken marriages and sustained bouts of alcoholism, he found himself penniless and homeless. Coaching and scouting gigs dried up in the mid-2000s and he was hugely disappointed to be over-looked by Ajax in any paid capacity. Five years ago he caused a bit of a stir by admitting to taking amphetamine prior to a European Cup game in his playing heyday.

Now – or at least according to an article published in 2016 – Johnny has taken to travelling around Holland in a camper van, writing the occasional column for a newspaper to supplement his income; a free spirit to the last.

I hope he’s happy. I hope he’s happy because for many years he made the world so.

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