O'BRIEN WILL BE MISSED, KOEMAN WILL NOT
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Tuesday, February 22, 2005
I will refrain from translating it from Dutch, but I can promise that this was the bleep-worthy chant of choice at Amsterdam ArenA on Sunday.

KOEMAN! ROT OP! KOEMAN! ROT OP!

Ajax fans generally view this nine-year old building as a sterile, polite event hall. Their 2-0 win over basement club Den Bosch sounded much more like imposing old ground De Meer. The hosts waited until stoppage time to grab their winner, and it wasn't the first time this season that the boys rescued one in the waning moments.

There certainly can be no argument to make that this hostile song to coach Ronald Koeman was based on any one thing, but I am willing to bet that the venom with which it was let loose had something to do with the fact that a publicly insulted John O'Brien was yet again missing from the selection.

Koeman is a popular villain in the small area that is Amsterdam, perhaps THE villain of the moment. He is widely considered a Volvo driver sitting in a Porsche. To Ajax fans, he is an overly cautious tactician that messes with the minds of his mostly young players. On this fairly esteemed roster, the 27-year old O'Brien (whose story we all painfully know) was a virtual old-timer.

As an example, let's recap the roller coaster top star RafaŽl van der Vaart has ridden this season.

First, Koeman insisted the #10 shirt was his playmaker in the classic Ajax 4-3-3...then he told everyone he didn't think Rafi could play with Wesley Sneijder...then he used him as a striker during a crisis...then he stripped the 22-year old of his captaincy, complaining that Van der Vaart refused to play left wing and insinuating selfishness.

He has also left Oranje prodigies Nigel de Jong and Johnny Heitinga feeling less than comfy, and I won't even get started on his goalkeeper juggling.

In short, Koeman can't make up his mind.

He is viewed as panicky and highly confused by supporters. With the title-defending side lacking direction, a healthy O'Brien seemed like precisely the kind of mental and football influence this team needed. With several players unavailable and hapless visitors Den Bosch coming to town, this match seemed the perfect occasion to return the redhead to the red-and-white.

On Friday, however, the manager made the statement that probably began the very end of a glorious chapter.

Koeman announced that Rasmus Lindgren would make his first start in midfield with Anthony Obodai and Van der Vaart, and apparently having missed World Cup 2002, declared that he had "no other options." O'Brien had played a few complete Young Ajax matches and looked ready to go in first team training, but somehow Koeman determined he even had no use for a virtually mistake-free, five-position player on his bench.

On Monday, John O'Brien proved he could make up his mind.

The Los Angelino (and suspected improvisational comedy genius) asked for his release from the only club he's ever known, the club he committed to before he could drive.

He will return to the U.S. for alternative therapy on his oft-troubling hamstring, and then join Eredivisie mites ADO Den Haag for next season. Aside from a loan stint with FC Utrecht and international duty, this will be the second jersey of his professional career.

Meanwhile, Ajax have received a letter from their three biggest supporter's groups (F-Side, OFA and Vak 410) demanding the ouster of Koeman. The aura of the situation is akin to the 2004 U.S. presidential election with the fans playing the role of Democrats: anybody but Koeman.

Fans blame defensive postures and reins on attack-minded stars for a lackluster campaign. If an unceremonious ouster from the Champions League wasn't bad enough, the holders are currently third in the league table. So clearly, this was not a John O'Brien protest, but it surely seems like the disrespect shown to a guy that has proven beyond any doubt his dedication to the shirt crossed an emotional line with the diehards.

Ajax fans are of a particular breed. The stalwart backers don't just expect the team to win...they require the team win playing attractive Ajax-style attacking football, and they insist that much of the roster come from the club's vaunted youth academy. They can be a bit merciless on star players who don't perform or act too big for their britches. They have never had any such complaints with O'Brien.

He is not 'een Nederlander', but he might as well be. When locals gripe about having fewer homegrown players than in the glory years, he is NEVER mentioned.

He arrived as teenage curiosity, but will exit as a cherished player with two championship rings. O'Brien may not be anybody's favorite, but one would be particularly hard pressed to find a single fan to say anything bad about him. They usually refer to him as "Our Johnny," as if that was his proper name.

I ran into a friend at the cinema pub next to the ArenA after Sunday's last gasp victory gained ground on the all-important second Champions League place. I asked him if he thought O'Brien was being forced out of the team, and he slumped in his chair. The Amsterdam native and F-Side season ticket holder reluctantly conceded the possibility that the player was finished under Koeman, who actually had historically been accused of rushing one of his most trusted players back from injuries. Staring at the ground, he grimaced before launching into an animated tirade against the coach.

I have had the pleasure of seeing O'Brien in both social and professional scenes, but it would be hard to tell the difference for anyone. The boyish looking grinner always laughs, always smiles, always shakes your hand and always looks you in the eye.

To Ajax fans, Monday's anger may not even have had anything to do with football. Despite not being consistently available for about two years, he never stopped being the guy they wished was fit. If only I had a euro for every time a local muttered in nearly perfect English, "If only he could stay healthy..."

Word on the 'straat' is that Koeman will be fired this summer, if he hadn't already quit. Be sure to make plans for a trip to Amsterdam, if just for the raucous celebrations this removal would kick off. I think we all know they'll be tremendous, if not a bit of naughty fun.

A more unlikely and transparently hopeful rumor going around is that O'Brien will be brought back from Den Haag when he shows he can play consistently. I'd love to believe that, but Ajax won't be the only big club calling if he finally puts all the setbacks in the past. I know John loves this city and this club, but only a selfish fool would blame him if he was simply ready for a new adventure.

No, I assume he's gone, which I must admit wells a tear in the corner of my eye. I am not a native, having become an Ajax enthusiast as a small boy during the magical Cruijff era, with my diehard status fully cemented when my hero Dennis Bergkamp wore the famous home kit.

I can also promise that my reaction is not so different than the one of Dutch locals. To each of us, John O'Brien is a beloved Ajacied forever...and Ronald Koeman?

Well, him we'd just prefer to forget.
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