How Daley Blind went from pariah to Ajax legend

Daley Blind Ajax
The defender's path from Ajax youth system to Manchester United's first-team looks like a simple one, but there was a time it all looked grim


"It will be a very special match," Daley Blind has said repeatedly in the build up to Manchester United's Europa League final against Ajax on Wednesday. It will be so for many inspiring reasons to those on both sides, but for the 27-year-old, it puts him face to face with the club that made him the man he is today.

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When he steps out onto the Friends Arena looking to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a continental champion, he may think back to his decade in the youth system, where he was hailed as a special talent as the son of legendary Champions League and UEFA Cup-winning captain and renowned international defender, Danny. Or he might reminisce about that debut in December 2008 against lowly Volendam.

Or it may be the four Eredivisie titles he earned across over 140 appearances for the Amsterdam side that come to mind. More likely, however, Blind will cast his mind back to a time when an occasion such as a European final looked well beyond his grasp as a player.

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Blind's trajectory from Ajax to Old Trafford via a World Cup semi-final may look like a simple one for a privileged boy, but it has been far from comfortable.

It all started out well enough for the son of an icon. He was named Ajax's Talent of the Year before Marco van Basten handed him his senior debut at the age of 18, and it seemed things would go smoothly after the coach's glittering report.

''He controls the positioning, he is technically skilled and often stands in the right place,” he said. “He plays with ease. He made his debut, but it looks like he's been playing with us for years.”

He played again days later in the UEFA Cup against Slavia Prague, but his season ended shortly afterwards and soon Blind's future at Ajax looked non-existent. 

Daley Blind Ajax

Daley Blind Ajax

Their third-placed finish led to Van Basten’s departure, and there was no place for Blind under replacement Martin Jol. The youngster got nowhere near the field until Groningen took him on loan in January 2010. He was a star up north, though, featuring in every game for a side that reached the Europa League playoffs under Ron Jans.

Blind returned to the capital hopeful of getting a chance at his boyhood team, but Jol would not budge, despite the protestations of his assistant manager – Danny Blind. When Groningen came back in for him near the end of 2010, he had a serious decision to make.

“We seriously considered a return to Groningen,” he told Volskrant after his move to Manchester. “I had a great time in Groningen, but it still felt weird to put on another team’s shirt.”

Blind remained determined to break through and his patience was paid off when Jol was replaced by Frank de Boer in December 2010. He was in the starting XI two weeks later in a 2-0 win over Feyenoord and made a further nine appearances in the Eredivisie as they lifted a first league title in seven years.

While De Boer had given him a boost, the fans still wouldn’t accept him as one of theirs and made that known, even booing him during games.

GFX Info Daley Blind Ajax

“My relationship with the fans is not optimal, I’ve said that often,” he said. “They hurt me and it still hurts. My relationship with them is just not good.”

It took a long time for Blind to win everyone over. He was in and out of the squad for most of the 2011-12 season as he was appalling defensively, lacked strength and seemed uncomfortable on the ball.

"I am convinced that the fans were fed by some media in those times,” his dad said later. "There was a character assassination committed almost weekly."

The next season again started badly, but Blind became a key man due to Nicolai Boilesen’s injury, playing every minute in Ajax’s third consecutive Eredivisie triumph, as well as a Champions League campaign in which they faced Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and took four points from Manchester City.

At the halfway mark, Ajax were still unsure over his future and let his contract run down to the last six months.

“It also depends on Mitchell Dijks and Boilesen’s situations,” De Boer said, highlighting Blind’s level at the time. “But we are very satisfied with Daley’s development, he is a true Ajax player. We will soon discuss it.

“At the beginning of the season there were doubts, but Daley has picked up everything himself and those doubts are gone.”

He soon obliterated everyone else’s doubts too. By remaining resilient and a hard worker in training, he developed into a star on that left side, and so rapid was his improvement that he went on to become Ajax’s player of the year for 2012-13 and was consistently excellent the following campaign.

Daley Blind Manchester United Sunderland

HD Daley Blind

He remained at left-back initially but moved into the centre of midfield, where he blossomed into an integral part of De Boer’s system, setting the tempo in every game and proving reliable under pressure.

Blind was again the subject of chants from the supporters, but it was different. Not only was he now a real Ajax man, he was the league’s Player of the Year in 2014.

By then a national team regular, Blind’s impressive displays in midfield suggested it was his ideal position, but Louis van Gaal made him integral at left-wing back at the 2014 World Cup. Announcing himself to the global audience, he supplied the stupendous cross to Robin van Persie to equalise against Spain before setting Arjen Robben up in the 5-1 win. He started and finished every game in Oranje’s journey to the semi-finals.

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And so, a reunion with Van Gaal beckoned when United came calling after the tournament. The €17.5 million move was well deserved, and Blind left Amsterdam a much-loved figure. Not only had he emerged from his father’s shadow, he had completely defied belief. Filling a host of positions once again, Blind has certainly shown he had it all along.

This season has been the toughest of his time so far in Manchester given his limited playing time. His future is again in doubt, but as he lines up for Jose Mourinho's injury-depleted side for Wednesday's decider, reflecting on that dismal spell at Ajax may provide the motivation he needs to shine and prove that he is capable of more than anyone thinks.