AJAX Cape Town continued their tradition of promoting from within when they yesterday named Maarten Stekelenburg, formerly head of the club’s youth department, as head coach for the upcoming season.
Various big names had been bandied about as replacements for retired coach Foppe de Haan, so it came as a surprise to many that the youthful Stekelenburg, with no top-level experience, was appointed to one of the hottest seats in local football.
Ajax, who missed out on the PSL title last season on goal difference, after only snatching a draw in their final match, have to bounce back from that frustration, and Stekelenburg is confident they can do so.
“You can look at it as a big disappointment to come so close and not win, but it was also a fantastic season and a good platform to build on,” he said. “The challenge for the league title will always be a priority.”
Ajax CEO George Comitis said that the decision to hire Stekelenburg, who has an initial two-year deal with the club, came after much discussion both within Ajax, and with their parent club, Ajax Amsterdam.
“It was always going to be challenging to fill the shoes of Foppe De Haan,” Comitis said. “We deliberated at length on this decision, on whether to get another experienced coach or whether we should be viewing this in a different light.
“Maarten is the obvious choice – he is energetic, young and ambitious. With the club’s history of developing players, we have also developed coaches, and with Maarten starting off in 1999 at the Amsterdam Youth Academy, he is our first ‘true’ Ajax coach.”
Stekelenburg, who has been at Ajax Cape Town for two and a half years, was upbeat about his new role. Having been brought in in 2009 to restructure the Ajax Cape Town Academy, Stekelenburg feels he has had long enough to learn about South Africa, local players, and local football.
“It is a special day for me… a big moment in my life,” he said. “I could not wish for a better place to be, and have been given confidence from all the staff at the club.”
He also praised the Ajax philosophy of development, saying that when making the step from junior to head coach, “it was best to do it in the club where I grew up.”
Stekelenburg admits that his initial plans had been to return to work at Ajax Amsterdam, then perhaps return to Cape Town in a few years, so being approached by the club came as a surprise.
“My container is already packed and in the harbour,” he laughed. “I had always a good feeling about Cape Town, about South Africa, and when I spoke to the CEO about the position, after I had already planned to leave, it gave me such a good feeling that I changed my mind.”
Comitis says that changes in Amsterdam, where restructuring was taking place amongst the technical team, had given Ajax Cape Town the chance to approach Stekelenburg.
“Foppe had already planted the seeds in our minds, and said we should look at Maarten as a possible replacement, and with the changes at Amsterdam, it was a perfect opportunity,” Comitis said.
Stekelenburg officially takes over his new role on Monday, when pre-season training commences at Ajax.
He says he will be including several players in the initial squad who have impressed at junior levels, in order to assess them.
However, Stekelenburg may have to start his tenure without Sameehg Doutie and George Maluleke, both of whom have attracted interest from other clubs.
Doutie is currently speaking to Orlando Pirates, after the teams agreed terms for a transfer, and Comitis says he will not stand in the player’s way if he wishes to leave.
“Sameehg needs a new challenge,” Comitis said. “He’d prefer an overseas move, but his next step seems to be either to Pirates or SuperSport United. And there’s been interest in George from Belgium, though we would like to keep him.”