Ahead of Manchester United’s double-header with Ajax over the coming week, United Rant looks back to a Dutch great who played for both clubs….
If you christen a son Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren then clearly you feel he is destined for great things in life. To be fair Mr. and Mrs. Mühren were not to be disappointed as their son enjoyed a fine career in football.
After beginning his footballing journey in his native Holland, with FC Volendam, Arnold moved to the legendary Ajax academy where the ball becomes a most prized possession and to be wasteful with it is tantamount to sacrilege. Blessed with natural ability that countless England managers of the time would have loved in domestic players, Mühren was a football purist that delighted those lucky enough to observe at close hand.
During Arnold’s first stay at the home of ‘Total Football’ the midfielder picked up a European Cup winner’s medal in 1972/73. After moving to FC Twente in 1974, Mühren was spotted by Ipswich Town manager Bobby Robson, who had been become increasingly frustrated with the lack of invention found in British players in the late 1970s. A keen student of the Dutch game, Robson did what his English managerial counterparts failed to consider and snapped up the cultured midfielder for a not insignificant sum of £150,000.
To say that Mühren became a trailblazer for modern day foreign imports is not an understatement. Yes, there had been other imports to the English First Division before the Dutchman was signed by the sleepy Suffolk club in 1978, but few had made the impact of Mühren and his compatriot Frans Thijssen – signed by Ipswich a year later.
I am one of lucky few to witness firsthand experience of Mühren’s time at Ipswich, as my first encounters with live football were at Portman Road in the early 1980s. It was a timewhen Ipswich challenged more traditional powerhouses such as Liverpool and Aston Villa at the top of English football. My first match is vivid in the memory, despite being temporarily blinded in one eye by the cigarette ash of the gentleman sat next to me. I marvelled at the skill of this Dutch duo who swept through the opposition midfield to help augment Ipswich’s place in the higher echelons of the league table.
Although the league championship was beyond the Suffolk minnows, Ipswich achieved the remarkable feat of lifting the UEFA Cup in 1981, beating Dutch club AZ Alkamar in the two-legged final. Manager Robson was smitten with the slightly built left-footed genius he had signed for the club.
“I cannot think of anyone I would rate higher as a professional than Arnold,” said Robson of Mühren.
“No one works harder, and when the match is over, he won’t go out drinking. He goes to bed.”
With the league championship elusive after four years at the club, and his mentor Robson accepting the England management role, Mühren joined Manchester United in 1982. Manager Ron Atkinson was keen to add the flair and guile of the Dutchman to the power and determination of Bryan Robson in the Reds’ midfield. Mühren made his debut against Birmingham City on 28 August ‘82 and went on to score six goals that season, helping United to the final of both domestic cup competitions at Wembley.
The midfielder started the first of those finals – the wonderfully titled Milk Cup – without the injured Robson in the United midfield, but alongside Remi Moses, Ray Wilkins and Steve Coppell. Norman Whiteside emphasised his claim to be the most exciting teenager in European football with the opening strike, turning the vastly more experienced Alan Hansen, only for United to be beaten by Liverpool 2-1. A wonderfully curled effort by Ronnie Whelan in extra time broke United’s hearts in front of a crowd close to 100,000.
Mühren had a far greater impact in the FA Cup final a few months later. Following an exciting 2-2 draw against Brighton and Hove Albion, with the south coast club relegated from the top division that season, United crushed the Seagulls in the replay. Robson and Mühren were at the heart of the action, with ‘Captain Marvel’ selflessly foregoing the chance of a rare Cup Final hat-trick in the second half by allowing regular penalty taker Mühren to fire home United’s final goal in a 4-0 victory from the spot.
Victory at Wembley meant the club was back in Europe the following season, competing in the Cup Winners’ Cup, in which United went out at the semi-final stage. Mühren scored four goals in the tournament and was instrumental in the Reds overturning a two goal deficit against Barcelona in the quarter-final. This was no mean feat considering Barça’s was a side containing Diego Maradona and Bernt Schuster. The atmosphere at Old Trafford for the second leg was electric as the Reds progressed against the odds with goals from Robson, twice, and Frank Stapleton. Sadly, this was to be the last glorious European night at the Theatre of Dreams that season as United was eliminated in the semi-final by Juventus.
Mühren’s final season of at United, 1984/85, was blighted by injury and the midfielder made only 12 starts. Mühren’s few appearances that season has been oft cited as a contributing factor to Alan Brazil’s lack of goals as the pair had enjoyed a seemingly telepathic understanding when playing together at Ipswich. In truth Brazil was past his best and susceptible to injury – another example of a big name striker who failed to make the grade at Old Trafford.
Mühren returned to Ajax after failing to regain his place in the United first team in the run-up to the 1985 FA Cup Final. In truth, Mühren’s peak in English football had come under Robson’s tutelage at Portman Road but many United fans will remember with fondness the waif-like figure on the left-flank with magic in his boots.
In 1986/87 Mühren added the Cup Winners Cup to his collection, thus becoming one of few to have won all three UEFA club competitions. Then came the crowning glory of a glittering career with Holland at the 1988 European Championships. Few will forget Marco Van Basten’s wonderful far post volley against the Soviet Union in the final that sealed a 2-0 victory. Many have forgotten that the pinpoint left-footed cross came boot of 37-year-old Arnold Johannes Hyacinthus Mühren, thus cementing his place in the folklore of Dutch football.
The goal was a testament to Mühren’s work ethic and clean living, enabling the player to contribute in such a big way at a late stage in his career. Sir Bobby was always a fine judge of talent but even he may have been surprised at the career forged by one of the most influential exports into English football of all time.
Read more from James at Written Offside – writtenoffside.com