Nick Hengelman is Ajax's last hope of a return on Cape Town investment

To say the last month has been a whirlwind for AFC Ajax goalkeeper Nick Hengelman would be an extreme understatement.

Midway through September, he was the first choice goalkeeper at Ajax Cape Town, fighting for promotion to South Africa's Premier Division. Now, he is one of many 'keepers in Amsterdam, fighting for game time at AFC Ajax.

To make matters even more bizarre, the club from which he joined the Netherlands' most famous team no longer exists. Ajax pulled out of their Cape Town operation at the end of the 2019-20 season.

"After the strategic reorientation, which was reported in February 2020 during the presentation of the half-year figures, Ajax concluded that the ambitions and results in Amsterdam are in too great a contrast to the development of the football market in South Africa," read a statement on the Dutch club's website.

February was when Ajax Cape Town announced the resignation of head coach Andries Ulderink, in protest against the suspension of head of football Hans Vonk. Their handling of Vonk was condemned by AFC Ajax, their parent club, at the time.

For Hengelman, the exits of Vonk and Ulderink were particularly difficult to take, given that the pair brought him to Cape Town last year from FC Twente. Ajax Cape Town would go on to lose the Championship title to Swallows FC on the final day, before missing out on promotion via the playoffs.

He told ESPN: "When we started the journey, it was with Hans and it was with Andries. When you see those two quite important people for the squad leave, it's hard. It was a real difficult task for Coach Calvin Marlin and Dylan [Deane] to manage it to the end.

"Those two [Ulderink and Vonk] were quality. It was a pity to see them leave because with them, it was very different to [what it was] afterwards."

The 30-year-old extended his stay in Cape Town for several days longer than initially planned in order to take a week to focus on the beauty of the Mother City instead of football. However, reality dawned when he moved to the Netherlands and struggled to find a club with the new Eredivisie season already underway.

"The season in South Africa ended quite late, so in Europe, everything had already started again. I think there were already four or five games played in Holland and other [European] countries," Hengelman explained.

"All spots were filled, because if you're starting the competition, you need goalkeepers... It's a bit tough to come back at the end of September or beginning of October. [But in the end], I managed to find a new club quite fast."

Indeed, Hengelman wasted little time signing with the Netherlands' most successful club until the end of the season. After the heartbreak of missing out on promotion in South Africa, it seems almost too good to be true. Hengelman is, however, under no illusions regarding his prospects of playing time this season.

"I can only play in the first team and there are quite a lot of competitors there. You've got André Onana, [Maarten] Stekelenburg, [Kjell] Scherpen and [Dominik] Kotarski. They are all good goalkeepers. Something strange must happen for me to get playing time in the first team, but you never know how things go," he said.

"All big clubs have quite a few goalkeepers in their squad because they play Champions League and they play competitions in Holland -- they play the [KNVB] Cup.

"The reserve team plays at a high level as well. During the season, you need quite a few goalkeepers because the goalkeepers are playing on resting days and there are always some injuries somewhere ahead.

"You want to have a high level of training, because if you have a high level of training, the quality goes up and the players improve... If you add me to the squad, you definitely will have some quality in training. I think that's the main reason why they added me to their list of goalkeepers."

Although he has spent most of his time with the reserve team since moving clubs, Hengelman has also been put through his paces alongside those above him in the first team pecking order.

"When you're on the ground, you always talk to each other and always ask questions. André was quite curious about things in South Africa, so that's nice," he said.

"[Ajax] put me on the goalkeepers' list and where they need me, they put me. I'm quite flexible with that," Hengelman continued, showing no sign of resentment towards having been put among the reserves.

When Ajax Cape Town was formed in 1999, Hengelman was surely not the sort of player their mother club envisioned acquiring from them. Many made the trip to Amsterdam from Ikamva afterwards, but only Steven Pienaar, Eyong Enoh and Thulani Serero truly became part of the furniture. The jury is still out on young Burkinabe forward Lassina Traoré.

In a sense, Hengelman's journey from the Netherlands to Cape Town and back is symbolic of a project which made an impact on South African football, but did not quite go the distance.

However, although Ajax Cape Town's best days came and went, Hengelman can still afford to dream of what might be around the corner -- for the time being at least.