That was a helluva team wasn’t it? Morten Olsen, the closest thing to Franz Beckenbauer before or since; Frank Arnesen on one side and Jesper Olsen on the other; Soren Lerby box-to-boxing in the middle; and, up front, the incomparable Michael Laudrup and the bonkers Preben Elkjaer. How did it happen? Or, more pertinently, how did it happen in Denmark? Two Englishmen and a Dane, united by their love of this brief, beautiful football flowering, set out to find out and what they discovered just made them love this team all the more.
Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen and Mike Gibbons start their story with tales of the part-time players and the amateur leagues of the 1870s – I’m sorry, this is Denmark – the 1970s. All that (well, not quite all that) was to change in 1978 when the beer fuelled matches became beer sponsored matches, with Carlsberg fronting the kind of money needed deliver a successful World Cup / Euros qualifying tournament. But it needed a certain kind of alchemist to spin an XI from the far-flung Danish boots-for-hire men scattered over Europe.
That man was ex-German clogger/stopper and Haiti manager Sepp Piontek, who, in the sparkling portrait that emerges in the text, appears to have come closer to anyone to recreating Brian Clough’s unique climate of fear tempered by fatherly concern (maybe not concern, maybe even – that word again – love) that provokes a response in certain young men that engenders loyalty without question. Pointek is still around today and so is the culture he created – though the young men are middle-aged now.
Like Clough, Piontek hid a bear-trap mind behind the one-liners, the bluster and the rules made for breaking. He thought sometimes in his regimented native German and sometimes in his freewheeling adopted Danish and did the same juggling when marshalling his charges. The lads could still have a beer and chase a girl or two round Copenhagen dancefloors , but that became the reward for the football and and not its replacement (as it had been under his genial predecessor, the Falstaffian Kurt Nielsen).
Like the Everton side that unexpectedly emerged at about the same time, the fans idolised these down to earth players, who played like supermen and behaved like everymen. Through some wonderful and typically generous interviews, the writers get to the heart of the team, to the men who made the magic. Thankfully, they all appear to be exactly as they should be!
Morton Olsen is still the leader, the calming presence who would suddenly trundle forward, the libero spreading his wings. Unique in his record of 100 national caps as player and manager, his perspective frames the narrative. Michael Laudrup floats in and out of the text, the master player wearing his pan-European experience lightly – can Garry Monk really be a better bet for Swansea? Soren Lerby, Frank Arnesen and Klaus Berggreen also offer some wonderful tales to go with their wonderful play.
The star, as he was when driving defences demented, is Preben Elkjaer, the alpha male striker whose pace and compelling direct style on the pitch was matched by his partying off it. He was a force of nature, a late-developing marauder, always on the point of losing control of the ball but never quite doing so – just look at this! His charisma was so great that, even in a culture that valued the humble plumber and traffic cop who played in the Euros and the World Cup, it was Elkjaer who connected with fans at a visceral level.
The book is at its best when addressing how this team that won nothing (though the players that comprised it won national and continental honours by the fistful with their clubs) created its indelible mark on football history. It was their time: the time for fans who drank beer and organised sing-songs not riots; for superstar players with their feet on the ground; for the team, the nation, the game to be so much greater than the sums of their parts.
It’ll never happen again – read Danish Dynamite and find out exactly how it happened then.