When the rest of the world was falling in love with Maradona at the 1986 World Cup, I began my obsession with Michael Laudrup. Here's an appreciation on Swansea's new manager.
Swansea Calling: Barcelona and Real Madrid’s Michael Laudrup: The Best Player I Ever Touched is now heading to Swansea City as their new manager.
“Glittering” is hardly the word you would use to describe my football career. I’m in my twentieth year as a professional footballer and polishing silverware has not been a chore I’ve ever had to endure. Yeah, I’ve been a squad member at clubs who have won the Championship, got to cup finals and qualified for Europe but it won’t be anything to brag about after I’m done. I suppose, if I’m pushed, I could always look on my longevity in the game as my own personal success but it’s not gone exactly how I’d dreamt it all.
No, one of the greatest joys for me will be looking back at all the players I’ve played with, and against, and feel the the boy inside me smile. Dreams and aspirations change and morph in accordance with your experiences along the way but by just being able to call myself a professional footballer, I’ve fulfilled many of my ambitions I held. I’ve been lucky in many respects, especially in the days before I started to take many of the day to day occurrences for granted.
As a kid at Sunderland, I played alongside guys who I’d been idolising from the stands of Roker Park as a season ticket holder just months before. My early professional path was crossed by legends of the game such as, Terry Butcher, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and Kenny Dalglish. It was a lightening fast change from finishing my geography GCSE exam on the Friday and then playing in a 5-a-side competition with the players I’d been idolising from the stands of Roker Park only weeks before.
The memories of how that transition from schoolboy to footballer made me feel have never left me. I was as diligent a footballer as they come and ambitious with it, but I still couldn’t believe my new status as a bone fide Sunderland player. After training had finished and everyone except Alan the groundsman had gone home, I would stay and take a ball down behind the Roker End stand and act out scenarios as if I was a Mackem Roy of the Rovers. I played them out with such enthusiasm that I actually injured myself as I tackled a turnstile and cut my head on the frame of the doorway. The physio never did buy my “I just tripped over” excuse.
My career began in earnest six years prior to me signing for my boyhood heroes. 1986 became a hugely influential year in my footballing life. I was nine years old and the World Cup of that year had such an overwhelming effect on me that even to this day I still watch the video that was made to document the competition. “Hero”, narrated by Michael Caine, is a work of art to me. This was the exact moment when it all clicked for me and I was just beginning to make sense that football was about much more than the pure enjoyment of playing. I began to appreciate there was much more to football than just scoring goals and making saves. I was learning how, despite the rules being exactly the same the whole world round, we didn’t necessarily play the game the same way. Hero opened my eyes to the beauty of French football and the wonderful skills of Michel Platini. I watched “Hero” and remember wondering, despite only being separated by a narrow stretch of water, how come England and France were world’s apart in their styles?
I fell in love with that French side of Giresse, Platini and Tigana. It was due to them that I took a much keener interest in my French lessons at school. If I wasn’t going to make it at Sunderland, my next choice was to play for St Ettienne. Even in the early days of Championship Manager, I would often dress up in full suit, shirt and tie for important matches whilst managing Lyon to Champions League success. A bit extreme, I know, but I did grow out of that kind of behaviour eventually when my daughter came along . . . five years ago.
I’ve watched Hero a hundred times, yet I’m still distraught every time I see every that French team get beaten by the Germans. To me, Mexico is the finest World Cup there’s ever been.
It might be remembered as the World Cup won single-handedly by Maradona but for me, it was the beginning of an obsession with another player from that tournament. An obsession with the real Prince of Denmark, Michael Laudrup.
From the moment I saw him destroy the much vaunted Enzo Francescoli’s Uruguay, I fell in love. It’s the only way to describe it. I might have been a Sunderland fan for as long as I could remember but it was the Liverpool team of the early eighties that showed me how the game should be played and although I’d witnessed Dalglish as he approached the end of his career, it wasn’t until I saw Laudrup that any one player had made an impression on me like this.
Over the years, I followed Laudrup’s career microscopically, scouring Trans World Sport at eight o’clock on a Saturday morning before the days of Sky’s wall-to-wall coverage, just to catch a rare glimpse of him in action. I still don’t think Laudrup’s talent is appreciated as it’s deserved be here in England. It still frustrates the life out of me whenever pundits discuss the world’s greatest players and he is always left out from the handful of greats who are continually mentioned. Cruyff, Pele, and Maradona are all players who he could easily stand shoulder to shoulder with.
We talk of football as the beautiful game but there aren’t many players over the last 30 years who have epitomised it’s true beauty as much as Laudrup. In the six golden years he spent in Spain (4 with Barca, 2 with Real) he won five titles. His legacy in Spain will forever be his part in both of Barcelona’s and Real Madrid’s greatest modern day successes against each other. Laudrup was instrumental in destroying Real 5-0 in 1994, only to move to Real that summer and inflict the exact same scoreline on his old Barca teammates the next season. When people like Pep Guardiola and Raul say he’s the best player they’ve ever played with, only then do you begin to see how much more he’s appreciated outside of our isles.
There were two outstanding aspects to Laudrup’s armoury as player. When he ran with the ball, he kept it so close you couldn’t slide an empty crisp packet between the ball and his foot. His close control when dribbling round players has only been replicated since by Zinedine Zidane. Particularly for some one who stood six foot tall, his balance and movement were balletic. He would embarrass defenders who’d resort to trying to kick him as he glided past. “Trying” being the operative word as they rarely got close enough to touch him.
He looked up as I made my way towards him and immediately stuck out his hand to shake mine. I froze.
Just as Cruyff had his turn and Maradona had his spin, Laudrup’s signature was his pass using the outside of the right boot. Whether it was a scooped pass over a defender’s head or a defence splitting pass, it was though his foot had a degree in geometry. Passes so precise you could have used his right boot to perform open heart surgery. Rarely did the recipient have to break their stride.
Fast forward to the summer of 2005 and I had lost my place in the Aberdeen team and a move to Denmark materialised. At the very same time, Michael Laudrup was starting his management career with Brondby IF. Don’t think this wasn’t factored into my thinking as I made my decision to travel across the North Sea. I’d played under a Danish manger in Ebbe Skovdahl, who incidentally was Laudrup’s uncle so I’d began to take an interest in the Danish domestic league and decided to accept the initial offer of a short-term loan to Supaliga club, Silkeborg. I honestly thought this was my chance to meet him.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened. A few weeks into my Scandinavian adventure we came up against Brondby at their place. Walking down the corridor outside the dressing rooms, I turned left and there he was, mobile phone in hand, checking his messages.
He looked up as I made my way towards him and immediately stuck out his hand to shake mine. I froze.
There was the 30 year old man’s part of my brain telling me to put my hand out, say hello and pass it off as if it was any other opposing manager that I’d met in the past. Unfortunately for me, there was also the 10 year old part of my brain confusing my thoughts, saying I should tell him about all the times I watched footage of him play and how he was my favourite player as a kid.
The result of our brief meeting was a timid limp handshake and an utterance which suggested I was a stroke victim. I’d never been that star struck since Marco Gabbiadini had visited my primary school to hand out the end of year trophies. One saving grace was my performances against his team that year were very good. I was determined to make sure my embarrassment was restricted solely to that corridor.
Today, Laudrup’s managerial CV includes a successful stint at Madrid’s third club, Getafe, a short ill-fated stay at Spartak Moscow and his last club, Real Mallorca. Clearly influenced by his time spent playing under Johan Cruyff at Barca and his final year fling at Ajax, his teams employ an attractive 4-2-3-1 formation that has become the blueprint for all sides wishing to play an effective short passing game. Whilst major success has so far eluded him, his style and intelligence make him the perfect answer to those suggesting Arsene Wenger’s tenure is winding to a close. There are very few obvious candidates should Arsenal’s board wish to blow the winds of change through the corridors of The Emirates but Michael Laudrup would be the perfect fit for the Gunners. He is the man to continue Wenger’s ethos whilst providing his knowledge of doing things the Barca way.
My only wish in regards to Laudrup would have been to see him play in the flesh and but for a contractual disagreement, that wish may have come true too. The story goes he was all set to sign for Liverpool in 1983 until a contract offer was changed from a three year deal to a four and Laudrup wasn’t willing to commit to that extra year. Subsequently, he decided to accept an offer from Juventus instead, which is probably just as well for Kenny Dalglish. If Laudrup had signed at Anfield, maybe King Kenny would have had a battle on his hands to keep his throne.
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