Jesper Olsen.

Why Jesper Olsen was such an exciting signing

Inside United asked our reporters to pinpoint certain players from the past who really struck a chord with them back in their Reds-supporting youth.

The 'Red Idols' features included some famous names from yesteryear, but my personal choice was Jesper Olsen.

I tried to explain why the Danish winger was such a big deal back in the day when Ron Atkinson was manager, as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's men prepare to face opponents from Jesper's homeland in FC Copenhagen on Monday.

Former United winger Jesper Olsen, photographed in 2010.
The signing of Jesper Olsen at Manchester United in 1984 was just about as exotic a deal as I had ever known at the time.

The Dane was being dubbed ‘the new George Best’ and, even if that seemed to be the case with every winger getting into the Reds’ first team, there was no disputing his pedigree. He was a star alongside Johan Cruyff, of all people, at Ajax and I presumed Ron Atkinson had needed to be at his persuasive best to lure the wide man to Old Trafford.

Nikola Jokanovic was the first overseas import I remember but, as an 11-year-old kid when Olsen arrived, this was a new player to get genuinely excited about.

What made it even more appealing to me was the fact some people decided I looked a bit like the Scandinavian. I really didn’t, but I was always wearing my United shirt, had similarly longish browny-blond hair and, because I am left-footed, played in the same position.

So this was a footballer I could relate to – more so than the previous Red some coaches at my youth team had likened me to: Joe Jordan. The aggressive centre-forward was nothing like me but my front two milk teeth helpfully both fell out at the same time to spark comparisons with the Scotland international nicknamed ‘Jaws’.

In those days, we were restricted to how much football was available to watch on television and, due to lingering concerns about the safety of being in packed stands, I was only allowed to attend sporadic away matches rather than heading north to Old Trafford. It means my opinions of Olsen, the player, did not form for some time and were not always based on any relation to how he was performing on the pitch. Radio commentaries and brief highlights were all I had to go on.

Nonetheless, he was my kind of player – entertaining, skilful, a little bit of a showman. I do recall seeing him in the flesh at Luton Town when he was able to express himself on the Hatters’ plastic pitch. It was said he and Gordon Strachan would be ideal for such a surface, as was the case in the indoor Soccer Sixes tournament that I loved watching every year.
Jesper played a role in helping us win the 1985 FA Cup – the second trophy since I started supporting the club in 1979/80. And he was influential when the Reds won our opening 10 games of the following season, although I think there was a TV blackout in operation which stopped me watching what looked to be a team that would finally end the club’s long drought for the title.

That all ended in tears but Olsen continued to resonate with me, even when representing Denmark. Of course, we had numerous players who turned out for the other home nations at international level, but it felt a unique experience watching one of our own competing in the World Cup, on the other side of the planet in Mexico, for a foreign country.

This was an extension to what I had acknowledged to be the meaning of following United. I could cheer on a favourite player in different colours and on live television, still something of a rarity, particularly as my dad had allowed me to watch some of the Mexico ‘86 games despite the anti-social hours. I would go to bed early and he’d wake me up to see the overnight matches.

Olsen scored in a 6-1 hiding of Uruguay and also, satisfyingly, against West Germany as the Danes cruised through to the knockout stages, only to suffer a 5-1 loss to an Emilio Butragueno-inspired Spain. Unfortunately, our man made a catastrophic error leading to one of the goals and things started to go awry at Old Trafford afterwards as well.

There was a much-publicised training ground bust-up with Remi Moses, my dad’s favourite player, which I guess was difficult to cover up due to the whopping great shiner on the Dane’s eye. He remained with the club until 1988, when joining Bordeaux, but had, in truth, been something of an enigmatic and perhaps inconsistent performer.

Yet he had left a real impression on me, particularly at a time when I was starting to play proper league football myself. It is probably no coincidence that I was also greatly enamoured by his ultimate replacement, Lee Sharpe, and also the incredible Ryan Giggs. So maybe it was largely because Olsen was a left-winger that he resonated most with me.

I am convinced there is more to it than that, though. A continental signing appeared to elevate our status, in my eyes, and open up new horizons in terms of what football means. I recall sitting on a beach in France and hearing a couple of teenagers pointing to my United shirt and having a conversation about it. The only words I understood were ‘Jesper Olsen’ and, for some reason, this filled with me a sense of wonderment of how popular the sport was across the world.

This article first appeared in Inside United, the official club magazine.

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