There’s an expression in Denmark to signify if someone has committed an unbelievable howler, “en ritig Jesper Olsen” which translates to “a real Jesper Olsen”. The term was coined after Denmark’s 5-1 humbling by Spain in the first knockout stage of the 1986 World Cup. With his side one goal to the good Olsen tried to pass the ball back to keeper Lars Høgh, unfortunately for the little winger he only succeeded in picking out Spain’s Emilio Butragueño who promptly leveled and subsequently went on to bag a further three goals. To add insult to injury it was Olsen who had given Denmark the lead in the first place.
If anything it’s a huge shame that “en ritig Jesper Olsen” is rooted in such a negative space as it could quite easily be used to describe the Dane’s casual genius. There was his magnificent solo effort against Feyenoord, the wonder goal against Celtic in the European Cup and of course his effort against England in 1982 that helped the burgeoning Danish Dynamite side earn a 2-2 draw and set them on the road to their first major international tournament ever, Euro ‘84. Olsen’s strike against England in isolation simply helped his side earn a draw however the significance of the goal wasn’t lost on anyone who witnessed it in all its glory.
Danish commentator Svend Gehrs could only remark “I’m stunned but I have to present our new star player: Jesper Olsen! Here he outwits four players and Shilton. Presenting Jesper Olsen!”
Sepp Piontek the German coach who oversaw the unprecedented rise of the Danish Dynamite understood how important Olsen’s goal was for his team. “If Jesper Olsen does not score the goal we cannot get a point. If we do not get this point we will not qualify for France, and if we do not qualify for France we will not qualify for Mexico,” he said.
Olsen, nicknamed de vlo (the flea), changed the course of Danish football history with his sashaying run and strike against England or to put a positive spin on a certain saying he did “en ritig Jesper Olsen”.
The flea was also blessed having played with some of the finest talents the game has ever seen at club and international level. For Ajax he lined alongside the likes of Frank Rijkaard, Wim Kieft, Jan Mølby, Marco van Basten and the man himself Johan Cruyff. Remember THAT penalty Johan Cruyff took for Ajax? The player whom the Dutch master passed the ball to was, that’s right, Jesper Olsen. Coincidentally, that was the only time Cruyff took a spot kick for the Amsterdam giants.
On the international stage Olsen played with Ajax mates Søren Lerby and Jan Mølby as well as Allan Simonsen, Frank Arnesen, Morten Olsen, Preban Elkjær and Michael Laudrup. The Denmark side of the mid-eighties was outrageously gifted, wonderfully entertaining with a stylish kit to boot. They were the epitome of cool.
So on the face of it Olsen and United were made for each other. The crowds at Old Trafford had been fed a diet of great, entertaining wingers and Jesper Olsen possessed all the qualities required to continue the tradition of dashing wide attackers at United. He moved from Ajax in 1984 for a fee of £350,000 and given the profile of the player and United’s struggles it was quite the coup.
The transfer itself was an interesting tale with Ron Atkinson tracking Olsen after learning that the winger was a fan of United. The club waited until after the 1984 European Championships to make their move wary about an ankle problem that had been troubling Olsen. Once the tournament was over Atkinson met Olsen at Amsterdam airport looking to make an impression. He did just that as he forgot to zip up his fly “It was embarrassing,” Atkinson confessed to Alt om Sport. Nonetheless the United manager carried on, held out his hand to the little winger and declared, “You are welcome in Manchester. We don’t pay that much but we have a great time”.
Trouble was that the eighties wasn’t an especially great period for United. Olsen quickly had to adapt to a league that was far more reliant on power over technique. “It was very different to what I was used to at Ajax,” said Olsen. “The English have a lot more games, high balls and a different way of playing, and they didn’t have as many foreigners in the UK at that time. It was difficult to adjust in some ways but I learned a lot in other ways”.
Unfortunately, United fans never truly got to see de vlo at his very best. There were highlights such as his contribution to the amazing start United enjoyed winning their opening 10 matches of the 1985/86 season, the hat-trick against West Brom on the 22nd of February 1986 and of course being the first Danish player ever to lift the FA Cup when United bested Everton 1-0 in the final in 1985.
Olsen played a total of 139 league matches amassing 21 goals for United though he could have easily had his stay at Old Trafford cut short had Ron Atkinson not been sacked. The Dane was placed on the transfer list at the end of October 1986 by Atkinson after a bust up with Remi Moses but was promptly taken off it when Alex Ferguson took over in early November.
There was no renaissance under the Scot for Olsen and he was sold to Bordeaux in 1989 before moving to Caen a season later. He retired in 1992 after battling, unsuccessfully, against injury though he had offers to continue his playing career with Blackburn Rovers and Nottingham Forest.
Despite not fulfilling his undoubted potential at Old Trafford the Danish wing magician always felt like a real United player. He was dashing, skillful and brave given the treatment dished out to him by defenders. Maybe he was the right player at the wrong time, an artist in the prosaic world of Division 1 football.
Nonetheless de vlo brought with him a little slice of cool to Old Trafford, for a few seasons at least.
1) Danish Dynamite: The Story of Football’s Greatest Cult Team by Rob Smyth, Lars Eriksen & Mike Gibbons