“I thought I would play for ever”

Jan Molby talks to Huw Richards and tells him about cultural changes in his time in England and the transition from player to manager

As a youngster, how conscious were you of British football?
Very aware of it. In my part of Denmark, the interest was in English and German football – in other parts it’s only in the English game. The Danish game then was still amateur. My first team was Arsenal. It was the year they won the double and while I didn’t know what the double was, you get interested in teams you see a lot on television. That interest in British football is still there in Denmark. There was a period when you had stars like the Laudrup brothers playing in Spain and Italy when they got the similar coverage, but nowadays all the kids want to play for Manches­ter United, who have incredible support in Den­mark, the same way Liverpool do in Nor­­way. I remember when we played Ros­enberg, there were about 10,000 people to greet us at the airport and in a stadium hold­ing 24,000 there were 21,000 supporting Liverpool.

How important was the change to professionalism in Denmark?
It was the best thing that ever happened to Danish football. The talent was always there, but because the game was only play­ed as a hobby it didn’t develop fully. It was very well timed for me as it happened not long before I started in 1980-81.

In relation to population, Denmark have been over-achievers in world and European football. Do you think they can maintain that level?
There are about five million Danes, about the same as Scotland. I think we can stay where we are, normally among the top ten in Europe and qualifying for the World Cup and European championships, because we work very hard to produce technically gifted footballers. Norway have also done very well, but they turn out players like the Germans who are very strong and can run all day. We generate real footballers.

Did your first experience of full-time football at Ajax come as a shock?
The training at Ajax was incredible. I was completely exhausted afterwards, mentally as much as physically. The first four or five weeks were extremely difficult – the coach told me afterwards that I looked a different player to the one he thought he had signed. Every day was an education. The Dutch league wasn’t very strong and we often won matches by five or six goals, so the training sessions were often tougher than the mat­ches, with everybody competing for a place. Whether you got a game depended on how you went in training, with everybody given a chance. In terms of learning about coaching I might have been better off spending ten years at Ajax and two years at Liverpool, rather than the other way round, but at the age of 19 or 20 you don’t take in so much.

So did you feel it was a step back in training terms when you joined Liverpool, even though they were the top club in Europe?
Yes. No disrespect to Liverpool, but it was completely different to the previous two years. You weren’t pushed as hard in training, the emphasis was on the matches. If you didn’t train at Ajax there was no question of your playing, but at Liverpool you had people like Alan Hansen who hardly ever trained. He would never have got a game at Ajax. For training sessions there you put your shinguards on and people tackled as they would in matches. At Liverpool there was no tackling, a warm-up, some five-a-sides and back in the bath.

The success of Liverpool and players like Hansen suggests they were getting something right.
I think they did find a happy med­ium. I’ve talked to a few people at Ajax since and we’ve agreed that there’s no way you could play 15 years there, your body couldn’t take it. At Liver­pool you’d feel at the start of the season that you weren’t quite ready for 90 min­utes, and you weren’t. They’d get you to about 90 per cent capacity and build up over the first half dozen matches. They knew what they were doing, preparing for a marathon of 50 to 60 matches.

It clearly helped that the crowd took to you so rapidly.
It helped a great deal. I don’t know why they took to me so quickly – it wasn’t as though I was a particularly British type of player. I cer­tainly wasn’t rem­otely as hard as the player I was replacing, Gra­eme Souness. But that good rela­tionship with the crowd lasted through­ my 12 years there. It’s hard to tell what makes the crowd take to some players and not oth­ers. Torben Piechnik also came from Denmark, but he had a much harder time. And if the crowd like you on the field, they’ll probably like you off it, which makes the rest of your life much more enjoyable. That was a big difference from Ajax, where you were hardly ever recognised off the pitch.

How big an impact do you think overseas players and coaches have had on the British game?
It has been massive, far more than people expected. And it has had more to do with players than with coaches. Take a player like Stig Bjornebye at Liverpool. He’s a good player, but he’s never going to be remembered as one of the greatest players in Liverpool’s history. But he made a big impact on the other players. They looked at the way he looked after himself and the things he did after matches, and other players copied him. If he had that effect at Liverpool, can you imagine what the arrival of someone like Bergkamp must have done at Arsenal? There’s a much greater awareness now. If I had started doing things differently when I arrived at Liverpool they’d have thought I was mad. I think British football has caught up to a great extent, particularly at the top level. You won’t find much difference between people like David Beckham and Michael Owen and top continental players. But there are cultural differences. British players are probably more likely to have a couple of pints after the game, but then in continental teams you still see a lot of players lighting up.

Are there too many foreign players now?
I think there are. Nobody could have foreseen that you were going to have 200 to 250 overseas players in the Premiership. I think it means the British players who come through at that level will be of a better standard, but it is still too many. There should be some limit.

This appears to be particularly a Premiership phenomenon, with fewer foreign players at lower levels.

It would be very difficult for a Danish player to come and play for someone like Northampton, because it would be a different type of football to anything he has played. The big difference is that the game is so physical. I think you need to have played First Division, the second highest league in Denmark, to play in the Conference. To play Third Division here you would need to have played Super League, because this is the only place you get football that is as physical as the British game. I brought a couple of Danish lads in at Kidderminster and thought for a few weeks that I had made a mistake, but now it is working very well. At Swansea we had João Moreira. He was a good player, but the problem was the physical side and that we could not play good enough players around him.

Did you ever expect to become a manager?

No, I thought I would play for ever.

In spite of the great success of Liverpool as a team, their former players have a rather mixed record as managers.

That’s true. From the team I was in myself, Ronnie Whelan, Steve McMahon and John Aldridge all went into management and you’d have to say that John Aldridge, who has done a great job at Tranmere, is the only one who has really proved himself. I think club chairmen saw how well Liverpool had done over the years and thought there was some magic formula that “he must know, because he’s been there for a long time”. But there was no secret – simply that Liverpool had the money to sign the best players.

Starting as a player-manager, there must always have been an issue about how much you played yourself.

When things go well you think you can handle everything. In the 1996-97 season when Swansea got to the play-offs I played about 20 matches but I was in and out, playing five matches then out for three. This wasn’t very fair to the other players but Billy Ayre, my assistant, said “when you’re fit you have to play, you’re our best player”. He said the same when the chairman suggested I should stop playing early in the season when we were struggling so I could take a look at what was going wrong. But the real problem there was that the board would ask me to say that selling a player was my decision, and then not come up with the money they had promised for a replacement.

Kidderminster are challenging for promotion. Do you think the club is ready for the League?

Our chances are very good – we’re one of seven or eight clubs with a serious chance. Kidderminster won the league in 1994 and weren’t allowed promotion, then a couple of years later they were 15 points clear and were caught by Macclesfield. That does tend to hang over the club – it is easy to think that you have had your chance and lost it. But the experience in 1994 made them determined to make sure that the club would be ready next time it had the chance. On the basis of what I saw in the Third Division, this club is more than ready. Some people told me that it would be impossible to do anything with players when you only see them twice a week for training, but I’ve found that is not true. The players here are ready to learn and they are at least as fit as those at the four clubs with full-time players in this league. My feeling is that a lot of clubs in this league are better run than a lot of Division Three. It is a very focused league. It has to be, as there is only one chance to go up, whereas seven teams can have some sort of success in the Third.

From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month