An ex-Danish international turned Walsall into cup specialists in his one season as manager. Tom Lines recounts the tale
In the summer of 1997 an overweight man in his early 40s walked into the offices of the Tamworth Herald and asked to speak to the sports editor. He claimed to have played in a European Cup final and wanted advice on securing a job in local football. Accustomed to humouring eccentrics with tall tales to tell, the journalist listened patiently before sending him on his way.
Six months later the same “eccentric” was leading his team out for an FA Cup tie at Old Trafford in front of over 54,000 people. The man in question was Jan Sorensen and the story of his one season as Walsall manager is as intriguing as it is unlikely. His playing career began as a winger in his native Denmark, before a six-year stint at Club Brugge that really did include a European Cup final (against Liverpool at Wembley in 1978) as well as two Belgian league titles and 11 international caps. Sorensen then went through four Dutch clubs in five years and, after a spell in Portugal, drifted out of the game entirely. By the early 1990s he was reportedly working as a timeshare salesman on the Algarve, so it came as something of a surprise to Walsall fans when he was unveiled as the club’s new manager at the start of the 1997-98 season.
Sorensen’s appointment gave rise to an array of outlandish rumours. These ranged from details of his previous managerial position (a local ten-pin bowling alley, allegedly) to the suggestion that he had been recommended for the job by the employment agency that supplied the Bescot Stadium catering staff.
In fact, Sorensen had moved to Staffordshire with his British wife in 1992 and, feeling that he still had something to offer football, wrote to Saddlers chairman Jeff Bonser requesting an interview. If it was strange for him to be shortlisted despite his lack of experience in the English game (not to mention having been out of football entirely for over five years) it was downright astonishing when he was actually given the job.
Although it’s nice to think of Walsall as one of the handful of visionary clubs employing foreign managers in the mid-1990s the reasons behind Sorensen’s appointment are probably a little more prosaic. The Dane was paid a salary of just £25,000 and revealed that he had clinched the interview by telling Bonser that he was “not going to go out and spend his money”. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to see a provincial chairman’s head being turned by someone who had played under Ernst Happel, Gilbert Gress and Johann Cruyff, and who made tantalising allusions to “total football”.
This may also explain why Walsall’s fans took the appointment so well. Sorensen was engaging, honest and approachable. Besides, he smoked an entire pack of Rothmans during a game, swore in interviews and had the general demeanour of someone running an Amsterdam pub crawl. The team assembled that summer were a talented yet fragile bunch – more than able to rouse themselves for cup games yet unsuited to the grind of a full campaign in the third tier. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to look back on just how many highlights there were – a record 7-0 away demolition of Macclesfield in the FA Cup, over 8,000 Saddlers witnessing that fourth round tie at Old Trafford, raucous League Cup victories over Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Utd, and Roger Boli’s astonishing first goal in a hat-trick against Southend Utd (seriously, track it down on YouTube).
Yet for all their cup heroics, Walsall won only six games in the league after Christmas and it came as no surprise when Sorensen was sacked at the end of the season. Bonser subsequently admitted that the appointment was a “gamble that failed”, but most fans look back on the period fondly and the legacy of Walsall’s first – and so far only – foreign manager should not be underestimated. The club made over £500,000 from their cup exploits, money that helped strengthen the squad the following season when Ray Graydon guided them to an unexpected promotion.
Jan Sorensen never managed a professional club again but he still lives in Tamworth and has taken over a pub in the town. So if you’re ever enjoying a quiet pint in the area and the landlord starts telling you about the tricks he and Frank Rijkaard used to play on Johan Cruyff, then don’t ignore him. He used to manage Walsall, you know.
From WSC 278 April 2010