Denmark: The big guns are troubled but the horses from Randers are happy

THERE’S a new name at the top of Danish football at the moment in the form of Randers FC from East Jutland, a club that has never before been champions of Denmark. Randers assumed the license of the old Randers Freja club that won the Danish Cup three times and reached the last eight of the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1968-69. Formed in 2003, Randers once had former England defender Colin Todd as their chief coach.

Randers are leading the Superliga and are unbeaten in their first 10 games. They’re from a town of around 60,000 people, so crowds of 5,500 represent a reasonable percentage of the local population. In a season where two of the modern heavyweights of the Danish game, FC Copenhagen and Midtjylland, have got off to less than perfect starts, Randers have taken advantage to head the table. Whether they can remain in front is a matter of great debate, but they have a side that is difficult to beat with a strong defence and an outstanding goalkeeper in Patrik Carlgren, a 30 year-old Swede. Randers also have some promising players who are enjoying themselves at the moment, notably the Norwegian midfielder Lasse Berg Johnson, who has been in fine form.

FC Copenhagen have been a major disappointment this season and have lost six of their 10 league games. They qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Champions League and have a tough fixture list that includes Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and Manchester City. They were beaten 3-0 in Dortmund and were held 0-0 by Sevilla in the Danish capital. But a series of defeats cost coach Jess Thorup his job.

The 52 year-old was a popular figure, but the team he left behind lost more Superliga games in the opening weeks than they suffered in the whole of 2021-22. They were also beaten at home 3-1 by Randers, a game that underlined that the balance of power was shifting in Denmark. FC Copenhagen, despite discarding their man, were full of praise for Thorup: “We must offer a big thank you to Jess for his exemplary work, not least in connection with the major transformation that FCK has gone through over the past few years. With Jess the club has succeeded in winning a Danish championship and securing the first qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stage since 2016.” Jacob Neestrup, the club’s assistant coach has taken over from Thorup.

Equally, FC Midtjylland have not been at their absolute best and are languishing in seventh place. They are currently playing in the Europa League and recently thrashed Lazio 5-1 in Denmark. But in the Superliga, their form has been patchy although they beat FC Copenhagen 2-1 in a game that proved to be Thorup’s last in charge of the reigning champions.

Brøndby, who have struggled to keep pace with the financial power of FCK and Midtjylland, look like they are on the verge of being taken over. The club, which is listed on the stock market, saw its share price rise on rumours that US businessman David Blitzer, who has investments in other clubs such as Crystal Palace, Augsburg and ADO Den Haag, was looking to buy a major stake in the 11-times champions. Some fans are not happy about the prospect, as Blitzer is a senior executive at private equity firm Blackstone. He’s also been trying to buy a stake in France’s Saint-Étienne. The fan group Alpha believes that Blitzer, effectively a multi-club owner, would not be compatible with Brøndby.

However, there are some football followers who believe Brøndby actually need fresh investment and that in acquiring some of chairman Jan Bech Andersen’s 54.6% holding, Blitzer can move the club up a gear to become more competitive. At present, the club relies on selling talent into the market to generate income and lacks the muscle of some of its rivals. They recently changed their approach of only signing talent under the age of 27 and bought 33 year-old Daniel Wass from Atlético Madrid as well as other more mature players. Brøndby won the Superliga in 2021, but it was their first title since 2005.

Alpha have written to Andersen to urge him not to sell to Blitzer: “Brøndby IF must be owned, run and loved by people who respect the club’s DNA and have Brøndby IF as their first and only priority.” After the international break, the Superliga programme resumes, by which time, Brøndby’s future may be clearer.

FC Copenhagen win the Superliga and strengthen the brand

THE strongest sporting brand in the Nordic region – that’s how FC København describe themselves, and after winning their 14th league triumph in the 30 years of the club’s existence, it’s hard to disagree. On the day that FCK clinched the Superliga title, the wonderful city of Copenhagen was awash with supporters heading to Parken for the final game of the campaign against Aalborg, a 3-0 success that made it impossible for Midtjylland to catch the team from the heart of the capital.

Although FCK’s rivals in the west of Copenhagen, Brøndby might disagree, there’s something about the club that’s rather compelling. Maybe it is the brilliant white and royal blue colours, perhaps it is the stadium, but it could also be the identity of the club, which carries the name of one of the most popular cities in Europe at the moment.

The world loves anything Nordic: the laid-back attitude of its people, the simplicity of innovative design from Denmark, Sweden and Finland, the healthy and down-to-earth lifestyles and the rather acquired taste of new Nordic cuisine. If a Danish club is ever going to look the Germans, French and English in the eye in the 21st century, it could be FC København from the well-heeled area of Østerbro.

FCK finished just three points ahead of Midtjylland, a club owned by Matthew Benham, who is better known as the owner of Brentford. Benham’s analytical approach to team-building and transfers was tried out in Denmark before he applied his methods to Brentford, the club he had supported for many years. Midtjylland were formed out of a merger between Ikast and Herning Fremad and have won three Superliga titles, the most recent in 2020. They looked good for another championship for much of 2021-22, but FCK overtook them late on and then dominated the decisive Championship round. Nevertheless, they are considered to be one of Europe’s smartest clubs.

There was compensation for Midtjylland in the form of the Danish Cup (Sydbank Pokalen), which they won on penalties against OB. Rather uniquely, they played in all three of UEFA’s competitions, starting in the Champions League before dropping into the Europa and then Conference. Midtjylland’s relatively small squad includes half a dozen Brazilians, one of whom, Evander, netted 17 goals and was among the SuperLiga’s top scorers and finished third in the player of the year voting.

Evander was beaten to the award by Spain’s Pep Biel, FCK’s leading scorer with 18 goals across all competitions. Biel, who comes from Majorca, was the most expensive signing in Superliga history when he moved to Denmark from Zaragoza for a € 5 million fee. He took time to settle, his relatively small frame strolling to adjust to the physical Danish league, but he not only scored goals but created a few for his team-mates. “At first it was difficult for me,” he said. “I’m not the tallest or strongest, but is also played with movement and skill with the ball.”

Biel secured 25% of the votes from fellow professionals and in second place was the league’s top striker, Nicklas Helenius of Silkeborg, who scored 17 SuperLiga goals. The 31 year-old, who nudges almost two metres in height, had an unhappy spell with Aston Villa between 2013 and 2015.

One very positive aspect of the 2021-22 season were the crowds. FCK, for example, recorded the best ever average gates in the Superliga, a very impressive 24,300 and also drew 35,000 for their title-winning game against Aalborg. That game was also marred by a pitch invasion. Interest in the club appears to be gathering momentum and already they have sold 16,000 season tickets for next season.

Less successful were AGF from Aarhus, who took the bold step of hiring former Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere. He managed 14 appearances, although very few 90 minute performances, and was never on the winning side. AGF were in danger of relegation but stayed up by a single point, which was fortunate given they are about to benefit from a redevelopment of their stadium. Vejle and SønderjyskE went down to the first division, to be replaced by Horsens and Lyngby. Horsens will open the season against the champions at Parken on July 17.

Denmark won many friends for their performances in Euro 2020 and also for the way they reacted to the trauma suffered by midfielder Christian Eriksen. They have qualified for the World Cup in Qatar and will come up against France in the group stage and they will also face them in the UEFA Nations League on June 3, 2022. Although the Danes are rarely named amongst lists of possible winners, to underestimate them would be a mistake!