Jan Molby: humbled by love
The first time he went to Anfield he thought the manager driving him was a chauffeur. Another, momentous ride to the red citadel began with his hiding in a car boot. Today, 16 years after he left Liverpool, the journey still has a strong sense of occasion for Jan Molby. Leaving his car on Stanley Park, he joins the crowds who once crooned his name as they make their way to the match. One day, he reflects, I’ll do this walk and no one will recognise me.
He is now 49 and it hasn’t happened yet. Older fans remember Molby as a member of the club’s last great side, in the mid-1980s, and their last championship-winning team, 21 long years ago. They have told the younger generations about his adhesive touch, elegant distribution and yes, his incarceration at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, ensuring that those who ask for an autograph or photo understand the Danish midfielder’s place in Liverpool lore.
Perhaps they portray him as the Charlie Adam of his era, a playmaker whose weight provoked discussion at the expense of the meticulous weighting of his passes. But then the Kopites, along with Kenny Dalglish and Johan Cruyff, always recognised the finesse behind the physique. Bob Paisley reckoned he had the best technique he had seen in a Liverpool player. At his peak, which Molby admits came early, his talent was so big you could see it from space.
It propelled him from amateur football in Denmark to a place alongside Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, not to mention Cruyff in his twilight stage, at Ajax in the early 1980s. Then it earned him a central role in Liverpool’s first League and FA Cup Double-winning season, 1985-86, and a whiff of World Cup glory with Denmark. Later came the self-inflicted problems which, though they briefly landed him in prison, did not deter 110,000 supporters from voting him 16th, the highest-placed foreigner, in a 2006 poll by Liverpool FC TV to find “100 Players Who Shook The Kop”.
Not bad for the kid from Kolding, a sea port with scant sporting tradition. “Football wasn’t really a career option for young guys there, or anywhere in Denmark when I was growing up,” said Molby, the accent more Scouse than Scandinavian.
“We had no professional football until 1978, and you didn’t represent the national team if you played abroad, so the likes of Allan Simonsen and Morten Olsen weren’t involved. We were brought up on English and West German football on TV. I was an Arsenal fan, which started, ironically, when I watched them win the Double by beating Liverpool in the 1971 FA Cup final. Later I used to go over to watch them at Highbury. Liam Brady became my favourite. I also followed Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, though my hero was Gunter Netzer, who played for Real Madrid. And in 1974 I fell in love with the Dutch national side. You could see Cruyff was the best player but I liked Ruud Krol. I thought he was fantastic.”
The idea of Molby performing at such a level, let alone following Krol at Ajax, seemed far-fetched. “When I was 13 and showing promise, people used to say, ‘Carry on like this and you could play for Kolding’. They were a non-League team then, but that was the height of your ambition.”
By the time he fulfilled it, the club were in the Danish Second Division. In 1981, Ajax came to assess an opposition striker. “The week before, this guy had actually won a race to be the fastest fireman in Europe,” he recalled. “I played quite well and a few days later, one of the Kolding directors strode on to the training ground and told our coach, ‘Soren Lerby’s on the phone for Jan’.”
Lerby was part of a Danish colony at Ajax. Molby walked through the clubhouse, unsure whether it was a wind-up yet aware everyone was looking at him. “Soren told me Ajax had seen me and asked if it was true I was 17 because if it was, their scout had never seen such a big 17-year-old. He told me they were going to keep watching me over the next year.” In 1982 the Amsterdam club agreed a deal with Kolding.
“They wanted me an 8am flight the next day. I remember ringing my mum and asking for a lift to the airport. She said she couldn’t because she was working – she had a job as a cleaner. So much for the glamour!” There was no shortage of glitz at Ajax. The first great “Total Football” side had disbanded, but another was being nurtured. Overseeing it all was 35-year-old Cruyff, who soon cast his spell over the newcomer.
“Looking back I think he was great,”said Molby. “He had an answer and opinion about everything. Me, Soren and Jesper Olsen would sit chatting and he’d come and ask what we were talking about. Whatever it was – politics, sport, whatever – he had a view. “Certain things stick in my mind. He had a theory about left-footers taking penalties; he reckoned they missed too many. He also said the Dutch league was a warm-up league for one of the stronger leagues such as Italy, West Germany or England. He told me, ‘When you go to one of those, play through the middle; that’s where the action is’.”
Molby’s European debut, at Celtic, provided another example of Cruyff’s role as a mentor. “The atmosphere, even 45 minutes before kick-off when we did our warm-up, was unbelievable. We were running from touchline to touchline and as we got near the crowd, the noise was deafening. “We had a lot of players around the age of 20 or under. Cruyff got us together in the middle before kick-off and said, ‘Don’t worry. Don’t be intimidated. Just get on with your jobs and I’ll sort the rest’. We drew 2-2 and he was incredible. Whatever he told you, you believed him.”
The Dutch master explained to Molby that Ajax players had to be able “to do everything” while encouraging him to work on something his team-mates could not do. He advised him about pass selection, finding space and being aware of where opponents were. Within weeks he had him passing with the outside of his weaker foot, the left. Cruyff, angered when Ajax did not offer him a new deal, then did the unthinkable and joined bitter rivals Feyenoord in 1983. His return to the Olympic Stadium produced, said Molby, “the most incredible game I ever played in”. The home team went 3-0 up, then “got a battering” and were only a goal ahead at half-time.
They were still clinging on around the hour mark when a soft goal made it 4-2. “Then they had to gamble. We kept catching them on the break and it ended up 8-2. But guess what: Johan had the last laugh because Feyenoord won the league.” Cruyff would have been unsurprised by van Basten’s hat-trick that afternoon. “He used to say all the time, ‘Marco’s the best I’ve ever seen’. He was, too – a big lad with great feet.”
The latter phrase doubtless featured in reports on Molby filed by scouts from English clubs. Sheffield Wednesday, newly promoted to the First Division, agreed a fee with Ajax in the summer of ’84. “I was leaving my apartment one evening when the phone went. I’m thinking, ‘Shall I answer it or go out?’ I picked it up and it was Tom Saunders, part of the great Liverpool Boot Room. He wasn’t saying ‘We want to buy you’. It was an invitation to go on trial. People at Ajax said, ‘A trial?’ They thought it was insulting. They were also surprised– there were much bigger stars at the club. “My thinking was that in two seasons at Ajax I hadn’t got beyond the first round in European competition, whereas I’d just seen Liverpool beat Roma to win the European Cup again. I was thinking, ‘How good are these guys?’
“The opportunity was there to train with them for 10 days. All I had to do was play. It wasn’t as if they were asking me to do anything I couldn’t do. One nice thing was that (Wednesday manager) Howard Wilkinson told me to grab the chance with both hands and if Liverpool didn’t want me, to get the train to Sheffield.”
On his first day of training, Molby was collected from his hotel by a grey-haired man in his 60s. “He just shook my hand and ushered me into the car. He assumed I knew who he was, but I didn’t. He could’ve been a club driver for all I knew.
“He was telling me about the city, its history and how the docks were struggling. He said it made the two football teams all the more important to people. I was thinking, ‘Two football teams? What’s he talking about?’ Then we went past Goodison Park and he went,‘That’s where the other team play’. I had no idea Everton were from Liverpool.” The man behind the wheel was Joe Fagan, the manager. Molby would impress him sufficiently to seal the move, only to discover to his unease that Fagan saw him as a direct replacement for Graeme Souness, the side’s lynchpin and dominant personality, who had joined Sampdoria.
“It was a tough league to come into, with very direct, physical teams like Watford and Wednesday. I didn’t live up to expectations and around Christmas, Joe gave up on me. I think he thought, ‘We’ve made a mistake but at least he didn’t cost a fortune’. But in those days the first team watched the reserves. Kenny (Dalglish) came a lot and saw a freer, more attacking role for me. When he became player-manager after Heysel I told him I hoped to play more regularly.
"I needed to play to have any chance of going to the ’86 World Cup. He just said, ‘You will’.” And he did, despite competition from Sammy Lee, John Wark, Craig Johnston and Kevin MacDonald, plus the arrival of Steve McMahon. Dalglish’s quest for balance saw him trust consistently in Molby’s vision and precision alongside a ball-winner. The League title won, the stage was set for the first all-Merseyside FA Cup final against Everton.
“It was the one day when everyone was watching you. There was no football on TV that season until January, not even highlights, because a dispute between the League and the TV companies. So a lot of people weren’t aware of what I could do. I knew the Denmark squad had gathered to prepare for Mexico and were watching the final on TV. That was the biggest pressure. Players can be ruthless and I pictured them saying, ‘Why are we taking him?’ But it was also a spur.”
Gary Lineker fired Everton ahead. Then Molby found his range, spearing passes that brought goals for Ian Rush and Johnston. He was also involved in the build to Rush’s second goal. Liverpool-watchers rate it his finest display, though he prefers the 6-2 win over high-flying Norwich six months later. “Everything came together for me in that game. Every flick, pass or movement worked.”
Critics, however, argue that Molby, only 22 when he commanded Wembley, never quite recaptured the brilliance of that campaign. Were they right? “Probably. I had a full season; 60 games, 21 goals. The next season wasn’t bad – I came back from the World Cup and started really well – but I didn’t finish it particularly well. For the one after (1987-88), I broke a foot in pre-season, had six weeks in plaster and was back in eight. By then, Ronnie Whelan and Steve McMahon were the pairing and there was no way back in. I basically finished that season on the bench. “The next two years I played wherever I was needed, including centre-back and sweeper. Kenny still goes on about the 4-4 game with Everton in’91, just before he resigned. He says every time we went ahead he was telling (coach) Ronnie Moran they had to bring me on at the back, but Ronnie was saying‘Let’s wait five minutes’.”
Molby could have been a Barcelona player by then. The previous year Cruyff identified him as the ideal replacement for Ronald Koeman, who had suffered a ruptured Achilles. A four-year contract was agreed, along with a £1.6m transfer fee. Amazingly, given the size of the Catalan club, the deal collapsed when they could not raise the money.
“The only thing I was disappointed about was not linking up with Cruyff. He was building the ‘dream team’, and it would’ve been exciting to be part of that. Barcelona ended up promoting from within and the place earmarked for me went to Pep Guardiola. I wonder what happened to him?”
Under the stewardship of Souness, Molby drifted in and out of favour, playing in the FA Cup-winning team of ’92 but losing ground to Jamie Redknapp and Don Hutchison. A move to Liam Brady’s Celtic fell through. As for the team, they had “fallen behind”.
He became more peripheral during Roy Evans’ tenure and did not even make a 21-man squad for a Uefa Cup tussle with Danish side Brondby. “I was never one to knock on the manager’s door and ask why I wasn’t involved. You know there’s a reason why you’re not playing. But that was the exception. I asked Roy what was going on and he admitted, ‘I just totally forgot about you’. “I said ‘fair enough’ but could he do me a favour ask the board if I could go? I said, ‘I cost you peanuts and I’ve given 11 years’ service, so I think it needs to be on a free’.”
There are no regrets, other than over his conviction for drink-driving in 1988. Released after serving six weeks of a three-month sentence, he was smuggled past the media scrum outside Preston Prison in his the boot of his solicitor’s car. Back at Anfield, he feared a different kind of boot. Dalglish told him it had been “a close thing” but the board were prepared to give him another chance.
“Kenny really stuck his neck out for me. I think he liked me as a player and his support swung it for me. I don’t want to blow smoke up his backside but from a personal viewpoint, I think if Joe had stayed, as he was set to do until Heysel, I’d have gone. People have asked me to recreate the car-boot thing for TV but I always say no. It’s not something I’m proud of and it’s best left in the past. But I’d do one of my goals again!” Dalglish and Alan Hansen have both said he under-achieved, the reinstated Liverpool manager wondering in his autobiography whether the reason was bad luck or bad living.
“Probably a combination of the two,” Molby said candidly. “But I played for two great clubs, with some of the greatest players ever, for 14 years, and won 34 caps and played in the World Cup. So I didn’t do too badly. “The criticisms are a back-handed compliment. They thought I could’ve done more. Even more. But I go back to ’87, when Kenny brought in John Barnes, John Aldridge and Peter Beardsley, and we started brilliantly. If I hadn’t been injured, my sole focus would’ve been on staying in that fantastic team.
“In his first spell I thought Kenny had a very simple outlook on the game, and I mean that in the best possible way. “His idea was – and we’ve seen it since he came back in January – to move the ball at high tempo and be constantly on the move. People said I didn’t do a lot of running about, but every time the ball moved, so did I. It’s a simple game. Don’t complicate it. That’s Kenny’s way and it’s what I tried to get across as a manager (at Swansea, Kidderminster and Hull), albeit with players of lesser ability.”
Few individuals in the English game, if any, have had the class of Barnes, “the best Liverpool player I’ve seen”according to Molby, or Hansen and Rush and the rest. But it wasn’t just the players. It was the rapport with the fans. Everybody thinks their club is unique but this club really is special. I'm proud and humbled to feel part of it.” Which is why, whenever he parks up and strolls to Anfield, either in his capacity as a media pundit or simply as someone with Liverpool in his heart, Jan Molby will never walk alone.
* From BACKPASS magazine. For subscriptions: http://www.backpassmagazine.co.uk/