The Great Danes: Brøndby’s rise from provincial to powerhouse

The Great Danes: Brøndby’s rise from provincial to powerhouse

When visiting Brøndby Stadium, you are likely to hear the Yellow-Blue supporters sing: “Nobody knew anything about Vestegnen back in the ’60s when the world was in black and white. The Brøndby spirit changed that, half a century for yellow and blue.” And the supporters, often referred to as Denmark’s most passionate, couldn’t be more right.

It takes around 20 minutes to get from Copenhagen Central Station to Vestegnen, in the western suburbs of the city. This is where Brøndbyernes Idrætsforening, or Brøndby IF, belongs. Surrounded by apartment blocks and suburban streets, this is a completely different environment than that in central Copenhagen, despite the short distance.

Until the late 1940s, the area consisted mostly of farmland and small villages, but in 1947 an urban development plan known as the Finger Plan was published, thus deciding the future for Copenhagen’s growth into a modern metropolis. The plan outlined how the future growth of the city should follow five ‘fingers’ that should follow the railroad, while leaving the space between the fingers as green areas for agriculture and recreation. The areas would make cheap but well-built housing for the many people cramped together in the small apartments in Copenhagen, and also attract people from the rest of the country.

One of the fingers ran through two small villages, Brøndbyøster and Brøndbyvester – Brøndby East and Brøndby West – and the development of the area attracted people from all over Denmark, including the most important man in the history of Brøndby IF, Per Bjerregaard, who moved there from Jutland together with his parents.

A 16-year-old Bjerregaard moved to an apartment block in Brøndbyøster, only a few minutes walk from the current Brøndby Stadion, in 1962. In order to settle in his new surroundings, he, being a skilled defender, looked for a place to play football, and naturally, his choice fell on Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (KB), the powerhouse of Danish football and one of the mother clubs to Brøndby’s deadly rivals, FC København (FCK).

However, Bjerregaard found both the club and the people from Copenhagen arrogant and unpleasant, and failing to find the atmosphere he was used to from Randers Freja, he left the club before even pulling on the famous blue and white striped kit. Instead, the young Bjerregaard joined local side Brøndbyøster Idrætsforening (BØIF) after a recommendation from his father, who was already coaching one of the youth teams.

In Jens Rasmussen’s book Formanden, about the life of Bjerregaard, the main character describes his beginnings at the small club: “They had no leaders in BØIF, so my father joined as administrator. They had no one to chalk the field, so before he got a chance to look around, he was running around, chalking the field, because otherwise it wouldn’t get done. Soon after, he was also appointed equipment manager, because he had knowledge about leather and fur, and could take care of the balls and grease them properly. Back then, there weren’t a lot of those mass produced balls. Later, he was appointed head of the youth department and, after the fusion, he became head of the senior department and joined the board. He got more and more involved in the work at the club.”

Despite being largely irrelevant in the big picture, it helped Bjerregaard settle, although he had to get used to more humble surroundings compared to his past at Freja, at the time one of the biggest clubs in the country. “You go to a basement under a school in Brøndby,” Bjerregaard recalls the facilities at his new club, “and there was only cold water in the showers. We were only 12 or 14 at training, and we only had one team, where we had five or six at Randers. It was different times.”

As a result of the heavy migration to the area – between World War Two and 1964 – the population grew from 3,000 to 25,000, which, combined with the modest conditions, forced BØIF to discuss the possibility of a fusion with arch rivals Brøndbyvester IF at the beginning of the 1960s.

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Despite the two villages being rivals, they eventually reached an agreement on 3 December 1964. On that day, Brøndbyernes Idrætsforening, better known as Brøndby IF, was born; it took over BVIF’s license and started in Serie 1, the sixth tier of Danish football, playing in yellow and blue kits.

In January 1965, the club held its first ever training session, with 43 senior players showing up, hoping to secure a spot in the first team, Bjerregaard, the star player of BØIF, was one of them. There, he met Tom Køhlert, a defender from BVIF, another newcomer with a huge passion for football and the associational life.

In 1967, the club approached the recently elected social democratic mayor Kjeld Rasmussen to ask for financial help for the club. Being a pragmatic man, Rasmussen realised that having a functioning football club in the area would help the municipality attract families with children, and answered that as long as the club’s doors remained open to all children wanting to play football, he would do everything he could to help it.

“The whole municipal council has always been 100 percent behind initiatives in favour of Brøndby IF,” Rasmussen says in Esben Thoby’s anniversary book Brøndby IF 1964 – 2014: 50 fortællinger fra 50 profiler. “Everybody had an interest in it. Partly, we had to do something for the many young people who moved here, and partly because we always wanted Brøndby to be known as a sports municipality.”

During a game in late 1970, Bjerregaard broke a bone in his shin, leaving him injured for the rest of the season. The injury gave him time to focus more on his medical studies, but also to take more time to develop the club off the pitch. In 1971, he went from being a player to a leader at the club, and he started the club’s first club magazine, with the aim of “uniting the club’s members and increase the interest for what is going on”. Bjerregaard himself did all the work, even meeting with local companies to sell ads in the magazine.

Bjerregaard was certainly successful in uniting the club’s members. Over the years, Brøndby built an army of volunteers, doing everything from coaching the kids to selling food at games and being in charge of security, and to this day the club still celebrate the volunteers with an annual party. In fact, Bjerregaard once stated that the club wouldn’t have gotten anywhere without the many volunteers spending thousands of hours each year helping the club.

The following year, Brøndby secured promotion to the Danmarksserien after a 2-1 victory against Toksværd, a game that was attended by 600 spectators, a new record at the club. The victory was celebrated at the town hall, where Kjeld Rasmussen personally met with the entire squad and their wives.

The promotion meant that Brøndby, for the first time, would take part in a tournament arranged by Dansk Boldspil Union, the national FA, rather than Zealand’s local FA. A week after the final game, Bjerregaard was elected to the club board, joining his father and Rasmussen – who was the chairman – where he kept pushing for initiatives that could develop the club. One, for example. were so-called goal shares, where local businesses would pay money to the club depending on how many goals the first team scored, something Bjerregaard’s mother-in-law excelled in selling.

In 1972, shortly after Bjerregaard had been elected as chairman of the board on a personal recommendation from Rasmussen, former Danish international Finn Laudrup moved to Brøndby, and one of Bjerregaard’s first acts of business was to approach him, using the fact that his son went to school with Laudrup’s son Michael as the perfect excuse, offering him the job as player/coach at the club.

After playing at the top level for several years, Laudrup was looking to build a career outside of football, and he was persuaded by the sense of teamwork and unity at Brøndby, as well as the passionate people dedicating their free time to the club. “I had returned home from abroad, and was about to build a civil career next to the football,” Laudrup said in 2004, “I figured I could do that better in the Danmarksserien rather than the first division.”

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Persuading Laudrup to join the club was beyond a sensation. Just a few weeks earlier he had played for the Danish national team, and newspaper Ekstra Bladet elected him as Player of the Year the same year.

At this time, Bjerregaard had stopped his active career to dedicate himself to his clinic and work as chairman of the club. Laudrup was a man with experience at the highest level, and him joining the club – where his brother-in-law Ebbe Skovdahl was playing – changed it from day one. Suddenly, discussions about improving the stadium begun, newspapers started showing up at the training pitch and the games, while companies stood in line to sponsor the club. Despite this, Laudrup knew exactly what kind of a club he had joined, and one of his first decisions was to order the first team to a weekly team dinner to build comradeship and unity, a tradition that lasted decades after Laudrup eventually left the club.

Despite everything Laudrup did to develop the club, perhaps his greatest gift were his sons, Michael and Brian, who joined the club as children together with their father. Unfortunately for the small club with big ambitions, both Finn and Michael left the club in 1976 to join KB, who had won the Danish championship two years earlier.

Five years later, Finn Laudrup finally returned to the club as a player after he had lost his spot in KB’s starting line-up. At the time, Brøndby were coached by Tom Køhlert and played in the second tier with the aim of earning promotion to the top tier. The goal was achieved through attack-minded and idealistic football, which could only be successful with an artist such as Laudrup on the pitch.

The following season, Michael Laudrup also returned to the club. Bjerregaard later recalled about Michael’s five years at KB: “He was a Brøndby boy. He was just away on loan. And it [his return] seemed like the most natural thing at the time.” Michael’s return to Brøndby marked the end of the first chapter of the Laudrup legacy, as Finn retired that season, but his oldest son was ready to pick up the mantle.

With Bjerregaard in the boardroom, Køhlert on the sideline and Laudrup on the pitch, Brøndby began their first season in the top tier in 1982, and it was remarkable. Brøndby finished fourth, with Laudrup scoring 15 goals and making his debut for the national team as the first player in the club’s history, which sparked interest from some of the biggest clubs in the world. Suddenly, 18 years after the club had been founded, Bjerregaard was invited to Liverpool to negotiate with the legendary Bob Paisley, who personally picked up the Brøndby delegation in the airport.

In the end, Laudrup turned down Liverpool to join Juventus for a record fee, and Brøndby were now a force to be reckoned with in the transfer market, where they would go to make several big sales over the years.

Three years later, in 1985, the Yellow-Blues won their first Danish championship after finishing fourth three years in a row, which marked the beginning of a new era at the club.

Under the mantra “Stagnation Equals Decline”, Bjerregaard overlooked every single detail at the club, which had turned from a small village side into a well-oiled business with everything we know from modern football, although it still maintained the spirit and unity of a small club, where even the biggest stars had time to chat with the volunteers and youngsters. Between 1981 and 1988, Brøndby went from an annual turnover on 1.1 million kroner to 25 million kroner, and, in 1985, Bjerregaard was forced to quit his work as a doctor in order to work full-time at the club.

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In 1986, Køhlert left the club was replaced by another club man, Ebbe Skovdahl, who had the honour of leading the first full-time professional Brøndby team. Being full-time professionals, the first team began training twice a day, and Skovdahl had to teach the players – who were used to working alongside playing football – how to live as full-time professionals.

Struggling to cope with the increased work demands as well as European football, Brøndby had to settle for second in 1986, before winning the league again in 1987. By then another Laudrup had made his entrance in the first team. Brian Laudrup showed that he, just like his father and brother, was an exceptional talent, and he helped the club win back-to-back championships in 1987 and 1988, before leaving halfway through the 1989 season to join Bundesliga side Bayer Uerdingen.

After finishing second that season, Skovdahl, who had his stint at Brøndby interrupted by a six month stint in charge of Benfica, left the club, and he was replaced by Morten Olsen, who had recently retired as a player.

With a team built around Danish talents such as Peter Schmeichel, Kim Vilfort, John “Faxe” Jensen, Lars Olsen and Bent “Turbo” Christensen, Olsen won the Danish league twice during his two years in charge of the club. Perhaps more importantly, they performed incredibly well in Europe.

In the 1990-91 UEFA Cup, the Yellow-Blues defeated powerhouses Torpedo Moscow, Eintracht Frankfurt and Bayer Leverkusen, before facing AS Roma in the semi-final. After 0-0 at Brøndby Stadion, Brøndby held Roma 1-1 at Stadio Olimpico until the 88th minute of the return leg, when Rudi Völler scored, thus sending the Danes out of the competition. To this day, that semi-final still stands as the best European performance by a Danish club. The European performance once again caught the eyes of major European clubs, best exemplified by the fact that Schmeichel moved to Manchester United a few months after the Roma game.

While seemingly being on top of the world, things would soon turn around, and 1992 turned out to be the worst year in the history of the club, despite contributing half the squad for Denmark’s amazing European Championship victory that summer.

After realising that the club was too dependent on selling players, and with the fear of the newly founded FC København, who would enter the league the following season, Bjerregaard knew he had to take steps in order to consolidate Brøndby’s dominance for the future.

The solution was to purchase the bank Interbank, with the aim of becoming less dependent on the football side of the business and to branch out. The money to buy the bank was supposed come from qualification for the Champions League and holding company Hafnia, who had committed to invest 100 million kroner in the acquisition. However, Brøndby lost to Dynamo Kyiv in the qualification for the Champions League and Hafnia went bankrupt, meaning Brøndby, who had a profit on 8.5 million kroner in 1990, were left with a debt on 400 million kroner, and were on the verge of bankruptcy. At Brøndby’s 50th anniversary in 2014, Bjerregaard called the attempt to buy Interbank the biggest mistake in his career, something that’s difficult to argue against.

With the enormous debt hanging over their heads, the Yellow-Blues had to sell their biggest stars in order to survive, including Euro 92 match-winner John Jensen, who went to Arsenal.

The club didn’t win the league again until 1996. Skovdahl had returned to the club as manager in 1992, and with a combination of players from the academy and young players signed from smaller Danish clubs, he began rebuilding the squad. From then on, Brøndby and Skovdahl went on to win three championships in a row, while also qualifying for the 1998-99 Champions League group stage for the first time ever, where they famously defeated the finalists, Bayern Munich.

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In 1999, Skovdahl left Denmark to once again pursue a career abroad as he took over Aberdeen, and his departure marked the end of an era. At the time, FC København had finally risen above the chaos that surrounded the club’s in its first years and, just as Bjerregaard had feared, the club was now ready to challenge for the title on a regular basis.

Although Brøndby did manage to snatch the title in 2002, with club legend Køhlert on the sideline once again, FCK won the league in 2001, 2003 and 2004, before Brøndby could celebrate the championship again in 2005.

At the time, Michael Laudrup had returned to the club after receiving his introduction to the world of coaching as assistant for the Danish national team. Under Laudrup, Brøndby played some of the most entertaining and beautiful football ever played in Denmark, something that was achieved with a mix of academy players like Thomas Kahlenberg, Daniel Agger and captain Per Nielsen, and signings like Johan Elmander and Andreas Jakobsson.

Despite having what many dubbed the strongest squad since Skovdahl, Laudrup’s team kept falling short of expectations, both domestically and in Europe, until the magical 2004-05 season, when they won the double in convincing manner, recording several historic victories on the way, most notably a 5-0 demolition of FCK.

Laudrup stayed with the club for one more season, where they finished second and qualified for the UEFA Cup group stage, before moving to Getafe for his first overseas adventure.

His exit was chaotic, as he kept the club waiting on his decision until the end of the season, leaving Brøndby without a coach when preparation for the new season started. In the end, the club selected René Meulensteen, who came highly recommended from Manchester United, but with no real experience as a manager. Bjerregaard, who was struggling with illness, hired his son, Anders, a former Brøndby left-back, as sports director.

Anders struggled from day one and his lack of experience became painfully clear when he signed strikers Hannes Sigurdsson and Giovanni Rector on the last day of the transfer window. Both of them turned out to be painfully bad, and almost immediately they became running jokes and symbols of the club’s decay from Laudrup’s tiki-taka to Meulensteen’s chaos. At the time of the winter break, Brøndby were seventh, 19 points behind FCK, and Meulensteen left the club, later famously stating the club was “a sick patient, in acute need of treatment to get well”.

“There are too many volunteers, where there should be professionals. It can’t elevate Brøndby to a higher level,” he continued, “All in all, it looks like Brøndby have fallen behind.”

Meulensteen was replaced by Køhlert, who once again sacrificed himself to help the club despite not having the slightest desire to coach the first team. A few weeks after the end of the season, Bjerregaard resigned as managing director after heavy criticism, becoming chairman of the board instead.

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Helped by massive investment from a sponsor, Køhlert managed to take the club back to the top, and when he left the club in December 2008, Brøndby were leading the league and in the semi-final of the cup. His replacement, Kent Nielsen, another of Brøndby’s Euro 1992 heroes, failed to live up to expectations as Brøndby fell to the third place, infamously losing the lead in the third last round by losing 4-0 away to FCK.

During Nielsen’s stint the fans became more and more vocal in their criticism of especially Anders Bjerregaard, but also his father, who they accused of slowly destroying the club with his nepotism. In December 2009, four months before Nielsen was sacked, Anders Bjerregaard was fired, despite his father fighting to the end to save him. The appointment of Bjerregaard Jr. as sports director was later mentioned as his second big mistake by Bjerregaard.

In the upcoming years, the Yellow-Blues continued to suffer, and the millions earned by the big sales of Agger, Kahlenberg and Elmander were slowly disappearing as the results continued to fail, and in the summer of 2012, Mr. Brøndby himself, Per Bjerregaard, finally stepped down and left the board, although continuing as head of the amateur department for a while longer. In the five years since he resigned as managing director, five others had the same job and left it, proving the madness that was in the administration.

By the 2012-13 season, the club was almost bankrupt and had it not been for local lad and captain Mikkel Thygesen persuading the rest of the squad to only receive 25 percent of their January salary, the club would have gone bust during the winter break.

On the pitch the club was struggling too, and during the spring it became clear that Brøndby could be relegated for the first time since their promotion in 1982. In fact, it wasn’t until a dramatic 1-0 victory against head-to-head competitors AC Horsens that Brøndby finally secured another season in the top flight. That didn’t stop the problems, though, as Brøndby were still on the brink of bankruptcy.

Eventually, a share issue, where fans from all over the country came together to support the club via fan shares and lobby work to potential investors, saved the club as it began rebuilding with a squad of youngsters.

Eventually the three greatest players from the 2005 team, Kahlenberg, Agger and Elmander, all returned to the club, then led by Thomas Frank, but although their comebacks boosted interest in the club and showed that it was on the right track, Frank proved incapable of lifting Brøndby out of mediocrity, and he left the club after chairman of the board, Jan Bech Andersen, had criticised him in an online fan forum.

Over the 52 years that have passed since Brøndbyernes Idrætsforening was founded in December 1964, both the club and the city has grown from obscurity to relevance. But, while Brøndby is no longer the small village club founded by the likes of Bjerregaard and Rasmussen, it has managed to hold onto its values of unity and volunteerism, proven by the fact that although the club has been modernised since then, the values of unity, hard work and volunteerism still lies deep in the DNA.

Vestegnen is a rough area, but the club has, in both good and bad times, acted as a beacon for thousands of people, something it has been aware of ever since Kjeld Rasmussen pledged his support. Over the years, it has helped the unemployed get jobs, and during the latest migrant crisis, the club has worked hard to help with the integration of refugees, while Bjerregaard has even arranged a national football league for refugees.

Brøndby, however, haven’t won the league since the magical season with Laudrup in 2005. Despite currently sitting second behind FCK, and although the Copenhagen outfit have won seven championships since Brøndby’s last one, the Yellow-Blue fans are finally starting to be optimistic again despite the huge gap between the two arch-rivals. People are even starting to forgive Bjerregaard for his mistakes at the end of his time with the club, and the legendary figure has recently returned to Brøndby Stadium, where he most certainly belongs.

By Toke Møller Theilade @TokeTheilade

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