If Brian Laudrup had picked any other profession, it might well have been that of an expert barista because Danes often had occasion to fervently exclaim ‘thanks for the coffee’ in their native tongue whenever he was on the pitch. It had nothing to do with any weird in-joke on the part of the Scandinavians – whether or not he could, in fact, brew a mean flat white.
That’s because tak for kaffe means something a little different in Danish than you might otherwise think. It can mean the literal translation when you pop into your local café to order your favourite brew, but depending on the circumstances, it can also be a phrase that’s shouted in times of surprise or astonishment, something Laudrup conjured countless moments of as a world-class footballer.
Whether it was with an audacious trick or the way he made unbelievable dribbles through a line of defenders to leave them prone on the ground in his wake, he had spectators shrieking in amazement most of the time.
He did it when he represented Denmark’s national team for many years and his magnificence was irrepressible when treating the diehard blue-clad Glaswegians during his phenomenal four seasons with Rangers in the Scottish Premier League.
Like any good cup of coffee, he had terrific balance, complexity and a crisp finish, too – he was, after all, a goalscoring winger in his prime and it’s arguable that Scottish domestic soccer has never seen a better foreign import than him. Henrik Larsson is certainly his biggest competitor in that regard, but Laudrup joined the SPL four years before the Swede was still an unfamiliar name on the Celtic team-sheet, so he was getting involved in something of an unknown quantity, where tough tackles, harsh weather and fiery confrontations were all part of the viscous environment, joyful madness and intimate surroundings of Scottish football.
Before he reached that stage of his career, however, he had already achieved some undeniably impressive feats, such as becoming a two-time Danish Player of the Year winner, helping his country lay claim to the European Championship trophy against all the odds in 1992 as well as winning five pieces of club silverware, including the Champions League.
Cynics might suggest – and indeed they did at the time – that he was on the wane having been left out of Fabio Capello’s plans in the 1994 Champions League final, but he was already being sounded out by other clubs and considering his glittering resume, it was a travesty that he had been left out of that showpiece clash in the first place, much as his brother had been for the losing Barcelona side. In fact, following his eventual move to Ibrox from his Fiorentina-approved loan spell in Milan, he was approached by the Blaugrana to play for them.
It wasn’t just that the table had turned – Laudrup had dismantled it and crafted his own one to sit at.
Though it might sound surprising to hear of a Rangers player turning down a move to Barça nowadays, his decision is completely understandable in retrospect. If Milan had become something of a nightmare for the distinctive Dane, where a lack of opportunity stifled his obvious talent, then the move to Walter Smith’s Rangers was the awakening scent of cooking breakfast wafting from kitchen to bedroom, promising real change and a fresh start.
From the off, it was clear he had fallen in love with the Scottish champions and wasn’t keen to end their romantic courtship for the sake of yet another stint at a club who didn’t value his superb craftsmanship as much as it deserved. Laudrup was interested in regular football. He wanted to win titles and he wanted to play a major role in a team attempting to make history as Rangers went in search of their seventh consecutive top-flight title for the first time.
They would do exactly that, with the Dane having an immediate impact, as well as accomplishing a whole lot more. With the success-hungry Laudrup on board, they ultimately confirmed their status as one of the greatest Scottish squads in the history of the modern domestic era as well as proving to everyone that a swashbuckling style could be married wonderfully with remarkable results. Even on an overcast day in Dundee.
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As Charlie Miller receives a pass from a team-mate halfway between the centre circle and elevated television camera gantry at Tannadice on 7 May 1997, he instinctively makes a dart down the nearside touchline, popping the ball out in front of him as he does so.
It’s a cloudy day, overcast and grey, but it’s shaping up to be a bright one for Rangers – a win over Dundee United guarantees them the title again. The fans are nervous but expectant.
Miller’s attempts to wriggle away from the close attentions of his marker are shut down by a neat tackle as the ball, poked by an outstretched leg, rolls out for a throw-in on the near side. Quick thinking from the taker sees the ball sharply flung in the direction of the attacking midfielder as he has now sidled closer to goal further down the wing, and with a few clever movements, Miller skips away from his man enough to create space for a cross, his body pivoting sharply with the whip of his left leg as he connects with the ball.
Arrowing into the six-yard box, Laudrup has already made his move. With some of the Gers’ strikers beset by injury for weeks at a time, he has been handed the responsibility of leading the line, so he’s expecting the pacey ball to come in for him. “It was a flying header and that didn’t happen every day for me. I still rate that goal as one of the most important of my career,” Laudrup said after retiring.
Things haven’t gone Laudrup’s way against this opposition this term. In December, the Dane’s influence is smothered by a stellar performance from defender Erik Pedersen as the Tannadice faithful leave singing their side’s praises following a 1-0 win in front of just under 12,500 spectators. Then, in March, the Teddy Bears have the proverbial stuffing knocked out of them in a 2-0 defeat, this time at home, as a blanket defence again causes the normally potent attacker plenty of difficulty.
Ready for the defensive shape of United on the cusp of summer, however, Laudrup gets his side roaring again.
Outjumping his marker into the Scottish sky with a ferocious leap and thrust, he pokes his head out to stab the ball past Sieb Dijkstra in the Dundee goals, and the away contingent lets out a unified crescendo as Laudrup’s speeding frame hits the hard turf with a slide before he clambers up to wheel away in ecstasy, engulfed by the equally animated celebrations of his team-mates, Miller the first to embrace him.
It might only be the 11th minute of the match, but this side have not given up leads too often this season and the nodded effort has all but guaranteed the victory.
As it transpires, Rangers do indeed go on to become only the third side to claim maximum points at this ground in the 1996-97 campaign, but they’ve achieved something much more consequential in the process, too – their momentous run of league titles has been increased to nine on the bounce, equalling the previous record held by their bitterest of rivals, Celtic.
Later that evening, after the confined celebrations in the away-end dressing room, Laudrup gets his chance to hoist the silver trophy aloft in the centre circle as Walter Smith is doused in champagne.
People still talk about that squad today. Listen closely enough to any diehard Gers fans discuss the golden generation or who their favourite Rangers side ever was and nine times out of 10, they’ll pick out guys who were around from 1988 to ’97. The likes of Paul Gascoigne and Ally McCoist will nearly always get a glowing mention, but it’s Laudrup who is normally reserved for the most loquacious and glitteringly garrulous of soliloquies.
That’s almost certainly because Laudrup requires more understanding – or perhaps it’s that he defies explanation. Whatever the exact reason, what’s clear is that the memory of his genius is too good for simple compliments or understated descriptions. And why shouldn’t it be? Especially when one considers the sort of dark magic he could produce to obliterate even the most steadfast of defences or the way he could evade some potentially career-ending tackles.
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Laudrup was by no means the sole reason behind Rangers’ impressive record-equalling feat, even if his goal turned out to be what nudged them over the line. So much had been achieved by others before him in laying the foundations.
By the same token, it is undeniable to even the most bullish of fans – and the rest of the hard-working and talented players – that without him amidst their ranks, they would never have gone on to do what they did. He was the extra bit of juice needed to power them over the line. He was the flash of inspiration at all the right moments. He was their talisman and he was also the evidence, if any had ever been needed, that Rangers could attract the best players around, even without replicating their excellent form in the Champions League or UEFA Cup.
To cement that famous nine-in-a-row era, Rangers relied on Laudrup’s goals more than anyone else. That 1996-97 campaign saw him bag 16 goals in 33 league games – the second-highest in the league that season behind Celtic’s Jorge Cadete – a large chunk of the 45 he wound up scoring in a Rangers shirt in total.
Most people recognise that he was an exceptional player, but his brilliance didn’t merely shine through because he was playing in a league that was easy for him to dominate. Even if someone held the belief that the former Milan man was benefitting from being a superstar in a league populated by duds, the fact remains that he was a phenomenal talent.
He knew it, too, and simply got on with the task of being the best he could with the one club who was wise enough to have faith in him, and to give him the responsibility of being their creative crux, the guy who was always ready and able to manufacture something marvellous.
No doubt about it, Laudrup had confidence in himself – he knew he was good enough to deserve a regular berth in any team’s starting line-up and that he shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to anyone. Rangers might have started out as a necessary destination to give him what he wanted, but as time passed by, they turned out to be much more than that. They were the club where he made history, built a legacy and gave himself the platform his incredible talents deserved.
His time there is a detailed tapestry that tells the story of a player’s unwarranted exile from the bright lights of continental football and the high stakes all that offered, but it’s also a narrative which turned out to be one of the most noteworthy career u-turns in the history of the game thanks to a whole lot of perseverance, guile and flair.
Whether talk centres on his three Scottish Premier League titles, the two cup triumphs or the many majestic moments like his stunningly great goal against Aberdeen in ’96 that saw him run half the length of the pitch with the ball at his feet before swerving past one defender, then rounding the goalkeeper before finally side-footing into the back of the net, squeezing his effort between the near post and covering defender on the line, it’s clear that he showered the Scottish game, and Rangers history, with so many shows of artistry.
There will always be arguments for other players to rightfully claim ownership of the greatest import the Scottish game has seen, but the coup de grâce argument in his favour is that Laudrup lent a mastery and perfection to the game that had never been witnessed there before, despite how underrated he was in his time as an active player outside of Rangers.
In football, originality means a great deal – there are always comparisons made between the modern-day stars and those who came before, so it is never easy for a coach or player to stand out from the crowd without seeing their talents mentioned in the same breath as their predecessors. There are always benchmarks to be aimed for. Understandably for many, though, Laudrup is that target.
Whenever a new star from abroad comes to play in the top tier of Scottish football, it is with hopes of emulating the Gers legend that they travel to play. Whenever a Rangers winger slaloms their way down the touchline or produces an enviable bit of skill, whether it’s the words of commentator, a nostalgic shout from fan in the stands or the flash of a fond memory in your own mind – there is often a throwback to Laudrup, the trophies he won, the unrivalled grace he gave Scottish football, and the way he did it.
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90