There was a time, not long ago, when footballers were permitted the luxury of vastly different physical forms and appearances. Today’s identikit toolbox of tattoos, ruggedly groomed facial hair, short back and sides, and primed athletic torso weren’t prerequisites.
Mick Quinn appeared more suited to darts. Alan Cork was bald, sometimes bearded, and lent a perpetual appearance of a middle-aged geography teacher in a staff versus students match. There was the charmingly portly and moustached Neville Southall, and the untamed savagery of John de Wolf. Footballers were tall and short, fat and thin, and seemingly far more experimental with hair and facial hair. None, however, combined a notorious physical appearance with the majestic, other-worldly footballing ability quite like Jan Mølby.
In the summer of 1984 Liverpool manager Joe Fagan took on a 21-year-old trialist from Ajax. Long before days of American tours and the International Champions Cup, a low-key friendly against Home Farm of the Irish league kicked off Liverpool’s season, and a rather remarkable adventure for Mølby.
He scored against Home Farm, the goal showcasing one-touch control with his chest, deftly flicking the ball over a defender with his knee, and volleying a rather nonchalant finish. Fagan signed him two days later. The pressure of filling Graeme Souness’s boots sat upon the Dane’s young but already substantial shoulders.
Mølby, who had spent the previous season in the Eredivisie playing alongside and being tutored by one Johan Cruyff, took to the task, and took it all in his stride. In his autobiography, Jan the Man, Mølby referenced a contented bewilderment at the simplicity of Liverpool’s preparation and training in 1984, and the kind of coaching implemented by Cruyff.
“There was one drill in particular he [Cruyff] used to put Ronald Koeman and I through. We had to try and hit the corner flag from the halfway line. It sounds impossible, but he would have us standing with our backs to whichever corner we were aiming for. The ball would be played to us, and we’d be allowed one touch to bring it under control, and then put ourselves into a position where we could drive the ball towards the corner flag. He wanted us to drive everything, and it only counted if you actually hit the flag. It was tedious at times – sometimes it went on for more than an hour – but when Johan told you to do something, you did it.”
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Evidently, repetitive passing drills and Cruyff’s midas touch did Mølby little harm. While his debut season at Anfield was not spectacular, it was also far from a failure. Mølby registered 24 appearances and one goal, before losing his place in the team to Kevin MacDonald.
At a time when foreign players were still something of a rarity in English football’s top-flight, Mølby adjusted to life on Merseyside seamlessly – almost too seamlessly as things would pan out. Despite losing his place in the team, his dazzlingly effective and effortless playing style won him plenty of admirers.
Kenny Dalglish, who replaced Fagan as Liverpool’s manager in June 1985, was a staunch admirer of Mølby, and promptly built his midfield around him. The 1985/86 season was undoubtedly Mølby’s best in a Liverpool shirt, and under the close tutelage of Dalglish – being player/manager and picking himself on 21 occasions – Mølby’s regal presence on a football pitch came to the fore.
For someone still so young and so new to the club, the league and the culture, Mølby’s tactical intelligence and versatility shone. In September he became the club’s penalty taker. Standing testament to his assured ability from the spot, only Steven Gerrard has scored more penalties for Liverpool. Mølby netted 42 from 45 spot kicks.
In November 1985, the fourth round of the Milk Cup saw Manchester United come to Anfield amidst a football league TV rights dispute. The upshot meant that Mølby’s stunning equaliser was seen only by the 41,291 fans packed into Anfield.
As luck would have it, the Manchester United manager at the time, Ron Atkinson, had the game recorded for purposes of performance analysis (who said Big Ron was old-fashioned?) and he let Mølby have a copy of the tape. In maintaining the majestic quality of the goal and its memory, Mølby waited until 2009 before putting the goal into the public domain
Available for the world’s eyes here, it showcases qualities all too often stripped of Mølby’s legacy. Deep inside his own half, some tactically considered and energetic pressing dispossess Norman Whiteside, and a burst of strength and pace ensues. Naturally, the ball remains at close quarters to Mølby’s feet. Three defenders either topple at a dropped shoulder or are brushed aside. Bearing down on goal, a shot of magnificent power is beyond Gary Bailey before he can see it, and crashes into the top corner of the net. Just minutes later, Mølby would convert a penalty to win the game.
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Over the course of 1985/86, Mølby played 58 games and scored a quite astonishing 21 goals. Impressive enough from midfield, yet considering Dalglish often deployed Mølby as a sweeper, invariably shifting him into midfield as a match wore on, it becomes all the more striking. Mølby and Liverpool ended the season as league champions, and faced Everton, league runners-up, in the 1986 FA Cup final. Unknown at the time, it was to be Mølby at his glorious pinnacle.
Under the kind of blue and balmy sky that renders fairy tales from cup finals, Liverpool trailed their local rivals 1-0 at half time. Mølby, lining up in central midfield alongside MacDonald, had quietly put on a passing masterclass, but to no avail. The second half of the first ever all-Merseyside final was to be his.
In the 57th minute, Mølby slipped a wonderful slide-rule pass into the path of Ian Rush, who finished as he usually did – clinically. Granted, Mølby was provided with the luxury of time and space by the Everton defenders, but the weight and line of the pass was such that it implored Rush exactly which touch to take first, and precisely how to finish it. That really was the essence of Mølby’s game; it all looked simple, pedestrian almost, yet underneath an unassuming exterior stood a genuine artist at work.
In demonstrating he wasn’t all pedestrian, Mølby showed some quick feet just seven minutes later when he crossed for Craig Johnston to put Liverpool 2-1 up. Receiving the ball from Rush inside the Everton penalty area, Mølby fired in a low cross with his left foot – naturally, Mølby didn’t have a stronger foot, both were his strongest – and set Liverpool on their way to the double. He had a hand in Liverpool’s third, too, freeing up Ronnie Whelan with a space-exploring pass. Whelan, by laws of common science, was nowhere near Mølby’s line of sight.
Still just 23, Mølby continued his highly respectable form into 1986/87. Twelve goals from 44 appearances represented continuity, but Liverpool ended the season potless. They were runners-up in the league to Everton and lost to Arsenal in the League Cup final, and the disappointments didn’t end there. The summer of 1987 saw Mølby break a foot during pre-season. In claiming the title in 1988, Liverpool bounced back swiftly and effectively. Mølby, however, did not.
Since his arrival at Anfield, Mølby only endeared himself to the Anfield fans. An affable nature, his often bewildering scouse accent, reportedly the result of spending too much time with Sammy Lee, and the penchant for a bevvy or two, did Mølby little harm in the eyes of the fans. In an era where connection between paying supporters and players wasn’t stretched to today’s alarming extremes, Mølby really was one of their own. Regrettably, these endearing traits paved a downfall for a player whose only commitment was physio treatment.
“I had a lot of spare time on my hands. It meant I could have a pint on a Thursday or Friday night, which I couldn’t when I was fit,” Mølby tellingly admitted in Jan the Man. After a couple of drink-driving related shaves with the Merseyside Police, the severity increased in February 1988. Acting as chauffeur for friends, Mølby was tailed by the boys in blue on his way home, a 20 mile trip from Liverpool to Chester. Having had a couple of pints and deciding he was probably somewhere near the limit, Mølby had the audacity to hammer down on the accelerator and lose the tailing police. Out of the fire and into the flames, Mølby was arrested shortly after and served 45 days in prison for reckless driving.
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By the time the Dane was fully-fit again and released from prison, it was New Year’s Day in 1989. Perhaps inevitably, persistent injuries didn’t permit regular appearances, and curtailed any real sense of a comeback. The 1988/89 campaign became Mølby’s second injury-plagued season in as many years.
Flickers of hope and a renaissance of sorts came with the turning of the decade. 1990 saw Mølby come close to becoming a Barcelona player, with a deal of £1.6 million agreed between the clubs, but it later broke down. To Mølby aficionados and footballing romantics alike, the prospect of him reunited with Cruyff and applying his passing game to Spanish football – the philosophy being built at Barcelona at the time – was mouthwatering.
Mølby himself put an end to any daydreams with a thunderbolt of a strike against Norwich City, his 50th goal for Liverpool, in the midst of a steady run in Souness’s much-changed 1991/92 side. The season climaxed with Mølby and Liverpool lifting another FA Cup, but time and physical condition were beginning to hamper the pass master.
After just 42 games across his final four seasons at Anfield, and brief loan spells at Barnsley and Norwich, Mølby signed for Swansea in 1996. As player/manager he guided the Swans to the Division Three playoff final a year later. By then aged 34, Mølby sat staunchly in midfield and directed play like the game was a testimonial. His Swansea side played some good football but were defeated by the suckerpunch of a twice-taken injury-time free-kick.
To remember Jan Mølby simply as a gifted passer with a lack of pace and mobility should come with a robust reminder not to pigeonhole him. He played the game with cerebral genius, positional intelligence beyond comparison, a truly remarkable range of passing, and one of the purest strikes of a football ever seen in Engand
Asking ‘what if’ can be a wistfully romantic, absurdly pointless and incredibly poignant remark in any given context. In the context of Mølby’s football career, it comes hand in hand with some genuine pathos. What if he’d drank less and ate better? What if he didn’t get injured in the summer of 1987? What if his zenith for Liverpool didn’t coincide with a TV strike, robbing him of a doting audience? What if his time didn’t coincide with Denmark’s golden years and he had more than 33 caps and further international recognition?
The answer to all of those questions is simple: anything else and he wouldn’t have been the Jan Molby most football fans came to adore
By Glenn Billingham @glennbills