Illustration by Federico Manasse
“MY BIGGEST DREAM is to play for the national team, to play for 40,000 spectators and to score a lot of goals.” Jon Dahl Tomasson’s words, spoken in his native tongue to a DR Sporten film crew on a visit to his classroom way back in 1994, shows the sort of character he was even in the early days – ambitious, respectful and well-spoken.
Chatting confidently to the camera in front of a blackboard, sporting an unbuttoned grey shirt and white tee, a mop of fair hair sitting atop his fresh-faced teenage features, Tomasson looks comfortable, relaxed even, with all the questions being posed to him – by interviewer and schoolmates alike; in a way, it looks as though he is already used to the spotlight.
At just 18 years of age, having spent three seasons with lower-league Danish outfit Køge since making his debut as a 16-year-old, he has not yet experienced the full-pelt nature of professional football that he is set to enter – and yet the enthusiasm and drive that will see him become a national team icon are already both clear to see.
After all, at this point in his career he has already caught the attentions of some top scouts thanks to a series of stellar performances which have seen him score some very important goals to earn Køge two promotions in a row – from the fourth tier to the first, just below the Danish Superliga.
Indeed, by the time the autumn of ’94 has been flipped into existence on the calendar, he has netted close to 40 goals in two years in all competitions, enough to prompt Dutch outfit Heerenveen to sign him.
To get a sense of who a footballer is, why they kick a ball for a living, what drives them, it’s always worthwhile looking at where they came from, how they started out, and what the beautiful game was like for them at the beginning, before fame, publicity, thunderous arenas and long-figure payslips took hold. As a result, Tomasson’s time as a young go-getter at Køge is important for several reasons.
For starters, it shows that his motivation to become a footballer was always rooted in that innocent pursuit of childhood fantasy, the same sort of love that fuels a kid to dump their schoolbag in the hallway after a long day of study and learning so that they can run out to the garden and play make-believe as their favourite footballer. The same sort of unbridled passion that gets you doing what you love even if your body is telling you ‘no’.
Jon Dahl Tomasson is probably not the first name that springs to mind when one thinks of great marksmen, but although he lacked the vainglory and modish tendencies of some of his more eminent peers, the free-scoring Dane wasn’t without his own set of damaging artillery to wreak havoc on defences – for both club and country alike.
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If his days at Køge were when the young Tomasson started to flesh out his football identity, scoring goals for fun and proving keen to have an influential impact, his spell with Heerenveen was where he reached a wider audience and began assembling a continental legacy that would hold strong over the years, aside from a wobbly period at Newcastle United.
Entering an Eredivisie stage already overpopulated with terrifically talented young footballers, Tomasson had work to outshine them, and he came pretty close. Scoring 44 goals in all competitions across three seasons – two of which were full campaigns – he played a crucial role in steering De Superfriezen to the cup final in the process and was for a time the league’s top scorer ahead of the likes of Ronaldo, Patrick Kluivert and Henrik Larsson.
The heartbreak of losing the KNVB Cup final 4-2 to Roda, as well as seeing himself knocked off his perch as the division’s best marksman, Tomasson and the team didn’t finish his final season strongly as they lost their final five league games, despite netting a total of 18 goals to finish just three behind top scorer Luc Nilis (21).
Nevertheless, he still had the accolade of Dutch Football’s Talent of the Year to boast about, as well as a proven record for being a reliable striker for average outfits – and it was those positives that tempted Newcastle to splash £2.5 million on acquiring the 21-year-old’s services ahead of the start of the 1997/98 Premier League season.
His Geordie odyssey began in spectacular fashion, scoring four goals in his first four pre-season matches for the Magpies as Tomasson did what he knew best, and although the season that followed has often been painted by his detractors as a laughable, expensive mistake, the truth is actually further from a tragicomedy and closer to an unfulfilled romance.
Often ridiculed for his paltry return of goals, Tomasson’s characteristic look of assurance, almost as if he had been wearing a clinical assassin’s mask, quickly slipped on Tyneside. What replaced his natural confidence in and around the 18-yard box was impotence and a gauche attitude – he struggled for any semblance of form as Newcastle were shackled by a lack of a genuine goal threat.
However, contrary to popular belief, Tomasson wasn’t the only one in the team who went missing. Rather, his lack of goals was symptomatic of a striker-wide problem for Newcastle that particular season. In all, the team scored just 35 goals in the league, which made their haul the second-worst that campaign – every single team below them, apart from Wimbledon, scored more, even the relegated trio of Crystal Palace, Barnsley and Bolton.
Tomasson was held aloft as a risible imposter of a striker during his one and only season in the north east, but his fellow forwards were equally as guilty of a series of sub-par performances. Between the six recognised strikers in their squad for the majority of the season, the total goals they amassed was a mere 21 – that included top-quality names like Ian Rush, Alan Shearer, Faustino Asprilla as well as Paul Brayson.
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A bit of sound revisionism wouldn’t go amiss when challenging the instinctive reaction to scapegoat the Dane for his return of just four goals from 35 appearances because Shearer himself only netted seven times in the entire season from 23 appearances, the most by any Newcastle striker that campaign.
Many fans of the Magpies have pondered why Tomasson endured such a disastrous time; the reason surely lies in the fact that he was weighed down with too much responsibility. Expected to come in and nab goals with regularity in a team in flux having lost David Ginola and Les Ferdinand over the summer as well as Asprilla in the January window, he couldn’t adjust suitably enough and drowned in the non-stop waves of expectation.
A move back to the Eredivisie beckoned in the shape of Feyenoord and once again it proved to be a home away from home for the Danish star as he rediscovered his goal-scoring groove, helping the club to their first top-flight title in six years. A further three seasons of regular minutes and consistent scoring eventually came to an end in 2002 following a UEFA Cup triumph that saw Tomasson score in the 3-2 final victory over Borussia Dortmund.
His continued development in the Netherlands set him up, entering his prime years, for a fairy-tale move to AC Milan, where he would go on to claim his biggest haul of silverware at any club – four titles – and it was happening at a time when the Rossoneri were on the verge of continental domination.
Indeed, Tomasson’s arrival had an immediate impact and helped fuel the Serie A outfit’s push to become dominant on a number of fronts. With his intelligent movement, accurate finishing and desire to fit in and maximize his opportunities, he flourished in a Milan side that were perfecting themselves at precisely the right moment.
Not always utilised as much as he might have liked, Tomasson became the perfect option for Carlo Ancelotti to select off the bench, putting him into play at the right moment time and again so that his appearances acted as a boost for the team on several occasions.
And so it proved when his team entered the final few seconds of their second-leg quarter-final clash against Ajax in the Champions League, desperate for a goal.
Ronald Koeman’s side had held Il Diavolo to a scoreless draw at home and in the closing stages and, with the scores locked at 2-2, his charges had the all-important advantage of the away-goal rule very much in their favour. However, Tomasson was in no mood to relent after being introduced late on and when Filippo Inzaghi chipped a ball over Bogdon Lobonț, he was on hand to make sure the ball crossed the line under some pressure from behind with a vital last-gasp touch to seal a semi-final Milan derby.
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However, when they did eventually make it to the final at Old Trafford, there would be no room for the Danish maestro in the squad, forced to miss out on perhaps the greatest night in his club career due to a shoulder injury which left him sidelined for several months.
Ten appearances from group stage to the latter phases, however, combined with three strikes, were more than enough contribution from the perpetually-driven striker to deserve his medal after Juventus had been beaten in Manchester – but that particular injury segues nicely into the next chapter of Tomasson’s career.
Forced to retire at 34 years of age, Tomasson could easily have continued playing at the highest levels if it had not been for debilitating injuries. That’s because he possessed an instinctive affinity with goal-scoring that is no longer revered as much as it used to be.
He rarely scored jaw-dropping goals, but he was always on hand to make a nuisance of himself in the box. He popped up at opportune moments, ghosting in behind inattentive defenders to stab the ball into the net. He knew how to exploit space, often punishing his marker’s over-eagerness to attack a cross by back-tracking a few steps to anticipate its flight before turning the ball home. What’s more, aside from his English nightmare, he rarely went long without scoring, despite his reduced game time with other players head of him in the pecking order.
The same can be said of his international career where he recorded over a century of international appearances (112) with Denmark in a journey that spanned 13 years and spawned a remarkable 52 goals – starting with his official debut against Croatia in a World Cup qualifier, and ending on his final farewell goal-scoring cameo against Japan in the 2010 World Cup.
His admirers would surely have loved to have seen him continue playing at the top levels for another three or four seasons longer than he did – following spells at VfB Stuttgart, Villarreal and Feyenoord again – but having scored hundreds of goals on the club scene as well as a further half a tonne for his country, that would be greedy.
Then again, it’s also another sign that Tomasson really was the purists’ choice. Far from overly-exuberant or oozing with obvious class, he played with an understated style when many around him were pandering to the gallery and that is what has made him so respected to this day, even years after he finally hung up his boots.
What started out as a dream, became a reality – for Tomasson, at least, that’s surely confirmation enough that he made his talent count.