There are teams for whom foreign connections have become synonymous with the very fabric of the club. In England, thanks to Arsène Wenger, Arsenal’s success has been incontrovertibly wedded to Les Bleus. French stars such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Emanuel Petit, Robert Pirès and Sylvan Wiltord all inspired the north London club to three Premier League titles around the turn of the century.
In Spain, Barcelona have developed an affinity for prodigal Brazilian forwards over the years. Romário, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho and Neymar have all bedazzled and bewitched beneath the lights of the Camp Nou, and were adored as fiercely as any stalwart graduate of La Masia.
In days gone by, there was something exotic and exciting about watching foreign stars from far-off, sun-drenched shores don the colours of your beloved team, whether it was Brazilians, Argentines, Italians or Spaniards, all of whom seemed to add much-needed flair to the previously homogenous worlds of many of the elite football leagues.
However, at Manchester United – though Argentines, Portuguese and Frenchmen have indeed trod the hallowed pitch beneath the lights of Old Trafford – they have found a rather unconventional part of the footballing world most profitable: Scandinavia. Behind the collective home nations and Ireland, no region on the globe has contributed more United footballers than this broad, sparsely-populated area of only 21 million people.
Though it may not seem like much considering 919 players have represented the club since its inception in 1878 as Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, no fewer than 14 of its long list of illustrious stars hail from the collected nations of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. But what is perhaps more remarkable is the sheer volume of trophies this group of talented Norse footballers have collected. Since 1992 and the inception of the Premier League, Scandinavian footballers for Manchester United can lay claim to a collective trophy haul numbering 48 pieces of silverware.
These nations have only ever produced one Ballon d’Or winner in Alan Simonsen and one major international trophy – Denmark’s against-the-odds 1992 European Championship victory. Yet, somehow, Manchester United, English football’s most successful club, have returned to the shores of Scandinavia time and again to mine its veins of talent, and have done so with unequivocal success.
While supporters around the world are far more acquainted with the likes of Peter Schmeichel and Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the first Scandinavian footballer to pull on the famous red jersey is a name unfamiliar to most modern Manchester United fans. Jesper Olsen was signed in 1984 from Dutch giants Ajax in an era of English football during which foreign players were still a rare sight. Acquired by Ron Atkinson for £350,000 following three profitable in the Netherlands, Olsen plied his trade on the left wing in a period where Manchester were far from the all-conquering juggernaut that Sir Alex Ferguson helmed in the 1990s.
In four years, during which United transitioned from the stewardship of Atkinson to that of Sir Alex, Olsen enjoyed success, playing 139 times and registering 21 goals, as well as capturing an FA Cup winners medal at the end of the 1984/85 season. Diminutive and with a low centre of gravity, he was nicknamed ‘The Flea’ for his ability to escape the attentions of defenders in tight spaces and his proclivity to hurdle incoming tackles.
However, for a player so slight in stature, the physical, often belligerent style favoured by most First Division teams in England eventually began to take its toll as injuries began to rack up and his development stagnated. Olsen would leave the north in 1988 at the age 27, still very much in his prime, despite having not scored in over a year. United’s initial foray into Scandinavia was to be their last for several years.
With Alex Ferguson now in charge, he set about transforming the club into a title-challenging outfit. For so long they had languished in the considerable shadow cast from nearby neighbours Liverpool, having only finished within touching distance of the league championship once in the previous decade.
It was in 1991 that Manchester dipped their toe once more into the frigid talent of Scandinavia with the acquisition of goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel for £500,000. Described by Ferguson as the “bargain of the century”, Schmeichel would contribute enormously to the club’s first league title in 26 years. Uncompromising, athletic and determined, his robust playing fashion, indicative of Scandinavian football’s desire to emulate their English counterparts, meant his transition was seamless.
It was between his debut season for Manchester United and the subsequent title-winning campaign that Schmeichel captained his native Denmark to an almost unbelievable triumph in that summer’s 1992 European Championship. Suddenly, Scandinavian football was in the spotlight, with the likes of Brian Laudrup and Schmeichel at the forefront of this success. With this unlikely triumph alerting European football to the potential further north, clubs began scouting Scandinavia on the lookout for the kind of talent that propelled Denmark to international glory.
For Manchester United, the early 1990s were developing into a profitable period in their history: between 1992 and 1996, they won three of the first four Premier League titles, enjoying two doubles along the way. With a squad largely composed of talented British, some of whom were racking up the miles – read: Mark Hughes, Brian McClair, Steve Bruce, Gary Pallister and Bryan Robson – Ferguson began looking further afield for reinforcements.
Fortunately, he was blessed with a once-in-a-generation plethora of talent emerging through the academy, and with the mercurial Eric Cantona in full pomp up front, the wily Scot decided to delve into Scandinavia once more following the obvious success of Schmeichel.
This was a United side built upon attacking flair with a penchant for launching rapid, devastating counter-attacks using the pace of Ryan Giggs, Lee Sharpe and Andriy Kanchelskis on the flanks, and which harnessed the incomparable genius of Cantona. But the surrender of their championship stranglehold in 1994/95 to Blackburn prompted Ferguson to reconsider elements of his approach. With the loss of Cantona through suspension, United were blunted and, after sacrificing their place atop the league standings in March with a 0-0 draw against Tottenham, they never managed to regain it.
Thus, in the summer of 1996, following the introduction of much of the fabled Class of ’92 in the 1995/96 season, Ferguson completed the double signing of Norwegian stars Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Ronny Johnsen.
This was an era in Scandinavia, particularly in Norway, when English football was seen as the pinnacle of the sport. Throughout the 1980s, First Division games were broadcast on Tippekampen with surprisingly regularity, and this fixation peaked in the 1990s thanks to the rise of Denmark and Norway’s national teams, the latter under the inimitable Egil Olsen. Having been groomed to suit English football, Scandinavian players flocked to the Premier League, and Manchester United in particular, in their droves.
Solskjær and Johnsen – later joined by Henning Berg – were built in the mould of the typical Scandinavian prospects of the era; they were considered pragmatic, athletic and hard-working. Your Baggios and Ronaldos and Stoichkovs of Serie A and LaLiga were the flair footballers; Norwegians and Danes and Swedes were considered the workhorses – dependable, indomitable and honest. It may not have been entirely accurate, or indeed fair, but this is how they were thought of by many in Britain.
Despite this supposed predilection for championing endeavour over artistry, Scandinavians would have a huge impact on the Manchester United’s fortunes in the 90s. During the 1998/99 season alone, Schmeichel, Johnsen, Solskjær, Berg and Jesper Blomqvist all contributed enormously towards the Treble.
Johnsen, an imposing and surprisingly rapid centre-back, formed a partnership with Dutch titan Jaap Stam that quelled most centre-forwards before they’d even taken to the pitch. Such was his importance to United’s cause that he played every single minute of the league-winning match against Tottenham, the FA Cup final against Newcastle and the fabled Champions League final against Bayern Munich – all this after putting in one of his finest displays in a Manchester United shirt against Juventus in the semi-final.
Often remembered for Roy Keane’s selfless captain’s display, few remember that Johnsen admirably covered the central-midfield role, a feat he managed with ease thanks to his adaptable nature.
Henning Berg, epitomising the perception of Scandinavian players as inherently versatile, covered both the right-back and centre-half berths throughout his time with the club with a series of assured displays. In fact, so highly was he rated that he revealed that Ferguson had actually tried to sign him nine years prior during his teenage years but the transfer was thwarted thanks to his inability to obtain a work permit.
Jesper Blomqvist, too, who saw much of his later United career decimated thanks to a debilitating knee injury, was an integral part of the Treble-winning season, performing admirably on the left-wing during the long periods that Giggs was troubled with hamstring injuries. Another willing runner, Blomqvist was considered a hard-worker who would tirelessly roam the left flank, sleeves pulled down over his hands in that iconic fashion, harrying opposition full-backs with his direct running and buck-toothed smile.
It was perhaps Solskjær who would have the greatest impact. Remembered most vividly for his winning goal in the 1999 Champions League final, his talents as a footballer were often overshadowed by this accomplishment. In 366 games he scored 126 goals, forging a reputation as one of the most clinical finishers within Manchester United’s ranks.
Where Van Nistelrooy was a complete penalty box predator, Rooney was an all-action forward, and Ronaldo was operating on a level mere mortals can only dream of, Solskjær turned the art of finishing into a science. He was obsessive in his studies, consumed by a desire to understand how angles, body language and the speed and spin of a ball could give him even the slimmest of margins over goalkeepers. It was this dedication that prompted Sir Alex Ferguson to recommend the Norwegian transition into coaching during his time recuperating from two serious knee injuries in the mid-noughties.
Of course, though the aforementioned names shoulder much of the success, there are others who plied their trade for Manchester United for whom the same levels of admiration and accomplishment eluded them for one reason or another. Erik Nevland, who later found a degree of fame with Fulham, was something of a bit-part player for the Red Devils’ in his early years, while Bojan Djordic, the Swedish attacking midfielder, was predicted to be a national star before his career was sadly curtailed with injuries. Then there is Joshua King, enjoying regular football with Bournemouth, who also came through the ranks at Carrington.
For the most part, especially during the 90s, the Premier League was long regarded as the destination of choice for many aspiring Scandinavian footballers. English football was seen as honest and physical – traits apparent in the top Norwegian, Danish and Swedish footballers at the time.
Scandinavia didn’t always produce diminutive number tens or nimble wingers (though when they did, they were invariably brilliant); they produced consistent, professional, adaptable footballers who succeeded across the continent and had done for decades. At the time, in a land ravaged by winter and not possessing the artificial pitches enjoyed by today’s burgeoning footballers, technical ability was superseded by toil for many youth coaches.
For several years, this benefitted Manchester United as Scandinavians embedded themselves into the tapestry of this rich and colourful club. Even in the post-Ferguson era, when the number of Scandinavians playing in the Premier League plummeted from an all-time high of 22 in 1998/99 to a record low of two in 2019/20, they have continued to make their way across the North Sea to Manchester. Yet, the roles which they occupy have developed in the intervening years.
Zlatan Ibrahimović played more like Cantona than Solskjær, strutting around the Old Trafford pitch with an arrogance born out of knowing he possessed incomparable ability. Victor Lindelöf is a far cry from the physical specimen that was Ronny Johnsen and doesn’t rely on a diligent work ethic as did Henning Berg. Much like Kristoffer Ajer at Celtic, he is the modern Scandinavian centre-back: comfortable on the ball, lithe and quick.
It would be imprudent to omit Henrik Larsson from this smorgasbord of fine Scandinavian talent, for, although he enjoyed his finest seasons with Celtic, he was coveted by Ferguson for years, eventually agreeing to join the club on loan during the 2006/07 season. Despite being 35 at the time, his clever movement and crisp finishing added a welcome dynamic to a United side missing a focal point with injuries to Louis Saha. Larsson endeared himself to the Old Trafford faithful and was rewarded with a Premier League winners medal at the end of the campaign.
Of course, where once Scandinavians were only the line workers in the enormous factory of Old Trafford in the 1990s and 2000s, one of them has now ascended to the role of foreman. With this there threatens to descend a new flurry of Scandinavian stars to bolster the Red Devils’ ranks – already, teenage starlet Erling Braut Håland has been linked to the club, while the promising Sander Berge has been touted by some as the answer to United’s midfield problems.
Everything in football is said to be cyclical. Where once Manchester United rode longer than most at the pinnacle of this ever-turning wheel, they now endure a more difficult period. Yet, with Solskjær at the helm, the future looks bright, and perhaps Scandinavian talent can once again lift Manchester United to the apex of European football.
By Josh Butler @joshisbulter90