Player Profile: Jan Molby

by David N

Understand: for a Manchester United fan, Liverpool are the enemy. More than City, more than Arsenal, more than Leeds and more than Chelsea.

The two greatest clubs in English football come from two cities less than an hour apart with a bitter historical rivalry. They are the most successful clubs in the country, with the biggest support, the most glorious histories and the biggest auras. Arsenal and Chelsea have new weight, glamour, wealth and meaning in an age of the Premier League’s worldwide appeal, but it is not the same as the legendary qualities of the two big clubs from the north-west. So it’s difficult for me to write about any Liverpool player with affection. Their enduring and incredible success in the 1980s was hard for a young United fan to deal with. They won everything. We won nothing, existing on reputation and occasionally glorious football, not unlike the modern-day Tottenham Hotspur.

My brother – less than two years younger than me – is a devoted Liverpool fan. He lives it in a way I never have. Losses wound him, depress him, affect his daily wellbeing. He hates United more than I hate Liverpool, I imagine. Our triumphant dominance of the 1990s has been hard for Liverpool fans to swallow and increased the keenness of the rivalry. But it was different when we were younger. Then I could watch Liverpool matches – as long as they were not playing United – with some neutrality. The years of crowing and nose-rubbing hadn’t really taken their emotional toll yet. I didn’t have quite so much invested. I watched the 1984 European Cup final with my brother, rooting for Liverpool against Roma. And, oddly enough, the 1986 FA Cup final, when Liverpool played Everton. Back then, the FA Cup final felt like as big a deal as the World Cup final, somehow. We got up early and watched the entire build-up, cameras on team buses, interviews with fans etc. Wembley always seemed to lie under a blanket of sunshine. It’s different now. I just had to rack my brain to recall who won this year’s FA Cup final. The Premier League and the Champions League – they really have changed football.

In 1986, Liverpool were on for a double, having beaten Everton to the league title by two points. Everton, who had been league champions in 1985 and would be again in 1987, were possibly the best team in the country at the time, capable of scintillating football. But, Liverpool were frighteningly experienced and efficient, their game a passing-and-moving machine, with Ian Rush the best centre-forward of the 1980s scoring an unhealthy amount of goals. The final was a mouth-watering prospect – the two best teams in England, their passionate fans moving on London en-masse. And among an array of the biggest stars of English football – with the likes of Lineker, Dalglish, Rush, Sharp, Steven and Reid all on show – Jan Molby was man of the match by a mile.

Molby fits into that category of great players with weight problems. Like Puskas and Ronaldo his sometime tubbiness hardly seemed to matter. Throughout his Liverpool career his weight fluctuated, but after his first season or so he never ever looked slim, or even anywhere near fit. His qualities were of a different nature. He allowed his partners in central midfield – usually combative Englishman Steve McMahon, but often Scot Kevin McDonald – to do the running and harrying, and he got on with shaping and directing play as only he could. In a team of great passers – Ronnie Whelan, Alan Hansen, Mark Lawrenson, Dalglish – Molby’s ability to spot an opening and to put the ball exactly into that space were unsurpassed. And the below video of the goals in that FA Cup final highlights the excellence of Molby’s vision and technique. Wearing the number 10, as is only proper, he provides killer passes for each of the three Liverpool goals, one a skidding cross with pace, one a deft flick into acres of space and the other a simple short ball for Ronnie Whelan to chip into the only unmarked part of a crowded penalty area. He did the same thing for the entire second half of the game, spreading the play all over the pitch with beautiful passes, exhausting a stretched Everton:

If his technical ability was ever to be called into question, one look at his CV would serve as an eloquent answer. Bought by Ajax from his hometown club, Kolding, in 1982, he spent two years in the first team there, winning a Dutch championship in 1983. Ajax – home to Crujiff, Van Basten, Bergkamp etc – is a club where technical excellence is mandatory. Molby combined a delicacy of touch and fantastic range of passing, with a thunderous shot and his physical stature. He could operate as either playmaker or as holding midfielder, forming such a formidable physical barrier as he did. When Liverpool Manager Joe Fagan paid £200,000 for him in 1984, he arrived in a team undergoing a subtle transition. That was the Liverpool way. Big name, big money transfers were rare. Players were replaced from within. After the League and European Cup double of 1984, Graeme Souness, the team’s midfield general and leader, left for Sampdoria in Italy. Phil Neal was in his last season at the club and Dalglish was nearing his own retirement. Molby had to find his way in a team of big egos and huge talents and in his first season, when he was never a first team regular, Liverpool missed out on the League title and lost the European Cup final to Juventus on the night of the Heysel Stadium disaster. With Fagan’s retirement the next season, Dalglish became player-manager and Molby became a regular fixture in the side. His versatility meant that he often played as a deep-lying midfielder, somewhere between an old-fashioned sweeper and the modern Pirlo role, where he could break up play and begin attacking moves from deep within his own half. However, he was better suited to playing as an attacking midfielder, and in that double-winning season he scored 21 goals for the club.

That was a good year for Molby. After that triumphant FA Cup appearance he flew out to Mexico with the Danish squad, which would play perhaps the best football at the 1986 World Cup. Molby was a fixture in a stellar squad alongside the likes of Laudrup, Elkjaer, Lerby, Arnesen and Olsen. With Laudrup already an incredibly accomplished playmaker, he played in a more defined central midfield role, but that Danish team was built to attack ceaselessly, meaning that he got forward as much as anybody. His typical pass spreads the break out wide for the second Danish goal in this match against West Germany:

Denmark made a nonsense of the “Group of Death” they had been drawn in, defeating Uruguay 6-1, Scotland and the Germans on their way to a confrontation with Spain, where their fearlessly attacking approach was undone by the clever counters of a fine Spanish side.

1986 was probably the best year of Molby’s career. Liverpool won nothing the following season and he began to struggle with persistent injuries in 1987, which only added to his weight problems. From then on, until his eventual departure in 1996, he was in and out of the team, playing at centre-half and in central midfield, but rarely as a first choice. He was still often an impressive performer, illuminating games with his touch and awareness. He was persistently linked with transfers to big continental clubs, but the feeling persists that he had gone native, with his strong Scouse accent, his love of a flutter and a beer. In 1988, he was sentenced to three months imprisonment for drink driving, and after Liverpool stood by him, perhaps he remained at the club out of some misguided loyalty. Better if he had moved abroad, where his talents would have been more appreciated. He did win trophies at Liverpool however – two league titles and two FA Cups, scoring 44 goals (mainly penalties) from 218 appearances. But, his remains a frustrating career, with its sense of a talent never really fulfilled.

That talent never really ebbed, however. He scores the second goal, a penalty, in this game against Leeds from 1993, but more notable are the two passes preceding the penalty, which show him as the beautifully visionary playmaker he was. First he scoops the ball between two defenders to put Rush clear on goal inside the box. Then he creates the penalty with a finely measured through ball into space. Both first time, instant touches. His left foot was always a precision instrument:

One last clip and it’s an oddity. Many Liverpool fans in attendance claimed this as one of the greatest goals they had ever seen. From an Anfield League Cup tie, Liverpool v. United, November, 1985. Paul McGrath had scored to put United 1-0 up when Molby ran with the ball from his own half, nutmegged Brian Robson, beat a defender, then hit a dipping 30-yard shot into the top corner. Only there was a dispute on, so there was no football coverage on TV. No network cameras were at the game. Absolutely unimaginable today, but thankfully the club had the foresight to record the game and the footage has recently found its way onto YouTube:

More of David N’s musings on world football can be found on his Twitter page and his diversity knows no bounds, as he also writes excellent capsule film reviews.

Tags: Jan Molby, Liverpool, Premier League

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