Manchester United Cult Heroes: Jesper Olsen

Jesper Olsen, the flying winger was signed for Manchester United in July of 1984 by Ron Atkinson, largely on the back of an impressive International match performance against the England National team in a 1982 qualification match for the European Championship Finals in France in which Olsen waltzed through the English defence to score a beautiful equalising goal for the Danes in what was an ultimately doomed English qualification for the tournament in France at the hands of an emerging and exciting Danish side who were resplendent in that wonderfully innovative Hummel kit, and who would go on to equip themselves fabulously in the Mexico World Cup of 1986.

This slight and skilful flaxen-haired Dane arrived in Manchester from Ajax with all the usual comparisons to a long-line of silky wingers who had always been adored from the Old Trafford terraces. Olsen showed flashes of absolute brilliance for Manchester United and eventually unseated the popular ball-playing Dutch maestro Arnold Muhren from the United first XI.

I loved Jesper Olsen. He was quick and full of tricks and played with panache and verve and was a member of the 1985 side which triumphed over Everton in the 1985 FA Cup final. Under Atkinson, he was given freedom to play as a marauding and creative left-winger and was certainly a player who got the crowd to their feet when he received the ball and was able to run at players and strike fear into the hearts of opposing full-backs with his speedy, tricky play and whipped ball delivery. He clearly wasn’t Ronaldo, but he was a forerunner to that type of thrilling player, although he was plagued with inconsistency and too often what began as a promising attacking run which would bring the Old Trafford faithful to their feet, would often end in a player going down rabbit holes which would see attacking plays breakdown, which is why he’s a cult player rather than an actual true great. In fact, George Best once remarked that United should’ve been aiming higher than the mercurial Dane.

Let’s not forget though, that in the 1985-86 Season Manchester United registered 10 (Ten) straight wins from the start of the season, which is still a record, and Jesper Olsen played half of those matches and netted a hat-trick against West Bromwich Albion in the same season. However, the season soured through injuries, mostly to Bryan Robson and Olsen, and United faded badly and a poor start to 1986-87 cost Atkinson his job. Things didn’t look good for Olsen at the start of the 1986-87 season where following a training ground fracas with (another United Cult Hero) Remi Moses ended with Olsen finding himself on put on the transfer list by Atkinson. By November, Sir Alex Ferguson had replaced Atkinson and that transfer listing decision was rescinded. In fact, such was Ferguson’s initial faith in Olsen that Ferguson passed on the chance to sign John Barnes, and kept faith with Olsen. There followed a period where Ferguson upon realising that he had two flyweight wingers in Olsen and Strachan who were vulnerable to tough-tackling opponents, would alternate them in matches to ensure that the side was not bereft of both wingers.

By the end of the 1988-89 season, Olsen was moved onto Bordeaux and latterly Caen where he plied his trade for a few more seasons before injury forced him into hanging up his boots and moving to Australia where he’s still involved in football.

I saw him play on a couple of occasions (Jan 1987 and May 1988 – wins on both occasions), and I’m pleased to have witnessed him in the flesh, as he was a personal hero of mine. This player was integral to the mid-80’s and played 176 times for United. I’ll always remember him for his flamboyance and being a part of the team which I grew up watching in my formative United years, ensuring that I will always have fond memories of this flying Danish winger!

Written by Paul Young


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