Thomas Gravesen may never really have fitted in at Celtic but he rubbed shoulders with the Real Madrid Galacticos and played football for fun. In an article first published in Nutmeg, author Chris Sweeney traces the career of a footballing maverick.
Mad Dog. The Unicorn. A grenade with the pin pulled out. A loose cannon. Lunatic. Screwball. Just some of the words used to describe maverick midfielder Thomas Gravesen, whose colourful career came to a shuddering halt here in Scotland, when he signed for Celtic in the summer of 2006.
Arguably, he was the most glamorous ever signing to arrive on our shores. He parachuted in direct from Real Madrid who were at the peak of the Galacticos era with the likes of Zidane, Figo, Beckham, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos all strutting their stuff at the Bernabéu alongside him.
He also became the highest paid Scottish-based player at the time with a £7 million, three-year deal. On paper, it looked like money well spent. This was a guy who had been Everton’s best player during a five-year spell at Goodison before earning a move to Spain where he’d been a first-choice pick.
Celtic were gearing up for a serious tilt at the Champions League and needed someone to provide that spark, the bit of quality to tip the balance of a game, someone to do the unexpected and unlock defences.
These were all qualities Gravesen had in spades – any pro who has played with him will eulogise his ability on the ball. One at Everton, Tony Hibbert, even went as far as to proclaim that Gravesen had more in the locker from a natural skill point of view than Wayne Rooney. So what the hell happened?
Simply, it was a cocktail of things that meant it was never going to be anything other than a disaster.
Hailing from tiny Daugård in the south-east of Denmark’s Jutland peninsula, Gravesen was taken on by the club he’d always supported, Vejle Boldklub, and it only took him two seasons to build a reputation around Europe as one of the continent’s rising stars.
A powerful, silky, marauding midfielder with a delicate touch, he was part of a side that was full of home-grown talent.
At the end of those 24 months, he knocked back Napoli and went to HSV Hamburg, who played in the 62,000 Volksparkstadion capacity – more people than lived in his home town.
Gravesen said: “I wanted to play in the Bundesliga. Here I have the best perspective to become a full international. What do I want in Naples? I can go on holiday there.”
That comment was the first indication that Hamburg weren’t getting a normal, run-of-the-mill footballer. They probably didn’t know that Vejle had been forced to tell Gravesen to quit a part-time job he’d taken in a car parts centre to pass his time when not training. Or that he and his young pals in Vejle’s first team would bring a ball into the showers after games, the rules being that they couldn’t use their hands and so had to do keepy-uppy against the buttons to turn the water on.
He loved life in Vejle and only left because his talent forced him to.
Friend and fellow midfielder Jesper Mikkelsen explained: “Thomas had a winning mentality and madness that led him beyond us.”
He went straight into HSV’s first team and impressed at this level, considering he’d less than 60 appearances under his belt as a professional. In three years there, he really began to show that he was a maverick in every sense of the word – he was out of step with what football was becoming in the late 1990s, with the huge amount of TV money pouring in.
One was thrashing his motorbike most days, as he’d be making a 175-mile commute each way to sneak home to Denmark after training. A senior team-mate even revealed how he saw Gravesen fly by him at 160mph on Germany’s Autobahn clinging on dressed in shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops.
The tales went on and on: bringing dynamite into training, flooding the team’s wellness centre with bubble bath and even putting “Gravesen HSV” on his city-centre apartment buzzer so fans could drop by for a chat. But still he impressed on the field and achieved his goal of becoming a full international.
Walter Smith and Archie Knox were amongst those who liked what they saw and brought him to Everton. However, they struggled with something all his managers encountered; Gravesen had an issue with tactical instructions – he was drawn to the ball like a magnet. But the wily veteran pair solved the issue by giving him a free role to wreak havoc and he repaid them in spades.
He did the same for Everton’s next boss, David Moyes, and with Gravesen as the main man, they were riding high in the Premier League’s top four.
Nevertheless, he hadn’t curbed his maverick ways of bringing massive fireworks into training to fire at people or one of his favourite pastimes, wrestling anyone he spotted to the ground for a play fight.
There was also the odd choice for a top international footballer of driving around in a battered Nissan Micra, because he didn’t want to have a nice car in the poor, rainy winter weather of Liverpool. Still his abilities on the pitch saw Real Madrid shock most observers by signing Gravesen and proclaiming him as the missing piece in their star-studded jigsaw.
Lots of commentators and pundits lined up to predict he’d be a disaster.
Everton captain David Weir said: “I got the impression he wasn’t sure and seemed reticent to go. You’re stepping into the world stage there. But he was so talented, though, we knew he could handle the football side of things.”
Handle it he did. Despite lots of accusations of him being one of the worst ever Real signings, Gravesen was picked in virtually all of the big games when fit including Champions League ties and the El Clásico derbies against Barcelona. But all that momentum was killed by disciplinarian Fabio Capello, who couldn’t deal with Gravesen’s maverick ways, and the final straw was when he had a violent set-to with Robinho during training.
Celtic saw an opportunity and got him for a bargain £2m.
Why they did it remains a mystery. Gordon Strachan is a manager who has never liked players who don’t toe the party line – hence his repeated fallings-out with spiky winger Aiden McGeady. So why add another one? There doesn’t appear to be any clear answer. It wasn’t a surprise that Gravesen didn’t fit into a rigid tactical formation. He never had. It wasn’t a surprise Gravesen got up to eyebrow-raising antics. He always had.
Celtic full-back at the time Mark Wilson explained how it wasn’t a persona that Thomas put on, saying: “I always thought maybe he’d come into the dressing room and it would be a bit of an act or the things I’d heard weren’t true, but it was far from it.”
In a microcosm is the tale of Strachan barking out his team talk expecting total commitment and work ethic, while Tommy peered out of a newspaper with holes cut out for his eyes.
Even the squad couldn’t work him out as Wilson added: “At the end of that season, when we asked him ‘What are you doing in the summer?’ Thomas said ‘Just back home, lad’ and he said he’d go back to his parents’ house, go in the basement and play computer games constantly.
“I’m thinking ‘Jesus Christ, this guy has got millions, he could go anywhere in the world’ and at that time he had his porn star girlfriend, and he goes home to sit in a basement. It was so far from what a footballer of his stature was about.”
The result was that Gravesen only played 29 times for Celtic and even spent the 2007 Scottish Cup final sitting in the stand in a club suit, while then unknown 20-year-old Icelander Teddy Bjarnason took his spot on the bench at Hampden.
Gravesen retired at 32, ripping up the final year of his contract at Parkhead. And that was it, he disappeared off the face of the earth only to resurface several years later living in the same gated community as Nicolas Cage and Andre Agassi in Las Vegas.
Since then he’s been splashed across the tabloids thanks to a reported £100m fortune that he made after football, not that he was short of cash when he hung up his boots. But the real story is: did he make that money? There’s all sorts of rumours and theories about it. There’s even an account of him losing $54m (£41m) in a single game of high stakes poker in a Sin City casino.
Very little is known as he rarely speaks, and never about his personal life. And that in a nutshell is the beauty of Thomas Gravesen. In today’s day and age, the vast majority of footballers are one dimensional characters; the academies that they come through don’t promote individualism or allow anyone to be an outsider.
Gravesen would never had made it through the ranks at a big club.
He played football because he loved it. Danish football reporter Johan Lyngholm-Bjerge recalled: “He wasn’t the boring footballer who spoke in clichés like ‘It’s only about the next game’ and that sort of stuff. When he was playing, it was with a big smile, making jokes, and he was a fantastic footballer to watch with great technique, always with full power in the tackles. That’s what the fans loved.”
And it’s true, everywhere he’s been, he became a cult hero. Thomas Gravesen is proof that football is more than a sport, it’s a passion, it’s part of culture.
Maybe he didn’t follow all the rules. But he was bloody good at it and enjoyed it. And for anyone who says he wasted his talent – how many players do you know who’ve been to World Cups, European Championships, been signed by Real Madrid and then praised by superstar team-mates before bowing out aged 32 simply because they aren’t enjoying it any more?
It’s just a shame that it ended in Scotland, more specifically the East End of Glasgow. If he’d been treated differently and allowed to be himself, we’d all have been better off.
Chris Sweeney is a journalist and feature writer who has contributed to most of Britain’s national newspapers, as well as various magazines and international titles. His latest book Mad Dog Gravesen: The Last of the Modern Footballing Mavericks is on sale now.
This article first appeared in Issue 11 of Nutmeg, a long-form Scottish football periodical available by subscription at: www.nutmegmagazine.co.uk