'Morten Wieghorst speaks on leaving Celtic, his illness battle, comforting Denmark's Christian Eriksen and being chased by Dundee's Charlie Adam

It was 21 years ago next month when Morten Wieghorst felt exceptionally tired after a comeback game for Celtic reserves at Dens Park, home of his former club Dundee. He put the fatigue down to an extended period on the sidelines due to a knee injury.

Morten Wieghorst bursts through against former club Dundee in April 1999
Morten Wieghorst bursts through against former club Dundee in April 1999

He was included in the travelling party for a Uefa Cup trip to play HJK Helsinki later that week. There was no expectation that he would play but new Celtic manager Martin O’Neill, yet to see Wieghorst perform in earnest, wanted to make him feel part of the new era.

“The plan was not to be in the squad but just to train with the first team leading up to the game and I did some extra work and I have never been so tired in my whole life,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what was coming but these were the first symptoms, definitely. I was losing my coordination. Stepping off the plane my balance was not correct.”

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Although he had never personally seen a Guillain-Barre syndrome case before, club doctor Roddy MacDonald quickly suspected what the issue was. "He said: 'Don't worry, as long as you are breathing normally, it is not a problem'. And I was breathing normally at the time," recalls Wieghorst, who was diagnosed with the rare neurological condition the following Monday.

Morten Wieghorst, left, surveys a Denmark training session in Baku with head coach Kasper Hjulmand during Euro 2020 (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

He could not get up from the settee. Soon, he was struggling to breathe normally. It was time to worry. "I was on the ventilator for ten days," he adds. "It took a fortnight, from going into hospital and then into intensive care. Things were gradually getting worse. In the end I was having to get help with my breathing, that’s when they took me into intensive care. I was in good hands. I had magnificent treatment.

"Although they were difficult times I felt very secure. I had great doctors and nurses, and my family, friends and team-mates around me. And this is why it is so important for me, that when people in the same or similar situation ask me for help, I am always happy to talk to them and help if I can and tell them about my experience and give them some hope. I know how important it is because I had tremendous support in Scotland."

A short film on YouTube chronicles his recovery, from shuffling around a gym being barely able to lift the soles of his feet from the ground to scoring for Celtic against Alloa Athletic in the Scottish Cup in his second start following his comeback over a year later.

“It was amazing the turnaround,” he says. “At the time when I was in intensive care, I could not move, I could not move at all. So I had to learn how to stand again, how to walk and then run.”

Joy unconfined: Morten Wieghorst celebrates scoring his first goal since recovering from Guillaine-Barre syndrome against Alloa Athletic in the Scottish Cup, January 2002.

Now 50, Wieghorst has a unique take on the experience. “What magnificent journey it was,” he continues. “You only get that if you get to rock bottom. And then you get the feeling of recovering. And that is something to enjoy although it sounds crazy. This is how I feel. I got a lot of joy from just getting back to normal."

Wieghorst is recalling all this from his family holiday home in Gilleleje, a fishing village 50kms north of Copenhagen. It is where he has retreated following a draining, emotional and undeniably fulfilling Euro 2020 experience with Denmark.

The assistant manager had a ringside view as his side scored four times in successive games against Russia and Wales but was also uncomfortably close to the action at the Parken Stadium when Christian Eriksen collapsed following a cardiac arrest during the opening game against Finland. The Denmark players forming a ring around their stricken team-mate will remain one of the images of the sporting year, if not decade.

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Eriksen’s future in the game remains unclear. One thing’s for sure, he won’t feature when Denmark face Scotland in a World Cup qualifier in Copenhagen next month. Wieghorst is spending this weekend finalising the make-up of the squad with his friend and head coach Kasper Hjulmand. As for Eriksen, Wieghorst delivers some hopeful news about the Inter Milan player.

Still got it: Morten Wieghorst showcases his skills in a training session before the World Cup qualifier between Israel and Denmark earlier this year

“Hopefully we will see him back on the pitch,” he says. “I don’t know for sure but I think he will want to get himself back on the pitch. And I am hoping we will see him again soon. It will take some time. He came back into the camp a couple of times. It was great to see him. Now he is back in Italy and still going through tests. When these things happen it is harder for his close family than it actually is for Christian.

“Having not been in the same situation myself, but something similar, you don’t feel the same way as those around you. Christian would not have been aware but his close ones, his fiancée, was actually on the pitch. It is a psychological obstacle now for the close family. It will take some time for them all to get back to normal.”

Aside from Eriksen, the squad will feature the majority of those from achieving Denmark’s best major finals performance since winning Euro ‘92 after a late call-up. Their current breakout star, Mikkel Damsgaard, will be included and he undoubtedly poses the biggest danger to Scotland's prospects. The Sampdoria star's stunning free-kick strike drew Denmark level against England.

A last-four place was better than anyone might have imagined after losing their opening two games amid the Eriksen drama. Their run was ended at Wembley, when a heavily disputed extra-time penalty saw Kasper Schmeichel– beams from multiple laser pens dotting around his face – initially save Harry Kane’s effort, before the striker bundled in the rebound.

Old Firm Rivals....Morton Wieghorst with international teammate Brian Laudrup, then at Rangers

Where to start with these contentious, defining moments in an epic match? Well, how about the extra, stray ball that appeared in the box just as Raheem Sterling started weaving goalwards before hitting the turf.

“It would have been interesting to hear the referee’s point of view but we very seldom get to hear what they think,” reflects Wieghorst. “In this country, in the Danish league, sometimes referees actually get interviewed after games. It is their decision whether they want to get interviewed or not but sometimes they do and it is quite interesting because it is a good debate. Everyone can make mistakes, even the referee of course. We all do that. But it would be interesting to hear if he actually saw the ball or if he did not see it. Maybe he should have got some help from his officials, but there you go..”

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Any anger and bitterness has been replaced by pride and knowledge that there’s much still to be accomplished with this exciting group of players, starting with qualification for next winter’s World Cup in Qatar – potentially at Scotland’s expense. While many Scots might have been cheering the Danes on at Wembley, this imminent meeting at the Parken stadium could blow Steve Clarke’s side off course.

Denmark are hoping to tighten their stranglehold on top spot in the group with a win while Scotland will seek to ignite their campaign by taking something from the visit. Wieghorst might have an award for fair play sitting on his sideboard, he might also have a kilt hanging in his wardrobe (more of which later). However, he won’t go as far as to wish the Scots well in Copenhagen.

And he certainly won’t be advising anyone to deliberately miss if the hosts are awarded a penalty, as he was once told to do, hence the fair play award from the International Olympic Committee he was presented with after an incident during Denmark’s clash with Iran in 2003 in Hong Kong.

A member of the opposition, mistaking a whistle in the crowd as the signal for half-time, bent down and picked the ball up. “The referee saw no other way than to give us a penalty,” recalls Wieghorst. “The Iran team wanted to leave the pitch. I was called to speak to Morten Olsen, the manager at the time. I explained what happened. He said: ‘Go and miss the penalty on purpose’. I did not think twice about it.”

Christian Eriksen is stretchered off the pitch following his cardiac arrest in Copenhagen during Denmark v Finland.

Something he did think deeply about was leaving Scotland in 2002. It had been his home for ten years. He had cultivated a Dundee via Glasgow accent and bought the T-shirt – or at least the kilt.

He was measured up – tartan: MacRae Ancient Hunting, he thinks – in Blairgowrie during his time at Dundee. Anyone who saw him on the sidelines during Euro 2020 or else saw him warm up with his players won’t be surprised to learn that, nearly three decades later, it still fits.

He wore it when he was named Danish player of the year in 2003 in his first full season back in Danish football. It was a remarkable achievement considering the field comprised all Danish players, not only those playing in Denmark. The decision to don the kilt was a gesture from Wieghorst designed to convey his heartfelt appreciation for those who helped in his journey back to health in Scotland, his and wife Anna's adopted homeland.

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It's the actual homeland of his daughter Sofie, born in Glasgow in 1999. Son Sebastian was born in Denmark during the 1998 World Cup, when Wieghorst was in France with the Danish squad.

"It was almost like going away from home when we left Scotland," he says. "There was quite a bit of Scotland in the family at the time. It was a good laugh (wearing the kilt to the awards do) but there was a bit of seriousness to it as well. It was ten years of all of our lives – my wife and two kids.

"It was a fun night. But funnily enough there were another two people wearing the kilt that night. I could not believe it when I saw it! They were advertising for a Danish tattoo, near where the gala night was. I thought I would be the only one, as you would at a function in Denmark!”

He was the one stealing someone else’s thunder when Wieghorst and his team-mates ‘stopped the ten’ in 1998 under Wim Jansen. “There were a lot of very good times at Celtic,” he says. He was there seven years, at one point taking over from Shuggie Edvaldsson as longest-serving overseas player, and could have stayed longer.

“I was treated very well by Celtic and also Martin [O'Neill],” he says. “But my contract had expired. I was talking to the manager and the club at the time but I sensed, I was 31, and Celtic had a very strong team at the time. I have never been afraid of the challenge but I felt I had limited number of years left in me after the illness and various injuries, knee injuries in particular.

“When Michael Laudrup had taken over Brondby that summer and he called me, it was a very, very difficult situation he left me in. He had been a childhood hero and now he was giving me the chance to be one of the main players in his new team in his first job as manager.

“I chose to go back,” he adds. “But it was a wrench. It was really difficult. Part of me wanted to stay. And my wife definitely wanted to stay in Scotland. But I chose Brondby and looking back, football wise, I think I played more games for Brondby in the last three years than I would have done if I had stayed at Celtic.”

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A summons from Laudrup was the equivalent of a Scot being recruited by Kenny Dalglish, who Wieghorst also worked with. That was a thrill as well, seeing as he followed Liverpool – as well as Everton for a bit – as a youngster. His international playing career briefly overlapped with Laudrup, who Wieghorst had idolised when Denmark began making their mark on the world football stage.

While the '92 team are the Hollywood scriptwriter's dream, the '86 World Cup side, featuring the likes of Jesper Olsen, Preben Elkjaer and Laudrup, elder brother of Rangers’ Brian, in those iconic Hummel strips mixing chevrons with pinstripes, remain the aficionado's choice.

"These years were the beginnings, the foundation of the Denmark team as we know it," says Wieghorst. "Great heroes, great role models. Such an inspiration for players of my generation at least.

“I felt privileged to grow up watching all these fantastic players and then, at least with Michael, I got the chance to play with him. Working with Kenny at Celtic was incredible too. They are major names in world football.”

And then there's Simon Stainrod. Don't forget Simon Stainrod. Wieghorst laughs when asked if his former Dundee manager can be included in such stellar company.

"Of course! He was actually a good player. He was on his last legs but I knew when I gave the ball to Simon, he was not going to give it away.”

Stainrod played a significant part in the Wieghorst story. He brought the then 21-year-old Dane from Lyngby to Dundee after being impressed by the midfielder’s performance in a Champions League qualifying tie against Rangers at Ibrox in 1992.

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Wieghorst was a huge success, scoring on his debut against St Johnstone and then helping Dundee reach their first major final in 15 years in the Coca-Cola Cup against Aberdeen in his penultimate game for the club. He was also called up for the Danish national team while at Dundee, playing for them even when the Dens Park side languished in the second tier.

Wieghorst also inspired the current Dundee skipper getting an early feel of the Dens Park turf when a nine-year-old Charlie Adam took part in a mini-pitch invasion after the Dane’s winning penalty v Hearts in a Coca-Cola Cup quarter-final clash in 1995. Dundee triumphed after an epic 4-4 draw, with Wieghorst scoring a stunning fourth for his side in extra time. He seems tickled to hear that Adam was one of those chasing him as he wheeled away to celebrate.

“I love stories like that,” he says. “Young boys growing up dreaming about becoming footballers. I have memory of chasing Allan Simonsen; I am not sure if you remember him. He was player of the year in Europe in ‘77. He came to play an exhibition game at one of the youth tournaments I was at, I was actually taller than him at the time! He was just a small guy. These are what dreams are made of. This is what drives kids on to try and become professional footballers.”

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