Morten Wieghorst on Swansea and Old Firm intensity

Morten Wieghorst is revelling in Swansea's ongoing success story
Morten Wieghorst is revelling in Swansea's ongoing success story
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AS AN elegant midfielder, Morten Wieghorst would often glide serenely through games, but management is proving to be a whirlwind experience.

The Dane, who spent the bulk of his playing career in one adopted homeland –Scotland – and is now laying down roots in another, has never been busier.

Morten Wieghorst celebrates a title win with Celtic in 1998. Picture: SNS

Morten Wieghorst celebrates a title win with Celtic in 1998. Picture: SNS

Wales, or more specifically Swansea, is where Wieghorst now calls home, and as No 2 to his childhood idol and international team-mate Michael Laudrup at a forward-thinking, progressive football club he could not be happier. Hailing from the land of Hans Christian Anderson, Danes know a thing or two about fairytales and alongside Laudrup, Wieghorst is in the midst of one at Swansea City.

The poet Dylan Thomas described Swansea as “an ugly lovely town” (which is mischievously mangled by locals to “pretty shitty city”) but there is beauty in abundance at the Liberty Stadium.

As the storybook shows, a mere decade ago, in their old Vetch Field ground, Swansea’s Football League status was 33 minutes away from oblivion. Needing a win to avoid dropping out of Division 3 against Hull, they trailed 2-1 before local lad James Thomas banged in a hat-trick and saved them from non-league obscurity. Swansea had survived, but the Vetch soon vanished and so too did any inhibitions the club had about how football should be played. Chairman Huw Jenkins could have been dismissed as a hopeless romantic when he insisted on his team playing an idyllic style of passing football, but his vision has been realised against all odds. Roberto Martinez started Swansea’s rapid ascent through the divisions, Paulo Sousa picked up the baton, then Brendan Rodgers eventually led them to the promised land of the Premier League. Project Swansea is now in the capable hands of Laudrup and Wieghorst, and with the club’s first ever major trophy and a return to European football already among their achievements, who knows where it could end.

On the pitch that fateful day against Hull was Leon Britton, who has traversed all four divisions and was one of the stars of the show in the pulsating 2-2 draw against Premier League leaders Liverpool – the night before I meet Wieghorst. The Monday night match against Liverpool will forever be remembered as the ‘Jonjo Shelvey game’ after the big midfielder had a hand in all four goals, and arriving at Swansea’s £6 million Landore Training Academy the following morning adrenaline is still palpable as a procession of animated players come down the stairs and make their way through reception where I’m waiting in company of a German TV crew – more proof of the club’s continental flavour.

Next down the stairs to greet me, in club tracksuit, is the 6ft 4in figure of Wieghorst, now 42 but looking like it was only yesterday he was playing. After a quick recap of the Liverpool game and some due praise for Shelvey, Wieghorst recalls his slightly awkward arrival at the club, just weeks before they beat Bradford 5-0 at Wembley in February to lift the Capital One Cup.

“I have to admit I felt a bit of a gatecrasher at the final against Bradford,” says Wieghorst, a Scottish lilt still evident in his accent. “One thing I did immediately notice was the pride of the Welsh. The Swansea people were excellent that day and so were the team. But for me, having just arrived, it was very strange to be part of. I had been manager with FC Nordsjælland and worked with Denmark Under-21s, but I knew I was coming to an up-and-coming club. They had done well in their first season in the Premier League the season before, finishing mid-table, and Michael had taken them on even further. I think we can go further still.

“I tried to read up on the club as much as I could before I came here. I remembered them from the early Eighties, watching Match of the Day, and they were top of the First Division by New Year. Our first team coach, Alan Curtis, was in that team, and he’s an excellent bridge to that past – to remind us of what the club is about. They got relegated the following season and they disappeared to a certain extent. What’s happened in the last ten years is unbelievable, it really is – for them to come so far in such a short space of time. What makes Swansea a little different is there are players who have been with the club throughout their rise. It’s quite amazing to have players that have played in all four divisions”

Wieghorst’s own playing career was similarly eclectic. At his first club Lyngby, he won a Danish Cup and league title, but then found himself thrust towards a life-changing move to Scotland.

“We had a really good team, four of whom had been in the Denmark squad that won the 1992 European Championships, but Lyngby were in a bad financial state. It was the first year of the Champions League and we went to play a qualifying tie against Glasgow Rangers. Lyngby were trying desperately to sell players just to keep afloat and they saw Europe as a shop window. The first leg was at Ibrox and there were a lot of agents sitting in the stand and even though we lost 2-0, personally I played quite well.

“Simon Stainrod and Jim Duffy were watching me on behalf of Dundee and they came to watch the second leg as well. I didn’t know anything about Dundee at the time but Lyngby had to sell their players off and good boy that I was, I thought I would do them a favour and agree to the move.”

The flamboyant, fedora-wearing Stainrod pitched Wieghorst straight into action, and while the Dane made a scoring debut in a 4-4 draw at St Johnstone, he found the early days at Dens challenging. “The first few months were difficult to settle in, to leave friends and family and try and adapt to a totally... different style of football,” he smiles, diplomatically trying to accurately describe the nature of our game in Scotland. “The game was much more direct. I had to learn different sides of the game and how to make time for myself on the ball. But it was a great move and it toughened me up.

“We would train in a public park, but after my settling-in period I loved my time there. Dundee were pioneers at the time – nothing was boring. We were one of the first clubs to start bringing in players from all around the world. I shared a house for a while with Ivo den Biemen, had plenty of good friends like Lionel David, Neil Duffy and Gary McKeown, and the club was full of colourful characters like Simon Stainrod, Jim Duffy and the chairman Ron Dixon. Although we got relegated I remember only good times.”

Among those good times was the first of 30 international caps and Dundee’s march to the 1995 League Cup final. Wieghorst scored a sumptuous goal in an epic 4-4 quarter-final draw against Hearts before sparking a pitch invasion with his winning penalty. There would be no happy ending as the First Division side lost 2-0 to Aberdeen in the final, and within weeks the Dane embarked on a career-defining move.

“I was out contract, signing week to week. I was just on the verge of signing for Odense in Denmark when Celtic came in, and I didn’t have to think twice. I was happy to stay in Scotland and sign for such a big club. I spoke to Tommy Burns, who was the manager, and there was no doubt I would sign. They had a good side and played wonderful football and I enjoyed the challenge of trying to stop Rangers’ run of league titles.

“That first season, 1995-96, we played some great football. We lost only once in the league – to Rangers – but unfortunately for us and Tommy Burns we were pipped at the post. It was a shame. He was a great man and a great manager, but it wasn’t to be. Rangers ended up equalling the record of nine in a row in 1997 so we were under even greater pressure the next season when Wim Jansen came in. We were reminded quite regularly about the nine-in-a-row record and it really toughens you up mentally – you learn to perform under pressure and we won the league.

“But I was very settled in Glasgow, I never had any problems. I know when you go through tough times the fans are demanding – they give a lot themselves, so you can understand the demands they place on you, but most of the time they were excellent. In fact, they were excellent all of the time.”

Wieghorst was thrilled to reacquaint himself with Celtic Park when he played in the Stiliyan Petrov charity match earlier this month. Leukaemia forced his former team-mate to retire, a sharp reminder to Wieghorst of the illness which almost forced him out football during his time in Glasgow. In 2000, the Dane spent worrying weeks in intensive care with a mystery condition before he was diagnosed with the Guillain-Barré syndrome – a disorder affecting muscles and the nervous system, which put him out of football for a year.

Wieghorst made a full recovery and returned to the Celtic side in late 2001 before moving the following year to Brondby – where Laudrup was beginning his managerial career.

“When I was up in Glasgow last week I very much enjoyed it. That support is just amazing – you don’t get that anywhere else in the world. I’ve spoken to a lot of other foreigners who have played in Spain, France, Italy, England – and they all say the same. The Old Firm games and the European matches there are absolutely amazing. “

Wieghorst’s eyes twinkle at the memory of Old Firm games. He was involved in many a fiery tussle with Rangers in his seven years with Celtic, and he is astonished to see a Scottish top-flight without Rangers.

“It’s sad that Rangers are not in the top league,” he says. “I will always be a Celtic fan, it’s so deeply rooted in me. I was talking to Brian Laudrup and he feels just the same about Rangers. I think it’s a massive loss to Scottish football not to have Rangers playing in the top league and I don’t know if I’m speaking out of turn but I think a lot of Celtic fans must feel the same. They must miss that rivalry. Those Old Firm games are unbeatable. Even the European matches don’t quite replace what has been lost in terms of atmosphere. I don’t think there are many games in the world that can generate that kind of atmosphere. “

Wieghorst watches his old club on the rare occasions that time permits and he will be rooting for his former midfield colleague Neil Lennon when Celtic host Barcelona on Tuesday. “He’s done an amazing job, but I think he’s perhaps taken Celtic as far as he can take them in the present climate. It’s difficult for Celtic now. They can’t really go and buy the standard of players that team do here in England. And you can’t blame players for moving on. If they get an offer from a Premier League – the wages and the league are just that much bigger.

“Eventually I think Celtic will have to compete in England – I think it will happen. Obviously Rangers are big enough to do the same thing. Not right now, perhaps, but eventually they’ll come back up and I think it will happen. I think there will be stumbling blocks, but I think eventually it will be dictated by TV money. Uefa boundaries are already blurred – you have Welsh clubs playing in the English league, so why not Scottish teams? People might say it’s never going to happen, but money can bring about change.”

Swansea are living proof of how dramatically the landscape can alter in football, and the morning after our meeting Wieghorst was on a plane to Spain as the team raised the bar even higher with a 3-0 win away against Valencia in the Europa League. Prophetically, he had said before the victory: “I think we are well very suited to play in Europe. What we don’t have is a lot of experience playing against the top sides, but we do have a manager who is very experienced and he has so many good things to bring across to the players – his own experience from his playing days.”

A 3-1 defeat to Birmingham on Tuesday ended Swansea’s defence of the Capital One Cup, but they have the perfect platform to bounce back today – a tea-time clash with Arsenal at the Liberty. Also on the horizon, on 3 November, is a first-ever top-flight meeting against Cardiff, managed by Wieghorst’s old Celtic team-mate Malky Mackay.

“I’ve always enjoyed derbies,” says Wieghorst. “The Dundee derbies were always good, the Glasgow derby is one of the best in the world and then back in Denmark, the Brondby v FC Copenhagen was a great game. People tell me this is a spicy one, so I am looking forward to seeing what it is like. I’ve tried one of the most powerful derbies there is in Glasgow so I don’t think anything can surprise me, but I am really looking forward to experiencing the rivalry between the two cities.

“Malky’s very meticulous, he’s got the respect of everyone in Cardiff and they’ve made a good start, which is so important. I’m really pleased that he’s come so far as a manager and hopefully there will be a chance to sit down for a coffee soon.”

Sitting down is a luxury for Wieghorst after seven busy months in South Wales, which has included moving his family – wife Anna, daughter Sofie and Scottish-born son Sebastian – over from Denmark. “I’ve settled in well. I live locally in the Mumbles area and it’s a nice part of the world. I absolutely loved it in Scotland after my settling in period and I suspect it’s going to be the same here.”

Wales may be his new base, but Wieghorst’s love affair with Scotland is far from over, and he has retained one special keepsake to remind him of his time in Dundee and Glasgow.

“I had fitted in so well in Scotland that I wanted to show much the country meant to me, so I asked my friend to take me to a kilt shop in Dundee to buy a kilt. I had absolutely no idea there were so many tartans, so after looking through a big book I just shut my eyes and pointed to one! I think the accurate description is ancient hunting MacRae.

“It’s still there in the cupboard, it doesn’t come out as often as it used to. In fact, when I had my last day as manager at FC Nordsjælland, I got changed into the kilt and a boy played the bagpipes for me. It is tucked away to wear on special occasions.”

If Swansea City’s success story continues he can look forward to plenty of those.