Interview: Bjarne Goldbaek

Image: Phil Cole/Allsport

Bjarne Goldbaek spent 3 and a half years in the black and white of Fulham, making 104 appearances, including 44 of the 46 matches in the iconic promotion season under Jean Tigana. Daniel Smith spoke to Bjarne to get The Great Dane’s perspective on his time with the club.

DS – Who was your football idol growing up?

BG – I lived in the southern part of Denmark and at that time we didn’t have satellite dishes to watch games, so I was limited to watching Danish television which had good coverage of the Bundesliga. At that time, Allan Simonsen had just been voted the European player of the year whilst playing for Borussia Monchengladbach. As a Danish superstar he was someone I looked up to and my early experiences of following the game were focused around the German clubs.

DS – How did you get your first opportunity in football?

BG – My first opportunity at a high level came playing in the U21’s for Denmark against Germany and that performance led to some good concrete offers from big clubs. I chose to go to Schalke and that was my introduction into the big world of European football.

Before that, I had been involved with the youth levels with Denmark and had a reputation as a talented young player coming through, so it was natural for me to start my career in the Danish League with Naestved IF but it wasn’t long before the opportunity to go to Germany came along.

DS – Do you have a standout moment representing Denmark and how close were you to making the European Championship winning squad in 1992?

BG – I played in several of the qualifiers for that tournament and was involved with the national team regularly around that time. I remember that we had a friendly with Turkey and I didn’t participate because I was playing for my German club who were top of the league at the time. I don’t think the Danish coach liked this reaction from me very much and when we unexpectedly qualified instead of Yugoslavia, I wasn’t picked for the squad. Of course, this is just my version, but it seems the obvious reason why I wasn’t selected. I was on holiday not thinking too much about it at the time but with hindsight, it is a real shame. Nobody expected us to go and win it and I would have loved to be part of that moment of history and to have that achievement on my CV.

I suppose my proudest moment for Denmark would be making the squad for the 1998 World Cup. You don’t get recognition like that for one or two performances, that is the reward for being at a good level over a period of time. After years of hard work, this meant a lot to me.

DS – Did you know that you were the first player to represent Fulham in a European Championships when you played at Euro 2000?

BG – I didn’t know, that’s very nice to hear. It worked out very well because I was aiming to go to the Euros, but I wasn’t playing much for Chelsea at the time. The Danish coach told me that I needed to be healthy and playing regularly. If I could do that, he promised me that I would be selected. So, the move to Fulham solved that problem and worked out perfectly.

DS – You have a strong affiliation with German football and after winning the Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern, followed by spells with Tennis Borussia Berlin, FC Koln and Copenhagen, you made the switch to London to join Chelsea. How did this move materialize?

BG – I was probably the top player in the Danish Super League at the time playing for Copenhagen and we played Chelsea in the Cup Winners Cup. They had been to Denmark a couple of times to prepare for the tie and had seen me playing well in the league. I then scored against them in the tournament and although we lost, we put in a very good performance and almost knocked them out. Soon after they contacted me, and it just so happened that Brian Laudrup wanted to go back to Denmark, so it was more or less a swap deal that suited all parties.

DS – How did the move to Fulham come about and what appealed to you about the move?

BG – The idea of playing regular football was a big factor and at the time I didn’t really put much thought into the direction Fulham were heading in at the time. I knew that they had been promoted a couple of times, but I didn’t expect them to be as successful as they went onto be. Cruising through the Championship is not easy, it’s more than difficult but the journey we went on together was very special and it turned out to be a very good decision for me to go there.

I was a family man and although I had opportunities to go to Nottingham Forest and Leicester City in the Premier League, my family were settled when I was at Chelsea, and it seemed unfair to move them when they hadn’t done anything wrong. It wasn’t their fault that I was no longer good enough to play for Chelsea. So, moving to Fulham was the right move for everyone, even if it meant dropping a division.

I also knew Ray Wilkins very well and he spoke very highly of the club and was very convincing that it was a good move for me and my family. I valued Ray’s opinion immensely and if he thought Fulham was a very good club, then I felt very comfortable making the transfer.

DS – As someone who has played for both Chelsea and Fulham, how different are they as football clubs?

BG – They were completely different; the contrast was huge. Chelsea was run very professionally and having spent most of my career in the top division, Fulham was a bit of a shock at first. We had to wash our own kits and the facilities were quite limited at the beginning. Which is why my time at the club was so fascinating because I had the privilege of seeing the club grow into a Premier League outfit. When Tigana arrived, the club transformed into a very professional club with a topflight mentality but at first it was very different.

Even things like the atmosphere in the stadium was different. I remember my first game at the Cottage, it was shitty weather, and everything felt so narrow with the fans being really close to the pitch. I couldn’t believe it! When it went out for a throw, you could have a chat with the fans, that’s how close they were.

It was very much a family club; everyone was very friendly and welcoming and there was less demand to win. As long as you gave everything, the fans recognised that, and they seemed happy to be in the Championship. Fulham fans have a good understanding of their club, and their expectations of the players was very fair. I believe all the players felt the same way about the club at the time and as the club grew and found themselves top of the league, it felt like the fans grew in confidence with it.

DS – What were your relationships like with Paul Bracewell and Jean Tigana?

BG – I didn’t have any kind of relationship with Paul Bracewell. I didn’t play for him for long, but it was very different compared to the training and tactics that I was used to. We didn’t get the results; we didn’t play good football and I didn’t have any faith of things turning around. It was hard and honest work but if you want to get promoted, you need to dominate, and the arrival of Jean Tigana was a huge game changer for this football club.

It was like a whole different culture had come into the football club and suddenly everything went very professional and forward thinking. It was a big shock to some of the players, but it was a relief for myself because his way of thinking was similar to what I was used to having played 11 years in the top division. The style of play was sophisticated, the training was to a higher standard and more intense, the medical side was more in depth and professional. Every aspect was covered and that’s why we went from an honest hard-working team to the best side in the division and it happened very quickly despite only adding three or four new players to the squad. Louis Saha and John Collins coming in helped us to become a very entertaining team to watch but the transformation came all over the pitch.

I remember Tigana changing the mentality of our back four to play through the lines into midfield rather than to just lump it long. As a midfielder that opened up our possibilities to influence the game and although it wasn’t at the top level, 2000/01 was the most interesting season of my career, including winning the Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern.

We were also a lot fitter than other teams and in the last twenty minutes we were able to finish them off. Our fitness levels were top class and that is credit to Roger Propos who was an outstanding fitness coach. All the players were scared of him but in a good way. If you were injured, Tigana would make you train alone with Roger until you were fit and able to rejoin the team. You knew you were in for torture when that happened because he worked you very hard. So, it was in your interests to get fit and rejoin the team training because Roger’s regime would kill you! But everything they did had a purpose to it, it was all very educated, and I had full faith in their methods.

It’s funny because I don’t think Jean Tigana was particularly prepared for life in the Championship and after Bracewell, we certainly weren’t ready for a French coach, but he adapted to us in a way that made it easy for the group to follow and believe in him. He was a great leader of this football club and all the players gravitated towards him and respected him.

DS – You had a very good understanding down the right-hand side with Steve Finnan. Was this something that came naturally, or did you do a lot of work together on the training ground?

BG – The funny thing is, when I signed for Fulham, they were looking for a right fullback, but I remember Ray Wilkins telling me not to worry because they have Steve Finnan and he’s a good right back, you’ll like him. Our connection happened naturally, and I used to love playing with him. He was a machine with an incredible running capacity. He only really used me as a one-two player and would then cross it. The next thing I knew, he’s passing me again running back into position! He just never stopped.

He was an intelligent player who made my job very easy. His play was predictable and unspectacular but extremely efficient and reliable. Off the pitch he was very professional with a great sense of humour which made it very easy for me to link up with him. I was very pleased to see him win the Champions League with Liverpool a few years later.

DS – Would any of your Fulham teammates make the best XI of your entire career?

BG – Louis Saha for sure. I remember him being very shy when he first joined us. He was a very nice young man who couldn’t speak very good English. At first, he didn’t realise how good he actually was but the rest of us could see it straight away. I knew after about ten minutes in training that he was too good to be at this level. He was quick, strong, elegant and could finish with both feet. My crosses didn’t have to be precise because he would out jump his opponent. The through pass didn’t have to be inch perfect because he would out pace them too. Louis Saha had everything, and it was such a joy to play with him.

Edwin Van Der Sar was a fantastic goalkeeper, but I expected him to be excellent because of the world class reputation that he came with, so I would say that Saha was certainly the best player that I played with at Fulham.

I played with some really top fullbacks in my career, but Steve Finnan would be up there with a chance as well. I have a lot of respect for the career he had and if he had been from a different nationality, he would have shone at major tournaments like the World Cup as well.

DS – We have to talk about that iconic game up at Ewood Park. First of all, did Graham Souness’ pre-match comments add anything to the occasion from your perspective?

BG – Of course, it motivated us. Tigana was fuming by his comments and said to us that we had to show him how wrong he was. The whole team were very determined to go there and win the match, but it quickly turned into a different kind of game when Brevett was sent off and we were losing 1-0.

I really like Rufus as a person, and I can still remember him in the dressing room sitting there at half time avoiding eye contact with everyone because he was embarrassed to let the side down. Tigana hammered him at the final whistle despite the win and told him that he owed his teammates big time.

Jean protected us as players and kept the pressure away from us in the public eye but in the dressing room he wouldn’t think twice about shouting at you for making a mistake and letting the team down. He was a very nice man, but he’d definitely call you out if you weren’t performing to his high standards.

DS – You were heavily involved in Sean Davis’ winning goal, feeding the ball through for Lee Clark to shoot. What was going through your mind when we won the ball back in injury time and you received the ball on the counterattack?

BG – I can’t remember it to be honest. I ran my socks off in that game and it was an incredibly focused, disciplined performance but the build-up to the winning goal is a bit of a blur. I just remember it hitting the back of the net.

It was one of the most satisfying victories of my career and nobody had any doubts that we were the best team and that we were going up after that result.

DS – Towards the end of our debut season in the Premier League, you scored in our penultimate home game and as a result, you are the last player to score a goal in front of a roofless Putney End with terraces. Do you remember the goal?

BG – That’s an interesting fact. I didn’t realise but I remember the goal and the match well. It was a 3-0 win against Bolton in the Premier League, and I remember that my good friend Per Frandsen was playing in defence for them that night. So, we had a joke about that goal after the game. That was actually my favourite goal for the club. It was a good low strike from just outside the box. I enjoyed that one.

DS – As a player, what was it like moving to Loftus Road for our second season in the Premier League?

BG – It was a big shame. I had fantastic memories from my first two seasons at Craven Cottage and going there definitely took a percentage out of our performance. We didn’t have a connection with that stadium.

Everything just felt a bit cold there and we didn’t have the same atmosphere.

Our stadium is unique, it has heritage, tucked up nicely at the end of the rows of houses. The facilities were far from ideal, but it didn’t matter because it had lots of history, character and the pitch itself was magnificent which really suited the way we wanted to play and keep the ball on the ground. It ticked all the boxes that really mattered and playing at Loftus Road just wasn’t the same.

DS – You left the club at the end of the 2002/03 campaign, shortly after Chris Coleman had taken over. Had you already decided that you were leaving that summer?

BG – My future was kind of already decided. I was 34/35 years old and wasn’t playing often. My contract was finishing that summer and I wasn’t expecting the club to open talks over a new deal. When Cookie takes over, I was told that he is not planning with me. I probably would have stayed one more year if the offer was on the table as a stand in squad player, but I promised my wife that I would take the family back to Germany and despite a good offer from Reading in the Championship I kept that promise and joined Rot-Weiss Essen in the German second tier.

DS – What was your relationship like with Mohamed Al Fayed?

BG – I remember the first time I met him; I was on my way to see him after driving around for two days with Mark Maunders to all kinds of medicals. It was unlike anything I’d experienced in my career and must have been the biggest medical in the history of football! I had to meet him at Harrods and believe it or not, this time was to meet his private doctor for a final medical haha!

We chatted about football, and he explained how the referees were all against him! So, that was my first experience of him, and he had a very good sense of humour. It was nice that he wanted to make us laugh and we certainly laughed with him rather than at him. He would come into the changing rooms before the matches and say if you don’t win today, I’m going to kick your balls off! But on a serious note, he was a fantastic owner and allowed the staff to run things their way without interfering. If Tigana wanted 200 new footballs and 50 new goals, he would make sure it was there the next day without questioning it. We respected him as the owner of the operation, and we knew that it was only possible because of him.

He was also good with inviting us to the top of Harrods to his restaurants if we had a good result. Plus, we had the added bonus of having a Harrods card which was clever on his part as it meant that my wife was in there shopping and giving back some of my wages straight away!

DS – Who were your closest friends, and do you still keep in touch with anyone?

BG – I was good friends with Karl-Heinz Riedle because I could speak fluent German. Our children were of a similar age, so we used to meet up with our families, I did the same thing with Van Der Sar now and then. I had a good connection with Maik Taylor and Steve Finnan and enjoyed a few golf trips to Spain with them when we were given a couple of days off or had warm weather breaks. But on the whole, I was older with kids in school during my time at Fulham which meant that socializing was quite limited compared to the younger players. It was always fun to socialize with Rufus.

I still see Karl-Heinz through media work in Germany. Other than that, there’s been a couple of occasions work related where I’ve spoken to Kit Symons when he was a scout at Fulham, Chris Coleman as a manager and John Collins when he was at Celtic about players.

DS – When was the last time you visited the Cottage?

BG – I usually visit London once or twice a year and attend matches at Stamford Bridge and Craven Cottage. It’s great to come back to a place where I have such wonderful memories and it’s good to see that the club are still going strong. Obviously, we want to be in the Premier League, but the club has come a long way since I signed for them twenty one years ago and the facilities are top of the range which is excellent. It breaks my heart to see Kaiserslautern now in the third division, a million miles away from where they were when we won the Bundesliga. You want to see your old clubs going strong and I’m optimistic about Fulham at the moment.

DS – What are you up to now?

BG – I’ve been a football agent for sixteen years now. I’m enjoying it more than ever and I feel comfortable with it. I also do some punditry on German TV just to keep some relations in football.

DS – Finally, Bjarne, pie or pasty – which filling?

BG – Whichever one is closest to a sausage roll. So, I think that’s a pasty.