The Age of the Shadow
The Danish midfielder Søren Lerby once played two games in different countries in the same day
On 13 November 1985, Søren Lerby famously took part in two matches in two different countries – neither of them of great importance. Denmark had already qualified for the World Cup for the first time and needed just a draw against Ireland in Dublin to ensure they topped their group above the USSR. Bayern Munich, meanwhile, faced mid-table VfL Bochum in the last 16 of the DFB-Pokal. They had, it's true, been beaten 3-0 by their less glamorous opponents in the Bundesliga a month earlier, but they were still clear favourites to prevail this time, with or without their Danish star.
Yet both sides decided they absolutely had to have Lerby in their ranks that day. Denmark categorically refused to release their midfield general, while Bayern's sporting director Uli Hoeneß wasn't ready to give up easily. He knew Denmark's German coach Sepp Piontek quite well, and the two reached a compromise. The World Cup qualifying game took place in the afternoon, and Bayern played in the evening. If Lerby were to be substituted early enough at Lansdowne Road, he was theoretically able to make it just in time to be in the starting line-up at Bochum's Ruhrstadion.
A private plane was arranged for the mission. Hoeneß personally flew out to Dublin and waited impatiently in the stands to take Lerby to Germany. Piontek promised to take the midfielder off when the win was assured, but Frank Stapleton put the hosts in front. Preben Elkjær equalised almost immediately, but it was still 1-1 at half-time.
Relief came for Hoeneß after the break, however, when quick goals by Michael Laudrup and John Sivebæk made it 3-1, putting the game beyond Ireland (it would finish 4-1). Piontek was true to his word. Lerby was substituted after 59 minutes and hurried to shower as quickly as possible. When he jumped into the car, the engine was already running. They were off to the airport. Incredibly, the police agreed to help and escort them. It was almost an international mission.
The flight was perfect, but on the way from Düsseldorf to Bochum heavy traffic made the journey very tense. Kick-off was getting closer, and when the car came to a complete halt a few kilometres from the Ruhrstadion, Lerby jumped out and ran. He couldn't bear the thought that his unprecedented effort could be in vain.
Bayern coach Udo Lattek didn't have a clue where the Dane was, though – and put him in the squad as a substitute. When Lerby finally made it just in time, he was immensely disappointed, but a rest in the first half was probably quite helpful – especially as Bochum managed to take the game into extra-time. It ended 1-1 after 120 minutes, and according to the DFB-Pokal rules in those days there were no penalties, but rather a replay in Munich a month later.
Lerby scored in the replay as Bayern won 2-0 and went on to lift the trophy, thrashing VfB Stuttgart 5-2 in the final, in what proved to be the midfielder's last game for the club. That was hardly the best way to thank Stuttgart for beating Werder Bremen on the final day of the Bundesliga season, allowing Bayern to leapfrog Otto Rehhagel's side to finish top on goal difference in the most dramatic of fashions.
So Lerby left Germany having won the double, maintaining an extraordinary record of success. He had departed Ajax in 1983 as a double winner, and won a treble in his first season at PSV Eindhoven in 1987-88, adding the European Cup to the Eredivisie and KNVB Beker trophies. In short, he was a winner, and that was the main reason why both Piontek and Hoeneß were determined to have him in their teams on the very same day. Lerby was one of a kind.
That mentality is mentioned by those who helped transform Denmark from anonymous minnows to one of the best teams in the world; loved and adored around the globe. The team that reached the semi-finals at Euro 84 and were at a certain point almost considered favourites to win the World Cup in 1986 played magnificent attacking football that was impossible not to enjoy. Michael Laudrup, Morten Olsen, Frank Arnesen and Jesper Olsen were born entertainers. Lerby wasn't elegant but rather forceful, and arguably even more influential.
"It is very important to have a guy like Søren in your team,” said the Ballon d'Or winner Allan Simonsen. “We liked to play skilful football, but winning is crucial, and Lerby always wanted to win. He was extremely angry when we didn't. He was a very good player too, bringing a lot of steel and energy into midfield."
Morten Olsen, the graceful Beckenbauer-style sweeper and captain, recalled, "Søren played right in front of me, and his job was to make the connection between defensive and attacking lines. He possessed a remarkable winning mentality, and was a true big-team player – tactically astute, technically impressive and very intelligent football-wise. He dictated the tempo of the game and influenced everyone around him. He only needed to look at other players – and they knew what they had to do".
Piontek said that "Lerby was an extremely good footballer with a very strong mentality. He was central to everything we did – a very important figure in midfield. His left foot was brilliant, his shots were very hard, and it was also easy to recognise him because he played with his socks down and without shin pads."
The reason behind that is unusual – Lerby's mother was short-sighted, and had difficulties in recognising players from the stands or on TV. To help her know where he was, Søren decided to stand out as the only player on the pitch with his socks down. He found shin pads uncomfortable anyway, even though it was dangerous not to wear them as he was more likely to suffer significant injuries following hard tackles. He didn't seem to care.
His mother might have been indirectly responsible for his unique appearance, but his character and determination was directly influenced by his father. Kaj Lerby used to be a dock worker and a tough-as-nails footballer for B 1903 in Copenhagen, who was frequently sent off but reasonably talented. He even took part in the inaugural Inter-Cities Fairs Cup as part of the Copenhagen XI that played a Barcelona XI in early 1956, and achieved a respectable 1-1 draw in Denmark after being thrashed 6-2 in the away leg.
Watching his father from the stands, Søren dreamed of playing like him, but didn't really consider a professional career in football. In fact, there was no professional football at all in Denmark in those days, and on joining Fremad Amager at the age of 16 Lerby worked as an apprentice in the printing business. He woke up at 5am every morning and had to ask the master for special permission to train with his team.
Fremad Amager were just the right first club for a person like Lerby. "The island of Amager is a part of Copenhagen, but is very different,” said the journalist Klaus Egelund. “This is a blue-collar district, and Fremad Amager are a working-class club. They are supported by local guys, and local guys play for it. They cherish hard work, and atmosphere at matches is rather special. During the seventies, when Fremad played in the second division, their matches started at 10.30am. Getting experience there was crucial for Lerby, who later represented core Danish values throughout his career.”
The future superstar made his first-division debut in August 1975, aged 17. He was so little known at the time that the hosts KB wrote the name of the lone substitute as "Jørgen Lerby" in the match programme. Injury to a real Jørgen – the striker Jørgen Simonsen – forced Lerby to enter the field after just 15 minutes, and he made a very strong impression, even though Fremad Amager were beaten 4-0. His partnership with the 19-year-old local boy Frank Arnesen in midfield looked promising, and the coach Arne Sørensen couldn’t help but notice.
Those were happy days for Fremad Amager fans. The team was involved in a relegation battle and only saved on the penultimate match day, but Lerby and Arnesen were running the show, and it was worth coming to the stadium just to watch them in action. "It was just amazing,” the Fremad Amager historian Dan Hammer said. “They played together for three months in the autumn of 1975, and we knew how fortunate we were to witness them. It was obvious that they would move to a much bigger club, and we just enjoyed them as long as we could.”
Yet even though the supporters were prepared for losing the pair, they were still surprised at the destination. St Pauli, of the German second division, made an offer that was seriously considered, but the eventual choice was stunning. Ajax scouts, who had followed Lerby and Arnesen closely, decided that the youngsters were ready to join the Amsterdammers immediately, and sealed the move in December, paying handsome sums of money to their parents. "Two fathers sold their sons for a million kroner," was the headline of Berlingske Tidende newspaper. They became professional footballers, and became the first Danes at Ajax since Tom Søndergaard who had a very short and unsuccessful experience at the club in 1969.
Top Ajax stars were amused by the two novices, especially when Arnesen and Lerby nonchalantly lit cigarettes after their first training session. The goalkeeper Heinz Stuy had to explain to them that smoking was not allowed in front of the coach. Overall, they didn't feel welcome, and senior players tried to make it more difficult for them. Ruud Krol, for example, forbade them to speak Danish in the dressing room.
It became even tougher for Lerby after Rinus Michels left the club in 1976. Having played a few times under the famous coach, the youngster felt he was moving in the right direction, but the new boss, the Croatian Tomislav Ivić, benched him more often than not, and a knee injury didn't help either. Arnesen was making faster progress, but Lerby felt stuck and frustrated. He even claimed in an interview to Danish press that there were few technically sound players in Eredivisie.
When his contract came to an end in the summer of 1977, another blow followed. The Ajax chairman Jaap van Praag invited both Danes into his office and announced that only Arnesen would get a raise. "Frank is a better player than you," he told Lerby, and that might have been the end of the adventure. Humiliated and angry, Lerby went home to Denmark and told his father that he was about to quit the Dutch giants. "I would rather play at home with my friends," he said. But Kaj Lerby was having none of it. He explained to his son that giving up at that stage was simply not an option. The opportunity was too good to throw away. "At first I complained to him, but he was right," Søren said.
His attitude changed completely, and his rise was unstoppable thereafter. He went to bed early instead of partying, changed his diet and became a true professional. Ivić was convinced, and Lerby proved his worth in the starting line-up. When Cor Broom took over as a coach in 1978, the big Dane grew into a true leader in midfield. His left-footed shots from any distance were feared, but even more dangerous was his ability to find space and steal into scoring positions. Not for nothing the Dutch nicknamed him De Schaduw, "the Shadow".
That is why his scoring record was so remarkable. In 1978-79, Lerby netted 21 goals in all competitions, as Ajax cruised to the championship title. The following season was even better, with the Dane crowned as the European Cup’s top scorer with 10 goals. Granted, the Amsterdammers thrashed HJK Helsinki and Omonia Nicosia in the first two rounds, and Lerby himself netted five times against the Cypriots at the Olympisch Stadion, but that was still quite a feat. It was hardly surprising, therefore, that the midfielder was the main star in the return leg of the semi-final against Nottingham Forest. Brian Clough's team won 2-0 in England, but Lerby wasn't ready to succumb without a fight. He was magnificent in Amsterdam, headed the only goal in the second half, and nearly took the game into extra-time.
The young Danes, who hadn’t been readily accepted in the beginning, gradually grew into true leaders. Arnesen was named the captain, and when he was sold to Valencia in 1981 Lerby naturally inherited his friend's armband. His vocal presence was always heard in the dressing room and on the pitch. "Søren was an absolute winner, with tremendous power and a magical left foot,” said Wim Kieft, his Ajax teammate. “He was a real leader and managed the vibe in the team. For us youngsters, he was an animal. He would yell at us at every opportunity."
In December 1981, Ajax fans celebrated the return of Johan Cruyff and Lerby felt that his unique position was under threat. It was unavoidable that a rivalry would develop between the two alpha males. At times, the veteran maestro would stop passing to Lerby during matches just to annoy him a little. However, even in those circumstances, the Dane was extremely highly respected – and he made his mark on the biggest occasion imaginable in Eredivisie as Ajax faced PSV in April 1982.
Ajax had started the season poorly but improved dramatically following Cruyff's arrival and were keen to take revenge on PSV for their 3-0 defeat in the autumn. The teams were level on points ahead of the huge clash and the winner seemed likely to lift the title. All eyes were naturally on the greatest star, but Cruyff was soon injured and had to be substituted at half-time with the game still goalless. That's when Lerby spoke louder than ever.
He scored the first goal with a phenomenal free-kick, sending a rocket into the top corner. Then he scored the second goal, with another free-kick, yet a totally different one – a curling shot that was almost impossible to stop – before running off to celebrate in wild fashion. It was as if he were sending a clear message that he could take care of everything even without Cruyff.
While the two stars learned to live in peace during 1982-83, both found a new rival from within – the new young coach Aad de Mos. Neither could stand him, and by the end of the season that naturally ended with a double triumph, both left. The management hinted that Cruyff had to retire – and he famously joined Feyenoord instead. As for Lerby, his destination was also controversial. Paul Breitner retired that summer and Bayern were looking for a direct replacement. Hoeneß only knew one player who could be even better than the legend. He was right, too.
"Lerby was the best transfer of my career," Hoeneß later said, and from the man who bought hundreds of players for the Bavarians that is quite a compliment. The Dane took his first season to settle in Germany, but was imperious during 1984-85. His best performance arguably came in the big clash against Bremen, who eventually became Bayern’s most significant rivals in the title race. Lerby scored a hat-trick in a 4-2 win, including a stunning free-kick from at least 35 yards. The distance was such that their opponents hadn't considered it necessary to build a wall.
Lerby shared midfield duties with the young Lothar Matthäus, who had been signed from Borussia Mönchengladbach in 1984, but he was still the most consistent and important performer. He played a leading role in winning the Bundesliga titles in 1985 and 1986, netting 19 goals during those two seasons. His friendship with Hoeneß became unbreakable, and Lerby was considered one of the league's greatest stars. During that period, he also achieved global recognition for his part in the Denmark national team.
Throughout Lerby’s time at Ajax, Denmark were still seen as minnows, even though the Piontek revolution had begun in 1979. Lerby had made his debut a few months previously, and his teammates immediately understood his quality. "Søren came in with a lot of energy, and proved himself from the beginning,” said Morten Olsen. “His mentality was important in turning us into a winning team.”
Most of the Danish players used to take football lightly – it was seen almost as a hobby in those days. But not Lerby, whose will to win knew no bounds. That could make him a difficult person to be around on the pitch, as Olsen recalled. "Søren never shut up,” he said. “He needed to talk in order to play better, and his opinions could be extremely harsh at times. He could easily shout to the coach that someone had to be substituted after just five minutes if a certain pass was misplaced. Piontek usually couldn't even hear him anyway, but players might get upset because of such advice. However, we got used to that and didn't take him seriously. The most important part was that we were all friends in the dressing room. It was a very tight squad. That was one of the secrets of our success".
Denmark failed to qualify for the 1982 World Cup despite beating the eventual winners Italy 3-1, but made history when qualifying for Euro 84, largely thanks to the all-important 1-0 win over England at Wembley. Lerby's fighting spirit was especially crucial that evening and he was irreplaceable during the tournament itself.
The Danish Dynamite sensation was born in France that summer. Piontek's team was entertaining and hugely popular with neutrals, even though Simonsen, their influential forward, was seriously injured in the opening fixture against the hosts. They thrashed Yugoslavia 5-0 and came back from two goals down to beat a much more experienced Belgium 3-2 in Strasbourg and qualify for the semi-finals. There, against the favourites Spain, Lerby was in the right place at the right time to capitalise on a poor save by Luis Arconada and put the Danes in front after just seven minutes. However, despite having the upper hand for most of the game, they conceded an equaliser and eventually lost on penalties.
Nobody took them lightly anymore. Quite the contrary – the Danes were feared, and their easy stroll through the 1986 World Cup qualifiers was expected. They had become a true force, and the 4-2 win against the Soviet Union in Copenhagen was said by some to be one of the best ever spectacles of attacking football. Piontek's troops arrived in Mexico as dark horses to win the trophy and their group-stage performances were stunning.
The 6-1 win over Uruguay was helped by an early red card for the South Americans, but Denmark were still breathtaking and Lerby's contribution was immense. De Schaduw stole into the penalty area to score from Preben Elkjær's cross in the first half, and had a hand in three goals after the break. The thrashing followed a 1-0 win over Scotland as the Danes made certain of progressing from Group E before the last fixture against West Germany.
It may have been a dead rubber but Denmark still dearly wanted to beat the West Germans and maintain their momentum. Lerby was the only Bundesliga representative in Piontek's squad, and that made him the best interviewee for the German press ahead of the big game. Blunt as ever, the midfielder told Der Spiegel: "We could probably only use two players from Franz Beckenbauer's squad – the goalkeeper Harald Schumacher and the striker Rudi Völler." Those were hardly diplomatic words – not only because they could be seen as insulting towards his Bayern teammates, and most importantly Matthäus, but also as they might be considered disrespectful towards Denmarks's own goalkeepers, Troels Rasmussen and Lars Høgh.
As it turned out, Høgh had a magnificent game against the Germans, making at least three world-class saves and keeping a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory. But Lerby had no regrets and he was never subtle with his teammates. He even ran 40m to the other side of the pitch to deliver a ferocious dressing-down to Sivebæk for passing the ball back to his keeper. That wasn't acceptable as far as the star was concerned, even though the Danes were on their way to a convincing win.
One can only imagine what Lerby said in the dressing room after the team fell apart and lost 5-1 to Spain in the last-16 fixture in Querétaro, despite taking the lead and playing magnificently in the first half. It was a cruel way to miss out on the chance of a lifetime. Lerby later stated that it was the biggest disappointment of his career, but he was always capable of recovering from such events quickly enough. A new adventure was just around the corner.
Lerby’s ties with Hoeneß were still strong, but he accepted an offer from Ștefan Kovács to join him at Monaco. The former Ajax coach promised to build the team around the Dane and it seemed to him an interesting project. It didn't work out as expected. The Monegasques only finished fifth, Kovács left in the summer of 1987 to be replaced by a young Arsène Wenger, and Lerby didn't enjoy the atmosphere at the club. "Søren was complaining that fans just came to the stadium to drink champagne there,” Morten Olsen said. “There was no real support, and he couldn't play football that way. He definitely needed a different club.”
The choice of that club was surprising as Lerby moved to PSV Eindhoven. Ajax fans were stunned and could hardly believe that their ex-captain had joined the group of other former Amsterdammers who betrayed them. Luring iconic Ajax stars was at the very core of PSV's strategy at that time. In 1985, they signed Arnesen from Anderlecht and won the championship. In 1986, they pinched Ronald Koeman directly from Ajax and won another title. Then, after selling Ruud Gullit to AC Milan in 1987, they added Kieft from Torino – and Lerby, the most devastating blow of them all.
With the 41-year-old Guus Hiddink in his first full season as coach, Boeren won the treble. Lerby, dominant in a more defensive role than usual, was much less prolific, but still scored the most important goal.
It was destined to happen on his first return to Amsterdam, where the Ajax crowd greeted the visitors by throwing countless objects onto the pitch and delaying kick-off. It was a tense affair, and Lerby settled it by scoring the only goal. Just as he used to in Ajax shirt, the Dane advanced unmarked into the penalty area and fired an unstoppable shot with his left foot. He celebrated wildly, too. Six years after defeating PSV to win the title for Ajax, he downed Ajax to win the title for PSV on the very same pitch.
Lerby then proceeded to score yet another winner, netting in the KNVB Beker final against Roda. The favourites fell behind twice, only for the Belgian right-back Eric Gerets to save them with a rare brace. Then, at the beginning of extra-time, Lerby found himself untended in the penalty area and fired in first time with his right foot.
The icing on the cake was the unexpected European Cup triumph. When Lerby first moved to the Netherlands in 1975, his dream was to lift the most important club trophy – as Ajax had done three times in a row at the beginning of that decade. He didn't achieve that feat in Amsterdam, but he was able to do it with PSV. With the injured Arnesen missing from the final against Benfica in Stuttgart, Lerby was the undisputed leader in midfield and scored in the penalty shoot-out after a goalless 120 minutes. This time, unlike at Euro 84, luck was on his side.
In 1989, PSV finished top again, and that was the last addition to Lerby’s remarkable list – his career ended with nine leagues titles, five domestic cups and that European Cup too. His final season was largely disappointing and the midfielder was forced to miss a number of games with injury. "I had too much pain in my aching knees and almost played on one leg that season," Lerby said. He hung up his boots at the age of 32.
Hoeneß respected his friend so much that he chose Lerby to replace Jupp Heynckes as Bayern coach in October 1991, despite him having no coaching experience. The Bavarians assumed that his great footballing brain would be perfect for the new role, but they were wrong. The Dane's short spell at the club was disastrous and he left in March 1992 after losing to B 1903, the club of his father – a strange way to close the circle.
The fiasco convinced Lerby that coaching was not for him, and he became an agent instead. The new career brought him success and plenty of controversy, but that is a script for another feature.