The Brief Glory of Ronnie Ekelund
The Danish forward who became Matt le Tissier’s favourite teammate
The passenger tells the taxi driver about his work advising Southampton captain Pierre-Emile Højbjerg. As a Saints fan, the driver is keen to talk further about football. Later in the conversation, the passenger tells him who he used to play football with.
“Shit! Ronnie Ekelund?” shouts the driver.
The passenger nods.
His name is Kim Boye, a former Brøndby player. By the end of the journey, Boye has let the driver use his phone to call Ekelund. When the voicemail kicks in, the driver expresses his gratitude.
Ronnie Ekelund’s seven months with Southampton ended in 1995. Matt Le Tissier remembers that time well – it was the season he scored 30 goals. During his 16 years at Southampton he formed many attacking partnerships. He had a great understanding with Rod Wallace, as Alan Shearer’s decoy runs through the middle created the space for each of them to cut inside and shoot at goal. But when asked whom he enjoyed playing alongside most, he will say Ronnie Ekelund.
The two first met in training during Southampton’s pre-season tour to the Netherlands in August 1994. All Le Tissier knew about the new recruit was that he was a Barcelona player, “So he must be good,” he thought. Then he saw the Dane play.
“I knew right away,” said Le Tissier. “He just glided around the pitch.”
The copy boy at the Southern Daily Echo misheard Ekelund’s name over the telephone, so the newspaper introduced him to Saints fans as Johnny Eklund. It didn’t matter, before long they would know his name all too well.
Southampton arrived in the Netherlands to prepare for the 1994-95 season with problems. Alan Ball had replaced Ian Branfoot as manager at the start of the year with the club staring relegation in the face. Finishing the season a point above the relegation zone was largely down to Le Tissier, who was responsible for 69% of their goals. His 25 goals and nine assists remains a Premier League record over the course of one season. Ball needed more fire power.
Earlier in pre-season, the Italian striker Dino Capocchiano scored Southampton’s consolation goal in a 2-1 defeat against Linfield. His fellow trialist, the Finnish centre forward Tommy Paavola needed four stitches in his foot. Alan Ball decided not to buy either of them. He doubted how quickly they could adapt to the pace of Premier League. He needed instant impact and at a good price.
The board said if he wanted to buy then he would have to sell first. Despite pocketing two million for Tim Flowers, the club had announced an annual loss of £1.1million. This was largely due to having paid out £3.6m in transfer and signing on fees, including compensation for the sacked manager Ian Branfoot and paying off the contracts of Terry Hurlock and Kerry Dixon.
Meanwhile, other Premier League clubs were spending big. Tottenham splurged £3.5m on Gigi Popescu. Ball was concerned. “Clubs are paying out millions,” he said. “Not to win things, but to survive.” Southampton weren’t in the market for marquee signings. Many of their buys were modest. Frankie Bennett cost £10,000 from Halesowen. With the Premier League being reduced to 20 teams, the 1994-95 season would see four rather than three teams relegated. Survival would be more difficult than ever.
By chance, Southampton shared accommodation in the Netherlands with Barcelona. The Catalans didn’t normally like sharing hotels with other teams. In the late 1970s, Ball’s Vancouver Whitecaps had played against a Los Angeles Aztecs team featuring the Barcelona manager Johan Cruyff. The two had become friends. When Cruyff was alerted about the double booking, he said, “Southampton? With Alan Ball? That will be fine.” Some of the Southampton squad looked on open-mouthed one evening as the Dutchman joined Ball for dinner. The two spoke of old times. Ball shared his problem getting an attacking player. Cruyff listened.
Barcelona bought Ekelund from Brøndby on the strength of his performances for Denmark’s Under-21s at the 1992 Olympics. Michael Laudrup was his hero; now the two were teammates. Having impressed for the reserve team he made a breakthrough into the first XI in the Supercopa.
Ivan Zamorano had put Real Madrid 2-1 up with half an hour left at the Bernabéu when Laudrup was replaced by Ekelund. The game was frenetic. Ekelund set up Romário, who uncharacteristically blasted over, before Madrid got a third goal late on to win the game. There were further cameo appearances in draws at Betis and Santander, but first-team opportunities were fleeting.
If it wasn’t enough competing for a place in a team featuring half the Spain side, Ekelund was playing during the days of three foreigner rule in European club competition. Not only did Barcelona have Laudrup, they had Romário, Hristo Stoichkov and Ronald Koeman. Laudrup leaving for Real Madrid in 1994 provided no chink of light, as he was replaced by the Romanian playmaker Gheorghe Hagi, who’d been brilliant during the summer’s World Cup.
Ekelund was 22. Having made his Brøndby debut aged 15 he’d already been playing professional football for seven years. His dream remained the same, to play for Denmark. He knew he could not do that while sitting on the substitute’s bench.
Cruyff also knew this. He sent a member of his staff to ask Ekelund if he wanted to train with Southampton. He knew of them from the Premier League and they were in town, so why not, he thought. Later that night, he had a knock on his hotel room door. It was Cruyff. “Go show them what you’ve got,” he told the youngster.
Ekelund and Le Tissier’s first game together was against the Dutch part-timers Nuenen. In the final minute, Le Tissier cut the ball back for Ekelund to score Southampton’s sixth. His desire to get into the box and make things happen made him an instant hit with the two dozen Saints fans who’d made the journey to the continent. Alan Ball believed finding Ekelund was fate. “We could have gone anywhere on tour at any time, but we chose Holland and Barcelona were there at the same time.” Ekelund was available on loan. Finding him was one thing, affording him was another.
Southampton didn’t have the half a million pounds to pay for his loan up front. The Director of Football Lawrie McMenemy worked the phones to cut a deal on hire purchase. Saints would pay for him monthly and have first refusal to buy him outright for a pre-arranged fee. McMenemy joked that the signing was more complicated than the deal he negotiated to get the European Player of the Year Kevin Keegan to the Dell 14 years earlier.
Ekelund arrived in Southampton in early September. He rocked a Harris Tweed sports jacket over a roll neck sweater. It made him look like Steve McQueen in Bullet. Alan Ball knew his quality. So did Matthew Le Tissier. Within weeks, Southampton fans would know, too.
It was an inconspicuous start at Highfield Road for Southampton. Within two minutes, Dion Dublin had lobbed Bruce Grobbelaar to give Coventry City the lead. That was as good as it got for the hosts. Half an hour later Iain Dowie equalised. In the second half, Ekelund slalomed past three City defenders to serve the ball up on a silver platter for Dowie to give Southampton the lead. It was a taste of what was to come.
Jim Magilton played alongside Ekelund that day. More than 600 career appearances have done nothing to dim his memory. “I remember playing with Ronnie like it was yesterday,” said Magilton. “He was an outstanding player. My job was to get the ball to him and Matt in the attacking areas of the pitch as soon as possible.”
And so it proved. With ten minutes left, Ekelund ran into the opposition half with the ball. What followed was in more keeping with a scene from the Matrix than a fixture between Coventry City and Southampton. Ekelund exchanged two passes with Magilton, hell bent on getting into the penalty area. On receipt of the second, he had reached the edge of his destination, having outrun and out-thought the spine of the opposition. Choosing to ignore the space available ahead of him, he leathered the ball low past Steve Ogrizovic. Southampton fans were smitten. They knew they were having a good day when a section of the home supporters began chanting at them, “Where were you when you were shit?”
For the Southampton fan Richard Byres, the answer was watching his team under Ian Branfoot. “At the time it seemed like we had turned into world beaters, Le Tissier and Ekelund tore them to pieces,” he said. “Afterwards, a Coventry fan told me he was so taken with our play he was willing us on.”
Ekelund scored in the following two games. First, a diving header against Ipswich Town, after Le Tissier’s long-range volley had struck both crossbar and post. The duo combined again the following Saturday against Everton. By the time they had seen Le Tissier’s return pass it was too late, Ekelund had breached their defence and stroked a right footer past Neville Southall. “When I was playing I could see angles and passes others couldn’t,” said Le Tissier. “So could Ronnie.”
Ekelund was equally complementary about his new teammate. “Technically Matt was as good as anyone at Barcelona,” he said.
The pair had similar laid-back mentalities off the field. For Le Tissier, a certain amount of pre-match nerves was healthy, it heightened the senses; but the testosterone levels in the Southampton dressing room as it got closer to kick-off were too high for his liking. By ten to three on a Saturday afternoon, Francis Benali would be shouting and pumping his fists. Le Tissier preferred the quiet of the medical room.
Magilton saw an agreeable disposition in Ekelund. “He was what I would call low maintenance, high output,” he said. “Although his dress sense was outrageous. He’d arrive wearing a cravat and he got dog’s abuse for it, but he didn’t bat an eyelid.”
In November, Ekelund showed similar composure at Maine Road as Southampton shared six goals with Manchester City. Once again, his partnership with Le Tissier was operating on some higher frequency, with the Englishman acting as the quarterback on two occasions to find the killer pass for Ekelund to score. After his second goal he ran towards the away fans and bowed. Ekelund saw his future. “Southampton wanted to sign me and I wanted to sign for them,” he said.
His performances were rewarded with a place in Denmark’s squad. Although an unused substitute for the 3-0 defeat in Spain, the call-up showed how far he’d come. Over the years, Southampton had had many heroes. In the end, they all tended to leave to pursue their own dreams. The club showed Ekelund he could fulfil his while at Saints.
For the rest of the year he continued starting games, Ekelund just didn’t finish them. Speed of thought guided him into the right place at the right time, but pain in his back had begun hampering his movement to get there. He returned to Denmark to see the first of many specialists. On his return in March, he played the first half for the reserves at Kenilworth Road, followed by an hour against Bristol Rovers.
Southampton’s doctors recommended he go under the knife. Barcelona instead flew Ekelund to Catalonia to see a specialist. “I saw seven in total,” said Ekelund. “They all advised against surgery.”
At one stage, McMenemy had them all on a conference call to try and convince them to change their mind. They remained adamant he have manipulative massage, not surgery. “Without the operation he will never be 100% fit,” said McMenemy.
In mid-March, Ekelund came on against West Ham for the final 20 minutes. It was to be his last game for the club. They didn’t believe he’d pass the medical necessary to get him insured, so reluctantly, McMenemy told Barcelona that Southampton would not be taking up their option to buy him.
The positivity gained from finishing the season above Arsenal and Chelsea in tenth placedrew any attention away from Ekelund’s departure. Le Tissier had lost his favourite teammate. His favourite manager was soon to follow.
During the summer, Manchester City enquired about Alan Ball. Southampton granted them permission to talk to him, which upset Ball. He reacted by leaving to become City manager. Ekelund went with him on loan. He started in defeats to Blackburn and Tottenham. Some fans began to question what he was bringing to the team, others moaned about his fitness. Ekelund felt better, but needed a run of games to return to full fitness. He didn’t get it and City were relegated.
Ball resigned three games into following season. By then, Ron Atkinson took Ekelund on loan at Coventry. By November, Atkinson was replaced by Gordon Strachan, who bought Eoin Jess from Aberdeen, ending any future Ekelund had at the club. Not that life in Coventry was a waste of time. It was there he met his future wife, Claire.
He went back to Denmark with Odense on permanent deal, playing regularly over course of the next two seasons. Ekelund was still restless. “I always felt I could play at a higher level,” he said. “I just needed a club to look beyond the injuries I’d had in the past.”
In 1999, he had a trial with Wolves, but the club were waiting to sell Robbie Keane before they bought in any new faces. By this time, former England midfielder Trevor Steven was his agent. He got Ekelund a trial with Everton.
The club already had Don Hutchinson and Nick Barmby who could play in the number 10 role; still, Walter Smith was prepared to have a look at Ekelund, who cannot remember playing any better during a trial. “I was pulling rabbits out of hats,” he said. And so it proved. In a July friendly against Tranmere Rovers he scored by chipping the keeper from outside the box.
In early August, Everton were in discussions with Ekelund about a contract. It was everything he had hoped for. Life was good at home, too. His partner Claire was six months pregnant with twin boys. The dream soon became a nightmare.
Everton had long running debts. Walter Smith understood the gravity of the situation when he learned his wife had known about the previous year’s £7m sale of Duncan Ferguson to Newcastle United before he did. The club remained £18m in the red. Two weeks after throwing Ekelund a lifeline, Everton decided against signing him.
Once again, he faced an uncertain future. Then there was a serious problem with Claire’s pregnancy.Neither child survived.
Ekelund kept going; he wanted to repay the support Claire had given him. There was another opportunity to try out with Birmingham City. It proved memorable, for the wrong reasons. “I couldn’t kick a balloon on a string,” he said. “It was terrible.” Clearly, Ekelund wasn’t ready to go back to playing football.
He spent the 1999-2000 season helping Toulouse win promotion to Ligue One. This was followed by a brief spell at Walsall. Ekelund was fast approaching 30 and knew his career was coming to an end. He didn’t hesitate when an opportunity arose in Major League Soccer with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Alongside Landon Donovan, he was influential in the club’s two MLS cups wins, scoring a memorable free-kick against the Chicago Fire in the 2003 final. This success doesn’t stop Ekelund from being blunt when it comes to assessing his career: “I could have and should have done more,” he said.
Today, Ekelund and his wife run Bebe au Lait and Puj, two successful baby product businesses in California, where they live with their three daughters. His eldest is a promising footballer. Sometimes he is keen to advise her on certain aspects of the game. She will smile, and say, “I’m ok, Dad.”
“But, honey,” Ekelund will reply. “I really think I can help you.”
“I’m good, Dad,” says his daughter.
Ekelund’s home is no shrine to his footballing past, so to his daughter Ekelund is very much her father, not a former professional footballer whom it might be worth talking to about the finer points of the game.
It’s a different story 5,500 miles away in Southampton.
Mention his name there and the eyes of those who saw him play will light up at the memory of a player they continue to rate as one of their all-time favourites. For Ekelund, his Southampton days are something he will always remember. For the club’s fans, it’s a time they’ll never forget.