Jan Molby: The Greatest Goal You Never Saw
THROUGHOUT the summer of 1984 a Graeme Souness-shaped hole lay gaping in the heart of what had been, up until that point, arguably the finest midfield in European club football.
Few doubted it would be tough to fill. Having provided both the force and the finesse that secured Liverpool’s progress to a fourth European Cup Final in Rome, Souness had responded in typical style to a hostile home crowd, and amidst the klaxons and the flares inspired his team to crowning glory on what was to prove his last curtain-call.
Like Keegan seven years before him, he had saved his best until last, destroying the finest the continent had to offer before heading to the continent to enjoy the finest it had to offer. And while he looked forward to stamping his authority all over the shins of his prospective opponents in Serie A, his erstwhile manager Joe Fagan reached for the chequebook and bent the ears of his scouts – and he too was looking to Europe.
At the time of Liverpool’s first Roman conquest, the key man Keegan was deemed nigh on indispensable. By the autumn of that year, he’d certainly been happily dispensed with in the minds of most, and inevitably so, given his replacement Kenny Dalglish rapidly established himself as the club’s finest player to date.
Souness’ successor was never to be quite so fortunate, though he undoubtedly had the potential to reach similarly lofty heights. A youngster from Kolding in Denmark, who had recently helped AFC Ajax to yet another Dutch title, had caught Fagan’s eye.
His name was Jan Molby, and by the 25th of August he had done more than enough in a ten-day trial to ensure a debut against Norwich in front of the Kop. Despite a tricky and trophy-free first season, he went on to do enough to make anyone wonder why it ever took more than one day for Liverpool to know they had a player.
In fairness, it’s doubtful it was ever the case that he had been intended to fill the void left in the summer of ’84. Or at least surely not single handedly. Souness, or ‘Champagne Charlie’ as he’d become known (for reasons pertaining to extra-curricular activities), possessed a rare combination of gifts.
For such finesse of touch to be allied to such rugged, some might say brutal, enforcement in the middle of the park; perhaps only Socrates could stand equal at the time - though it has to be said, the Brazilian was some mover. Not until the arrival of a precocious Steven Gerrard in 1998 would Anfield be treated again to the spectacle of such an accomplished performer.
Those gifts, however, might well be found in two men of contrasting talents. Roll on 1985, and enter Steve McMahon. It would be churlish to suggest that McMahon’s gifts extended no further than the patrolling and enforcement of the midfield areas, but as Bob Paisley noted (in his role as special advisor to Kenny Dalglish, by now installed as player-manager), “when Steve McMahon plays well, I always think that Liverpool will play well.”
Praise indeed, and it was certainly the case that McMahon’s presence enabled Molby’s talents to blossom. And what talents they were.
You may be familiar with the kind of survey of footballers’ views and opinions trotted out regularly for the benefit and delight of fans – the kind to be found formerly in the pages of Shoot! magazine, for example, but more commonly to be seen now on the pages of club websites or match-day programmes.
You know the kind of thing: what’s on your iPod? Who’s the worst dresser at the club? Who takes longest in front of the mirror? It may come as a surprise that during the Houllier regime, colleagues consistently rated Vladimir Smicer as the most technically gifted player in the squad throughout his Liverpool career. Those watching from the stands may have balked at the notion, though to be fair any player averaging roughly a goal every three games for the Czech Republic deserves respect from his peers.
But no fan or player (teammate or otherwise) could possibly have grumbled had Molby earned just such an accolade throughout the entirety of his playing career.
Read any routine summation of Molby’s abilities to date, and like as not you’ll stumble upon the following phrase: ‘his abilities - (list of) – more than made up for his lack of mobility’. Or something along those lines – you get the gist. Just a little unfair, I feel, but more on that later.
Ability alone does not a player make, but were he to be judged on that basis alone, only his contemporary Dalglish would surpass him. I can still recall how on a chilly November evening at Plough Lane in 1987, I stood, feet frozen to the bone, marveling at the skill the Dane displayed – in the pre-match warm-up.
Molby shared the bench with new arrival Ray Houghton that night, but unlike the newcomer would not succeed in breaking into the starting eleven during the halcyon days of that particular season. Instead he would have to make do with making us gasp as he limbered up.
Surrounded by new and audacious talents, including those of Barnes and Beardsley, Molby nonchalantly kept the ball - to use the old cliché – on a string. From wherever the ball came, it was received as if made from glue – it just stuck. Don’t let’s for a second suppose these audacious gifts served him only during the calm before the storm. To return to the strings metaphor, he pulled them all day long.
His vision placed him at the hub of most games. It was a vision that took in the entirety of the pitch, and the entirety of the pitch was generally within range of a passing range beyond compare at the time – little wonder Barcelona came calling, though to no avail.
There was a mystery at the heart of his game, and it was this: how did he make the time, and how did he make the space? There are great players who seem to play at a different pace, a calmer pace – whichever the era.
Most of us observing (and, let’s face it, most players opposing) are left scratching our heads. How do they do it? With Jan there seemed to be no answer. He certainly didn’t look the type to make the extra yard, and yet the game around him seemed to slow down when he was in possession.
You might think such a player would exasperate opposition fans, and generally that was true, but even they were lost in admiration at times. Speaking to an Everton fan recently, the subject of the Great Dane came up. As an Honorary (and that’s official) Scouser, Jan duly played his part in local folklore by routinely tormenting the neighbours. Did they hate him? Not a bit of it, they loved him – in fact, they loved him so much, they nearly signed him at one point.
When I asked why, my friend could only put down his pint and gaze into the middle distance, briefly at a loss for words. Finally came the reply, “he was just so, ….so ****ing good.” As for that old chestnut, that he lacked mobility - on account, presumably, of his weight, well not so.
He could shift up a gear, and not just when he was doing up to 90mph on the pavements of Liverpool city centre whilst under the influence. (At this point, let me make clear that this piece is intended simply as an appreciation of a remarkable player – those of us who remember Jan with any fondness will know the tale of his brief fall from grace, the six weeks he spent detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure, and the second chance he was given by His Majesty King Kenny. For more on that – well, you know where to look.)
No indeed, if you want to see the man shift up a gear, if you want to see him mobile, and if you want to see the best of his game in one swift, ruthless move, then head to YouTube, and ‘Jan Molby lost goal’ is what you want in that search box.
The provenance of what we see there is the subject of some debate; Granada’s TV technicians, on strike at the time, were not at Anfield to capture the goal – scored against Ron Atkinson’s Manchester United in a League Cup tie. The game was captured on a camera placed high on top of a gantry for the benefit of the police or United, and the tape remained in possession of Mr. Atkinson for many a year before Big Ron, in his largesse, saw fit to give it to Jan (surely its rightful owner) and thence it made its way to YouTube.
In the space of half a minute you’ll see the vision and power that made him, at times, unplayable. You’ll see him cover 65 yards and unleash a strike even the netting struggled to contain. Sadly the heights he hit during the 1985-86 season were to remain tantalisingly beyond his reach for the remainder of his time at the club. But that season was happily capped off with an FA Cup Final, and a performance of such authority at Wembley against Everton that the match might justifiably be renamed ‘the Molby Final.’
Involved in every goal, and the architect of two, he succeeded in engineering a comeback that had hardly looked likely for much of the game. Fluctuations in form were to dog him with increasing regularity, and the fluctuations in weight became more of a hindrance to fitness as time went on.
With each niggling injury - and they mounted up - fitness became ever harder to regain and maintain, and consequently injuries became more likely.
It was a vicious circle. Deployed occasionally at centre-half or even as sweeper, where he had the rare intelligence required in order to thrive in such a role, he continued to play a sporadic part in a side now slipping into near-terminal decline.
Easy, then, to see a career wasted, tempting to think of what might have been.
But pointless, too, especially when there are such highlights to enjoy. A contemporary of Molby’s, Sammy Lee, often played with affectionate praise ringing in his ears: “he’s fat, he’s round, he’s worth a million pounds – Sammy Lee.” It might have applied to Jan, too, though he had his lean years, but they’d have needed to add a zero to the price tag at least.
Jan Molby – priceless.
This first appeared in issue 12 of Well Red magazine.
|Last Updated ( Thursday, 19 July 2012 00:15 )|