Sid runs that Proper Football account on Twitter. Follow him at @sid_lambert for an onslaught of football nostalgia.
The dressing room is silent, save for the familiar hum of last-minute preparation. The noise of tape being stretch, studs tapping on concrete. Only this time it’s different. The air is thick with a tension you’ve not witnessed before.
You’ve given them their instructions. They know the plan. They’ve done it for you for the last two seasons. This rag-tag group of bargain buys, veterans, and wonderkids has somehow gelled together to become the best team in the country.
They’ve overcome the odds at Old Trafford. Hammered the hosts at Highbury. And conquered the Kop End with their fearless flowing football.
But you’ve never seen them like this. For the first time, you wonder if they’ve got it in them. If the occasion is too much.
Outside, the din of a restless Camp Nou grows louder. You’re 90 minutes away from reaching the Champions League Final. A precious single-goal victory from the first leg means you only need a 0–0 to go through. Sweet Jesus, that’s a lot harder than it sounds.
Figo, Kluivert, Rivaldo. This is the best attacking line-up on the planet. They were all smiles during the warm-up. They nodded respectfully in your lads’ direction, like the lions might wink at Christians as they were trotted past the cages into the Roman arena. Then they returned to their repertoire of flicks and tricks, much to the amusement of the baying crowd, ready for the mauling to begin...
Your team has been written off before the whistle sounds. The first leg was a fluke. Your luck runs out tonight—at least that’s what the papers say. There is laughter and joviality in the stands. There is no possibility of defeat. They are here to be entertained. They are here to witness the slaughter.
You can see the boys are rattled.
The studs tap frantically on the floor. Shin pads are adjusted, then readjusted. Waistbands tied. Vaseline is applied furiously into every square centimetre of flesh.
You don’t know what else to say. At moments like this, you look to your captain. As do your players. Eyes flit nervously in his direction. What is he doing? Normally he’s waiting by the door for the bell to sound so he can march down the tunnel, thumping his chest and proudly bearing the crest of his chosen tribe.
Tonight he is on bended knee. Eyes closed, he says a silent prayer.
Do something, Tommy Svindal. They need you.
Almost as if he heard your plea, Tommy stands tall. “I have spoken to Odin,” he says in the broad Norse accent that has stayed with him throughout his years in England.
“Have no fear in your hearts, boys. He awaits us all in Valhalla. I have heard the voices of the Gods. And they are sending you all this message.”
“What is it, Tommy lad?” you ask nervously.
He stares at you intently and then switches his attention to the apprehensive gazes around the room. A murderous smile adorns his face. He spreads his arms wide and inhales a breath so deep and primal it could have originated in the Earth’s core.
“LET’S GET INTO THESE CUUUUUUUUUUUNTS!” he roars.
Back in 1997, English football clubs were still trying their luck in foreign markets, often with mixed results. For every Bergkamp, there was a Boogers. For every Zola, a Silenzi. Scouting was inconsistent at best. Appalling decisions were made on the basis of ten minutes of grainy VHS footage.
Value for money was at a premium. It seemed your best bet on a worthwhile return of investment lay in Scandinavia. Sweden, Norway, and Denmark had performed admirably at major tournaments and, compared with the artistes of Serie A, you could pick up their hardworking artisans for little more than peanuts and a four-pack of Kronenbourg.
That was certainly the case with Tommy Svindal Larsen. In Championship Manager 97/98 the Norwegian was plying his trade with minnows Stabæck in the domestic league. He was a classic blood-and-guts midfielder. You could envisage him walking off after ninety minutes of sheer hell straight into the public house to devour a whole chicken, ale by the gallon.
Compared to the likes of Zidane, Beckham, and Verón, he was deeply unfashionable, and it seemed unthinkable that he could ever mix in their company. But my goodness, he could. From the first game, it was clear that Larsen was a legend in the making. Bone-crunching tackles, defence-splitting passes, lung-busting sprints from box to box. Tommy Svindal had it all.
Despite regularly hitting the hallowed 8.0 average, the game rarely bestowed the same public notoriety on the Norseman that it did on the sexier names. Still, he didn’t need accolades or adulation. Like a young cocker spaniel, all he needed was a ball, a muddy field and a pair of shins to aim at to keep him entertained.
In life, Larsen’s career didn’t quite hit the same dizzy heights as it did on the laptop, though twenty-four caps for his country was indication that the Championship Manager scouts weren’t too far from the mark. He ventured out of his home country only once, for a spell with FC Nurnberg, before returning to familiar fields with his hometown team – the wonderfully named Odd—who he captained until his retirement in 2011.
Twenty-three years as a professional. A lifetime of memories for those who managed him.
Thank you, Tommy. For the carnage and the Coca-Cola Cups. You earned your seat at Odin’s table.
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