Thursday, 1 March 2012

Unsung Heroes #2 - Jesper Blomqvist

Jesper Blomqvist: The Understudy who performed on the Greatest Stage.

By Tom Pattison (Follow me on Twitter)

We’ve all heard the story of Manchester United facing a little known, exciting, young winger resulting in the fans and players imploring the club to bring him to Old Trafford. The origins of the Cristiano Ronaldo legend is oft told; yet few to my knowledge have drawn a comparison with a less heralded Swede who similarly played a part in our European success.

The setting was the NYA Ullevi Stadium in Gothenburg, where 36,000 Swedes witnessed a demolition of a hapless full back which left an indelible impression on all who saw it. The defender in question was actually an out of position centre back – Ferguson paying the price of selecting David May in a role in which he would never again appear. The tormentor was a slightly built, blonde starlet with long sleeves pulled down over his hands. A far cry from the bronzed, extrovert Portuguese yet the devastation inflicted on United was just as deadly.
"Where are my sleeves boss, I need sleeves!"

Unlike Cristiano however, Ferguson did not heed the call to bring him to Manchester. Back in the mid-90s the idea of stashing exciting young talent on the bench was blissfully absent and the form of Ryan Giggs meant the acquisition of an apparent replacement made little sense. Blomqvist did gain the move to a club at the European top table his talent deserved, but it was North Western Italy rather than the English equivalent. Things didn’t go great in Milan however; a season spent warming the bench was followed by a similarly dispiriting spell on loan at Parma. It is worth remembering that during these two seasons he was competing with the likes of Savicevic, Boban, Fiore and Stanic for an attacking midfield berth. So it was that two years after his sparkling audition, Blomqvist sealed a move to Old Trafford; albeit as an undoubted understudy to the Welsh wizard.

Understudy; to study or know a role so as to replace the regular performer. In today’s game such a role is unspoken. Rotation is the name of the game; every position is competed for and a series of systems are used meaning the concept of a ‘first eleven’ has been consumed by ‘the squad’. However back in 1998, the Manchester United midfield had an unchallenged hierarchy; even Nicky Butt was forced to accept a role as providing respite when Keane and Scholes required removing from the frontline at the behest of the manager or Football Association. This was no minor contribution – Butt made only four less appearances over the season than Scholes. In Blomqvist’s case, despite clearly being second in the pecking order, the need to nurse Giggs’ troublesome hamstrings meant the Swede made the same amount of Premier League starts that season as the leading man. For many players, this diminished status would rankle – but not for Blomqvist. Perhaps it was the chastening experience of being isolated in Italy, or simple satisfaction at being a part of something special, but the body language spoke of a player relishing life at the club. This ego-free attitude typified the collective team spirit that fuelled the team’s successful pursuit on three fronts.

Aside from his character as a man; what did Blomqvist the player provide? A solitary goal – providing the coup de grace in a 4-1 demolition at Goodison Park – reveals that he had little direct impact on the goals for column. However that is to miss the point; in the Premier League Giggs himself only troubled the scorers on three occasions. Blomqvist’s role was as a true understudy; his impact is to be measured in how effectively he replicated the contribution of the man he was standing in for. It is on this front that Blomqvist proved such an asset; he may well have lacked the searing pace of Giggs but his propensity to hug the touchline and offer balance to the side meant that the rhythm of those around him was not significantly disrupted by the absence of the number eleven. To use a cliché, in Blomqvist Ferguson possessed a ‘like for like’ alternative for Giggs and in a side so dependant on a finely tuned midfield unit this should not be undervalued.

Catch Jesper's one and only goal for United below:

The crowning glory of Blomqvist’s career came on the greatest stage. Suspensions ripped the heart out of the Manchester midfield. Ferguson had a pivotal decision to make – who would partner Nicky Butt in Camp Nou? The candidates were Beckham, Giggs, Sheringham (who had made such an impact at Wembley) or Johnsen. A selection of either of the former duo would displace a key figure in the double winning quartet. A selection of either of the latter pair would dramatically alter the character and shape of the midfield that had brought such success. In many ways, Ferguson’s decision to bring Beckham in from the flank was a demonstration of his faith in Blomqvist. Giggs suitability for a central role was dismissed on the grounds of his wastefulness in possession (sound familiar?) so Beckham was entrusted with the responsibility of retaining the ball against the technicians from Munich. Ironically, given his role as understudy, in the biggest match of the season it was the leading man who would switch flanks as Ferguson sought to pose the imperious Lizarazu an unexpected problem by using Giggs as an inverted winger. The alternative was Solskjaer in an untried right midfield berth or asking Blomqvist to perform on the right where he was palpably unsuited. Time and again during the season Blomqvist had demonstrated his reliability on the left flank and these auditions gave him the nod on closing night. He didn’t disappoint – arguably proving English champion’s brightest spark in midfield before being fatefully replaced by Sheringham as United went for broke.

From triumph came tragedy, as chronic knee problems meant Blomqvist’s only appearances for Manchester United over his final two years at the club came on MUTV (sadly I never had the pleasure of watching ‘Cooking with Jesper’). Such was his impact that Ferguson went the extra mile to persuade his mate at Everton to take a forlorn chance on resurrecting his career. It is perhaps fitting that his final contribution to Manchester United on the field was the ultimate display of what makes him an unsung hero; delivering exactly what was asked of him on the biggest night in the club’s history. His time at the club may have been all too brief, but he we always have a place in the hearts of many a Red. Thanks Jesper.

Catch the first in the series of Unsung Heroes here where the subject was Denis Irwin

1 comment:

  1. Lovely piece. Huge fan of Blomqvist - his humility was just what we needed that season.