Sometimes things just don’t work out for a player at a club and it is best for all concerned to part company and move on. However, when that happens and the player concerned goes on to become one of world football’s most explosive talents, it does beg the question of what could have been and whether more could have been done to iron out any problems.
This is just the scenario that affected 1.FC Köln in the late seventies and how they must be kicking themselves knowing what they now know about a player they let go- Preben Elkjaer-Larsen.
As a member of Denmark’s famous ‘Danish Dynamite’ side that lit up the 1980’s as part of the country’s golden generation alongside greats such as Michael Laudrup, Soren Lerby, Alan Simonsen, and Morten Olsen, Preben Elkjaer-Larsen was hot-property to say the least.
Back in 1977 though the 19-year-old was signed by Bundesliga giants 1FC Köln from Danish side Vanløse IF after just one season as a professional. Scouts at the Rhineland club had seen enough to believe that the youngster could be a great addition to their ranks. Having impressed during a U-19 international in Osnabruck, the Geisböcke beat VfB Stuttgart to his signature.
However, his time with Köln was to be horribly short and the history books show that he made just nine appearances and scored just the solitary goal. His exuberant nature and clashes with the club’s trainer Hennes Weisweiler have been cited as the reasons for his premature departure from the club and his subsequent move to Lokeren.
The effervescent young Dane struggled with the German dressing room and incurred the wrath of his trainer after a purported famed incident at a nightclub prior to an important league game. Cornered by Weisweiler with the accusation he had been seen late-night at a disco with a woman and a bottle of whiskey, Larsen responded by claiming it had actually been two women and a bottle of vodka!
He was duly offloaded to Belgian side Lokeren and the rest as they say is history. Despite being a rather lowly side, Elkjaer-Larsen made 190 appearances for the club scoring 98 goals. In 1984, at the age of 27, he earned himself a move to Italy’s Serie A with Verona and instantly installed himself as a club legend by leading them to their first Scudetto.
On the international front Denmark were just beginning to make their mark with Elkjaer a key component of German Sepp Piontek’s side. At Euro ’84 they were unlucky to exit at the semi-final stage, and by the time of the 1986 World Cup in Mexico were one of the tournament favourites. His amazing goalscoring exploits saw him emerge as one of world football’s foremost talents and would surely have left Köln wondering what could have been.
Despite the relationship with Weisweiler clearly being one of the prime reasons for his failure at Köln, the player holds no ill feelings from his time in the Bundesliga. Elkjaer-Larsen even cites Weisweiler as the best coach he has ever worked under.
That may have been the case, but letting the Dane slip through their fingers back in 1978 may have been one of the biggest regrets on behalf of Köln. Fishermen and anglers often regale their friends and families with the tale of ‘the one that got away’, but in the case of the Billy Goats, their story is a truth.