Cult heroes: The Great Dane who adored life as a Canary
David Nielsen was an instant hit at Norwich City – Chris Lakey spoke to the Dane about life as a Canary... and beyond
David Nielsen, like the rest of the world, is coming to terms with the effects of coronavirus on his daily life.
Instead of eye-to-eye coaching with his players at Danish Superliga aside AGF Aarhus, Nielsen is working at distance. He understands, but says football will have a big part to play in the worldwide rehabilitation process, whenever that may be.
“This is really frightening and it is a good wake-up call for everybody to just chill out a bit and treat everything better. We’re all stuck in or ways of wanting to get better and better and wanting more and more, but this is just humbling. You know, in the long run some good might come out of this, even if it is really hurting now.
“Football has an important part in getting back to normal when this is over. The best way for normal to return is to go and watch your favourite team play football and go and win the game.”
It’s a more philosophical David Nielsen than the one who has had something of a roller-coaster career, the one I once interviewed as he waited outside a burger van at The Hawthorns.
Nielsen joined City on loan from Wimbledon in December, 2001 and was an instant success, with six goals in his first six games (five in five as a loan player). It was a stunning introduction to First Division football. Nielsen built an instant rapport – he loved trying to gee them up. And they responded.
“I always loved the crowd. Even now I am in coaching I love the crowd. I always go and say hi to them before a game and give them a wave. They get me going and I get them going. I have a really good relationship with the crowd at most places I played at, and of course at Norwich it was such a big crowd that I fed off it.”
Nigel Worthington had the easiest decision when he turned the loan into a full-blown transfer, City paying Wimbledon £210,000.
He scored in his first game as a fully-fledged City player, in a 3-1 defeat at Manchester City, but the endured a blank run of 12 games.
True, he bagged a couple in the run in to the play-off spots, but he couldn’t match that initial burst.
So, first off, why Norwich?
“Nigel was the manager at the time and he convinced me it was the place to go. I felt really good going up there, visiting the club, I had a really good feeling about it and I went for it and, well, it is probably the best time I have had in my career as a football player – it is a fantastic club, fantastic city and everything about it was good. My wife and my son who was really young at that time, we really loved to be there.”
But what about that loss of scoring form?
“When I was a player, when I was on, I was really ON. But when I was off, I was OFF.
“I don’t think anything changed. I don’t know. Maybe. I need high excitement. That is why I am also in coaching now. I needed to be pushed as a player. I have no problem being honest with that. That is why I changed clubs so many times. But I didn’t like it myself. I didn’t like it when I got complacent. I knew that was something that could happen with me and when it did happen i often sought away from the situation.
“I came back and had a really good period leading up to the play-off final. That was a big credit to the coaches and another highlight of why I liked Norwich and why it was such a good place for me that I was actually able to come back and find a good spell of form and help the team perform when we had a play-off run.”
Nielsen finally left Carrow Road in August 2003, at his own request. It’s not clear why, although there may be some clues when you look at what was ahead: gambling debts, deliberately losing a game in Denmark, attacking a team-mate during training.
Given he now has a highly responsible managerial job, the next question seems obvious, but necessary: are you the same person nowadays? There’s the hint of a laugh in Nielsen’s reply.
“Not at all! I don’t think deep down I am. But the thing is, when you are young and playing football it is very easy to get carried away into things you shouldn’t get carried away into. And I think it served me well.
“I have seen the good and the bad of everything and it can help me now relating to the players and they can relate to me. I am not trying to be Mr Perfect or anything – we just need to go out and win football games.
“There are a lot of good things that have come from it, I have had a fantastic career. It could have been better, it could easily have been better had I been different in my head, but now I am in coaching and I have been for quite a while and I have had some great experiences and it is brilliant.
“I haver been fortunate to work with young players wherever I have been – I was in Norway before with Stromsgodset and I was fortunate to be coaching Martin Odegaard (now at Real Madrid) – I started playing him when he was 15 years old, I gave him his first start when I took over there and was his manager. I like young players – football is so serious now. If you lose it is a catastrophe and you get the fans and the media and everybody on your back, but I think you need a coach to say ‘just go and play football’ and that is where you develop them.”
“But the league here in Denmark is getting really good, and that also means our best players are ones the Premier League are looking to buy. The level here is very big in Denmark, it is a real top league, pretty similar to the Championship.”
So could there be a return to England as a manager or coach one day?
“England is a fantastic place, it is every coach’s dream. I know the country – but in coaching, you are just trying to make it to next week’s game. That is how I work, it’s pretty simple.
“If you start thinking about where you are going to go next week you could end up in a TV studio talking about the game you thought you were going to coach.”