Bringing colour to the Black Country

Phil Shaw meets Jan Sorensen, the Dane who wants to make Walsall great
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The Independent Online
As the remarkable becomes ever more routine in English football, it seems unexceptional for a dreadlocked Dutchman and a bespectacled Frenchman to be managing major clubs in the cosmopolitan capital. The advent of a chunky, chain-smoking Scandinavian at Walsall may take more getting used to.

If Jan Sorensen, who is into his second month at Bescot Stadium, was not quite a Ruud Gullit as a player, he certainly boasts a more impressive CV than Arsene Wenger. A playmaker in the mould of his fellow Dane Jan Molby, Sorensen was in the Club Bruges side which lost to Liverpool in the 1978 European Cup final.

Six years later, following Graeme Souness' departure to Sampdoria, Sorensen was close to taking his place at Anfield. There were also spells with Ajax (under Johan Cruyff) and Feyenoord, as well as numerous caps for the emerging Denmark side in the company of Allan Simonsen, Soren Lerby and Jesper Olsen.

Scepticism was nevertheless rife when Walsall, a middling Second Division outfit, unveiled Chris Nicholl's successor. It was not just that they had entrusted their fortunes to a foreigner with no grounding in the domestic game or in management. The word was that he was a timeshare salesman from Tamworth.

Sorensen, now 42, separates fact and fiction with a hearty laugh and in near-perfect English. He was indeed out of the game for eight years. "Then again Kevin Keegan had seven years away before going to Newcastle and I'm a bigger name than him in Europe," he says, tongue not obviously in cheek.

There is no attempt, either, to deny that he has been domiciled in the aforementioned town for five years, having married a Midlands girl he met while living in Portugal. That, he believes, was Walsall's good fortune rather than something to apologise for.

Yet the timeshare bit is, he suggests, somewhat fanciful. "After I stopped playing I lived in the Algarve, where there's not much to do except get drunk in a bar, play golf or try to earn some money. I sold real estate for a major British property company, though for the past few years I was European marketing manager for a tenpin bowling company."

How did he make the leap from that to preparing to kick off at the FA Cup semi-finalists, Chesterfield, today? "The football kept coming back to me. I watched dozens of matches last season at all levels. So when this job came up I wrote to the chairman [Jeff Bonser]. I asked what he had to lose by speaking to me for an hour.

"He invited me for a chat and it went on for about five hours. They checked me out in a way that probably no other candidate was, but I was happy with that because it meant their decision was the right one. They seemed to like my ideas, plus the fact that I've got contacts on the Continent, which is important now.

"People say Walsall are taking a risk, but I say I was the safest bet. What makes more sense: to take on someone who's been sacked a few times, or someone that's proved himself at everything he's done?"

Walsall's set-up was already surprisingly European. The general manager, Paul Taylor, takes care of the scouting system, transfer negotiations and players' contracts. Sorensen and Derek Mountfield, whom he re-signed as player-coach weeks after Nicholl released him, are free to concentrate on the team.

Sorensen soon demonstrated a realistic streak in his revolutionary spirit, bringing the squad back in after lunch instead of letting them practise their putting or go shopping. "I've tried to get across to them that it's better to have a shit month now and be able to cruise through the season than to be constantly trying to catch up on fitness levels."

Before beginning ball work in earnest, Sorensen put his players through two weeks of rigorous running. He is adamant that stamina and discipline are prerequisites for playing the one-touch, attacking style in which he is steeped.

"You can't expect Second Division players to perform like Premiership stars. But you can still aspire to do it and I have a feeling my players fancy going for it. The British have always been good at the physical side but less so the tactical and the technical, though it's definitely improved in the last few years."

Crewe, under Dario Gradi, won promotion from Walsall's level adhering to what Sorensen hails as pure football values. However, it was Bury, "a very powerful side", who took the title. Although that fact tempers his idealism, mention of top scorer Kyle Lightbourne's pounds 500,000 switch to Coventry provokes an example of the positive thinking that led Walsall to choose him ahead of Willie Donachie, Gordon Cowans and Frank Stapleton.

"Kyle did brilliantly last season, but other sides were able to say: `Stop him and we'll probably stop Walsall scoring.' That made us easier to defend against. I want us to score goals from all over the team."

Sounds not unlike Total Football, as exemplified by Cruyff and Co. "You could say that," Sorensen says. "Put it this way, I won't complain if my right-back scores 15 this season."

In reality, he will be look more to a French striker - Basile Boli's brother, Roger - whose capture this week has fuelled his natural optimism. "I haven't promised my chairman we'll go up this season. Our budget isn't the biggest, to say the least, but I do intend to do it within my two- year contract.

"Why not? There's 300,000 people in Walsall, so we'd pack the place out if Wolves, West Brom and Stoke were coming here in the First Division. And I don't plan to leave after that because the club would give me such a damn good contract that I'd have to stay!"

The hype and hopes of August often turn to sawdust by September, but Sorensen is sure he will not buckle under the legendary pressure of his new profession. "I thrive on stress," he asserts. "It can be a positive thing, to get the adrenalin going. It was fun doing a million-pound deal in the commercial world, but I'd sooner win 3-0."

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