Crown prince of Rangers

FOOTBALL: Most players dream of a move to Italy but Brian Laudrup tells Glenn Moore why he could not wait to leave
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Ibrox Stadium on Thursday: a daunting monument to ancient Glaswegian rivalries and modern Scottish ambition. At the entrance, two boys kick a football about until a steward warns them off; outside, supporters from all areas arrive to take photogra phs. Today is match day against Dundee United, when a ground steeped in triumph and tragedy will reverberate with passionate urging and fury.

Not the sort of place to come for a quiet life, you might think. Unless, that is, you are Brian Laudrup. He arrived here last summer to save his sanity, and it has paid off spectacularly. With three months of the season remaining, the Dane's coronation as Scotland's Player of the Year is as much a certainty as his club's seventh successive title.

At a time when the Scottish game is deep in self-contemplation, when English clubs are more likely to look across the Irish Sea for young talent, and most midfielders spend the game tackling or watching the ball punted over their heads, Laudrup has been outstanding.

Earlier in the week, a poll of Scottish supporters found that 68 per cent would pay to watch Laudrup. Mark Hateley, his Rangers' team-mate, was second with 39 per cent, and John Collins of Celtic in third on 30 per cent. No one else - not even Ally McCoist or Paul McStay - managed one in five.

The figures underline that in a city where you are either Rangers blue or Celtic green, Laudrup has partially transcended a bitter and deeply entrenched rivalry. He says of Celtic fans: "They come up and say: `Don't tell anybody, I'm a Celtic supporter, but I think you are a good player.' I have had no trouble."

This is in contrast to his time in Italy, when things became so bad he had to send his family home to Denmark for their own safety. This happened when he was at Fiorentina two seasons ago. Having been in second place going into the winter break, the clubsacked the manager and slumped so badly they were eventually relegated.

As demotion for the first time in 50 years loomed, supporters stoned the team coach and players were besieged in their homes. The German Stefan Effenberg had his house broken into, and Laudrup moved into a hotel. A few months later he moved again, this time to Milan on loan. He was their sixth foreign player - only three can play at any one time - and he says: "After two or three months, I recognised that it was not going to be my club."

Laudrup played eight league games, scoring one goal. At the end of the season he had offers from other Italian and Spanish clubs, but he "just wanted to go somewhere where there is not so much hysteria about the football. It came down to Britain or Germany, and I had already spent three years in Germany [with Bayer Uerdingen and Bayern Munich]."

It could have been Arsenal, but George Graham, their manager, refused to smash the club's pay structure, even though John Jensen, Laudrup's Danish team-mate, was apparently enlisted to help his cause. So it was Rangers.

A move from Serie A to the Scottish Premier League was greeted with incredulity in Denmark, but Laudrup was undeterred. "For me, it was very important to just get away from Italy. I had had two very bad years. I like the fans here. "When you are playing,the crowd is very alive and fanatical, but outside football you can live a normal life with your family and your kids, going to restuarants and so on. You could not do that in Italy. In Italy, you are 24 hours a professional football player, in Scotlandyou are 12 hours a football player and 12 hours a normal human being.

"This is the best move I have ever made. I have been able to enjoy football again and my family [he has two children] is very happy here as well. Scottish people are a lot like Danish people; the way they look at things, the humour - even," he adds with a smile, "the weather is a bit like it. I think that is why I settled quickly."

He has certainly done that. "When Laudrup arrived, everyone wondered what he was going to be like on a wet and wintry afternoon at Kilmarnock," a veteran observer of the Scottish game says. "Well, he played there on a muddy pitch in December, it was a terrible day and he was even better than usual."

English cynics will argue that given the one-sided state of Scottish football, and the paucity of native talent, Laudrup's pre-eminence is only to be expected. However, as if to emphasise his form and quality,Laudrup was crowned player of the tournament last month when Denmark won the Inter-Continental Cup in Saudi Arabia. He was involved in both goals as they defeated Argentina in the final of the competition, played between the six continental champions.

"It was typical Denmark," he says. "We came with a new team; new, young players. Most had not been training for two to three weeks because it is winter time. And we beat Argentina." Denmark were present as European champions, having won in Sweden in 1992when they were summoned as late replacements for Yugoslavia.

"That was like Hans Christian Andersen. Some of the players were on holiday - I was at Bayern recovering from a cruciate ligament injury - and we were phoned up and told to report to Copenhagen. Three weeks later we were the European champions."

They missed out on the 1994 World Cup, knocked out by a late Spanish goal in qualifying, and although they trail Spain again in Group Two of the European Championship campaign, they should still qualify. Not involved in Sweden, but now back in the fold as captain, is Brian's elder brother, Michael, who is often regarded as Denmark's best-ever player. Michael, six years older than Brian, was first capped at 18. Their father, Finn, also an international, is the guiding force behind Brondby's rise from parks football to Danish champions. It was quite a heritage for the young Brian to grow up in, and not the easiest one to deal with.

"It was a disadvantage growing up as his younger brother," Brian says. "I could not just play football as a boy, because I was always recognised. When I was only seven or eight, people said: `Let's look at him, let's watch him to see if he is as good as his brother and father'. Sometimes, when I did not play so well, they said: `Oh, he is going to be nothing'. At others they said: `Oh, he is going to be the best one.'

"It is very hard when you only want to enjoy football and be a boy. I think I grew up faster than other kids, learning to make interviews with television and so on. I think I have now managed to became an individual player, not `son of', or `brother of'.Now I have my own name.

"I remember when I was about 14. I thought: `I just want to quit and start playing chess or something.' I said to my mother and father: `I can't stand it any more, the expectations are too high. I can't enjoy football'. "They said to me: `You have to do whatever you want to, you just have to enjoy what you do, whether it is football, badminton, tennis or whatever'. A week after, I just could not leave the ball and I got back on the track. I never had any problems again. It is that sort of age when you start to think. Perhaps some parents would have said: `You must play football,' but football is not everything in life."

Michael is now at Real Madrid, and with the age gap made less relevant by shared experiences as footballers and family men, he is closer to Brian than ever. Madrid are currently top of the Spanish league, and Brian dreams of meeting him next year in the Champions' League at Ibrox.

"That was quite a move. Like me going from Rangers to Celtic," Brian said of Michael's switch. "I played in the Milan derby last year, which was special, but this is more; the rivalry between Protestant and Catholic means it goes a lot deeper."

To many, the Glasgow derbies show Scottish football at its worst; a series of tackles punctuated by the occasional pass. "Rangers try to build the play - it is not always possible in an Old Firm game, or on a narrow pitch. But it is the way forward. To be successful in Europe, you cannot just kick the ball in the air and play kick-and-rush, it just does not work any more.

"In England, you now see clubs like Manchester United trying to play a bit. British clubs still need to improve, but the skill and quality is there. It is only a matter of time. Sometimes they need to defend better. Italian clubs win almost everything, not because they are the best footballers but because they are the best defenders. In Italy, they are trying not to lose, the British way is to try to win.

"There is more fair play in British football. It is very physical, but honest. If you are knocked down, you stand up and get on with it. It is not nasty, but it is very pacy, and there are a lot of clumsy fouls because of that. If you are a striker in Italy, in every game there will be someone behind you whose only role is to stop you scoring."

Surprisingly perhaps, Laudrup also enjoys the grinding routine of British football. "We play a lot more games here, but that is the way players like it," he says. "In Italy, we did a lot more on systems; what to do when the opponents have the ball. In Germany, we trained a lot harder. Their philosophy was that you have to work hard all week to be strong on Saturday. When I reached Saturday I was shattered."

Laudrup relishes the free role he has been given at Ibrox. "In Italy, I was a right midfield player just going up and down, not allowed to go into the middle or on the left. I felt like a bird in a cage. When I came here, the first thing the gaffer [Walter Smith, the Rangers manager] told me was he wanted me to play a free role behind the two strikers, or on the right or left wing.

"Before every game he says: `Brian has got the free role, try and get the ball to him and he will do something with it.' It is a great responsibility, but that is the way I like it. That is the way I play in the national team and I am quite successful there, too."

Laudrup admits that Rangers' success - they are 14 points clear - means it is too easy. "In the long run it is not good," he says. "Rangers want to be successful in Europe, and if you have the championship won by Christmas it is difficult to maintain thelevel of performance and the motivation we will need if we get in the Champions' League."

That will be the true test of Laudrup's ability; that is what Rangers paid £2.3m for. While he has performed well for Denmark in international competition, the Danes still question his hunger to be a great player.

Perhaps they are right, perhaps that is why he shrunk in the glare of Serie A. When he says football is not everything in life, he means it - but he does not mean it is just a job. To him, it seems, it is just a game. Constantly and genuinely he speaks of enjoying his football.

The pressures of stardom go with the rewards it brings - the house on the bank of the Clyde, his wine collection - but he knows where to draw the line.

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