Football: Skovdahl the new rock in Granite City

Phil Gordon meets the Dane hoping to turn Aberdeen around
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The Independent Online
WHEN ABERDEEN allowed the Open champion, Paul Lawrie, to parade the old claret jug to the Pittodrie crowd last Tuesday night before the friendly with Coventry, maybe they should have asked the local hero to bring along his Mr Motivator, too.

Lawrie, a Dons fan since childhood, credited much of his recent Carnoustie success to his positive-thinking coach, Adam Hunter, but the trend does not seem to have caught on in the Granite City. Aberdeen's new manager, Ebbe Skovdahl, was maybe indulging in reverse psychology when he publicly admitted just 24 hours earlier that his team would do well to escape from tonight's opening Scottish Premier League encounter against Celtic with a draw, but all Skovdahl got was accusations of defeatism.

Yet the Dane was, perhaps, being honest enough to admit that something is rotten about the state of the current Aberdeen side. Forget about Lawrie, if Aberdeen were to win the title this season, the achievement would be comparable to a club player grabbing golf's premier prize.

The glory of the Alex Ferguson years at Pittodrie is a well-documented burden that makes the decline in the Nineties all the harder to bear. Skovdahl signed on for two years when he took the job in June, but given that he is their fourth manager in 20 months, that may have been optimistic.

Aberdeen had the worst defence in the Premier League last season, conceding 71 goals, and, after watching his side stripped bare of any dignity in a pre-season defeat by German club St Pauli, Skovdahl realised the size of his task.

Four Danish titles in seven years at Brondby is impressive, but managing to turn the Copenhagen club into the Continent's most potent small fry was his real achievement. Under Skovdahl, Brondby reached the Uefa Cup semi-finals and the Champions' League (beating Bayern Munich 6-2 last season) and claimed the scalps of Real Madrid, Liverpool and even, dare one say it, Aberdeen along the way.

So why come to Scotland? "I like the taxes here," the Dane joked. "I had done all I could at Brondby but I did not want to remain in Denmark because it would have been so hard - everything else would have been a step down. But I am still ambitious and I believe Aberdeen are too. I wanted a new challenge, but the lifestyle of Scotland and Denmark are similar so, at 53, I won't have to make too many changes."

Skovdahl will lean heavily on his Danish assistant, Tommy Moller-Neilsen - son of Richard, who led Denmark to the European Championship in 1992 - and poached from his coaching job at Rangers. He can also turn to his own nephew, Brian Laudrup, who spent four years tormenting Scottish defences with Rangers.

One would have expected Moller-Neilsen to be the last person Skovdahl approached for help, given that Laudrup's older brother, Michael, refused to play for Denmark in that Euro 92 success because of a row with Moller- Neilsen senior, but time and pragmatism heals wounds and those are the qualities the new manager expects to apply to his task at Pittodrie.

"I know they had a few problems in the league last season, and I knew that losing goals was the main one. But it was only after seeing the team against St Pauli that I could understand it for myself.

"I have told the players I don't expect them to win over Celtic. My world is not over if we can't win but I expect us to improve over every game. For me it is very important to be realistic. We can all dream about beating Celtic, but if we are being realistic I don't think the odds are even."

Yet as Peter Schmeichel - whom Skovdahl sold to Manchester United - proved last May, every great Dane has its day.