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Christian Eriksen: how Ajax roots paved path to Manchester United

It was during the first days of January 2020 when Christian Eriksen received a call from John Steen Olsen, Ajax’s celebrated Scandinavian scout who first watched the Denmark midfielder when Eriksen was a 13-year-old. “I called him and said: ‘You know that Ajax is always there for you,’” Steen Olsen told the club’s website. “He said he would like to but only when he is a little older.”

In the week that Steen Olsen, described by Zlatan Ibrahimovic as his “real father”, retired after 25 years’ service at Ajax, Eriksen has decided to become part of Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United rebuild. Ten Hag is a former Ajax manager and, like many of his predecessors, worked closely with Steen Olsen, a former Denmark forward who was appointed by Morten Olsen in 1997 and signed a lifetime contract with the Dutch club in 2015.

Steen Olsen’s departure at the age of 79 on 1 July marked the end of an era at Ajax after he played a part in bringing both Laudrup brothers to Amsterdam in the twilight of their careers and carried on the club’s longstanding Scandinavian association by scouting players such as Ibrahimovic, Jesper Grønkjær and Kasper Dolberg among many others. But he has always rated Eriksen as his greatest discovery after famously persuading the then sporting director Danny Blind to travel to Denmark to sign the 16-year-old from Odense after Eriksen’s father had refused to allow his son to attend a trial in 2008. “I forced the Ajax management to come,” Steen Olsen has said. “Otherwise, others would have taken him.”

United were among those to show an interest in the teenage prodigy who went on to be the youngest player to appear at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, although it was Chelsea, Milan and Barcelona who each took Eriksen on a week’s trial before he opted for Ajax.

“At Chelsea, there were two gates that were guarded by security staff 24 hours a day. It made me realise just how huge the club was,” Eriksen recalled in an interview with goal.com. “That made me back off a little. As a quiet Middelfart boy, it was a completely different world.”

Christian Eriksen celebrates the 2011-12 Eredivisie title with Daley Blind, Andre Ooijer and Jan Vertonghen
Christian Eriksen celebrates the 2011-12 Eredivisie title with Daley Blind, Andre Ooijer and Jan Vertonghen. Photograph: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

After Eriksen made his Ajax debut shortly before his 18th birthday in January 2010, the club agreed to pay for the construction of a “Cruyff Court” – a small all-weather pitch designed for skills training – in a place of his choice. He chose a site between his old school and former club in Middelfart, a small town at the gateway to Funen, Denmark’s third-largest island.

Tottenham were the beneficiaries of Eriksen’s decision to allow his contract to enter its final 12 months before he left Ajax for only £11m in 2013, but his bond with the club has remained strong through his friendship with Steen Olsen. During his final weeks at Spurs, Eriksen confided in his mentor about his frustration at being omitted from the side after requesting a transfer the previous summer. Tottenham’s chairman, Daniel Levy, had refused to countenance offers from several clubs including José Mourinho’s United over the previous 18 months but eventually allowed him to join Internazionale on a lucrative four-and-a-half-year deal worth a reported €10m a season.

Although Eriksen was part of the Inter squad that ended the club’s Scudetto drought in 2021 under Antonio Conte, he never quite reached the heights expected of him in Milan and was not a regular starter under the now-Tottenham manager. The defibrillator fitted after Eriksen’s cardiac arrest while playing for Denmark at Euro 2020 meant he was no longer permitted to play in Serie A and led to a short-term reunion with Thomas Frank at Brentford, who coached him for Denmark’s youth sides.

Christian Eriksen in action for Brentford.
Christian Eriksen was central to Brentford’s late-season form. Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

“Fortunately, he is completely himself again, and perhaps even better now,” said Steen Olsen, thinking back to the moment when Eriksen stated he had “died for five minutes” after collapsing against Finland. “Admittedly I was shocked when I was in Parken and saw what happened. I have very strong feelings for Christian.”

It was at Ajax that Eriksen had begun his road to recovery in January, training with the reserves while Ten Hag was at the helm. “I am very happy to be here,” he said at the time. “At Ajax I know the people; it feels like coming home because I was here for so long.”

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Spurs and Newcastle made clear they wanted to sign Eriksen on a free transfer this summer after some brilliant performances for Brentford that guided them to five victories in his first seven starts last season, but Ten Hag’s appointment by United at the end of April proved to be crucial. Brentford were willing to smash their wage structure in an attempt to persuade him to remain in more familiar surroundings but the temptation to follow in the footsteps of Jesper Olsen – another former Ajax player – John Sivebæk and Peter Schmeichel and become the sixth Dane to move to Old Trafford proved too strong.

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