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THOMAS GRAVESEN: UNFULFILLED POTENTIAL OR GLORIOUS ASCENT THAT ENDED EARLY?

Thomas "Mad Dog" Gravesen has had a career of craziness, so what is his legacy in the game: unfulfilled potential or a fine story of an unexpected ascent?

Remember the film Goal!? That movie which played out every child’s back garden fantasy of making it big in professional football, and scoring last-minute winners seemingly every week. Well, how about Goal! 2: Living The Dream? The memory is starting to get a bit foggier now, isn’t it? It’s the one where Santiago Muñez gets his big move to Real Madrid and, after some teething problems, bangs in another last-minute winner, but this time in the Champions League final, no less. 

A ten-year-old me knew the Goal! films weren’t any good. The narratives were incredibly clichéd. (How many late winners can a man actually score? Sir Alex, sign him up!). The acting was hammed up to the nines and Kuno Becker, the actor playing Muñez, quite clearly couldn’t kick a football. 

That said, however, despite understanding that the melodrama unfolding before my very eyes was pure fantasy, it was impossible for myself, and virtually every other child of my generation who saw the film, to not get completely carried away with it all. Seeing Muñez come from nothing and make it big – why can’t I do it too?! The point exactly, to placate anxious kids with big dreams. After all, there was David Beckham, Iker Casillas, Zinedine Zidane, Raúl, and more – how could we not love it?

But, within the myriad of stars, there was someone else, someone unrecognisable from our posters and sticker books. A man wholly out of place amongst the games pampered elite, who seemed more like a face plucked from a crowd of Sunday League dreamers rather than Champions League achievers. But there he stood, as if out of nowhere, Thomas Gravesen. Wait, Thomas Gravesen? That Danish guy who goes around booting people and offering them a fight, that Thomas Gravesen? This must surely be part of the filmy fantasy, did he really play for Real Madrid?

He did, indeed, and it is a tragedy we do not recognise him more. In truth, the filmmakers missed a trick. While they were away conjuring a scarcely believable rag to riches tale, a genuine underdog story had gone under the radar. Gravesen was the real-life Santiago Muñez.

The charm of the Goal! films are based entirely on the fetishisation of the football world and, in Real Madrid’s Galácticos, the filmmakers had found an ideal wonderland of opulence, talent, and superstardom. Real Madrid’s Galácticos policy has its roots in their European domination of the late 1950s and early ‘60s when world-famous stars like Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo di Stéfano graced the Real Madrid turf and conquered the continent. 

By the late 1990s, prospective club president Florentino Pérez felt Real Madrid had lost their way. He wanted the club to once again be the envy of the footballing world, a financial and sporting powerhouse that unbeatable on both the field of play and the negotiating table.

This ambitious and aggressive transfer policy saw Pérez elected to the presidency in 2000. His first promise was to bring the world’s best player, Luís Figo, to the Santiago Bernabéu from fierce rivals Barcelona. Pérez kept his word, and Figo’s signing began a spree of world-class acquisition over the following years which saw Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo join for record fees. 

Away from the glitz of the Bernabéu, Thomas Gravesen, the man who would soon disrupt the bourgeois tranquility of the Galácticos like a bull with a death wish, was forging a wholly different reputation. While Pérez was plotting his ascent to the top of club football, Gravesen was fighting his way up the ranks far away from the elite, at his hometown club Viele Boldklub. 

In his first season at Boldklub, the man who would soon be nicknamed “Mad Dog”, helped the team reach the Danish Cup final, which they lost, and a second-place finish in the Superliga. Gravesen was clearly destined for bigger things, but, even at such a young age, he knew not to get too caught up in the pressures of professional football. Feeling he needed a schedule outside of the game, something to fill his spare time and get him out of bed in the morning, Gravesen took a job at a workshop which sold spare car parts. 

However, in 1997, the wide and ever-expanding football universe came calling and Gravesen couldn’t turn the opportunity down. He left Viele for Hamburg in 1997 with his feet, for now at least, still firmly planted on the deck, as his childhood sweetheart Gitte Pedersen accompanied him to Germany. But, it was here that Mad Dog’s infamous reputation for mischief began to take hold. 

Hamburg
IT WAS AT HAMBURG WHERE THOMAS GRAVESEN STARTED TO GARNER A NAME FOR HIMSELF

One afternoon, Gravesen and his teammate and close friend Allan Jepson filled part of the teams training base with shampoo. The place was quickly brimming with bubbles and foam, and the two men proceeded to strip naked and slide about the place like giddy children. 

Gravesen’s football continued to progress, though, and after a decent Euro 2000 with Denmark, he moved to England to sign for Everton. The Dane truly found a home amongst the Evertonians and became an immediate hero at Goodison Park. He was a player seemingly made for the club, he worked hard and tackled even harder, and very little can endear you to the Goodison faithful more than that. 

If Everton became Gravesen’s surrogate family, Lee Carsely was surely his long lost brother, in both appearance and chemistry. Almost as if they were separated at birth and after years of searching and wondering the clubs of Europe, they were finally reunited at Everton to fulfill their destiny as a finely tuned midfield partnership. 

His mischievous streak travelled too, though. Gravesen is alleged to have had a rather tenuous relationship with a then young yet expectedly boisterous Wayne Rooney. The English teenager was finding his feet in the game but was never one to be easily pushed over. The two were once caught going at it, they weren’t using their fists, though, but were instead aiming fireworks at each other’s skulls, turning the old gym at Bellefield (Everton’s former training ground) into a theatre for all-out war. 

Naturally, Mad Dog proved hard for the Everton staff to handle, but the club’s then-manager, David Moyes, liked his all-out, ferocious approach. Gravesen’s aggression wasn’t just limited to his Everton teammates, though. Arche Knox, Moyes’ assistant manager at the time, remembers how Gravesen and his partner Gitte, who played for Everton’s Ladies team, would take part in extra sessions after training. Knox was accustomed to seeing Gravesen booting lumps out of seasoned pros in the men’s game, but seeing him smashing the ball into his childhood sweetheart was certainly new. Gitte would give him hell back, though. 

Mad Dog also left teammate James McFadden equally bewildered. The Scotsman used to avoid Gravesen as best he could, especially on the days he arrived at training armed with a paintball gun and sufficient ammunition to harm every man in the squad. Although McFadden could barely stand Gravesen’s unpredictable behaviour, he still recognises how the Dane was one of Everton’s finest players and an elusive match winner when at his very best. 

Gravesen had enjoyed his time at Everton and had forged a connection with the fans generally unreserved for players who play outside of their hometown. Midway through his fifth year at the club, the Blues were doing well and would soon embark on a run which would see the club end the campaign in the Champions League places for the very first time. But the 2004/05 season had something even more miraculous planned for Mad Dog.

Real Madrid had been struggling that year and Barcelona were all but guaranteed to win the title. The Galácticos project was ailing and Pérez wanted more investment. Real Madrid’s manager, the defensive mastermind Fabio Capello and sporting director, the similarly conservative Italian legend Arrigo Sachhi, felt the side was imbalanced and believed the club had failed to adequately replace midfield stalwart Claude Makélélé.

Who could they turn to? With all the money and star power in the world, which great of the game would they bring in to replace Makélélé,, the player who had mastered defensive midfield so finely that the position now bears his name. No one could have expected they would pick Thomas Gravesen of all people. Seemingly out of nowhere, the hard-working and harder-hitting Dane found himself amongst a team full of stars, a galaxy away from the pitches of Viele and the battlegrounds at Bellefield. 

Gravesen himself couldn’t believe it; “is that me on the TV”, he thought to himself. Despite his, and everyone else’s amazement, Gravesen proved a rather practical buy at first, as Real Madrid went on a seven-game unbeaten run. He found friends among the game’s elite also. Mad Dog admitted he was initially a little anxious about joining a group of superstars (no doubt the two footers quickly followed once he got over the angst, mind), but found them to be a perfectly welcoming bunch. 

Everton
THOMAS GRAVESEN WAS A TRUSTED FIGURE AT EVERTON UNDER DAVID MOYES

His Real Madrid career slowly began to unwind, however. There were off-field distractions, he couldn’t exactly go work in a garage now, could he? The media attention intensified immeasurably. Everywhere else he was just Tommy, here he was something else, something more fascinating, more worthy of scrutiny, more Real. And, what he already lacked in skill relative to his supremely talented teammates, wasn’t helped by the fact that Madrid used him solely as a defensive midfield option. In fact, some still joke at Everton that Madrid bought the wrong bald midfielder, Carsely would have been far more suited. 

As ever with Real, the managerial merry go round was turning, too. Vanderlei Luxemburgo, the man who signed Gravesen, not only allowed the Dane plenty of game time but was also extremely patient in regard to his off-field antics. Just a few months into his Real career, Mad Dog got into a fight with the team’s superstar Ronaldo. The scuffle left and the Brazilian flat on his back and a tooth light. Il Fenomeno’s smile was slightly less beaming, but smile it off he did.

Gravesen continued to both regularly feature under Luxemburgo and toss his teammates about like ragdolls each day in training. Juan Ramón López Caro replaced Luxemburgo in December 2005, though, and Gravesen soon found game time at a premium. Then, Caro was himself deposed just seven months later by the defensive mastermind Fabio Cappello. The Italian is known for being a strict man who demands discipline from his players, both on and off the football field. 

In an Austrian preseason training camp in 2006, Gravesen would truly test Capello’s famed authoritarian approach. After a late and heavy tackle on Robinho, the Madridistas truly learned the origins of the name “Mad Dog”. Gravesen’s bulging eyes were dead set on the Brazilian and his hammer fists swiftly followed. Roberto Carlos and a few teammates quickly swormed in to stop the fight and somehow calm Gravesen down. Capello never forgave him.

And, there was that famous undying Gravesen aggression. In fact, when Mad Dog left for Madrid, he took a picture of his old pal Duncan Ferguson with him, as a reminder of the man who taught him to never lay down. But here was a totally different footballing world, although Capello had bought Gravesen to catalyse and motivate the squad, Real Madrid just wasn’t quite the kill or be killed climate he was used to. He got into a fight with Ronaldo and chipped the Brazilians front tooth. Then a late and heavy tackle on Robinho caused a bust-up which taught the Madridistas exactly why he earned the name “Mad Dog”.

Real Madrid
BUST-UPS WERE A COMMON THEME AT REAL MADRID

With one fistfight too many under his belt and a spot on the bench seemingly being the only place in Madrid for him, Gravesen left for Celtic in late August 2008. Apart from a goal in his first Old Firm Derby, Gravesen faded into obscurity and retired at the early age of 32.

Ever since, rumors of Mad Dog’s whereabouts have circulated more wildly than one of his midfield displays. But these days, perfectly in keeping with the general craziness which seems to follow Gravesen, he can be found in Las Vegas, where he is dating a former Playboy model and has amassed a considerable fortune through shrewd investment both on, and off, the card tables. 

But, what exactly is the footballing legacy of Thomas “Mad Dog” Gravesen? Was he simply an average footballer who couldn’t quite cut it at the top, or a player who’s off-field antics prevented him reaching his full potential? Or was he, in fact, a man who lived out every child’s backyard fantasy, who worked hard and reached the very top. Thomas Gravesen truly lived the dream and did it in his own unique and crazy way.

BY DANIEL ALLEN