Jon Howe: New friends in the north

Jon Howe: New friends in the north

Weekly column.

In his latest column for, lifelong supporter Jon Howe talks us through the history of Scandinavian players who have played for Leeds United, following the exciting arrival of Denmark international Rasmus Kristensen.

Howe is the author of two books on the club, ‘The Only Place For Us: An A-Z History of Elland Road’ - which has been updated as a new version for 2021 - and ‘All White: Leeds United’s 100 Greatest Players’ in 2012.

Jon Howe

Anyone who has frequented the pubs and bars of Leeds city centre on the weekend of a home game will be aware that Leeds United are very big in Scandinavia. Our friends from the north have been propping up the local economy since the Revie era, when a combination of English football’s distant fascination and the omni-presence of Billy Bremner and his merciless band of anti-heroes created a perfect storm and legions of diehard fans in Denmark, Sweden and Norway for life.

Two generations later and the Scandinavian ardour for all things Leeds United shows no sign of dimming, as hordes of outlying travellers from the many and varied supporters’ groups check flight connections and hotel vacancies for regular pilgrimages to Elland Road and to away games also. I know of some Season Ticket Holders among the Scandinavian brethren; stoic, gutsy and undaunted souls who demonstrate astonishing commitment on a regular basis, and at times such as during the Warnock era, for example, when I struggled to raise the enthusiasm for a midweek home game v Reading myself, and I can see the glow of the floodlights from my bedroom window.  

Such an unconditional commitment is of course a testament to Leeds United’s unique identity and outlaw characteristics, but it demonstrates something singularly exceptional about the Scandinavian character also. Typically known for their gentle nature and trust in the goodness of their fellow man or woman, anyone who has spent any time with a bunch of Scandinavian Leeds fans pre or post-match, will have left much richer for the experience, albeit not in the pocket if this meeting was during opening hours.

The undying allegiance and rampant fervour of these far-flung groups of fans will have reached fever pitch whenever the Leeds team has been peppered with players from their own shores. This didn’t happen until the 1990s, but what a halcyon period they will have enjoyed, paying homage to Alf-Inge Haaland, Gunnar Halle and Eirik Bakke, all from Norway and all enjoying steady and popular careers in LS11.  Fellow countryman Tommy Knarvik threatened to continue his youth team form with O’Leary’s babies, but alas never did. This was after Swedish international Tomas Brolin failed to live up to his record transfer fee of course, and in truth, over the years our Scandinavian signings have generally bombed and have struggled to deliver on the passion and resilience of their fellow country-folk in the stands.

Norwegian striker Frank Strandli was the first in 1992; the second coming of David Hirst if you know your history, but for once Howard Wilkinson’s judgement was way off. After our late 1990s Viking invasion, an unremarkable loan spell by Swedish international Teddy Lucic in 2002/03 was our only influx from the north until relegation struck.

Former Chelsea legend Tore Andre Flo was well past his best when he joined Leeds in 2007, but merits some kudos for seeing-through our Championship relegation to tough-it-out for a few games in League One. If we cast the net wider than Scandinavia and include the full Nordic region then we can also include Icelander Gylfi Einarsson in this – he of the dreamy eyes and dark, flowing locks but, alas, very little on the pitch - and Finlanders Mikael Forssell, Sebastian Sorsa (who could forget?) and Mika Vyrynen. In more recent years we enjoyed some brief appearances from fellow Finlander Aapo Halme, while Sweden gave us the briefly promising striker Marcus Antonsson and whatever Pawel Cibicki can be described as.

So this has not been a particularly successful journey from the Nordic pastures until you come to a certain Pontus Jansson. Now Garry Monk gets some short shrift from Leeds fans, and I understand that given how he left us in circumstances which I felt were never properly explained, but he did play a key role in the slow and often painful reversal of the good ship Leeds United, at least in my opinion. I think he turned us into a more professional outfit and aroused some ambition, and he brought the likes of Kyle Bartley, Luke Ayling, Kemar Roofe and of course Pablo Hernandez to the club. Yes, we had the Thomas Christiansen/Paul Heckingbottom season straight after, but Monk lit something that season and his other major signing, Pontus Jansson, played a critical part in reinvigorating an Elland Road atmosphere that was rooted in fatalism and beginning to stagnate.

Jansson’s connection with the crowd was immediate, electrifying and unapologetic. He got us and we got him. It might be extreme to describe Jansson as unbalanced, but he was fearless and competitive in a way that wasn’t always sensible, shall we say, but which was intoxicating, playful and endearing and an open goal if you wanted the unquestioning adoration of a Leeds United fanbase desperate for heroes. His central defensive partnership with Bartley was the foundations of a decent team that just missed out on the Play-Offs, but it re-ignited something important at Elland Road and Jansson was central to it.

There are many of Jansson’s traits in our latest Scandinavian signing, Rasmus Kristensen; a straight-talking, uncompromising, all-action defender and with a mental toughness that you know will find a connection with the Elland Road crowd from day one. It already feels pretty much nailed-on that Rasmus will become the most popular Danish export to Elland Road, albeit there’s not much competition.

Casper Ankergren was a decent goalkeeper over 140 appearances, and will forever be remembered for his part in the League One promotion and for keeping a clean sheet at Old Trafford on January 3rd 2010, while midfielder Casper Sloth will be remembered only for his curious supporting role in Massimo Cellino’s infamous 2016 calendar shoot. This brings us to another Kasper; Kasper Schmeichel. I don’t know what it was about hearing his Dad being routinely sung about by the Elland Road crowd every week that Kasper took exception to, after all, it was a back-handed compliment and we really liked him, but he remains one of the few footballers on the planet to take tribal terrace banter literally and his brief spell between the sticks in 2010/11 was largely forgettable, although he DOES still love to talk about it over a decade later.

Rasmus, I am confident, is made of sterner stuff and looks like an identikit Leeds United cult hero, and while he has Norwegians Kristoffer Klaesson and Leo Hjelde for company at Thorp Arch, he will quickly win friends at Elland Road and in and around the city. There is a spiritual connection between Scandinavia and Leeds United which is as endearing as it is enduring, and as it passes between generations of the same family, they too take the long, well-trodden and usually via-Stansted or somewhere unhelpful, path to Elland Road to watch their heroes and mix with brotherhood and sisterhood they have never met but have known all their lives.

Something big and intangible went with Pontus when he left us in 2019, but everybody prospered and it went for the right reasons; something mad, unpredictable, but lovable and full of soul. The Scandinavian Leeds fans have been carrying that same torch before and since off the pitch, and on it, hopefully Rasmus Kristensen is bringing it back, magic hat optional.