David Owen

I had intended to write a column in praise of the Danish football team and the remarkable results they have achieved since Christian Eriksen’s dramatic on-field collapse in the European Championship match against Finland last June.

But having tuned in last night for their defeat by a vibrant Scotland, it seems churlish not to include Steve Clarke’s men in this encomium. It was the sort of performance that Bertie Auld, the Lisbon Lion who died on Sunday, would have appreciated.

The Scots themselves have now won six World Cup qualifiers on the spin and, while there is still work to do, have given themselves a good shot of qualifying for their first World Cup since 1998, when they featured in the opening fixture against the Brazil of Dunga and Bebeto and, of course, Ronaldo.

I have always rated Clarke - who was a good enough full-back to play for Chelsea - as a thoughtful manager, skilled at getting the best out of the players at his disposal.

Having demonstrated this at club level, he seems to be transferring the knack to international football. Not that this Scottish generation is bereft of talent – the left flank of Kieran Tierney and Andy Robertson, both accommodated in the same team by Clarke, in spite of occupying essentially the same position for their respective club sides, is world-class. 

Billy Gilmour, a 20-year-old midfielder prominent against the Danes, is another who should have a big future in the game.

Scotland produced a historic performance to defeat Denmark 2-0 yesterday ©Getty Images
Scotland produced a historic performance to defeat Denmark 2-0 yesterday ©Getty Images

Of course, it will end in tears – with Scotland it always does: the team has yet to advance beyond the opening phase of a World Cup tournament.

But they are sometimes glorious tears. Who can forget that wonderful victory, capped by Archie Gemmill’s inspired solo strike, in 1978 against Holland, the eventual beaten finalists?

At the time there was considerable disappointment that Scotland had not progressed from a group also containing Peru and Iran. Four decades on, and most Scotland fans would be delighted for their national side just to be in Qatar.

The Scots’ tigerish display at Hampden prevented Denmark from achieving the remarkable feat of winning all ten matches in their World Cup qualifying campaign.

Prior to Monday night, their record was 9-0-0, with 30 goals scored and only one conceded. That is the sort of goals differential Denmark used to run up in Olympic football tournaments of the early 20th century, when they twice won the silver medal behind the then untouchable Britain, who had, after all, invented the game and were in the process of bequeathing it to the world.

It is hard to think it is less than six months since this Danish side were in the pit of despair, with their talisman fighting for life on the Copenhagen turf. To add insult to injury, when play resumed, they were beaten 1-0 by Finland, a team they would normally expect to have the measure of.

Defeat by Belgium then left their continued participation at Euro 2020 hanging by a thread. No one would have blamed them had they then quietly slipped out of the tournament to lick their wounds and reflect.

Instead, they hammered Russia 4-1, following this up with a clinical 4-0 demolition of Gareth Bale’s Wales as they embarked on a run to the semi-finals, whereupon a very talented and increasingly tournament-savvy England needed extra time to finally knock them out.

This outstanding form had continued – until last night’s visit to Glasgow.

Denmark united after Christian Eriksen collapsed and suffered a life-threatening cardiac arrest, winning nine of 10 World Cup qualifiers to secure their place in Qatar next year ©Getty Images
Denmark united after Christian Eriksen collapsed and suffered a life-threatening cardiac arrest, winning nine of 10 World Cup qualifiers to secure their place in Qatar next year ©Getty Images

I have a theory about this triumphant resurgence, attributing it to two factors, while acknowledging that they were no bad side to begin with, winning their first three World Cup qualifiers in March by a thumping 14-0 aggregate.

One factor is leadership: senior players such as Simon Kjaer and Kasper Schmeichel seemed instinctively to rise to an occasion they could not have anticipated from the first moments after Eriksen’s collapse. One can imagine how this may have lifted their stature among their shaken team-mates, empowering them to inspire the fightback.

The other is teamwork. Many international footballers in 2021 are pampered millionaires. They are also the survivors of an unsparing and relentless competitive environment.

Instilling a sense of collective endeavour among such individuals must at times be extraordinarily hard. In the "good old days", the sheer honour of pulling on the national shirt might have been enough. Nowadays, I am not so sure.

Yet an event as traumatic as Eriksen’s collapse provides the sort of perspective that would make any more selfish concerns evaporate instantly.

Maybe the way they were overrun last night suggests that the spell has been broken.

I wouldn’t bank on it: they were uncatchable at the top of the group, are heading to Qatar 2022 and consequently had less to play for on Monday than their hosts.

Denmark’s best World Cup performance to date came in that 1998 tournament which also featured Scotland, when they reached the quarter-finals before losing to Ronaldo’s Brazil. I would not be surprised to see them do at least as well next year.