Featuring the likes of Michael Laudrup and Preben Elkjær, the Danish team at the 1986 World Cup with jet-heeled strikers and elegant midfielders played such a dynamic and explosive game that they were lauded as the Danish Dynamite. Some years later, Thomas Gravesen would earn a similar appellation, but for an entirely different reason.
Gravesen began his footballing career at local Superliga club Vejle Boldklub in his native Denmark. Following Vejle’s runners-up spot in the 1996-97 season though, he joined Hamburger SV in the Bundesliga. In three seasons with Die Rothosen, he would make 78 appearances, all but six of them coming in the league, as the club’s form in the DFB-Pokal Cup left a lot to be desired.
As he matured into the German league, his form as a solid defensive midfielder became increasingly noticed and it was no surprise that he was selected for the Danish squad in the 2000 European Championships. Despite it being a mixed bag of performances personally, and a disaster for the team on the whole with Denmark losing all three group games without troubling the scorers, Gravesen did enough in a struggling team to convince Everton manager David Moyes that he could cut the mustard in the Premier League.
The Toffees’ manager had made a name for himself picking up bargain buys that turned out to be more than competent top tier players, and with Gravesen, he did the trick again. The Dane’s combative style and fierce tackling seemed ideally suited to the Premier League, and he fitted into the required role with ease. At a club that still revered the days of Joe Royle’s ‘Dogs of War’ midfield, Gravesen quickly became a firm favourite at Goodison, particularly those at the Gwladys Street end of the ground. His reputation for being more than a bit wayward wasn’t limited exclusively to tackles during a game, however.
Talking to the Daily Star in November 2017, the Dane’s team-mate at the time, James McFadden, gave an example of some Gravesen’s madcap antics. “He brought fireworks in one day,” the Scottish striker recalled. “The physio’s room was at the side of one of the pitches. The physio was one of the fittest guys at the club, he was in his 50s and used to play a bit. He was running with the injured players when Tommy comes out with a big rocket and fires it right at him.”
Gravesen quickly established himself as an indispensable member of Moyes’ growing team, consistently playing more than 30 games a season across his first four years at the club. He only delivered seven goals in that time, but his task was to destroy the opposition’s creativity and then start Everton moving forward, rather than be on the end of attacking plays. Into his fifth term with the club, the 2004-05 season started well for both club and player. Everton were heading towards the top end of the league with Gravesen appearing regularly, and by January had even chipped in with four goals. The coming summer would see the end of his contract though, and with Everton detecting a marked reluctance from the player to pen a new deal, a move in the winter transfer window looked increasingly likely.
When it materialised, however, very few would have guessed that the destination for Everton’s ‘Enforcer’ in the middle of the field would have been the Bernabeu to join Real Madrid. It was apparently a surprise to David Moyes as well. Reported in the Irish Times, the former manager, together with some of his coaches, though there had been a monumental blunder by the Spanish club, thinking they could have been interested in his lookalike midfield partner Lee Carsley. “Everybody used to get him mixed up with Lee Carsley,” Moyes said. “So when Real Madrid came in for him at Everton, we were saying, ‘Have they got the right one? Is it Carsley the one or is it Tommy Gravesen?”
There was no error though, Madrid Brazilian coach, Vanderlei Luxemburgo, had identified Gravesen as the ideal holding midfield player to suit the system of play he wanted Los Blancos to deploy. Everton pocketed £2.5 million. It was a relatively small sum for such a regular first team player, but with the contract running down, it seemed like better than letting Gravesen leave with just a wave in the summer.
No-one would put Gravesen in amongst the Galacticos gathered together in the Bernabeu. But he knew his job and how to do it. There’s a video sequence ahead of a Real Madrid game when the players are warming up, with many of the stars – Beckham, Raul, Ronaldo, Zidane – indulging in ball juggling, keepie-uppies or examples of elegant mastery of the ball. In amongst them is Thomas Gravesen, no ball, just merely stretching and warming his muscles up ready for battle. It was a noticeable contrast.
Even the greatest teams needed their ‘Water Carrier’ though, as Eric Cantona once disparagingly described Didier Deschamps, and Gravesen carried his fair share. In the first month of his time in Spain, Gravesen was in the Madrid team for an edition in the series of El Clásico games against Barcelona.
The Dane was deployed to try and nullify the genius of Ronaldinho, then in the full flowering of his pomp with the Blaugrana. The Brazilian magician was able to weave his intricate patterns away from the danger area, but when it looked like he may threaten the Madrid backline, Gravesen clamped down on him like a Venus flytrap seizing its prey. Madrid would win the game 4-2, and it took until the game was nearly over for Ronaldinho to find sufficient space to score. By then though the game was won. Gravesen had done his job.
As is so often the case with Real Madrid, though, only the highest of standards are acceptable and, late in 2005, Luxemburgo, the man who had pushed for the unlikely deal to bring Gravesen to Spain, was dismissed. With his backer gone, it seemed that the Dane would be on the move in the summer.
The ‘Enforcer’ style had never really appealed to the aesthetics in the Bernabeu. This wasn’t Goodison Park, in the rain emulating the ‘Dogs of War.’ This was the Bernabeu and Galactico skills were expected, with garlands of flowers, not the muck and nettles approach. Now that results had turned and the manager sacked, there seemed little justification for tolerating Gravesen’s presence there.
Perhaps just as unexpectedly for the player as anyone else though, the new man, Juan Ramón López Caro, reintroduced Gravesen to the starting eleven and he began to play regularly again. Sadly, the new man was quickly moved on and in his stead came Fabio Capello. Brought up in the Serie A school of hard knocks, there was a thought that the Dane would fit in with the new regime. Capello liked discipline, however, and in a number of the off-field incidents, Gravesen displayed less than the required amount of that characteristic.
One unfortunate incident occurred when he got into a training ground rumble with Robinho after a particularly robust challenge during a practice game. It was hardly an even match, and despite Capello offering encouraging noises, Gravesen’s time in Madrid was rapidly drawing to a close. “The way he is,” the Italian said, trying to disperse rumours. “We won’t have problems with him. He’s just a little bit particular. I don’t mess with him, he works well tactically. His behaviour is like this, and I don’t like it, everything has to be done like he wants it to be done.”
Soon afterwards, he was on his way to perhaps a more predictable destination as the Dane joined Celtic. He had played just one short of a half-century of games for Real Madrid, and despite his style grating badly with the perceived ethos of the club, there are many, many far more gifted midfielders, who could not put their name to such acclaim.
Although things started off pretty well in Scotland, it wouldn’t last. As with his early weeks with Madrid, he also starred in the Glasgow club’s most important fixture, netting a goal in the Old Firm game against Rangers in September and then scored the most unlikely of hat-tricks – the only one of his professional career – against St Mirren in November. Things would deteriorate though. Eventually, he was ousted from the team by Gordon Strachan in favour of Evander Sno and after a single season in Scotland, he was loaned to Everton, with the Hoops manager being more critical of the effort Gravesen was making rather than his ability.
Now into his early thirties, there was sufficient time for Gravesen to resurrect his career, and Goodison Park seemed the ideal place to do it. Despite being welcomed back by fans who remembered his all-action commitment to the cause, things failed to reignite, and after just 13 games back in Royal Blue, the reconciliation was ended. Thomas Gravesen returned to Glasgow to see out his time before being released by the club. With no suitable offers forthcoming, the Dane decided to hang up his boots and retire.
Whilst some players fall into financial problems after retiring from the game, and others fail to adjust to a world outside of the spotlight, very few such thoughts could be applied to Thomas Gravesen. Sound investment of his earnings had brought a bank balance reported to be in the region of £80 million. He married a supermodel, and moved to Las Vegas, spending some of his time on the professional Poker playing circuit. For a player who caused enough hot flushes in opponents, searching for a Royal one seems more than appropriate.