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The Heartbreaker: The story of an unfulfilled Norwegian genius

‘The Garrincha of the Nordics’ was regarded as the most scintillating player of his generation in his home country and for a brief period wowed fans in Scotland. But few people outside his home country and the Scottish club he graced are likely to know much about him.


This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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He made his international debut aged 17 and ran rings around World Cup finalists.
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Among the many impressed by his skill was a battling Dunfermline centre-forward of the day. “Our tactics [when facing Hearts] were basically ‘stop Super-Jensen’,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, many years later.

He was the most mesmerising player his compatriots had ever seen. He made his international debut aged 17 and ran rings around World Cup finalists. He led his hometown club to consecutive league titles and earned 25 full caps before he was old enough to vote. His ability was acknowledged by the most successful British manager of all time. He had a horse race named after him. And he died, aged 44, still wearing his football boots and old national team shirt. His nickname was ‘The Garrincha of the Nordics’, but few football fans outside of his home country and the Scottish club he graced are likely to have heard of him. This is the story of Roald ‘Kniksen’ Jensen.

Brash and fiercely independent, Bergen ticks all the traditional second-city boxes. Once a member of the Hanseatic League, the northern European trading block formed in the 13th century by the region’s most important merchant towns, the ‘city between the seven mountains’ was for centuries Norway’s main gateway to the world, taking no small amount of pride in its cosmopolitan, quasi-separatist outlook, enshrined in the popular song and slogan “I’m not from from Norway, I’m from Bergen!” This peculiar local identity, of course, is also frequently reflected in the mirror of football. Bergen’s undisputed powerhouse is Brann, which translates as Fire, and rarely can a football club have been more appropriately named. Famous for the passion of its fans and the perpetual volatility of its boardroom, the club has more often than not struggled to live up to its undoubted potential, which – paradoxically, perhaps – accounts for a great deal of its popularity. Inspiring blind faith and blind fury in equal measure, this is an institution both defined by and defining of the city it calls home.

Born in Bergen in 1943, Roald Jensen grew up in an austere post-war Marshall-planned, sugar-rationed society, with limited scope for individual self-expression. Nonetheless, he developed into the ultimate Kjuagutt – local slang for the archetypal street-smart, irreverent, flamboyant kid, essentially a Scandinavian, social-democratic version of the Argentinian cult of the Pibe (if such a concept is imaginable). At the age of four, he was given his first football by his father, and there was no turning back. Honing his skills by spending untold hours doing keepy-uppies and smashing the ball against the wall of his childhood home, he soon made a name for himself. His first club – formed with friends with whom he’d play in Bergen’s narrow alleyways – was called Dynamo in honour of the Muscovite idols who had bewildered British crowds during the Russian club’s famous tour of 1945. The Bergen version routinely won games by twenty-plus goal margins, with the tiny, frail dribbling wizard either scoring or making most of them. He quickly became known as ‘Kniksen’, after the verb knikse, to do tricks with the ball.

Eventually, he joined Brann’s youth set-up alongside several of his Dynamo pals. He was ten. Younger than most and smaller than all of his teammates, he nonetheless continued to dominate games, despite opponents often deploying brutal tactics to stifle him. In 1959 he was the star of the junior side that reached its second consecutive Norwegian Youth Cup Final. The game was played at Brann Stadion, and a 10,000-plus crowd turned up to watch the boy wonder who, according to contemporary press reports, won the semi-final “on his own”. (He later said he could never accept such praise as it was also “an implicit criticism” of his teammates.) Brann retained the trophy, and a few weeks later, as Kniksen turned out at home for Norway’s juniors, 14,000 Bergeners showed up to worship their new idol. To put those figures into context, the entire population of Bergen at the time was approximately 115,000. This was Kniksen-mania.

It was evident, then, that young Jensen had to be accommodated into the first-team without delay. Appropriately, it was a coach known as Saint Peter who opened the Pearly Gates. Upon arrival in Bergen in 1960, the Hungarian Tivadae Szentpetery opted to introduce a Magical Magyaresque formation, with the centre-forward and wingers withdrawn and the nominal inside-forwards – Kniksen on the right and his great friend Rolf Birger Pedersen on the left – playing alongside each other up front. Although Szentpetery failed – mainly because he had no common language with the players – his thinking was innovative by Norwegian standards, and helped lay the foundations for future success. Meanwhile, Kniksen impressed enough to be called up for senior national duty after only a few months in the first team. His call-up was controversial, both because of his youth and because of the fact that one of the three men on the selection committee was also a Brann director. The national coach, an Austrian disciplinarian called Willy Kment, stated that “Jensen is merely a child”. Still, he had no qualms about putting the child in his side. Kniksen made his debut against Austria, scored his maiden international goal against Finland, and then in September 1960 won the collective heart of the nation with a masterful performance against eternal arch-enemies Sweden. Some 36,000 spectators in Oslo saw the youngster humiliate a side that had been World Cup finalists on home ground only two years previously. “Kniksen drew more applause than the National Theatre gets through an entire season,” claimed one excited scribe; meanwhile, Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest newspaper, anointed him “Norway’s new King!” .

In the spring of 1961, an extraordinary story appeared in the now-defunct Bergen broadsheet Morgenposten. The paper revealed that Roald Jensen had signed a contract with Real Madrid. There was one catch, however: the ‘news’ was reported on April Fool’s Day, and the ‘Real Madrid manager’ pictured and quoted in the paper was in fact László Papp, the Hungarian triple Olympic boxing champion. Still, the fact that the story was deemed plausible enough to publish as a joke spoke volumes about the esteem in which the teenager was held. And more was yet to come.

Because of a change in the league format, the 1961/62 season was a 16-team, 18-month marathon affair, and during this period Jensen, Pedersen and Roald Paulsen developed into one of the most potent attacking forces the nation had ever seen. Combined, the trio scored a stunning 75 goals, powering Brann towards their first title, which was eventually secured with an away win over Rosenborg that also saw the Trondheim club relegated. The triumph was marred by an incident in which a frustrated home supporter attacked Kniksen with an umbrella, knocking him out cold. Still, it was a remarkable achievement and the party, predictably, went on for days. For Jensen, though, the most important event of the season had arguably occurred a few months previously, when Heart of Midlothian arrived in Bergen to play an exhibition match. The Scottish professionals defeated their amateur Norwegian counterparts 4-0, but Kniksen’s performance left a lasting impression. “From that moment,” he later claimed, “I knew I could go to Edinburgh anytime I wanted to.” (Later, Norway’s sensational 4-3 defeat of a Scotland side featuring Kniksen’s great hero Denis Law merely confirmed the instincts of the Hearts directors.)

Having already rejected an offer from an unnamed Italian club, Kniksen decided to stay put for the time being, and Brann won the now-restructured league again in 1963. The following season, however, the double champions suffered a barely comprehensible relegation, and the team’s undisputed superstar began to realise his future lay abroad. Even so, the decision to move was not one to be made lightly, for, trapped by its self-defeating amateur ethos, the Norwegian FA still forbade professionals from representing the national team. As it happened, in 1965 Norway enjoyed one of their best seasons since the war, only missing out on qualification for the upcoming World Cup in England after a narrow home defeat to France. If their best player had been available, who knows what might have happened?

Kniksen arrived at Tynecastle in January 1965, midway through what would eventually prove to be the most dramatic season in his new club’s history. He was the first foreigner to wear the maroon shirt, and managerial legend Tommy Walker was not exactly stingy with his praise: “Jensen is the greatest talent [to join Hearts] in ages”. The 22-year-old made his debut against Dunfermline and earned rave reviews. “Jensen’s five-star show!” roared the headline in the Edinburgh Evening News. Norwegian footballers had excelled abroad before – Asbjørn Halvorsen captained Hamburg to German titles in the 1920s and Per Bredesen won the Scudetto with Milan in 1957 – but Kniksen was the first to play professionally in Great Britain, which was a source of enormous pride to the most Anglophile of all nations (the distinction between England and Scotland counted for little).

The celebrity magazine Aktuell, predictably, published a photo of the smiling young star in full Highlander regalia, and his every move was reported by the adoring Norwegian press. Meanwhile, his performances continued ŧo impress Scottish scribes. “Jensen keeps Hearts in title race” reported Ian Rennie after a 3-1 defeat of Third Lanark. On January 17, Hearts ascended to the summit of the table by beating Celtic 2-1: “Jensen saves the day” said the Sunday Evening Post, and went on: “The new boy who stole the show was Roald Jensen, Hearts’ new import from Norway. He was the man who took the steam out of Celtic. Who tamed the ball. Who never made a move that didn’t have intelligence behind it.” For Kniksen, who despite his immense popularity had never felt accepted as a team player by the sports press in his homeland, this was vindication.

Alas the season was to end in heartbreak for Hearts. Famously, on the final day of the campaign Hearts lost 2-0 to Kilmarnock at Tynecastle, conceding the title to the visitors on goal average. Their luckless Norwegian inside-right, so decisive in earlier games, contrived to hit the post not once but twice. Still, despite this cruel set-back, Kniksen was now recognised as a star in his new homeland.

Among the many impressed by his skill was a battling Dunfermline centre-forward of the day. “Our tactics [when facing Hearts] were basically ‘stop Super-Jensen’,” said Sir Alex Ferguson, many years later. However, although he continued to dazzle in flashes, Kniksen’s subsequent seasons at Tynecastle were marred by injuries and managerial conflict. After 15 years in charge, Tommy Walker was relieved of his duties in 1966, and his replacement, John Harvey, was less than impressed by his flamboyant, yet fragile winger. “I guess he just didn’t like me,” he later said, whilst maintaining that he had “been treated very unfairly.” Strangely for such a firm fans’ favourite, he made almost as many reserve- and B-team performances combined as he did for the first team during his six-and-a-half years in Scotland. (As testimony to his popularity, more than 30,000 fans would sometimes turn up to watch reserve games in which he was playing.) Being routinely kicked pillar-to-post did not help, and – being a Bergener and thus not lacking temper – he would on occasion retaliate, which led to disciplinary problems.

When fit and on song, he could still create moments of magic. Many older Hearts fans regard his goal against Partick Thistle as the finest in club history. Receiving the ball on the left wing, he bamboozled five defenders and the goalkeeper before striking home. That year, he was in fine fettle, scoring nine goals in 22 games, leading the team on a glorious cup run and scoring the decisive penalty in the semi-final against Morton. In trademark fashion, however, Hearts surprisingly lost the final to the team against whom Kniksen had made his Scottish league debut three years previously: Dunfermline. Around this time, Feyenoord allegedly wanted to sign him, but he politely declined their offer as he felt he still had something to prove in Scotland. Two years later, the Dutch club won the European Cup.

Ankles swollen, tendons aching, Super-Jensen – like many another gifted maverick of his era – went into relatively early decline. In 1969, as the ban on professionals was belatedly abolished, he returned to the Norwegian national team, but despite a wonderfully composed performance in his comeback against Mexico, ultimately he could not dazzle as he did in his early-Sixties heyday.

Eventually, he left Hearts and rejoined his beloved Brann – as he had always said he would – inspiring them to win the cup in 1972. But he retired from the game the following year, settling for a quiet life in Bergen – fishing, tending to his cabin, spending time with his wife and children. He remained a staunch critic of the way the game was run in his homeland, once commenting that “We will not have professional football in Norway until they get it on the moon!” Professional football did eventually come, though not, sadly, in Kniksen’s lifetime. On October 6, 1987, while playing in a veteran’s game at Brann Stadion, he collapsed and died from an undetected heart defect, aged only 44. Tragically yet somehow appropriately, he departed this world wearing his old Norway shirt, the one he should have worn so many more times had it not been for the Norwegian FA’s short-sightedness.

Thousands turned out for his funeral. In memoriam, Brann commissioned a statue by Per Ung, Norway’s finest sculptor, which stands outside Brann Stadion. Norway’s annual Player Of The Year Award was named for him, but bizarrely and dismayingly this honour was revoked in 2013. Thieves broke into his wife Eva’s home and stole most of the medals and mementos from his career – including his Golden Watch, the traditional gift presented to all Norwegian players who reach the milestone of 25 caps, and which he remains the youngest man to have received. His son Sondre, who briefly turned out for Brann in the early Nineties, said he was “the perfect father”. “He just wanted to be kind and help people. Often those who were not like everyone else. He just wanted to be an ordinary guy. And he was.” Perhaps that’s as fitting an epitaph as any. An ordinary guy who wasn’t ordinary at all. Roald Jensen may not have enjoyed the success and wealth his talent merited, but as he no doubt would have agreed, talent, somehow, is its own reward. Nearly three decades have passed since his untimely death. However, they still remember and adore him in two great cities either side of the North Sea.

This article first appeared in Issue 1 which was published in September 2016.

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