A gigantic Danish goalkeeper, signed for just over half a million quid from the Danish champions. Is Mark Hughes having flashbacks to the summer of 1991?
Just weeks after Sparky scored twice in Rotterdam to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup for Manchester Utd, he was joined at Old Trafford by a behemoth from Brondby, who would go on to become an influential figure in the club’s 90s dominance and the best goalkeeper the Premier League has seen…as well as make this embarrassing bacon advert.
So does Mark Hughes see a touch of the Schmeichels in Jakob Haugaard?
Maybe, maybe not, but the similarities run dry when you explore the circumstances of their respective arrivals in this green and pleasant land. Schmeichel was 27, already a full Danish international and one of the best ‘keepers in Europe. Haugaard, at 6ft6 a full three inches taller than the former Man Utd ‘keeper, joins as the club’s likely third-choice custodian, with just one season of regular professional football to his name.
The fact that Haugaard has played so little football is what makes him one of our more intriguing signings of the summer. He had played just 14 games for second-tier AB when he was snapped up by FC Midtjylland as a 19-year-old, and featured just seven times in two seasons before surprisingly getting the nod as first-choice at the start of 2014/15.
Perhaps it’s significant that he rose to prominence during the glorious data revolution that Denmark’s Black Wolves underwent last season. Owned by Matthew Benham, the same ex-hedge fund manager who owns Brentford, Midtjylland have acted as guinea pigs for the statistics-based management model Benham is now developing with the Bees. The team is picked based on mathematical analysis, the manager is judged not on results but on whether or not he is meeting certain key performance indicators, and coaches are similarly sent texts at half time informing them whether or not the players have measured up to particular metrics of their own. The upshot was that Midtjylland won the first Danish Superliga title in their history.
Despite this unexpected triumph, however, it hasn’t been easy for Haugaard. The young man’s campaign was a tumultuous one. When first-choice ‘keeper Jonas Lössl left for Ligue Un and Guingamp, eyebrows were raised as Haugaard was given the nod over the more experienced Lasse Heinze. He made a shaky start, keeping just two clean sheets in his first 10 games, and only one top half side conceded more than Midtjylland. Gradually, he improved as the Wolves’ unlikely title bid sprang to life. Then, however, his form dipped at a crucial time, just before the transfer window opened, and back-to-back 3-o hammerings in the cup and the league (the latter to title rivals FC Copenhagen) saw Midtjylland enter the market for a new number one. In came Swedish international Johan Dahlin, and Haugaard found himself abruptly benched.
The consensus among fans was that this demotion was harsh – the club had shown ruthlessness in wanting to add experience in goal as they sought to maintain their unexpected title tilt. It was a situation not entirely dissimilar to the Simmo/Nash one during our promotion season, one might argue.
Still, it had to be a blow to the 23-year-old’s confidence, and in the reserves he made some howlers that made the decision look justified. Dahlin, however, wasn’t blowing anyone away either, not least because he couldn’t stay fit, and within a couple of months Haugaard had reclaimed the jersey.
As is often the case with young players, the break turned out to be a good thing, taking him out of the firing line, and it was a more confident, mature Haugaard who saw out the season as first choice, keeping four clean sheets in his first six games back in the side and being the man between the sticks when the championship was clinched.
So what kind of goalkeeper is he? According to the man himself, he likes to command his area but also play a bit on the deck, which sounds mildly terrifying. First impressions though have been excellent. He proved the surprise star of our Barclays Asia Cup adventure, where he displayed bravery and decisiveness in equal measure with a series of fine saves against Everton.
Haugaard is well aware, nevertheless, that he’s unlikely to see much immediate action, and seems grateful just for the opportunity to develop here. I know a lot of people think that money is the only thing that talks in football, but I genuinely believe the rich tradition of goalkeepers we have at Stoke City holds a significant pull for young stoppers.
The fourth Scandinavian ‘keeper on the club’s books this century, it’s hard to know if Jakob Haugaard will prove a worthy successor to Thomas Sorensen or merely another Jani Viander-type trivia question in waiting. Given his potential, his determination, and the character he’s shown so far however, I could see him going on to surprise a few people – even if he doesn’t end up in his own bacon advert.