By Peter Bruun
Five-times Danish champions, Esbjerg fB have subsisted on little but memories for the past few decades. It is 25 years since their last league title in 1979, but after a startling turnaround in fortunes, 2004 could yet be a year to remember for EfB.
Having endured the worst period in their history in the decade following relegation from the top flight in 1986, Esbjerg have re-established themselves among the Danish élite. They are even threatening the Superliga dominance of the established duo of FC København and Brøndby IF.
Coach Ove Pedersen, who led Esbjerg to fifth position last season, has taken the team to second place in the table going into the Danish winter break - three points behind Brøndby but four ahead of København, and with a genuine chance of challenging for the title in the spring.
"We realise that teams like Brøndby and København have a lot more experience in winning championships than we have, but we want to be in contention for the championship until the season ends in May," the former FC Midtjylland coach told uefa.com.
Esbjerg's success has been credited to years of hard work by Pedersen and his predecessor Viggo Jensen. As Pedersen put it: "It is mainly a result of several years of dedicated work developing a very talented squad. Most of our players are still young and far from the finished article."
However, older heads have played their part too. "It is not just our young players who have been improving," said the trainer. "The likes of veteran striker Jess Thorup are probably in the best form of their careers."
Pedersen himself has a reputation in Danish football as a man with an eye for a bargain. He is renowned for his habit of watching as many lower-league matches as possible, but the coach insists it is pure necessity rather than natural parsimony that has governed his transfer policy.
"I am used to working at smaller clubs, where it has been necessary to find new players at low prices and therefore to be first to spot new talents," he said. "I might have had a different attitude if I had been coach at Brøndby or København, where more expensive players are usually affordable."
That policy of finishing rough diamonds is not without its risks, although Pedersen is confident that Esbjerg have enough quality in reserve to deal with losing players. "Our squad consists of 27 players, which is almost unheard of in Denmark these days, and that makes us less vulnerable to losing players to foreign clubs from time to time - like Tommy Bechmann, who is joining VfL Bochum 1848 this summer," he said.
With all the good work being done behind the scenes, Esbjerg are clearly planning for the long term, yet the possibility of a raid on the title remains high on the agenda for the coach. He is certainly not about to dismiss his side's chances of causing an upset.
"The way I see it, three teams can win the title in Denmark this season - Brøndby, ourselves and København," he said. "We open the spring season away against Brøndby in a match which may well be decisive for the championship." Win that, and Esbjerg could be en route to their sixth, and perhaps most glorious, title.
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