FC Midtjylland were considered to have pulled off a coup when the Superliga champions lured Jess Thorup from his Denmark U21 role – as Southampton are finding out.
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It seemed a definite coup for FC Midtjylland when they bought Jess Thorup out of his contract as Denmark Under-21 coach.
Glen Riddersholm had suddenly quit the club after leading them to their first Danish title, but in Thorup they found a replacement equally able to break the mould. On his appointment last month, club director Claus Steinlein said: "Jess stands for FCM's values. He is a team player. He has accomplished one of the greatest achievements in Danish football for a long time by taking the U21 team to the semi-finals of the European Championship."
A former forward and coach with Esbjerg, he was installed as Denmark U21 coach in 2013 and guided them unbeaten to this summer's UEFA European U21 Championship in Czech Republic. "The semi-finals is our goal; the final our ambition," he said before the tournament and they did reach their target, but fell short of their ambition when losing 4-1 against Sweden in the last four.
On the road to the semis, Thorup had shown himself not afraid to axe star players. "Being a coach at a major championship means you have to sack 12 players before each game," he explained. "You have 23 players in your squad and you can only send 11 of them on from the start, so you need to axe and disappoint 12 of them."
While being an U21 coach is about developing talent for the senior squad, being at the helm of the national champions is about maintaining and continuing success. However, when Midtjylland lost 2-1 at home to APOEL in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie in July, Thorup said: "We are still in a learning process." The Danish media responded: "What learning process could FCM possibly be in after all the European matches they have played already?"
If Midtjylland were still in a learning process, they and their boss appeared to learn fast. They won the second leg 1-0 in Cyprus to so nearly go through, and in the UEFA Europa League play-offs their 1-1 draw at Southampton last week gives them a great chance of a group-stage debut, having fallen at this round in the past two seasons.
If they oust Ronaldo Koeman's Saints, a large part of the credit is likely to go to the 45-year-old Thorup – a calm man, but not one afraid to show anger when needed.
Like before a recent away match against Aalborg in the Superliga where he thought the atmosphere in the dressing room way too relaxed. "Do you think this is some kind of summer friendly?" he shouted – and managed to wake his players to such an extent they put on an extremely focused and determined performance to win 2-0.
He did not have to raise his voice at Southampton, and calmness still characterises him when he looks ahead to Thursday's second leg in Herning. "I would not be surprised if we managed to pull off the surprise," he said.