Danish champions FC Midtjylland are preparing for the biggest game in their short history – Thursday’s Europa League clash with Manchester United. Whilst they were in the first few months of their life as a football team back in 1999, United were conquering all and winning a historic treble the same summer.
Now the sides meet in Denmark on what will be a landmark occasion for a town that plays host to less than 50,000 people. Former defender Brian Priske – who played at Old Trafford for Portsmouth – has been Midtjylland’s No2 for five years and he spoke to Rich Laverty about the upcoming encounter…
You haven’t played a competitive match of any sort since you faced Club Brugge at the start of December. How difficult have your preparations been for this game during your winter break?
It’s always a big question for Danish sides when we have to play after Christmas in Europe. We have seen in the past that it is difficult for teams like FC Copenhagen and Aab Aalborg. We haven’t played a competitive game in the Danish league since the start of December; the last real competitive game we had was against Brugge, as you say, in the Europa League.
So there is a big question mark for us about where we are at the moment. I think we’ve had a good pre-season so far, there’s been a physical aspect to it, but in the last few weeks, we’ve been trying to work on our style of play, played some friendly games back home in Denmark and out in Dubai as preparation.
When it comes to Thursday, we’ll be a little bit further on from where we are now. We’re not on the same level as we were a few months ago but hopefully we can add some energy and enthusiasm because this is one of the biggest games in the history of our club.
How do you view Manchester United’s form going into this clash? There’s been little consistency in their game recently…
We have two amazing games coming up against Manchester United but our main focus has always been the Danish league and to prepare our players for the opening games of the league, so we can fight for the championship.
The two games against United do require a little extra focus than we’re used to. We’ve watched their game and are trying to prepare our own thoughts on what to expect from them. It’s difficult to get a picture of United at the moment; they’re inconsistent, so that makes it a bit more difficult for us to prepare for them right now.
Can your personal experience of playing against United help prepare some of the less experienced players in your team?
I can try and pass on some experience and calmness to the players because I’ve played at Old Trafford. But we’re here to give United a challenge – we actually believe that we can beat them and we’ve got a great chance at home.
It will be a full stadium; it’s a new experience for every player in our squad. Luckily, we’ve had big away games in Europe – we went to St Mary’s and we went to Nicosia in Cyprus, which was one of the worst home crowds I’ve ever witnessed, so we’ve played in tough atmospheres already this season.
The rise of the club has been incredible, hasn’t it? United were winning trebles when your club was founded…
This is my sixth season here and it’s more or less the same. It was only founded in 1999; some of the founders are still around so we have a special atmosphere at the club.
Everyone is really passionate about football and about this club. The managers and players have changed but I still see a bunch of hard-working people throughout the first team, down to the academy. Behind the scenes people spend so much time trying to develop the club.
Owner Matthew Benham then came along, and I can see already that we’re spending less time on trying to build financially. We feel secure but, on the commercial side, we are still trying to grow as a club. It gives the club some ease and it keeps them safe because we know financially we are solid and we are doing well on the pitch. Matthew is always looking at new ideas to improve, though.
The people around the team know this is a fantastic occasion. It’s what they dreamed of when they founded the club: to bring one of the biggest clubs to our stadium. I give full credit to everyone here because they work around the clock and when things looked really bad for the club they kept going. Now we can provide the club with this game.
We also gave the club their first championship last year and that was fantastic to give that back to those who have put so much into FC Midtjylland. We have tried for many years with no success, so this is a fantastic time now.
How important will your fans be on Thursday night?
Denmark is a special country when it comes to football and the culture of the fans. It’s different from anywhere else because we’re still quite young as a nation when it comes to football; it’s a world away from England and other more developed countries, in that respect.
Our fans aren’t quite at the levels yet that we met in Nicosia last year but they are very passionate now. They have given us a lot over the last six months to help us get here and when we won the championship the fans were fantastic.
I have big expectations for this game; although it won’t be the biggest crowd in the world, I know it will be a great atmosphere. Our fans will give everything to the team because they are all looking forward to it.
What do you make of the situation Louis van Gaal finds himself in at the moment?
Unfortunately, what is happening to him now is just part of football. I don’t read every newspaper – especially in the UK – but, in my opinion, as long as the media are objective and they write ‘proper journalism’ then its okay for me.
When you are at a club like Manchester United, there’s more pressure. People expect United to win every game and if you don’t, they will talk about you. But as long as it doesn’t get personal then I just accept it because you have to.
Finally, what would it mean for football in Denmark if you were to knock United out?
We know that the chances aren’t that big. If we are fortunate enough to go through to the next round, then it would be one of the biggest achievements in Danish club football.
FC Copenhagen have gone through the groups a few times and they’ve been excellent in Europe over the last 10 years, but it’s been a while since anyone from Denmark went much further than we have. As a nation, we need some points towards our coefficient as well, so we can get more teams competing in Europe in the future.