What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of FC Midtjylland? More than likely, it will be 2016’s Europa League tie against Manchester United – where the relative minnows somehow won the first leg 2-1, before a little-known prodigy called Marcus Rashford stepped up to help knock them out at Old Trafford the following week.
Suddenly, the Ulvrene (Wolves) became a force and name to be reckoned with. However, under the radar, Denmark’s youngest top-flight football club had been making their mark for a long while. The story is remarkable.
FC Midtjylland, off the pitch…
Back on 7th April 1999, Johnny Rune, Chairman of Ikast FS and a carpenter, and Steen Hessel, Chairman of Herning Fremad and a Mercedes-Benz dealer, sat at a table in front of some cameras and the Danish press to announce a merger of their clubs.
For the preceding decade, a joining of forces had always been in the offing, but negotiations had always broken down. It was still an unprecedented move in the football world, particularly considering a long-standing rivalry between the two local sides. The newly-formed FC Midtjylland’s goal was simple, if ambitious: climb to the highest echelons of European football.
Rune earmarked this clearly from the off.
“The goal is promotion to the Superliga in a year, be part of the top six and then play [European] football within five years. Therefore we have included an English FC (Football Club) in the new name”.
The optimism was admirable; set the bar high, and then jump for it. He also mentioned a desire to win the Superliga, with the rough timeline of a decade later…
Back to basics first. The main issue for the new board was where the matches should be played, and then where a new stadium should be built. Initially, they agreed to alternate venues between Ikast and Herning on a season-by-season basis. It then took nearly five years for the 12,000 capacity MCH Arena to be ready for play, but the club have been there ever since and average around a 70% attendance rate. It is a modern but no-frills environment, perfect for a focus on just one thing – the football.
On the pitch…
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the new board’s objectives were all met over time. In FC Midtjylland’s very first season, 1999/2000, they won the 1 Division by 14 points and at a canter. Promotion followed and the club have finished in the top six every season since then, with only two exceptions: 2002/2003 and 2005/2006. In these years, seventh place was deemed a disappointment, showing just how far they had come.
This series of strong league finishes meant that the Wolves had, as Rune desired, dipped their toes into the waters of European football within five years of founding. UEFA Cup runs beyond the qualifying rounds in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2008 were ended by Sporting Lisbon, Anderlecht, CSKA Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow, but there was a feeling more could be done.
At the turn of the decade, the only thing to have eluded FC Midtjylland was the Superliga title. After a handful of second-placed league finishes it just felt like a matter of time, and sure enough, in May 2015 (although slightly behind Rune’s initial schedule) they made history by becoming Danish champions for the first time.
Coach Glen Riddersholm’s men hit the top spot after the opening game and remained there for all but two gameweeks. They rallied to beat initial title favourites Copenhagen to the crown by four points – and clinched it with three games left. By signing the Superliga’s top scorer Martin Pusic in January, alongside the experience of Morten Nicolas Rasmussen, who notched 13 goals, the side scored freely on their way to glory, aided also by top assist-maker Jakob Poulsen.
As Danish champions, FC Midtjylland’s prize was a place in the Champions League qualifying rounds, but sadly their chances of making the group stage run ended in an away goals defeat to APOEL Nicosia. However, they made it to the Europa League group stage instead by knocking out Southampton, to set them on a path to meet Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United in the last 32.
So is there a secret to their success? Over the last few seasons, possibly.
Matthew Benham’s arrival as majority shareholder in 2014 (he made a £6.2m investment in the club) has been highly significant. He made millions with his company Smartodds, who used mathematical models to predict results and analyse the game objectively, before immediately implementing these strategies with the Midtjylland playing staff.
Their increased success with set-pieces at both ends of the field is widely attributed to this new-found specialist knowledge. In addition, the club’s recruitment team have made use of similar data modelling and analytics in order to talent-spot and ascertain value that others might miss in the market.
Evidently, FC Midtjylland is a club leading from the front, unafraid to take risks and forge a path for itself. The club’s 18-year history is already rich – and if they continue with the same proud and unique philosophy, the sky is likely their limit.
Perhaps it might be time for Johnny Rune to set them some new goals…