THE BIG INTERVIEW: Little Michael surprised he hit big time at Wanderers
MICHAEL JOHANSEN tells how he was pleasantly surprised to find he was not too small to play in England after making the move from Denmark, which had never been his ambition
DIMINUTIVE midfielders are now considered the norm if a team is to achieve success like Barcelona and Spain have in recent years.
But long before the 21st-century mould was being formulated, and Iniestas and Xavis were mere juniors, Wanderers had their own midfield maestro whose centre of gravity was so low he was affectionately nicknamed “Smurf”.
Michael Johansen arrived in Lancashire in 1996 from his native Denmark, leaving his twin brother Martin behind at FC Copenhagen.
And it did not take the 5ft 6ins playmaker long to make his mark.
Johansen scored in just his third game in a home win against Norwich and then bagged a brace three matches later as the Whites hit Grimsby for six as the march towards the Division One title gathered early pace.
But the man himself admits he was surprised he took to English football so well, particularly in an era long before the influx of foreign talent had impacted so much on the playing style on these shores.
Johansen says it was never really a boyhood dream to try his luck in England but his experience at Wanderers meant it became one he will never forget.
Johansen said: “A lot of Scandinavians will say it was always a dream to play in England because we have it on TV all the time.
“But it was never like that for me as a smaller player; places like Holland and the likes of Ajax and PSV Eindhoven were a lot more technical in those days and I knew that would suit my game.
“I really did not dream about the physical English style but Colin Todd saw something in me he liked.
“I didn’t expect to be a success or enjoy it as much but it turned out to be a very happy time in my life and became a dream move.
“We won promotion in the first season and moved to the new stadium at the Reebok.
“We had bad times as well like the play-off defeat at Wembley in 1999 and the FA Cup semi-final loss on penalties to Aston Villa.
“But on the whole it was a great four years I had in Bolton with some good people.
“Of course, it helped that I had other Scandinavians in the team with me to spend time with away from football with the likes of Per (Frandsen) and Claus (Jensen). I think at one point there were four Danish, two Icelandic and a Finnish international in the ranks.
“Nowadays, I think the game has developed so much with the foreign imports that even the English national team play a different way.
“I think if I was growing up now, it would be a dream to play in England.”
Johansen, now 40 years old, still meets up with his old Wanderers pals on occasion and only recently spent time with Frandsen and Jensen.
But his line of work is more focused on the current generation of Scandinavian footballers and securing their club futures.
Johansen has been a football agent since he hung up his boots nine years ago, originally working with Wayne Rooney’s former representatives Pro-Active and Paul Stretford.
Three years ago he set up his own agency with compatriot, and former Manchester United full-back, John Sivebaek.
But he admits the market has changed to a global one and it is harder now for young Scandinavians to follow in their footsteps and move to the Premier League.
Johansen added: “It is more difficult these days; most players from Scandinavia have a better chance of moving to Belgium or Holland than England because there are a lot of English players who move in the Premier League for big money.
“It is a more international market you are dealing with; the likes of African players were never as common in England when I was there.
“It is a tough job being an agent but one I enjoy.
“I get to travel a lot and see cities without being camped in a hotel like you are when you are playing.”
It’s a hectic life but Johansen still finds time to keep an eye on the only club he played for away from his homeland.
He admits it is hard to see Wanderers at the wrong end of the Championship and hopes boss Dougie Freedman can turn things around and bring about a promotion push similar to the one that brought him success in his first season in England.
Johansen said: “I follow it a lot – English football is still big over in Denmark.
“I am sorry to see Bolton struggling and really hope the good times come back soon.”