• Monday, June 24, 2024
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Man United’s Rasmus Hojlund: From €2m Sub to a £73m super strike in 18 months

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Rasmus Hojlund has come a long way in a short time.

The man who is shortly to become Manchester United’s new centre-forward will not turn 21 until February but is now preparing to play for his fourth club in 20 months. At the start of last year, Hojlund — pronounced ‘hoy-lund’, though with a soft ‘d’ in Denmark — was an 18-year-old perennial substitute struggling to persuade FC Copenhagen to give him more regular playing time.

United could pay a total package of €85million (£73m; $93m), which would be almost €1m for every senior appearance Hojlund has made in his club career to date. Even the initial €75m is a substantial outlay for a young player.

But this is a young player of substantial potential — as his sudden rise to prominence demonstrates.

About half an hour’s drive north of Copenhagen is the town of Horsholm, just inland from the Oresund Strait, which separates Denmark from Sweden.

It is a quiet and peaceful place. The schools are very good. “It’s an area that’s middle class — slightly above middle class,” says Christian Mouroux. “Kids do at least one sport, if not sometimes several.”

Mouroux is the director of sports at Horsholm Usserod Idraetsklub (HUI), the local amateur football club. With approximately 1,400 members involved across a range of age groups, HUI is one of the largest clubs of its kind in the country and is supported by around 150 volunteers. Among these were local parents Anders Hojlund and Kirsten Winther.

They are a sporting family. Anders enjoyed a football career largely in Denmark’s lower leagues, and Kirsten was a keen 100m sprinter. Given that they lived just around the corner from HUI’s facilities, it was inevitable that the club would also soon welcome the eldest of their three sons. “Rasmus started his career in football at HUI back when it wasn’t a career yet,” Mouroux says. “I believe he started around the age of three or four, back when it was all just fun and games.”

Anders was a coach at HUI, working closely with his boy. Kirsten was a team administrator — coordinating travel to games, communicating plans with other parents — but also Hojlund’s biggest motivator.

“It wasn’t only the father. Both of them pushed him forward,” says Mouroux. “Anders always jokes about how when the kids came home it was the mother that was not happy if they hadn’t played well.”

That didn’t happen too often. Manchester United’s new striker was one of the better players among his peers at HUI, with his physique proving a particular asset as he grew and moved through the age groups. Ability-wise though, he did not stand out above the rest.

“There were other players in that group just as good. Rasmus wasn’t particularly fast or had extraordinary technical capabilities,” says Mouroux. “He was just someone that loved to play football.

Rasmus is and has always been a hard worker. Every chance he could, he was to be found on the pitch outside of training hours. Sometimes alone, sometimes with his father and sometimes with his little brothers.”

Emil and Oscar, Hojlund’s younger twin siblings, began training at HUI a few years later. Together, the three became so football-obsessed that Anders — a carpenter by trade — renovated the basement of their house, transforming it into an indoor pitch so they could play when the rain swept in off the Oresund.

Not that getting wet bothered Hojlund too much. He had a gift for swimming, which was spotted while he was still taking lessons. He could be so quick off his mark when diving into the pool at the beginning of races that he would often beat the starting gun.

Football was his first love though and, if it was to be pursued, the swimming had to go. More formal training than his father and an amateur club could provide was also needed.

When Hojlund was 12, HUI’s partnership with Copenhagen-based top-flight side Brondby — one Anders had a say in setting up — meant joining their academy was a natural step. HUI have since struck up a similar arrangement with FC Copenhagen, where Hojlund moved after a few years.

It was at Copenhagen that Hojlund’s potential began to be realised, under the tutelage of under-19s coach Hjalte Norregaard. His breakthrough 2020-21 season at that level produced 16 goals in 23 appearances. It was enough to fast-track him into the first-team squad, but not the starting line-up.

Of his 32 senior games for Copenhagen, just three were starts. From his debut against Aarhus in October 2020 to his final match 14 months later, he was usually — as you might have guessed from the previous sentence — a substitute. In his 791 minutes for Copenhagen, there was not one full 90 played.

It is an indication of what has been interpreted in some quarters as a lack of belief in Hojlund among Copenhagen’s senior staff.

Despite those who had worked much more closely with him through the youth system arguing he should be granted more opportunities, his technical ability was questioned and his physical attributes overlooked when competing for a place at first-team level.

For that reason alone, it was not especially surprising when he left the following January for Austria’s Sturm Graz — although the decision on Copenhagen’s part to let a local academy graduate go has not aged well.

Hindsight is even harsher on the initial fee of less than €2million (£1.7m; $2.2m at current exchange rates), even if a 15 per cent sell-on meant they received approximately £2.1million when he joined Atalanta.

When Hojlund’s father was asked whether his boy had received enough opportunities at Denmark’s joint-most successful club, he was unequivocal. “I absolutely do not think so,” Anders told sport magazine Tipsbladet. “This is also Rasmus’ view.”

Hojlund had been tucked in under FC Copenhagen bedding as a child, Anders added. To leave so soon was the biggest disappointment of his young career. “I don’t think they gave him a real chance,” his father said.

The player’s own answers regarding his Copenhagen exit have always been slightly more diplomatic.
“They assessed that it was not me who should be trusted 110 per cent and that is their decision,” he said after making his senior Denmark debut last September, even intimating that some of his former Copenhagen team-mates expressed their regret at the club letting him go.

By then, Hojlund had already moved on again and was an Atalanta player. If he left Copenhagen with a point to prove, he did so in the space of just seven months.

Few people were more excited to see Sturm Graz’s new signing play for the first time than Gerhard Roth.

The renowned author was a lifelong supporter of his hometown club and sat on their board of trustees.

Even after Roth fell seriously ill and was admitted to hospital, he was exchanging messages with club officials and checking in on nuggets of news: especially anything regarding their new signing. “I’m looking forward to Hojlund, the hellhound,” he texted to Sturm’s president Christian Jauk.

Roth did not get to watch Hojlund play for the club. He passed away, aged 79, in February last year — four days before the Dane made his debut.

A minute’s silence was held in Roth’s memory ahead of Sturm’s first home game after his passing.

If the mood was understandably sombre before kick-off against Rapid Vienna, it was lifted with just six minutes gone when Hojlund scored the opener. That was the third of four goals in his first three appearances, a blistering start to life in Austria’s second city which helped that new nickname stick.

“The hellhound already feels at home”, the headline had read in Kronen Zeitung, the country’s leading newspaper — with credit to Roth included — after Hojlund scored twice on his debut in a 2-2 draw away to WSG Tirol.

Hojlund’s performance that day left quite the impression on one of his opponents. “He will be worth every penny,” said Tirol defender Raffael Behounek. “He’s an absolute machine.”

Compared to the €75million United have paid up front, the amount Sturm spent may seem insignificant. It was anything but.

Hojlund was their most expensive signing for the best part of 20 years — since their Champions League exploits in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He is the most successful example of a recruitment strategy focused on signing under-appreciated young talent and turning those players around for a profit.

“I still remember getting the name from my chief scout on WhatsApp, with a little message that this guy is interesting and had something special,” says sporting director Andreas Schicker.

“As a player, we were looking for what we pretty much found in him. A rough diamond, but we saw his speed, the way he attacks spaces behind the line, and he also had a very good physical constitution already despite his young age. He was such a powerful guy. He really lived to score goals.”

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Calls were made to Hojlund’s agency at the time to scope out interest and Zoom meetings were arranged with the player and his family.

“The process took a little while,” Schicker admits. “We tried to convince him of the project being a good step in his career on the sporting side. It wasn’t easy. It took talks with him and his family because it’s not easy as an 18-year-old boy to leave home for the first time. But thankfully we could convince him.”

Once he was in Graz, Hojlund’s drive, work ethic and self-belief shone through.

“He’s not a quiet guy. He already arrived with a very good self-esteem but in a positive way,” says Schicker. “He was not arrogant but he had really high self-confidence. To become that special kind of player, you somehow have to be a little bit special also in terms of personality.”