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Jannik Vestergaard: ‘Staying up or Going Down – It Affects Your Life’

Jannik Vestergaard: ‘Staying up or Going Down – It Affects Your Life’

Tuesday, 15 January, 2019 - 07:00
Jannik Vestergaard is buoyed by Southampton’s progress under Ralph Hasenhüttl: ‘We’re developing. I think Chelsea would say that we’re uncomfortable.’ Photograph: Robin Jones/Digital South
London - David Hytner
Jannik Vestergaard describes it as a worry that never goes away, the heaviest of responsibilities, a shadow, something that gnaws at relationships, testing them, redefining them. The Denmark centre-half has stared into the abyss of relegation at two of his previous clubs, Hoffenheim and Werder Bremen, and now he must wrestle with the same emotions at Southampton. Yes, football is a sport, a job, he tells himself. But he knows it is so much more.

“Staying up or going down – it affects your life, hundreds of people who work for the club and the fans at the stadiums,” Vestergaard says. “I have met only a few players who can leave it all in the dressing room.

“So a bad game, a series of bad results – it has an effect on your personal life and it is tough to be around us. I’m sure my family and my wife could sign that. I mean, what Werder Bremen is to the city of Bremen – it is everything. When I’d be out walking my dog, the importance for the whole area, you could feel it. And it’s the same here in Southampton.

“There are a lot of emotions; other people’s emotions, too. You put it in a backpack and you carry it around with you. Am I doing it at the moment? Everyone is, I think. The players and staff would be lying if they said that they didn’t.”

Vestergaard, who joined Southampton from Borussia Mönchengladbach last July for £18m, speaks in flawless English – his third language, behind Danish and German – and has a perspective and conviction that belie his 26 years. Like every football fan in Denmark, Vestergaard grew up watching the Premier League and he dreamed of playing in it. The reality has been bracing. Vestergaard now has a new manager in Ralph Hasenhüttl and 17 games to haul Southampton on to the right side of the relegation cut-off. The mission resumes at Leicester on Saturday.

By Vestergaard’s own admission, he has yet to show his best form. Dropped by the previous manager, Mark Hughes, in early October for seven weeks, he started Hasenhüttl’s first game at Cardiff on 8 December and made the error that led to the only goal. Yet Hasenhüttl kept faith in him for the next match at home to Arsenal and Vestergaard played well in the 3-2 win. There have since been further flickers from him, most notably in the 0-0 draw at Chelsea. Vestergaard senses that things are picking up.

“What I was most happy with was the trust that the manager put in me after Cardiff,” Vestergaard says. “He let me play against Arsenal and it’s those moments when you really have to pay it back and I think I did. I have been struggling, along with the team, to find that level I know I can produce but, especially since Cardiff, I have found a good rhythm. Hopefully, I can build on that.”

Vestergaard played for Bremen and Mönchengladbach against Hasenhüttl’s Ingolstadt and RB Leipzig teams and, in six Bundesliga meetings, he drew two and lost four. It is not necessary to mention the head-to-head. Vestergaard already knows it because he has a laser-like memory for match detail.

“I didn’t like to play against his teams,” Vestergaard says. “They were very aggressive, very uncomfortable [to play], not giving you any time on the ball. To play his way is not something that happens overnight but we’re getting there. We’re developing. I think Chelsea would say that we’re uncomfortable.”

Vestergaard says that the keys to winning a relegation battle are “balls and keeping calm”. He speaks from a position of authority, having been a part of two dramatic escapes, the first of which came at Hoffenheim in 2013. Vestergaard’s team had needed to win at Borussia Dortmund on the final day and hope that Fortuna Düsseldorf did not in order to reach a two-legged relegation play-off and nobody gave them a prayer.

Jürgen Klopp, the then Dortmund manager, started with the same XI he would use in the Champions League final against Bayern Munich the following weekend and they went 1-0 up early. Remarkably, Hoffenheim turned it around with two late penalties but Dortmund looked to have sent them down with a last-gasp equaliser. The referee gave the goal only for his assistant to then disallow it for offside.

Düsseldorf lost at Hannover and Hoffenheim advanced to the play-off where they would beat Kaiserslautern, with Vestergaard heading the clinching goal in the second leg. Three seasons later, he was involved in another last-day showdown, when his Bremen team had to beat Eintracht Frankfurt to stay up. Draw and they would have entered the play-off; lose and they might have gone down. They won 1-0 with an 88th-minute goal.

“My goal against Kaiserslautern is probably still the best moment of my career,” Vestergaard says. “I said that I didn’t know how it was to win a championship, the World Cup or a Champions League but I would have a hard time thinking it could be a better feeling than the one we had then. Staying up is indescribable but I’d rather not go through the buildup.”

Vestergaard has a Danish father, a German mother and football in his genes. His mother’s father and brother played at a high level in Germany, with the former, Hannes Schröers, also turning out briefly for West Ham’s youth team. “It was the mid-1950s and he did it in connection with becoming an English teacher in Germany,” Vestergaard says. “He came to England for a year to learn the language. At that time, football wasn’t really paying. He was a left-back and when he didn’t know what to do, he would play it in deep and the striker, after a couple of long balls, would rip his head off because he didn’t want to run all the time. He’s got stories like that.”

Vestergaard has been similarly unafraid to make bold moves. At 15, after falling from favour in the Copenhagen junior ranks, he joined their rivals Brøndby. A growth spurt was cited as the reason for him stalling. He now stands at 6ft 6in and is the tallest outfield player in the Premier League.

Vestergaard got back in sync at Brøndby and was offered terms by Hoffenheim, which he accepted, even though it meant moving to Germany and living alone at 17. The club was the making of him and he reflects with fondness on his four and a half years there.

Vestergaard’s ambition has always burned fiercely. “I was part of the Denmark World Cup squad last summer but I didn’t play and I was angry,” he says. “Had you told me when I was a kid that I’d do this, this and this, maybe I would have taken it but your goals move as you reach them. The World Cup was amazing and horrible. You always want more.”

Now what Vestergaard wants more than anything is Premier League survival.

The Guardian Sport

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