Footballers' Lives with Brian Jensen: When my gran Else died it tore family apart but my wife Maria has been my rock
In the latest of our popular series, Crusaders keeper Brian Jensen discusses tragic losses, his Denmark woe, why he’s desperate to taste title success and whether retirement is on the horizon.
Q. What are your early football memories?
A. I always had a ball at my feet. I went from a grassroots club to B.93 Copenhagen when I was around 11. They have youth teams and it wasn't goalkeeping for me until I was about 15. I was the biggest, the dumbest and the craziest so they took a punt on me. I played with the Under-17s and did really well, breaking into the first-team squad. I kicked on from there and did some training as an electrician. I got my first professional contract when I was 20 with AZ Alkmaar while still finishing off my education. Fortunately a guy called John Bredal made sure I was in good shape and the breakthrough for me came in an Under-19 tournament with a few older players allowed in Holland. I was voted the player of the tournament against teams like Benfica.
Q. Was John Bredal a big influence on you at that early stage of your career?
A. I still speak to John and he got me through that time. He got me back on track when my head was somewhere else. We finished third in that tournament and two weeks later I had a contract with Alkmaar. I had been concentrating on training to be an electrician, I never thought about a career in football. A lot of my team-mates were better players than me but chose a different path. It's different in Denmark than elsewhere in Europe for young players looking to have a career in the game and I was fortunate to have the ability and be in the right place at the right time. I signed a three-year deal with AZ Alkmaar but three months later their goalkeeper signed a 10-year deal! Then he was invited to the Holland international side so I drifted out of the first team. Their reserve manager was from England and very good friends with Brian Little at West Brom. I went there on trial, joined them and kicked on. You always worry but I bit the bullet and ground it out. Hard work pays off. I've always believed in myself which is important.
Q. Have you thought about hanging up the goalkeeping gloves?
A. No, I've always believed in my ability. For four years before I came to Crusaders all my roles have been as player/coach and I want to get into that. Coaching is a passion but I've taken the opportunity to come here with both hands.
Q. What has been the best moment in your career?
A. I've celebrated a few promotions with AZ Alkmaar, also West Brom into the Premier League but the big one was with Burnley where I played the majority of the games and we beat Sheffield United at Wembley in the play-off final to go into the best league in the world.
Q. And do you have a favourite save?
A. The penalty shoot-out against Chelsea in the League Cup and I saved a few against Manchester United as well but probably the best game I had in the promotion season was against Reading at home, we won 1-0 and I must have pulled off about 10 saves. I couldn't believe it.
Q. A goalkeeper's bad moments can be very costly. How have you dealt with the mental side of the game?
A. Our mistakes will be highlighted. I had a few balls go through my legs but you have to be mentally strong. You have to forget about mistakes and it's a great skill for a keeper to have. It will affect you but you have to block that out because your team needs you and you may have to pull off a big save later. It's something you learn through experience. I've been dropped and it's disappointing but you work harder to get back in. At Burnley they brought in three international keepers and I knocked them all back. I'm trying to learn something new every day, even at 42.
Q. Do you have a major regret?
A. I wouldn't say it was a regret, more a bad decision. I signed a new deal with Burnley in the Premier League when I should have waited until the summer. Other opportunities came up and I could have been braver but I signed the deal. When I got released from Burnley I ended up at Bury while the other potential better moves never materialised. As soon as I had the Crusaders opportunity I didn't hesitate. There were coaching offers but this was an opportunity to extend my career.
Q. You haven't played for the Denmark international team. Is that a major disappointment?
A. Yes, very. Especially when it was just me and Thomas Sorensen in the Premier League. We were going to South Africa in the summer and I was on standby for a game against Portugal. Thomas was suspended and I came over and was involved with the squad. But they picked a guy who had been injured for 270 days that year, he came back a month before the squad was picked and apparently it was something to do with playing style. For me, you need to pick players playing well to represent their country with pride. It was a big disappointment. It would have been the biggest highlight of my career, it would have completed my CV. What should have been the biggest highlight of my career was instead my biggest disappointment.
Q. Who is responsible for that charming nickname of yours, 'The Beast'?
A. It was the first-choice keeper at West Brom, Chris Adamson, when I came in on trial. They asked what he thought of the new goalkeeper and he said, 'He's like a beast'. On my debut against Tranmere the fans were shouting 'Beast' and I thought they were booing me! We won 2-0 and I kept a clean sheet so I thought they were being harsh!
Q. Did you know much about Crusaders or the Irish League before joining them?
A. In 2013 I did have contact with the club and have followed them. I still felt I could play at a higher level and my boys were younger then. It's a bit easier for me to travel to play. I got to know Michael Dougherty through goalkeeping coaching and have kept in contact. The lads have been brilliant and it's a great changing room. The standard is decent, particularly in the top six. Dungannon have impressed me and they would be even better with a few goalscorers.
Q. Who has been the best player you have played with and toughest opponent?
A. Andy Cole or little Ruel Fox who was at Tottenham, Newcastle and came to West Brom. You could ping the ball in at 100mph and he would kick it stone dead. Jay Rodriguez and Kieran Trippier were also great players. You always have a nemesis and the one that stands out for me is Robbie Keane… he always seemed to score against me.
Q. Tell us about your passion for coaching.
A. Both my boys went to a local club called Vale Juniors. I still work with their keepers and am an ambassador for the club. I thought with my experience and knowledge I should help these kids, near Crewe and Stoke. I live about 20 minutes away from Crewe.
Q. Do both your boys play football?
A. Yes, Jamie, who is 14, is at Port Vale Academy and a right winger. He's been at Crewe and Stoke. Sebastian is a 12-year-old goalkeeper who has just signed a five-year scholarship with Everton. With Sebastian, everything is paid for, he's picked up in the morning and he's basically a 12-year-old professional. I don't agree with it. It's a little too early and I'd like them to be boys and have their childhood. He can be picked up at 7.30am and not be home until 9pm. It's incredible pressure on a young boy. He does enjoy it but I'm happy to take him out if that changes. The boys have opportunities but they develop at different stages and I'm not worried about them. If they want a year's break I can understand that because they need to be children too.
Q. Did you encourage the boys to go into football?
A. I didn't have to. Even when they were two-weeks-old my wife Maria, also from Denmark, took them to watch me. They have grown up with football and after their first word was 'dad' their second was 'ball'. I was happy but Maria was probably more sick of football as time went on! If that's what they want to do I won't hold them back but I won't pressure them into something they won't enjoy.
Q. Our part-time players can find it difficult to balance work, family and football. Is it even tougher for you with all the travelling?
A. It's the young one at Everton who I don't see as much as he plays games on a Sunday when I'm travelling home and I miss those. It has been a little bit of an issue but not that bad. The midweek games kill you and it has been tough but Crusaders have organised it very well and made sure I'm happy here.
Q. Are there any goalkeepers you look up to?
A. Peter Schmeichel. He changed the game at that time, coming through youth ranks in Copenhagen, going to Brondby and then to Manchester United. I've always been a United fan, unlike most of my friends. They also had John Sivebaek and Jesper Olsen.
Q. Is Maria still an air hostess?
A. Yes, she got a new job with easyJet. She was with Monarch Airlines for 21 years until they shut down in November. It was hard for her. She was a cabin manager and it's hard to start from scratch again. But she is doing part-time work and starts with easyJet in June, from Manchester.
Q. How did you meet?
A. (laughs) In a nightclub in Birmingham… it was meant to be! We've been married 13 years in May and been together for 16. She's been an absolute rock… behind every good man as they say. We didn't have any family around us to help with the boys when they were younger and she was immense. She follows the team but she's not a football person, she's a keen runner and completed a few marathons.
Q. Do you have family in Denmark?
A. My mum Lise and brother Marcus but I haven't been back in a few years. I hope to go over in the summer. My stepfather Karl, who raised me since I was a year and a half, died a few years ago in his late 60s with cancer. He adopted me when I was 18. My biological dad Arne is still alive and we are still in contact. He works with my mum and brother in the docks in Copenhagen. We didn't see much of Karl in his later years as he moved to Thailand. Myself and my brother had a great upbringing and I did look up to my parents. My mum was an absolute rock to keep the family together. You appreciate what you have, be humble and work hard to get your rewards. I lived in the suburbs of Copenhagen where there were gangs but my mum and dad gave us good advice. I had issues in my life but got back on track.
Q. What has been the worst day of your life?
A. When my stepfather passed away it was devastating but the one that shook me most was when my nan Else died. It came out of the blue, it was a heart attack. She had diabetes, something escalated and she slept in. That happened in 1998 and it was a tough one. I was around 23 and Else was the heart of the family. She was the focal point for the get-togethers and when she died that disappeared. It tore our family apart. My stepgrandad had cancer and died a few years later. It tore the family up, she was a great woman. I was always looked after by her.
Q. Would you go back to Denmark to live?
A. No, we socialise here and have mutual friends. Maria is from a rural part of Denmark and I'm the city boy. The boys are settled in England.
Q. What was your wedding like?
A. We had a castle, but it cost the absolute minimum compared to here. You will get wedding dresses here that will cost more than our wedding did. For the honeymoon, castle with 15 rooms for closest family, we paid between £13,000 and £15,000. Not bad for a full castle to celebrate the day!
Q. How have you found married life?
A. You have ups and downs but it's been great. We are soulmates and she's been an absolute rock. We have two boys, life has been good.
Q. A title victory would be a nice family celebration. Have you won any?
A. I've won a few promotions but no titles. It was nice to win the County Antrim Shield but a first title would be fantastic.
Q. Do you have a big decision to make at the end of the season?
A. I'm feeling good and still think I can do a job. You never know what lucrative opportunities will come up. Crusaders won't offer me a five-year deal! I've loved it so far.
Date of birth: June 8, 1975
Place of birth: Copenhagen
Previous clubs: B.93, AZ Alkmaar, (Hvidore IF, loan) West Brom, Burnley, Bury, Crawley Town, Mansfield Town
Crusaders record: 38 appearances