Wild Goose Chase: The Lars Elstrup Story

Posted: March 21, 2018 in Uncategorized

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If ever a contest was in need of a distraction, it was the dour Danish Supaliga struggle between also-rans Randers and VF Silkeborg in August 2016. Midway through the second half, one hell of a diversion duly arrived when a bald and very much naked middle-aged man sprang onto the turf, bounded athletically round the pitch and entertained spectators with handstands and cartwheels while avoiding the pursuing stewards.

It soon became apparent, however, that this was not your common or garden streaker. In fact, this was an unorthodox homecoming for a Randers kid made good. He was a member of football’s other Class of ’92 – the Denmark team who shocked everyone by winning a European Championship they hadn’t even qualified for. Not only had the nude intruder made a valuable contribution to that triumph; he’d once rivalled Gary Lineker and Ian Wright in England’s goalscoring charts. The Randers streak was merely the latest chapter in the often sad, always strange story of Lars Elstrup, Denmark’s forgotten hero.

Elstrup first struck the national consciousness in these isles when he ruined Peter Shilton’s big day at Wembley in 1989. Honoured pre-match for notching his world record-breaking 109th cap, Shilts was then done at his near post by the impudent Elstrup as England and Denmark settled for a 1-1 friendly draw. Such disrespect for reputations caught the eye of Luton Town, then basking in their last golden age of assorted Steins, Harfords and Littlewoods Cup Finals. £750,000 – The Hatters’ record fee to this day – was dispatched to Odense to bring him to Kenilworth Road.

Hatter

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The Bedfordshiring-in process wasn’t an easy one, and Elstrup could at first serve up only mere nibbles of his dead-eyed instincts, most notably in destroying Mansfield with all five goals in a 5-0 League Cup win at Field Mill. If the change of sponsor from Littlewoods to Rumbelows saw a Samsonesque sapping of Luton’s powers in the competition, there was at least comfort that Elstrup was about to explode on the First Division stage.

1990-91, that honeydewed post-Italia ’90 season, saw the striker bag 15 league goals, matching the tallies of Lineker and Wright and outscoring perennial chart botherers like Beardsley and McClair. That campaign saw him unleash the full extent of his waspish, insistent, predatory schtick. Industrious and deceptively speedy – he famously left Des ‘You’ll Never Beat Des Walker’ Walker choking on his dust at the City Ground – he could score from anywhere, provided that ‘anywhere’ was within the confines of the penalty area. His goals all but single-handedly preserved Luton’s First Division status.

Elstrup, however, was increasingly homesick, and when an unconvinced David Pleat replaced Jimmy Ryan that summer, the striker demanded to be allowed to go back to Denmark, even threatening to retire if he wasn’t allowed to do so. Luton took a heavy hit, recouping just £200,000 of that record fee as Elstrup, in some acrimony, headed back to Odense.

European Champion

Rather than fading back into obscurity however, it was this supposed backwards step that would propel Elstrup into history. 12 goals in his comeback season saw him drafted into Richard Møller Nielsen’s hastily assembled Euro ’92 squad – a forward down after Michael Laudrup’s fallout with the manager. A draw and defeat in their opening group games put the party crashers on the cusp of ejection; only a win against favourites France would do. Deep into the second half, with the game finely poised at 1-1, Nielsen called from the bench the man Brian Laudrup had dubbed ‘Denmark’s Papin’. His right-place, right-time sonar would pay off on the biggest stage yet, Elstrup sweeping in a 78th minute close-range winner to put the Danes in the semis.

There, he would get the chance to repeat the trick in another nail biter against the Netherlands. Normal time offered few opportunities for glory, but when penalties were required, Elstrup converted his with a minimum of fuss. Marco van Basten’s nerves would not prove as ironclad.

Elstrup’s services would not be required in the final, as his countrymen pulled off the biggest shock in the competition’s history, but he was no less proud for all that, celebrating wildly, medal in hand.

Then, at 30, still around his peak, Lars Elstrup, scorer of 130 goals in 340 games and 13 in 34 for his country, quit football completely.

If it felt abrupt, it really wasn’t. He had been plagued by anxiety throughout his adult life, only ever able to keep it at bay for spells. During his late 20s, those anxieties would intensify, and he has freely admitted that he contemplated injuring himself to get out of playing.

Elstrup was surprisingly relaxed during Euro ’92, with expectations for the team low and the pressure off. But that changed as soon as they beat the Dutch; fear tightened its grip on him once more. During the final, he actively avoided Møller Nielsen’s gaze, petrified he might be asked to come on. In that moment, he would confess, he didn’t care if the team won or lost; all that mattered was that he stayed on the bench. As delighted as he ultimately was in the afterglow of the Danish triumph, he felt exhausted and disconnected from the game. Fears over his career, followed by the breakup of his long-term relationship, were enough to push him into early retirement. Elstrup, however, was about to make even more drastic changes…

Cult Hero

His life destabilised, and stricken with depression, Elstrup sought an alternative lifestyle, and in 1993 joined a branch of the anarcho-buddhist Wild Goose sect based at a farmhouse just outside Odense. Run by Englishman Michael Barnett, with members all over Europe, the cult claims to be ‘in touch with the cosmic space’ and appealed to Elstrup’s longing for freedom and a new identity. To that end, he changed his name to ‘Darando’ during his cult years, which translates literally as ‘Flowing River’.

Initially, Elstrup felt that being part of the sect helped him, and his life improved. However, depression was soon invading his life again, and he locked himself away for days at a time, avoiding all contact. Wild Goose would eventually have damaging consequences. The ‘primal scream’ therapy he was subjected to scarred him emotionally. His relationship with his parents, previously strong, fractured. The quiet, polite boy they knew now bellowed abuse at them down the telephone and refused to see them when they tried to visit the farmhouse.

The Wild Goose years ended acrimoniously, and he even found himself forbidden from visiting the dog he’d adopted during his time in the sect. He would leave to start his own cult, ‘Heart of the Sun‘, but that too would end in rancorous circumstances.

Rope Trick

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The 21st Century has seen Elstrup’s behaviour become ever more bizarre and erratic. He has landed himself in trouble in Denmark for, variously, exposing himself in a shopping mall, allegedly threatening a bus driver, performing a ‘naked rope trick’ in central Copenhagen and then slapping a schoolboy who laughed at said trick – for which he received a 60-day prison sentence, later commuted to 80 hours’ community service. At the age of 36, he attempted a comeback and told The Telegraph that he intended to play for his country again, only to walk out of a trial with Odense on learning he wouldn’t be paid.

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Visiting London, he stumbled across a charity game in Regents Park between the staff of NME and Loaded magazines, and promptly stripped down to his underpants, joined in, scored five and then wandered off, according to participants, in search of some female company.

By 2012, things were looking better. He was living the lifestyle of ‘the millionaire vagabond’ on his Danish houseboat. He sold his Euro ’92 winner’s medal and gave the £17,000 fee to a children’s charity. He told his story to Danish journalist Fria Indersiden in a very well-received book. The next time he’d resurface publicly would be on that pitch in Randers, naked.

It’s impossible to know if these are the actions of a genuine eccentric or a deeply troubled man. Depression has been a constant, lurking presence, and Elstrup has admitted contemplating suicide on numerous occasions. He does, thankfully, appear to be in a better place at the moment. His quest for peace and stability has taken him to India, a country he has fallen in love with, appealing to his spiritual side.

From deadly international marksman, to flowing river, to cult leader, to purported ‘millionaire vagabond’, Elstrup has long struggled to work out who he is. Hopefully, he has at last found the peace and belonging he has searched for, and can look back on his career with the fondness that fans from Odense to Copenhagen to Kenilworth Road do.

 

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