Danish defender Martin Laursen was a domineering force for Aston Villa during a spell spanning five years. Injury sadly thwarted him from continuing his surge in England, but his legacy will live long in the memory at Villa Park.
Laursen arrived at Aston Villa after spending three years with Italian giants AC Milan at the San Siro. He won four major trophies, including the UEFA Champions League and Italian Serie A in 2003 and 2004 respectively.
He started his career with local club Sikeborg and was mentored by Danish cult hero Preben Elkjaer and former Denmark manager Sepp Piontek. The former is one of the greatest players ever to play for Denmark, and the latter revolutionized the fortunes of the Danish National Team by guiding them to their first ever World Cup finals in 1986.
At 18 years of age, Laursen made his debut in the Danish Superliga. But it was under the tutelage of Piontek that Laursen began to attract attention from clubs across Europe and his shrewd defensive work helped guide Sikeborg to a runners-up finish in the 1997/98 Superliga campaign.
Another coincidental connection with Elkjaer is that Laursen went onto join his former club Hellas Verona in 1998 and it’s believed that the former Danish international played a role in the transfer. The Yellow and Blues had regressed substantially since Elkjaer spearheaded the attack in their fairytale Serie A title winning season in 1985.
They were plying their trade in the Italian Serie B but Laursen was unable to feature regularly during their promotion-winning season after being plagued by a knee injury. Upon his return from injury, Hellas Verona manager Cesare Prandelli immediately reinstalled him into the starting line-up.
Laursen became an integral player in the defensive line and attained the nickname “Lionheart Laursen” due to his bravery and heading capabilities. Meanwhile, Laursen was also flourishing in the Danish National Team and featured at the 2002 FIFA World Cup and 2004 European Championship.
Parma acquired his services for a fee in the region of €4.6 million in 2001, but bizarrely offloaded him to AC Milan on a season-long loan before he’d made a single appearance for the club. He instantaneously made an impression at the San Siro, scoring two goals in 22 appearances, and joined on a permanent deal at the end of the 2001/02 season.
However, Italian defender Alessandro Nesta joined AC Milan from Lazio during the 2002 summer transfer window and Laursen’s playing opportunities significantly decreased. The task of ousting either Paolo Maldini or Nesta from the starting line-up proved an impossible task, and once Jaap Stam arrived from Lazio in 2004, Laursen decided to search for a new challenge.
His career with Denmark was on the rocks due to his reoccurring knee injury, and this also halted his progress in England. Laursen was reduced to just 12 appearances during his debut season at Aston Villa and supporters feared that David O’Leary had wasted £3 million on a player unfit to play the game.
The situation was exacerbated during the 2005/06 season and Laursen featured just once in all competitions. Newly appointed manager Martin O’Neil opted against signing a new defender ahead of the 2006/07 season, but Martin Laursen was again sidelined for the majority of the season.
The Road to Recovery
Zat Knight arrived from Fulham in the 2007 summer transfer window, but Laursen regained his fitness to form an exceptional defensive partnership with Swedish international Olof Melberg. Laursen proved a menacing threat from set pieces and amassed six goals in 39 appearances in all competitions.
He was later voted Danish Player of the Year and Aston Villa Supporters’ Player of the Year for his impressive performances in 2008.
Aston Villa finished in sixth place at the end of the 2007/08 season, scoring a staggering 71 goals and conceding 51 times.
Melberg left Villa Park for Italian giants Juventus in 2008, but Carlos Cuellar filled the void that the Swedish international and combined adequately with Laursen to help guide Aston Villa to yet another sixth-place finish.
The Villains went onto reach the Round of 32 in the UEFA Cup and Laursen scored a memorable header during their European adventure in a group stage clash against Ajax.
The Tragic Ending