Tribal Football

Lars Elstrup exclusive: The Luton & Danish cult hero 'who never knew how good he was'

Lars Elstrup exclusive: The Luton & Danish cult hero 'who never knew how good he was'
Lars Elstrup exclusive: The Luton & Danish cult hero 'who never knew how good he was'
Lars Elstrup exclusive: The Luton & Danish cult hero 'who never knew how good he was'Jacob Hansen
Imagine playing a decisive role in getting your nation to a final at the European Championship and not wanting to play the final. Not because you’re injured but because you’re scared. That was how Lars Elstrup felt when Denmark won the final in 1992.

While his team beat Germany 2-0 Elstrup spent the whole game on the bench hoping he wouldn’t get called upon to join the action. He was a matchwinner against France in the last group game. Without that goal Denmark would have missed the semifinal in which they beat The Netherlands on penalties. Lars Elstrup scored one of those penalties. And then a black cloud lowered itself on his mind.


”It started maybe two days before the final. Up until that point I had really wanted to take part in the previous four matches. Be in the line-up, even. But something changed and there was no way I wanted to play in the final,” Elstrup tells Tribalfootball, when we meet the former Luton-star for a coffee and a talk about football and life. Elstrup also describes how unwell he was during the final in his autobiography “The Unhappy Hero”.

“I was afraid of being a failure. What if I miss a big chance and we don’t win?” Elstrup continues on a day he has no fond memories of. Not even the parties following the sensational triumph. At least he looks back on the goal against France with a sense of joy.

”When you win a football-game, whether you’re 12 og 29 and you score a decisive goal is a great feeling. This goal proved to be significant and we had the attention of a whole nation,” says Elstrup, who only entered the tournament with Denmark because a war broke out in Yugoslavia. 



Terrible time at Town

Legend has it the squad consisted of more or less unfit players coming straight from the beach on their holidays. A legend which for instance former Arsenal midfielder John Jensen has labelled as rubbish, but  Elstrup disagrees.

“Fact is we weren’t prepared. We were called in at the last minute and hadn’t prepared mentally or physically for a tournament as you’re supposed to.”

Coming into to the tournament like that meant very low expectations for the Danish team which suited  Elstrup brilliantly.

“I think this goes for most human beings; the less pressure the better you perform. Your mind is freed up, you act more freely and intuitively, and then you’re also more likely to succeed.”

Succeed they did, but Elstrup compares the day of the final to a time when, at age 18 he competed against his brother in being named Rookie of the Year for Randers FC.

”I almost hoped they’d pick my brother because then I wouldn’t have to stand up and make a speech,” so while  Jensen, Brian Laudrup, Peter Schmeichel and the rest of the squad got plastered,  Elstrup fought to stay afloat mentally. Which is more or less also how he remembers his two years at Luton Town as well.

“It was terrible. But I can say the same about my time in OB,” Elstrup hastens to add, as it has more to do with his mental state than playing for Luton Town.

“It was exciting coming up Kenilworth Road, watching all the religions coming together in that community but to me, it was always a matter of; what if they recognize me, talk to me? What if they are unfriendly, or perhaps friendly, how do I react,” Elstrup recalls of a time, where he more or less spent two years driving the 15 minutes between his home and the ground and not much else. 


Elstrup happy making Luton return
Elstrup happy making Luton returnJacob Hansen


15 years in the dark

But how does one still perform to a level that makes Town fans talking about  Elstrup to this day with almost misty eyes? Scoring 15 goals in the second season which has still to be bettered by any Danish player in the top English division. A season which had Howard Wilkinson vying for Elstrup’s signature before what turned out to be a title-winning season for Leeds United.

”It shows how much a human is capable of doing without being true to themselves or even of a sound mind,” says Elstrup who went back to Odense, to OB, and one year later finished his career as a footballer.

A lot has been written about  Elstrup in the years since then. A lot are also accounted for in his book. He joined a community, changed his name to Darando, found an Indian guru, got arrested in both Odense and Trafalgar Square, streaked naked during a match in the Danish Super League to name a few “highlights”. And, not least, spent a total of around 15 years lying in bed struck down by depression leaving him incapable of even taking a shower. 

“At one point I had grass growing up from my drain in the shower,” he says with a wry smile.

Since 1 January 2022 he’s been well, though, but also keeps a close eye on his mental state to not experience a setback.

“I am as strong as I’ve ever been. I split my life into phases and this latest phase is now over two years long. Today, I look back at yesterday and compare how I’ve developed mentally in this time. How do I feel this development inside myself? What kind of thoughts do I have, how do I react and interact to a conversation today compared to yesterday.” 



A big hug from Gary Sweet

He has used this latest period of feeling ok to make a trip back to Luton to “do all the stuff I never did back then”.

“It was extremely exciting. Walking down the street, sitting in a café, talking to the grounds man, I even got to chat to Mick Harford, my old teammate.”

Elstrup also had a lovely meeting with current CEO of Luton Town, Gary Sweet. 

“He was a young fan when I played there and now, he’s the boss. I arrived unannounced but he interrupted a meeting to  give me the biggest hug. When he heard where I was staying, he promptly put me up in a great hotel with full supply. It was very emotional, actually,” says Elstrup who didn’t expect Luton Town fans to remember him that well.

“But there you go, that is what happens when you make yourself open to receive the warmth coming at you from strangers. It was a very nice surprise and I assume it is a sign of how good I actually was. My coach, Richard Møller Nielsen (who led Denmark to the title in 1992, ed.) once said; the only thing wrong with Lars is that he doesn’t know how good he is. I guess he was right.”



- Lars Elstrup’s book “The Unhappy Hero” is out in English with Pitch Publishing and can be purchased right here