The Danish invasion of Cappielow Park in the 1960s was largely the work of Morton’s charismatic owner Hal Stewart. Like many successful stories it began almost by accident.
Back in the 1960s Danish players were amateurs and this meant that in essence they were free agents. Any club wishing to sign a Danish player had merely meet the player’s own personal terms. However, there was a twist. A professional player in the early sixties was not eligible to play international football for Denmark, so there was reluctance amongst some players to go down a route which would, in an instant, end their international careers.
Given the relatively modest state of their domestic football, and a reliance on part-time players, Danish football represented a largely untapped market. The trick that Hal Stewart performed was to persuade those amateur players that if they turned professional and came to Scotland the personal rewards would outweigh the loss of international football.
The Morton owner was right. Almost all of the Danish players Morton signed used the Greenock club as a staging post to bigger and better deals.
The first signing Stewart made was the young blond goalkeeper Erik Sorenson. Rumour has it that the Morton owner actually travelled to see another goalkeeper and a casual remark alerted Stewart to the potential that Sorensen was a better option. This throw-away comment set an unlikely transfer in train.
Signed in March 1964 Sorensen’s debut was to become a story in itself. The young Dane was fielded as a trialist in a friendly against Third Lanark and Hal Stewart battled to keep his identity under wraps. His aim was probably to avoid being ‘gazumped’ but inadvertently he created an air of mystery that captivated the Scottish footballing press. Sports journalists were left puzzled by what Morton were up to and latched onto the fact that Sorensen wore all black (which was actually common place amongst continental goalkeepers) and thus introduced their readers to Morton’s man of mystery as the ‘man in black’ and ‘Mr. X’. Stewart’s Scandinavian experiment was thus launched with an element of intrigue.
There was mind you noticeable interest in Morton in Spring 1964. The club were on the crest of a wave. About to be crowned Second Division champions – in an era when Scotland had a simple two league structure – they would win no fewer than 32 of their 36 league games and net an astonishing 135 league goals. In Allan McGraw they had a striker who found the net over 50 times in a truly remarkable season that also saw them contest the Scottish League Cup final.
Sorensen was duly signed, his Scandinavian identity unveiled, and Morton had caught the eye. This was an audacious signing. The young goalkeeper had 10 international caps as well as eight Under-23 awards and was undoubtedly a great capture.
In April 1964, the ink barely dry on the Sorensen signing, Morton further strengthened their side by signing full back Kai Johansen from Odense and he was followed a few weeks later by experienced midfielder Jorn Sorensen. The signing of the latter was a departure from the amateur script as Jorn has played in France with Metz, and his arrival revealed that Morton were so taken by their Danish experiment that they wouldn’t be restricted to amateur players. But it was back to the Danish league that Morton returned when they snapped up a new striker – Carl Bertelsen – from Esbjerg.
Buoyed by this dash of the exotic the 1964/65 season was a roller-coaster for Morton supporters. With their Danish imports they had high hopes. The season began with Morton in rampant form and although they ultimately finished in mid table they had shook up a rather staid domestic football scene and brought a dash of glamour to the Scottish game.
There was a flurry of activity in 1965 with the likes of Preben Arentoft and John Madsen beating a path to Greenock. Indeed, when Madsen signed his arrival marked a high point with no fewer than 11 Danes then playing in the top league in Scotland.
1966 brought Per Bartram and he, like Bertelsen, proved a highly efficient finisher. But by this stage it was clear that Hal Stewart wasn’t averse to turning a quick profit on his Scandinavian imports and Bartram was gone in a flash after demonstrating his prowess in front of goal. Good strikers it seems have always had a market and Stewart was content that Morton were a ‘selling club’.
Arguably the fans were less impressed. One Morton fan quipped, after the two Sorensen’s and Johansen had joined Rangers “If it goes on like this, we will have to go to Ibrox to watch Morton!”
As things transpired the ruling on only amateurs being able to represent Denmark would end in May 1971, thus Morton’s timing was fortunate, a few years later and the window of opportunity would be firmly shut.
Morton’s Danish stars
Erik Sorensen – Odense Boldklub – Morton – Rangers (£30,000)
Kai Johansen – Esbjerg – Morton – Rangers (£20,000)
Carl Bertelsen – Esbjerg – Morton – Dundee
Jorn Sorensen – Metz – Morton – Rangers (£15,000)
Preben Arentoft – Bronshoj BK – Morton – Newcastle United (£17,000)
John Madsen – Esbjerg – Morton – Hibs
Per Bartram – Odense Boldklub – Crystal Palace (£20,000)
Leif Nielsen – Houston All Stars – Morton
Bjarne Jensen – AGF Aarhus – Morton – FC Gronigen
Flemming Nielson – Atalanta – Morton – B93
Borge Thorup – Bronshoj – Morton – Crystal Palace
Morton’s Danish Who’s Who …
Erik Sorensen – Born in Odense in January 1940, Erik signed for Morton from Odense Boldklub 1913. His arrival in Greenock was accompanied by a swathe of Danish reporters who had journeyed over from Copenhagen desperate to see how one of their own settled into his new surrounds.
As an amateur Sorensen had a career outside football, in his instance with a Danish shipping company. He was 24 when he joined Morton and had amassed 10 full caps and 8 Under 23 caps.
His debut had come in a friendly against Third Lanark and Hal Stewart was keen to keep his identity secret until the deal was signed and sealed. Thus for a short period Sorensen was known as ‘The Man in Black’ or ‘Mr X’. He had his full debut at Cappielow and was clearly a big attraction, some 10,000 coming along to watch Morton tackle Alloa. The Evening Times noted the good work he did as being ‘in typical continental style.’
In July 1967 he moved to Rangers in a £25,000 transfer but he didn’t appear to settle and the fact that the Ibrox club narrowly lost the 1967/68 league title chase appeared to dent his confidence.
In August 12 1970 Erik returned to Morton and given that he lived in the town and had a pub in Greenock this seemed a sensible move. In the 1971/72 season he didn’t miss a single game. His return to Greenock was on a free transfer and he dabbled in coaching after his playing days ended.
Kai Johansen – not long after Morton had signed Erik Sorensen they lured Danish international full back Kai Johansen to Greenock. Like Sorensen he had been born in Odense (February 1940) and was a fine athlete standing at 5’9” and weighing in at a trim 11st 8lbs.
Hal Stewart would happily relay the story of how he signed Johansen, “I got such first-class intelligence reports from Denmark about Johansen in 1964 and I went straight across to watch him play in an international match. What I saw convinced me that this was the defence man that Morton needed – if I could get him. I saw he had outstanding ability and I was not surprised to learn that he was not only Denmark’s international full back but that he was also an automatic choice for the Scandinavian team.” Later he would add “… Kai has such good control that he can hold the ball and keep it under control until he sees one of his team-mates move into the open space. Then he pinpoints his passes – long ones and short ones – with deadly accuracy.”
Hal Stewart sold Johansen to Scot Symon’s Rangers in June 1965 for £20,000 and in the Scottish Cup final replay at the end of that season the Dane scored the only goal as Rangers beat their arch-rivals 1-0 at Hampden Park. Kai made over 200 appearances for the Ibrox club. He would later live South Africa but always maintained a home in Scotland where he had come to appreciate the Scottish culture.
Carl Bertelsen – signed in time for the start of the 1964/65 season, as Morton returned to the top flight for the first time in twelve years. The Evening Times noted that Kai Johansen was going to meet Bertelsen at the airport and take him to the west end of Greenock where the striker, like Sorensen and Johansen would be housed in a bungalow.
Bertelsen made his debut in an insipid League Cup tie against Dumbarton which ended 1-1. By October 1964 Morton had Sorensen, Johansen and Bertelsen in their team and the Danish revolution was clearly gathering momentum. With McGraw and Harper as strikers they had a strong side. After half a dozen games Morton were pushing for top spot. The team were wearing a light blue strip and a phantom bugler was making himself heard whenever Morton were on the attack during home games.
Bertelsen didn’t stay with Morton long but he lodged in the memory by dint of his goals and one remarkable match against Celtic. On January 23 he starred in a 3-3 draw with Celtic in which he scored two of the Morton goals and had a third ruled out on the stroke of time as the referee had sadly already blown for time.
He was sold to Dundee in 1965.
Jorn Sorensen – A native of Nibe in Denmark, Sorensen (no relation to Erik) was a highly skilled midfield player and would win 31 caps for Denmark. He cost Morton a then club record fee of £15,000 when he was signed from French club Metz in October 1964.
Jorn enjoyed a scoring debut in a 2-2 friendly draw with Coventry City. One of his claims to fame was playing in the Stanley Matthews benefit match along with fellow Dane Kai Johansen and at the start of the 1965 season he saw Johansen move to Rangers and soon made the short journey along the M8 himself. However, before me moved he grabbed Morton’s first goal of the season in a 2-1 League Cup win at St. Mirren and a week later he scored against Hibs at Cappielow. But with Morris Stevenson vying for the same number 10 spot in the team, and being six years younger, Hal Stewart elected to sell Sorensen to Rangers on 24 August 1965 for £15,000 plus one fringe Rangers player. However, he was only in Glasgow for one season and managed just 16 matches.
He ended his career with just over 30 caps for Denmark.
Preben Arentoft – Born in November 1942, Preben signed for Morton from Bronshoj (Denmark) in 1965 and in just under four years with the club made over 100 appearances. He was later sold to Newcastle United for £17,000. That transfer came in March 1969 and proved a most fortunate time to join Newcastle, they were en route to winning the 1969 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup final and Arentoft would net in the second leg of the final against Ujpest Dosza of Hungary.
He eventually finished his professional career with Blackburn Rovers whom he joined in October 1971. Arentoft won 9 Danish international caps.
John Madsen – A powerful centre-half John joined Morton in August 1965 and came with 20 full caps to his name. He made his debut (ironically as it would transpire) against Hibs on August 25, but the occasion was marred by the fact that Morton fans were still coming to terms with the loss of the influential Jorn Sorensen to Rangers and had threatened a boycott; Hibs romped home 5-1. He moved east to Hibs from Morton in 1966 and had four seasons in Edinburgh until returning to Denmark to pursue his career as an architect.
Per Bartram – One of Odense Boldklub’s most famous players, Per’s career has a strange symmetry. He moved in this mirror-image fashion – Odense, Morton, Crystal Palace, Morton, Odense.
Born in January 1944, he joined Morton in 1966 when he was 22 and made a very favourable impression. He came to the club with 10 international caps and used all that prowess in April 1969 when he scored a hat-trick against Celtic, but not only that, all of his goals came in the opening 10 minutes! There was a certain surreal atmosphere at Celtic Park, the match falling just days after Celtic had beaten Rangers 4-0 in the Scottish Cup Final and they celebrated with the thee domestic trophies on the pitch before the game kicked off. Perhaps this over-relaxed Jock Stein’s team, but at any rate Morton won a famous victory and Per wrote his name into Morton history.
Nicknamed ‘Batman’ he joined Crystal Palace in August 1969 for £20,000, however, his time at Selhurst Park never really took off and he returned to Morton on loan in December 1970 having made only 12 outings for Palace (with 3 goals). Per doubled that goal tally with Morton in what remained of the 1970/71 campaign.
A strong centre-forward he retired from football in 1977 having by that stage helped Odense BK win their first ever league title.
Leif Nielsen – a commanding goalkeeper signed in 1969 from Houston All Stars of Texas, this was a surprise signing. As recently as 1966 Nielsen had been voted Denmark’s Player of the Year and he had won 34 caps.
His career in Greenock brought over 50 appearances for Morton, indeed he only missed one match in the 1969/70 season, but sadly the very next season Leif sustained a bad leg injury at Kilmarnock in October which effectively ended his playing career.
Bjarne Jensen – a right sided forward signed in 1967 from AGF Aarhus. At 5’11” and 12st he could handle the rough and tumble of the Scottish game having been a junior boxer as a youngster! He played for Morton in the 1969 Scottish Cup semi-final and seldom looked out of place against a very good Celtic side. Bjarne moved from Morton to Dutch side Gronigen in December 1969. He owned a hotel in the Greenock area and like a few of his Danish colleagues at Cappielow he married a local girl.
Flemming Nielson – Perhaps the most high-profile of Morton’s signings. Nielsen hailed from Copenhagen and was 30 when he moved to Scotland. He had been with Italian Serie A side Atalanta Bergamo and had won the Coppa Italia whilst in Bergamo. Some Scottish football fans might have noted the name as Nielson had played for the Italian League against the Scottish league in Rome in November 1962. Played as a sweeper, he spoke six languages and at six-foot tall cut a most imposing figure. When he left Morton it was to return to Copenhagen where served the B93 club.
Borge Thorup – was signed from Bronshoj of Denmark in 1966. He played just over 30 games for Morton and scored an impressive 15 league goals. Sold to Crystal Palace in 1969 he had a torrid time with injuries in South London and returned to Morton before winding down his career with Clydebank and then a Danish club. In his second spell with Morton he proved highly versatile and was on the scoresheet against both Celtic and Dundee United. He later returned to Greenock and settled in the area, living near Hunter’s Quay and working on the local ferry service.