‘Mad Dog’ Jonas and his journey to Ipswich Town
- Credit: Archant
Hygge – pronounced hue-guh – is a byword for cosiness, contentment, togetherness and well-being.
It’s regarded as Danish culture’s defining characteristic. Think warm jumpers, candlelight, soul food and all the family around the table.
“I think a lot of English people are buying the books about it,” says Jonas Knudsen. “It’s a big word for us. When we do hygge we basically chill out with each other.
“In the night time, after dinner, the woman in the house might go and turn a few small lights on in the room.
“Instead of going out, you invite your friends over to your house for food. If you are with your family and sit and play board games then it’s very hygge.”
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The affable 25-year-old has certainly exuded hygge on the several times I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing him since he signed for Ipswich Town from his hometown club of Esbjerg in the summer of 2015.
And yet, weeks after settling in Suffolk, his new team-mates had dubbed him ‘Mad Dog’. Was that a surprise to those that only knew him away from football? It seems not.
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“I think my missus would say I’m a very chilled person and a very good guy, but she also knows that I am a very bad loser,” he says with a smile.
“I think it was very spot on when the lads gave me the nickname because it doesn’t matter what it is – I have to win.
“When I’m in it, I’m in it. If it’s a small-sided game in training I have to win. I’ve fallen out with team-mates a few times, but then 10 minutes later I go and shake their hands and say ‘maybe I was a little bit over the top there’.
“You have to be like that though because it’s not just about trying to better yourself, but also trying to make each other better too.”
Yes, for all of the Nordic chill, there is something very British running through Knudsen’s core. His is a tale of pure graft. And these Isles had always been calling...
Esbjerg is a port city with a population of around 70,000 situated on the south west coast of Denmark. Knudsen grew up in a little town just outside called Hjerting.
His father worked every hour running a little shop – ‘it sold things like candy, magazines, milk, beers and cigarettes’. His mother was a nurse. One of his two sisters is a nurse (the other became a handball player). His teenage sweetheart Trine, he married this year.
Being surrounded by such honest, kind, hard-working people moulded Jonas’ own attitude throughout his football journey.
A journey that is taking him to Russia and the World Cup this summer.
“When I was 10 years old I was asked to join Esbjerg Football Club and at the age of 14 I left all my friends behind to join a special sports school. It was a new thing in Denmark and a good opportunity for me.
“For three days a week we trained in the morning from eight until 10 before school started. Sometimes my parents dropped me off in the morning, but sometimes I had to cycle the 10km journey.
“We trained again in the afternoon from four until six, that was four times a week, and when I got home I still had to do my homework.
“Then, at the weekends, I played a game on the Saturday and worked in my dad’s shop on the Sunday.
“It was quite tough. I was so tired. I remember I talked to my dad about it, I said ‘wow, my legs cannot grow up like this’. What I wanted to do up here (points to head), I could not do down here (points to his legs).
“Looking back it was a good process for me. It prepared me to do the extra stuff in my career. Once I got used to it, it gave me great value because I’ve learned to train a lot and get that fitness in your body. Now I always feel able to recover and go again.”
It’s rather fitting that this interview takes place in a small room at the Playford Road training ground with an inspirational quote from basketball legend Michael Jordan emblazoned on the wall. It reads: “Some people want it to happen. Some people wish it to happen. Some people make it happen.”
“At 17 I got in the Esbjerg first team and people said ‘why don’t you stop school?’ but I wanted to go to what you call college here,” says Knudsen.
“Training meant I could only go to about 50% of the classes, and I was close to dropping out at one stage, but I stuck at it and had private lessons.
“It would have been the easy thing to stop, but I wanted to make sure I had something in case the football did not happen.
“I studied business. Maybe I would have sold houses, or been a bank man.”
That combination of charm and strong will would, no doubt, have seen him raking in the commissions as an estate agent. That route was never required though.
At the age of 20, Knudsen was finally able to focus fully on football. He soon became the first-choice left-back for Esberjg. He was a key man as they finished fourth in the Superligaen and won the Danish Cup. A senior international debut followed.
The next career move had long been planned in his head.
“English football is a big thing in Denmark,” he says. “I loved to watch it as a kid. I used to think that German football was nice too, but I always knew that the English leagues would suit me best.
“I really liked how the supporters appreciated a good tackle and the defensive part of the game, not just the step-overs and all that.
“I saw people like Roy Keane and (Patrick) Vieira playing with such passion. That’s when I said to my dad ‘I would love to go over there and play’.”
That’s why you see Knudsen putting his body on the line. That’s why you saw him jumping in with the joyous travelling Town fans after scoring at the home of arch-rivals Norwich the season before last. That’s why he was the one at the front of the queue to take on injured captain Luke Chambers’ traditional post-match fist-pump celebrations in front of the North Stand earlier this season.
“That’s what football is all about – it’s about the passion,” he says. “I love those moments. That’s what you live for, that adrenaline kick when you are winning and scoring and making people happy. That’s the best feeling.
“To celebrate with the fans is important because, without the fans, football is not the same.
“The supporters are the ones who pay my wages. When I was a kid I went to games and I always enjoyed seeing the passion. I know it’s not just about that, fans want to see quality too, but it’s half of the game really.”
The man who is now in the final few months of his contract adds: “I like the culture over here. Hygge is good, but I think we should take some things from the English too.
“I like it here that you go to the pub with the family on a Sunday for lunch and that you don’t have to do anything.
“Most of all I like how dedicated you are to your football. And that’s why I think I will stay over here for many, many years.”
This interview was in Issue 5 of Kings of Anglia.
Issue 7 is out now. You can order it and other issues here