Jens Martin Knudsen (JMK) is reverently referred to as ‘the goalkeeper of all goalkeepers,’ in his hometown of Runavik. JMK gained 65 caps for the Faroe Islands, in an international career spanning from 1988-2006.
To those outside of the Faroes, he’s probably remembered as ‘the goalkeeper in the bobble hat’. Earning cult status for his plucky displays in the national team – more often than not – against vastly more experienced and superior international teams.
JMK now owns two fish factories with over 120 employees. He also coaches NSI’s U18s and Reserve team. He laughs heartily at the alien concept of ‘spare time’, sagely jokes about how his wife has become a ‘footballing widow’, and endearingly addresses me “Yes Mr”.
The highlight of his international career, and consequent ‘cult status’ in the UK, came when the Faroes famously defeated Austria (containing the likes of Toni Polster and Andreas Herzog), 1:0 in the Faroes’ first ever competitive international match. JMK recreated this famous scene with Baddiel and Skinner on ‘Phoenix from the Flames’, in the Fantasy Football League TV show.
The Faroe Islands’ match against Austria had to be played in Landskrona, Sweden, because there were no grass pitches on the Faroe Islands. A lot has changed in the Faroes’ game since then, although the odds against larger footballing nations remains the same. JMK talks about the changes in the Faroese game since he first started, playing against the likes of Gheorghe Hagi; how a mishap after his son’s birth curtailed his career in Scotland, and evading Ian Rush from breaking a goal scoring record.
How has the game changed since you first started?
Ah yes Mr, we used to play on sand pitches. You know, those rock hard ones that you daren’t do a sliding tackle on. We would train 2 or 3 times a week, and only play 14 competitive league matches in a season. Most of us also played handball and did gymnastics at the same time. you can;t do that nowadays though. Knudsen became national gymnastics champion and represented the Faroe Islands national handball team as an outfield player. He played for several seasons for the Faroese top flight handball club, Tjaldur.
Handball and gymnastics would help us with coordination and applying tactics at a faster pace than football. However, we would have too few touches on the football compared to other international teams. Since our inauguration into UEFA/FIFA, in 1988, most teams train 4 time s a week, and play in highly-competitive tournaments and cups. We’re slowly, slowly developing. There is now a lot of focus on youth development in our country.
Could you describe the youth development in the Faroes?
The school children and U18s team train at 6:00am before they go to school, and then train in the evenings after school. It’s hard to stay physically fit in our cold cold winter though, so we then have to train twice a week instead of our usual 4 or 5 times. When our children train abroad, they refer to their 9:30 morning training as ‘afternoon training’.
More of our players are training abroad with larger clubs, like Gunnar Neilsen (Man City) and Hallur Hansson (Aberdeen) did. However, I’m not sure that’s best for their development. Doing such a job, at that age, is more suitable at home: safe surroundings, playing earlier in grown-up football etc. Development is key at that age. Once they’ve reached a certain standard, then they must move abroad to gain experience and develop further.
How could a 15 or 16 year old boy from England develop mentally, away from home, in Holland or Spain? Very few can survive.
What’s your favourite international experience?
Well there was that win against Austria, and also playing against Yugosalvia’s fantastic team which contained Suker, Prosinecki, Savicevic and Stoijkovic. I also enjoyed playing against Scotland in Hampden Park. Some rock band were playing beforehand, and then we heard 50,000 fans passionately singing their national anthem. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
For me though, it has to be our first ever international friendly match against Iceland in 1988, in Akranes. A lot of the older players couldn’t play for the Faroe Islands because of work. So we started off with a lot of inexperienced youngsters like myself. It was a big moment with such pressure, and the Icelandic team were so much more physical in comparison. We were supposed to be the biggest clowns in Europe, but we did well in comparison, only losing 1:0.
What was your darkest moment playing for the Faroe Islands?
In 1997/98 I was studying and had young children. I was not mentally on top of my game. I found it very difficult to combine exams and international football. I just couldn’t combine these and concentrate. It was not a very enjoyable experience. Jakob Mikkelsen was very happy though because he took my place, and gained more international caps.
Could you describe your time playing for Ayr United, in Scotland?
I was very unlucky. I was in the top shape of my career. I’d signed for the club but had to wait at home for the birth of my youngest son. When my son was born, I had to leave the next day. I was walking home from hospital on the night of his birth. It felt like I was walking on the sky. Then I slipped.
My back felt strange, but I thought I could survive. In my first game against Greenock Morton, I couldn’t feel the left of my back. I was then out for a month. I then had two training matches upon my return, and my back developed a prolapsed disc. I was out for a further 6 months. Afterwards, I played some matches against Dunfermline and Kilmarnock but I was not the same.
It was a very hard time. Football wise it was not too clever. I should have stayed home to recover when I slipped. It makes you mentally stronger though, and now I can look back and give back my experience to someone younger.
Who was the most difficult player you ever played against?
Darko Pancev of Yugoslavia was top class. He was very good during his short international career. He could shoot, and was an unpredictable threat in attack. Hagi was the best though. Hagi was incredible. I feel like I played against him too much. He was incomparable in that Steua Bucharest team. Absolutely fantastic.
Do you have any interesting anecdotes about playing for the Faroe Islands?
There are too many *JMK laughs*
Come one. Tell me some….
*JMK laughs even more*
I’ll tell you about one interesting match though. We were playing Wales in the old Cardiff Arms Park. Ian Rush was one goal short of equaling Wales’ all-time goal scoring record. They were 3:0 up when we conceded a penalty. Dean Saunders usually took the penalties. He gifted the ball to Ian Rush. Ian Rush took the penalty, and I saved it. I’ve met Ian Rush a few times since and I always remind him. He always replies, ‘Yes, but I scored in the last minute’.
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