At the height of Rangers’ extravagant spending under David Murray, star signings from abroad would often be whisked into Glasgow on board his private jet. Back in 1921, Carl Hansen sailed into Scotland on board a cargo ship carrying a shipment of butter.
The turbulent North Sea crossing had left the Danish international weak and gaunt after three days of almost constant sea-sickness – hardly the ideal preparation for his new career at Ibrox.
But if the 23-year-old’s arrival on these shores was low-key, his impact on the pitch was quite the opposite. Hansen was the Brian Laudrup of his day – a skillful, pacy, forward with a habit of scoring spectacular goals. His career in Scotland may have been cut short by injury but in his three years at Ibrox, the “Great Little Dane” became a firm fans’ favourite.
His performances prompted one pundit to enthuse “he could pirouette like premier danseuse, take a ball as it came to him from any angle, and make it answer his will by the sheer perfection of his control.”
But just as importantly, Hansen was a trailblazer. He was Denmark’s first ever professional footballer and paved the way for hundreds of his fellow countrymen to seek fame and fortune overseas in the following decades.
Born in Copenhagen in May 1898, Hansen was the oldest of 11 children. Both parents Anders Hansson and Anna Jönsson were Swedish and his father was a poor shoemaker. The Swedish family name “Hansson” had been converted to the Danish “Hansen” when they moved to Copenhagen.
Young Carl was a talented footballer and signed for local club B1903 in 1915 at the age of 17. Combining his football career with a job as an office clerk at a local tobacco firm (“emptying wastebaskets and sharpening pencils”) he was an important part of the team that became Danish champions in 1920.
Hansen made the first of his seven international appearances against Sweden at the age of 19, scoring twice in a 3-0 victory. He instantly became one of the most popular characters in Danish football – where he was known by the nickname Carl Skomager (Shoemaker).
But his international career came to an abrupt end in 1921 when Scottish champions Rangers came to town on one of their numerous close-season tours of Denmark. Locals had alerted the Rangers manager Bill Struth to the abilities of the young forward in the Copenhagen Select team and he in turn told his centre-half Arthur Dixon: “Test that young Dane with everything you’ve got. If he’s as good as we think he is, we’ll try and sign him.” At the end of the game, Dixon urged his boss to “sign him right away. He’s a good one.”
Hansen was asked if he could sign and leave for Scotland with the rest of the team the very next day, but politely declined. However a few weeks later a contract arrived in the post – his English wasn’t great but he could work out easily enough that he was being offered £10 per month. A quick exchange rate calculation made him realise that this was an offer he couldn’t refuse and agreed to join the Scottish champions – at the same time disqualifying himself from the strictly amateur national team.
On a warm November evening, Hansen embarked on his new adventure. Waved off from the dockside by around 100 friends and relatives, it was an emotional young man who set off on the choppy three day voyage to Scotland. As the SS Coblenz docked at Leith, the young footballer – white as a sheet and in his stockinged feet – took to the deck for some fresh air. Suddenly there was a call from the dock: “Good Morning Carl!” It was the voice of Bill Struth, who had travelled to the port in person to collect his new player.
Hansen’s English at the time was basically limited to ‘yes’ and ‘no’, so conversation on the train to Glasgow was somewhat limited. Keen to make his new protege feel at home, Struth “talked and talked” and used sign language and gestures to get his point across. The young Dane enthusiastically responded with the only two words of English he knew, but realised later that he’d often used them the wrong way round.
After some intense training sessions and several reserve matches (not to mention a crash course in English), Hansen was given his chance. He made an immediate impact, scoring five goals in his first three games, including a debut hat-trick against Queen’s Park at Hampden, one against Partick Thistle and a penalty against Celtic – making him the first foreign player to score in an Old Firm match.
In his first season, he scored an impresive eight goals in 11 league appearances, but inevitably it was the New Year’s Day game against Celtic the following season that really sealed Hansen’s place as a fans’ favourite. Three minutes after half-time, he collected a pass from Andy Cunningham around 40-yards out. He trapped it then set off at pace, deftly sidestepping two defenders, before firing an unstoppable shot past the on-rushing Celtic goalkeeper Charlie Shaw into the corner of the net. The Daily Record match report described it as “a brilliant goal” and it helped Rangers to a 2-0 win, a key victory in their eventual championship win.
The newspapers were full of praise for Hansen during his Ibrox career, his only “fault” was that he worked too hard. And it was that enthusiasm that would end his chances of becoming a fully-fledged Rangers legend. He suffered a broken leg in a match against Third Lanark early in his second season. Having already scored twice, he stretched to reach a ball he had little chance of making contact with, slipped on the greasy pitch and crashed into the goalpost. He returned to action a few months later but never fully recovered and when he suffered another injury he reluctantly returned to Denmark.
Despite his injury problems, Hansen loved his time in Scotland, particularly the regular golfing trips he embarked on with his team-mates. He was also taken by the many invitations players received to the various music halls and theatres in Glasgow. Being a Rangers player in the 1920s was like being part of a family.
Not that everyone in Scotland was so welcoming. As a foreign player, Hansen did suffer some dreadful abuse from the terraces, something he put down to a lack of education. He recalled the less than warm reception he received on his first visit to Airdrie for a match. “I was received with hisses and screaming, when I came out on the field,” he said. “Even when the game began, they howled and whistled at me every time I touched the ball – only because I was a foreigner. I am sure that most of the crowd believed that Denmark was the capital of Germany or something. In the years I was in Scotland, I got more evidence that particularly the older Scots did not have good knowledge of geography, which probably was due to poor school conditions.”
If the abuse was designed to put him off his game, it didn’t work. Rangers won convincingly and the Dane scored all the goals. Remarkably, those opposition supporters who had been giving him dogs’ abuse from the sidelines, were now lavishing him with praise. Hansen said later: “I have never before or later seen people make such an about-face, as happened here. From being one of the worst imaginable, I had now become their best friend – yes, I was downright a hero in their eyes.” He was followed to the railway station by a crowd of several hundred fans who chatted with him and touched him as he walked “possibly to ascertain whether I really was also of flesh and blood.” His impression was that Scots believed if you could play football you were all right, even if you were a foreigner.
After leaving Scotland, Hansen was able to resume playing in Denmark but then suffered yet another break, that finally ended his career. He went on to enjoy a successful coaching career, winning the Danish championship three times with different clubs. Due to his worn out legs he used to cycle beside the players, usually on an old ladies’ bicycle.
During World War 2 and the German occupation of Denmark, Hansen found himself falling foul of the Gestapo, possibly because of his time in Britain. Accused of shouting abuse at a collaborator, he was arrested, interrogated, badly beaten then imprisoned for four months. He spent two months of the sentence in the German concentration camp at Neumunster, where he lost four stone in weight. On his release he joined the Danish underground movement, and in his own words “got some of my own back”. His daughter Addi Andersen was a prominent Danish politician in the 1980s.
Hansen described his three years in Scotland as the happiest of his life, and remained in close contact with the club for the rest of his life, making numerous trips to Scotland. On one occasion he addressed the Ibrox crowds via a microphone on the pitch. He died at the age of 80 on the same day as the club B1903, where he was a coach for six years, celebrated its 75th anniversary. His contribution to Rangers may have been lost in the mists of time but his legacy lives on in the many Scandinavian players who continue to light up the game all over Europe.
- A version of this article originally appeared in WATP magazine