As the clock passed 90 minutes, Jordan Gardner’s emotions were “all over the place”.
The match, on July 4, was between Danish clubs FC Helsingør and Jammerbugt FC. Helsingør needed at least a draw to be crowned champions of the 2nd Division and, more importantly, secure the only promotion place in the 24-team league.
With the score 0-0 and Jammerbugt preparing to launch one last attack, Gardner, the chairman and co-owner of FC Helsingør, felt his nerves jangling. In the very definition of a goalmouth scramble, the Helsingør goalkeeper made two crucial saves and Jammerbugt fired a shot against the post.
“We had spent so much time and energy over the last 15 months with the sole goal of promotion,” Gardner told me.
“The promotion came down to two inches on the post, and there was a huge sense of relief and accomplishment when the final whistle blew.”
The promotion means Helsingør will play in the 1st Division next season, the second tier of Danish soccer. For Gardner, who led a takeover of the club by a U.S. investment group in February last year, it means a lot.
“Our championship and promotion is the single most rewarding accomplishment of my professional life,” he said.
“The incredible sense of accomplishment and validation for all the hard work we put into the project over the last 15 months can’t be replicated.”
Since the investors paid around $1.2 million for a stake of about 51% in the club, they have faced “many difficulties and hurdles”.
Though expected, Helsingør’s relegation from the 1st Division shortly after the new owners arrived had a “huge financial impact”, Gardner said. And that was not the only issue.
Gardner, who also owns minority stakes in Irish side Dundalk and English Championship team Swansea City, said there was a “toxic culture” at Helsingør, which was “on the verge of bankruptcy when we bought it”.
“The single most important factor for our success, and eventual promotion, was the change in culture at the club,” he said.
“We brought in a new coach, new sporting director, an almost entirely new roster of players and a new American style of professional management to the club. These changes had an almost immediate impact both on and off the field, where the environment and culture at the club immediately changed for the better.”
A key hire was coach Morten Eskesen, who previously served as assistant coach at Danish Superliga side Randers FC. Gardner also paid tribute to American chief executive Jim Kirks and sporting director Matt Barnes.
From a financial perspective, Gardner said the promotion was “very, very important to this club”. Being in the 1st Division means Helsingør games will be televised in Denmark, with the club’s broadcast revenue jumping from about 100,000 Danish Krone ($15,000) per year to roughly 3 million DKK ($455,000). Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the club would have also expected promotion to bring a jump in attendances of about 25% and an increase in sponsorship values.
Overall, Gardner believes the promotion will see the value of the club rise “about 50-75%”.
Another key advantage is greater visibility and more opportunity to sell players. When the investment group bought the club, they set out a plan to recruit and nurture young American players before selling them on within Europe.
Last summer, the club signed three young American players, as well as experienced American striker Chris Cortez. Two of the younger players are now playing in the USL Championship, while the third, defender Zico Bailey, has joined FC Cincinnati in the MLS.
“We have several talented young players from other markets as well, including New Zealand, where one of our players was capped with their full national team in the fall,” Gardner said.
“COVID-19 has put our recruitment plans for foreign players on hold, as the borders are closed. We are hopeful by early 2021, we will be able to bring in the next batch of talented young Americans to Denmark.”
While the last week has been a good one for Gardner and his fellow investors, the 15 months of ownership has been a roller-coaster.
Gardner said the investors’ leadership “has been received with mixed emotions” in Denmark and that some decisions, including relating to the Helsingør academy, had been unpopular with the local fanbase.
“I learned very quickly that it was important to bring leadership and stability to the club,” he said.
“I’ve had to make many difficult decisions both on and off the pitch that were not popular with our local community, but that were in the best interest of the club in the long run.
“It’s very challenging owning and managing such a forward-facing business like a football club. Every decision is questioned by your fans, the local media, and even your own staff. Strong, stable leadership at the top is essential for success at any football club as there are so many variables at play that can cause chaos in your organization.”
The long-term plan for the club remains the same and in the short term, after a season of COVID-19 and stoppage time scrambles, Gardner is aiming for stability. At the end of next season, a stress-free final match would be most welcome.
“We are aiming to be a stable, self-sufficient club in the 1st Division next season. The club has been promoted or relegated every season for the last five and the instability is not viable in the long run,” Gardner said.
“In general, our long-term strategy hasn’t changed. We are still focused on developing young players, including Americans and moving them on to bigger clubs. COVID-19 has presented some difficulties on that front, but we are optimistic that by 2021 we will be able to be back on track with that model.”