Chris Darwen

Newcastle United's favourite Viking

Chris Darwen
Newcastle United's favourite Viking

BY GARY THACKER

Into the tail-end of the ‘Swinging Sixties’ England thought itself to be the beating heart of world culture. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who were just a few of the groups of the day redefining music across the globe. In fashion Mary Quant, and similar outlets on Carnaby Street and Chelsea’s Kings Road were tearing asunder the grey clothing of post-war austerity as their vivid colours burst outrageously into the world, as a butterfly from a chrysalis. And, in football, England were world champions. The afterglow from the Boys of ’66 and that July day at Wembley was still redolent and had further inflated the arrogant and almost ubiquitous belief that this was the home of football.  

All of this was, of course, well before it became almost obligatory for English clubs to stack out their squads with players from all parts of the globe. That said though, even in these hedonistically self-centred times, a few hardy pioneers ventured beyond their homeland to ply their trade in the pompously insular English football environment. Amongst that brave few was a Dane who initially moved to Scotland to turn professional, burning his international career temporarily as the Denmark team was only open to amateur players at the time. He would later join Newcastle United where he would earn legendary status, achieving things that more celebrated successors such as Malcolm MacDonald, Peter Beardsley and Alan Shearer could only dream of, before seeing out his time in the country with Blackburn Rovers, as his international career resumed. He would then return to Denmark to see out his playing days.

Preben Arentoft, known affectionately as ‘Ben’ or ‘Benny’ in the north-east of England, was born on the first day of November 1942, during the Second World War in Copenhagen, with the city, and indeed the country, under German occupation. He would survive the hardships imposed by the consequences of war and joined his first football club, Brønshøj Boldklub, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, in 1961. He would spend four years there developing his game. His abilities were rewarded with his first international cap in June 1965. He would play a further three times for the national team before an opportunity to turn professional in Scotland would impose a hiatus on the international stage.

Greenock Morton, then under the stewardship of manager Hal Stewart, took the midfielder to Scotland on professional terms, meaning that if Arentoft wanted to take up the option, and seek to progress his career, he would be sacrificing – albeit perhaps only on a temporary basis until the Danish FA embraced the professional era – opportunities to play international football. Despite there being any amount of soul-searching, Arentoft took the decision to sign for the Renfrewshire club, and decamped to the south bank of the Clyde.

Arentoft was short and stocky but with enviable poise, with an exquisite eye for a pass, and the ability to accurately deliver it, hardly the epitome of Viking characteristics, but wonderfully suited to the Scottish game. Although Morton were never one of the top clubs in Scotland, the Dane did enjoy a measure of success at Cappielow, not least when the club won the Scottish Division Two title at the end of the 1966-67 season. They finished eleven points clear of Raith Rovers, scoring 113 goals in a 38-game season, at an average bordering on three strikes per game. A sixth-place finish back in the top tier was impressive enough. They would consolidate with a mid-table placing the following term. By that time, however, Arentoft had left the club.

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In March 1969, he would move south to join Newcastle United for the relatively modest sum of £18,000. Arentoft had played over 100 league games for Morton and his dozen goals in that time, suggest a reasonable strike rate. If that return from midfield is what drew the attention of Magpies’ manager Joe Harvey, he may have been disappointed with the number of goals the Dane netted during his time with Newcastle. The total would reach a mere three in 63 games across all competitions. One of those strikes though would be key in bringing the most recent piece of silverware to the St. James’ Park trophy cabinet. In addition, he also served in an unusual way to prevent goals at the other end of the pitch.

Quickly christened by the fans on the Gallowgate as ‘Ben’ or ‘Benny’, Arentoft arrived in the north-east with Newcastle on the precipice of success. Although the league campaign would result in a mid-table finish, in Europe it was a different story. Competing in the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, by benefiting from the rule that allowed only one club per city to compete which disqualified a number of clubs with higher league rankings, they had just disposed of Portuguese club Vitória de Setúbal in the quarter-finals. A 5-1 win at St. James’ being sufficient to nullify a 3-1 loss in the second leg at the Estádio do Bonfim. Arentoft would make his debut on 2 April 1969, in an encouraging 0-1 victory at White Hart Lane and would retain his starting position in a 1-1 draw at Chelsea, before successive home victories against Sheffield Wednesday and Manchester United.

Almost 26,000 fans would see Arentoft open his Newcastle goals account in the former of those two fixtures, netting the team’s second in a 3-2 victory. It was something of a false dawn in his league goals campaign, however. He would score only once more in league games at the club. The other strike would be 21 days later on 30 April as one of five goals that Newcastle plundered at home to Stoke City. There would be one more goal for the Dane in those famous black and white stripes, but it would not come in the league.

Arentoft was now a fixture in Harvey’s team and when the semi-finals of the Fairs Cup rolled around, he would make his European bow at Ibrox in a goalless draw against Rangers, as a reported 12,000 Geordies travelled north to watch the game in Glasgow. The result promised much in the way of potential progress when the second leg was contested back south of the border. There was one final league fixture to complete before the return leg, and Arentoft featured in a fairly meaningless 1-1 draw with Liverpool on 17 May. Four days later, Arentoft took his place in the Newcastle line-up for the game that would decide who would progress to the final of the Fairs Cup. It would be a game marked by an unsavoury pitch invasion, with Rangers fans trying to disrupt the game after falling two goals behind. Strikes from Scott and Sinclair lit the blue touch paper for the disturbances that also pointed the way towards a two-legged final match up with the Hungarians of Újpesti Dózsa.

The Hungarian club had qualified after scoring eight goals across the semi-final legs against Turkish club Göztepe A.Ş. and would be confident ahead of the game. The first leg, played in Newcastle, would pour a hefty amount of cold water on such optimism. Three second-half goals, the latter two with Arentoft involved in their creation, would give the Magpies a seemingly impregnable lead to take to Hungary. After the first 45 minutes of play in Budapest a week later though, that lead was looking decidedly shaky.

Strikes by Bene and Göröcs had almost wiped out the advantage from the first leg. Shortly after the break, however, Bobby Moncur scored his third goal of the final, and a little balance was restored to the visitors’ play as the second period got under way. Just four minutes later, it was Arentoft who netted to effectively end any dispute as to who would lift the trophy. A third goal by Alan Foggon was merely the icing on the cake. In his first brief couple of months with Newcastle, Arentoft had become a regular fixture in the team, scored twice in the league and once in a major European final. He had acquired folk hero status with the Gerodies and massively contributed to Newcastle’s first major trophy since 1955 and – at the time of writing – their most recent too.

It was an affection reciprocated by the Dane. Many years later, talking to the Newcastle Chronicle, Arentoft would reveal that he has a video of the goal in Hungary, “on my computer so that I can look at it whenever I want.” He would add, “That goal is the most wonderful moment of my entire career. It made me a Newcastle fan for life. It was a great goal, not an ordinary one, and it was so important to us. We had won the first match 3-0 but by half-time in Budapest we were two goals down and in trouble.”

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Arentoft’s time with Newcastle was short, but certainly memorable. He was sold to Blackburn Rovers in 1971 but left an indelible mark on the club after the trophy success in 1969. The following year, he would also achieve another distinction denied to so many of the other celebrated players who had graced St. James’ Park. In a league game against Manchester United on 4 April 1970, goalkeeper Willie McFaul would be injured and unable to continue. The green keeper’s jersey was thrown to Arentoft to see out the remainder of the game between the sticks. The Result? A 5-1 victory for Newcastle!

In 1971, the year he would wave goodbye to the Gallowgate to move to Lancashire, the Danish FA finally abandoned their amateur status and Arentoft was welcomed back into the international fold. He would add a further five caps to his total. Had he not been ostracised by the antiquated rules governing professionalism, the total would surely have been substantially more than the nine he ended his career with.

Blackburn endured relegation to Division Three as Arentoft joined, and would struggle in their first season there, finishing in tenth place. The following season though, they would rally, and only miss out on promotion by a couple of points to Notts County, before sinking back down to mid-table during the following term.

Arentoft would stay with Blackburn until 1974, before returning home to Denmark. If his time at Blackburn had been longer than in the north-east, it would pale into insignificance in terms of achievement and glory. For fans on the Gallowgate able to remember far enough back to their last glorious trophy triumph, there will always be a place in their heart for Benny Arentoft, the Gallowgate’s favourite Viking. 

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