Daniel Agger: Hurt by Rodgers, learning from Liverpool lessons and back in football after ‘100 per cent’ leaving it By James Pearce Nov 27, 2021 62 It is cold, wet and grey. The breeze whipping in from Koge Bay brings with it an icy blast. The Danish winter is closing in. Daniel Agger emerges from the doorway inside the Capelli Sport Stadium and extends a welcoming hand. During his playing days at Liverpool, the classy centre-back was adamant that he would walk away from football for good the day he hung up his boots. Coaching did not appeal. He had other business interests to pursue. He craved life away from the limelight. When he decided to retire in 2016 after a second spell with Brondby, he relocated with his young family to the luxurious villa his wife Sofie had designed in the foothills of the Ronda Mountains near Marbella, Spain. It was peaceful and idyllic. But here we are back in his homeland five and a half years on. He is six months into his first managerial role in Denmark’s second tier with HB Koge. The 36-year-old takes a seat after training for the following night’s visit of Esbjerg. “When I used to say to you that I’d never come back to football I was 100 per cent sure about that,” he tells The Athletic. What changed? “Over time I realised that I’d stopped playing way too early. I wasn’t finished. I felt like I still had a lot more to give. “The other thing is that although I’ve got a lot of companies and things have gone well with them, none of them give me what football gives me. I had a feeling of emptiness. “A lot of former players talk about missing the dressing room, but I don’t miss that. What I miss is the feeling of winning, of being on the pitch and making a difference. “The buzz comes from winning. You can’t replicate that. I’m not talking about trophies, I’m talking about trying to win every single game. As a player that’s what gave me the motivation. It took me from being a kid in Denmark to walking out at Anfield. It’s the same now as a coach. If I do well then I just want to be better.” Agger is loving life as a manager (Photo: Lars Ronbog / FrontZoneSport via Getty Images) A conversation with former team-mate and friend Steven Gerrard fuelled his belief that management might help him fill the void. “Stevie knew that my attitude previously was always ‘no chance’ but he told me that he thinks it’s even better than being a player,” Agger says. “I thought that if he says that, with everything he’s achieved in the game, then there has to be something about it. I wouldn’t say that chat a few years ago pushed me into it. I was going that way but it played a part. “Taking this job wasn’t a sudden change of heart. I just waited and prepared myself until I felt I was ready. I spent time at Brondby and at a local club in Spain where my sons played. I started watching football from a completely different angle. I thought about different ideas and scenarios, and how I wanted to work. Earlier this year I told myself ‘OK, now it’s time’.” Over the course of an hour and a half, Agger is engaging company. Nothing is off-limits. He opens up about the glorious highs and the crushing lows of an eight-year stay at Anfield which was hampered by a succession of injuries. He reveals for the first time just how close he came to signing for Barcelona and the regrets that still linger over how his playing career reached an underwhelming conclusion at the age of 31. He details how his relationship with Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers deteriorated and why he decided to accept the challenge of trying to transform the fortunes of Koge. Agger played 232 times for Liverpool and was adored by the Kop for his quality and loyalty. He is loved at his boyhood club Brondby, who he helped secure title glory before his £5.8 million move to Anfield in January 2006. His hero status was enhanced by the fact he went back to Brondby in the twilight of his career. He won 75 caps for Denmark and captained his country. Twice, he was named Danish Footballer of the Year. But despite that list of accomplishments there is a nagging sense of what might have been. Agger celebrates scoring against United in January 2012 (Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images) “Yeah, unfulfilled, 100 per cent,” he admits. “It just ended so quickly. I didn’t feel that I had given the best of me. I always thought I could go to the next level. “I always worked hard, I was clever, I lived the right way but I could have done more. To have had a bit more luck with injuries would have been good. They always came at the wrong time. That also provides motivation for me to go back into the game again.” Agger, wife Sofie and their three sons Jamie, 12, Mason, nine, and Billy, three, moved back to Copenhagen from Spain this year. The town of Koge is a 40-minute drive away from the Danish capital. They left behind their house in the resort of La Zagaleta in Benahavis, which offers stunning views of Gibraltar. On a clear day they used to be able to see the African coastline. “It’s the best place in Spain,” says Agger, who takes out his iPhone to reinforce the point. “The properties there are different-level. “Jurgen Klopp and his players came over to visit when they were in Marbella before the Champions League final (in 2018). We sold our first place and had another one built 500 yards away. We do some nice projects. “My wife, who is an architect, didn’t really want to come home. The weather is amazing there. When it’s cold and raining here she’ll say to me, ‘Daniel, what are we doing?’ “But she always says it with a laugh. She’s very supportive. The boys have had to get used to small things like wearing a jacket all the time but the international school they go to in Copenhagen is good. “We lived in such a beautiful place but I felt empty. I hated the fame side of being a footballer when I played but I even missed that after I stopped.” Signed by Rafael Benitez at 21, Agger was influential alongside Jamie Carragher in Liverpool’s march to the Champions League final in Athens in 2007. His clinical finish after Gerrard had played a free kick into his path wiped out Chelsea’s lead in the second leg of the semi-final at Anfield. Liverpool held their nerve to win on penalties before being beaten by AC Milan. “Stevie and I never tried that in training, we only talked about it,” Agger says. “We scored from it two times out of two. Benfica away a few years later was an even better goal but we lost that game. “People talk about that semi against Chelsea but the last-16 tie against Barcelona was the best atmosphere I ever experienced at Anfield. That was one of the best Barca teams ever with Ronaldinho. “They had won the Champions League the season before but somehow we managed to win 2-1 over there. I remember Carra and me looking at each other in the Camp Nou after we went 1-0 down and thinking, ‘This could be bad’. “Carra and me complemented each other well. We were different types but we had a similar attitude and winning mentality. You could always rely on Carra. As a young player settling into a new team it was good to have someone like Carra alongside me. Football isn’t about what’s your top level, it’s about what’s your bottom level and his was very high. “The noise at Anfield when we walked out for the second leg against Barca, I’d never felt anything like that. I saw in the faces of their players that they were thinking the same. “Losing in Athens was my biggest disappointment in football. They weren’t better than us that night.” A broken foot wrecked the 2007-08 season for Agger and in July 2009 he suffered a back injury playing in Singapore during a pre-season tour, which had serious consequences. “I went up for a header, my legs got taken out and I landed straight on my back,” he says. “That evening we had to fly back to Liverpool and I couldn’t sit down. From that day, it all went wrong with my back. By compensating, I got all different kinds of muscle injuries. It was always either my back or something linked to my back. “I had pain all the time. I took so many painkillers and anti-inflammatories. At one point I had a prolapsed disc. I kept playing with injections. After my son was born, I couldn’t even lift him up from the bed. I said, ‘Enough is enough, we need a surgery’.” Agger the coach has been shaped by what he experienced as a player — good and bad. “Michael Laudrup was my first professional manager (at Brondby) and I took a lot of things from him,” he says. “My national team coach Morten Olsen was really good. Rafa Benitez’s great strength was when it came to tactical things. “I loved playing for Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke. Kenny and his man-management, his way of handling and motivating players was brilliant. “Even Brendan, he’s a top, top manager. I loved his training sessions. I took a lot from working with him. But I took some things where I said, ‘I’m never going to do something like that’. “It’s important to be clear about what you definitely don’t want to do and what direction you definitely don’t want to go in. What I learned also, with the way I am as a person, is I want to be 100 per cent clear and direct. Players can disagree but they can never, ever say I didn’t tell them the truth. “Everyone knows where they stand. Everyone deserves that. Sometimes hearing the truth can hurt but in time people will appreciate it. It’s better than saying one thing and doing something else. That’s almost the worst thing for me, not only in football but in life. I had a few managers who were like that. “Some not on purpose, some maybe because they were too scared to say things straight, but as a player you see it coming, especially when you see other players treated like that you know that some day you’ll be in that place. It will never work out because players talk together.” The chain of events that culminated in Agger’s exit from Liverpool in August 2014 clearly still rankle. He remains in the dark over why he fell out of favour under Rodgers shortly after being given the vice-captaincy in the summer of 2013 following Carragher’s retirement. Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho became Rodgers’ preferred defensive combination during a title challenge that ended in heartbreak. Kolo Toure was picked ahead of Agger on occasions. “At the time I was shocked and I wanted an explanation but no one could give me one,” he says. “Still to this day I’d like to know what happened. Why did I go from being the new vice-captain and first choice to being fourth centre-back in the space of a few weeks? It was very strange. “I tried to speak to Brendan back then but he told me that nothing was wrong. He said I was a big part of his plans but he didn’t show that. I played 20 league games that season and we won almost all of them (17). I’m not saying it was my best season, but in terms of results we did very well and kept a lot of clean sheets. It just seemed that every chance he had I was out of the side.” Why does Agger think he was cast aside? “I don’t know, maybe because I can be quite direct and I’m a strong character,” he says, “All the other players in that team who had a big voice and spoke their mind, everybody went out either that season or shortly before or after — me, Pepe Reina, Dirk Kuyt, Glen Johnson, Stevie and Carra. “Maybe it was part of changing the whole team. I met Brendan a few years ago at a charity event that Kasper Schmeichel and his wife put on in Denmark. I asked Brendan if I could speak to him after and he said ‘yeah’ but then he disappeared before we could talk. “I still want to speak with him. There are no bad feelings now but there must be something he can tell me about what changed. From what I hear, he’s a different manager now. You learn from your mistakes.