Mikkel Damsgaard’s performances for Sampdoria and Denmark during the 2020/21 campaign made him one of the most in-demand young players in Europe.

However, an injury sustained during his second season in Serie A cruelly interrupted his fledgling career.

A knee operation in November 2021 revealed that Damsgaard was suffering with a form of arthritis.

Following a series of treatments, the midfielder returned to action in April 2022 after six months on the sidelines.

Since moving to Brentford last summer, Damsgaard has sought to get back to his best while acclimatising to the rigours of the Premier League.

21 June 2021. Parken Stadium, Copenhagen.

Denmark, having lost their opening two group games of Euro 2020, must win against Russia and hope that Belgium beat Finland in order to progress to the knockout stage of the competition.

Nine days have passed since Christian Eriksen’s collapse on the same pitch in Denmark’s tournament opener against Finland and, while the whole country has had a heavy dose of perspective, this game means everything. Parken is a picture of unbridled passion.

Kasper Hjulmand’s side start with energy, but they are struggling to create chances. Frustration is building as the clock ticks towards half-time.

Seven minutes before the break, Mikkel Damsgaard receives a pass from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on the edge of the area. He takes a touch to set himself before sending a beautiful dipping effort into the top corner. Lift off.

Beer rains down as a beaming Damsgaard is mobbed by his team-mates. At 20 years and 335 days, he is Denmark’s youngest goalscorer at a major tournament.

Yussuf Poulsen, Andreas Christensen and Joakim Maehle find the net in the second half as the Danes run out 4-1 winners.

After the game, Denmark’s players and staff form a huddle in the centre circle. An official in the middle refreshes his phone to make sure the full-time whistle has gone in St Petersburg… Finland 0 Belgium 2.

Parken roars as one. Denmark, having begun the day bottom of the Group B table, have secured their place in the round of 16.

“I was very confident that we were going to win that game,” Damsgaard recalls nearly two years on.

“We had a good feeling - win the game and we will go through.

“We could see how much the game meant to the whole of Denmark – the fans, our families and our friends.

“When we made the drive from the hotel to the stadium, it was like the Tour de France. It was a 45-minute drive from our hotel to Parken and fans filled the streets almost all the way.

“You could see how much it meant and we used that as motivation to go out there and give everything.”

He continues: “We played at home, in Denmark, at a major tournament. The atmosphere was crazy.

“We were not over what happened [to Eriksen]; we used it as motivation.

“We knew that Christian was fine. He came and saw us, wished us luck and told us to go and enjoy the occasion and play as hard as we could. That gave football some importance again.

“It felt very good to start the goal festival for us.”

Denmark, with Damsgaard starting in a front three alongside Martin Braithwaite and Kasper Dolberg, beat Wales 4-0 in the round of 16, before overcoming the Czech Republic 2-1 in the quarter-final.

Up next was a semi-final showdown with England.

Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick after 30 minutes – using a technique that was developed on Nordsjaelland’s training pitches alongside Emiliano Marcondes - opened the scoring and silenced a thunderous Wembley crowd.

And while Denmark ultimately exited the competition with a 2-1 extra-time defeat, Damsgaard’s displays at Euro 2020 capped a magnificent individual campaign.

He was the only player to score a direct free-kick at the tournament, and the only player to score multiple efforts from outside the box.

Only Italy and Spain (13) outscored Denmark (12), with Damsgaard contributing two goals and one assist.

The midfielder had quickly developed a reputation as one of the most exciting young players in Europe.

A Tough Start in Turin

Damsgaard completed a move from Nordsjaelland to Sampdoria in February 2020, signing a four-year contract with effect from 1 July 2020.

His Serie A debut in September coincided with Sampdoria’s most difficult assignment of the season.

“We played away at Juventus on the opening day, who had won the previous nine titles,” says Damsgaard.

“It was a crazy experience. More than Juventus, it was seeing [Cristiano] Ronaldo for the first time.

“Because I’d come from Denmark, I hadn’t played against big players like that before. I’d been seeing those guys on TV for a while and then they were standing right in front of me, playing against me.

“It was nice for my debut in Italy to be such a big game. It made it more special.”

Sampdoria lost 3-0 in Turin - Ronaldo netting the final goal two minutes from time – but it wasn’t long before Damsgaard himself was scoring in similar circumstances.

On his third appearance against Lazio, shortly after coming off the bench, Damsgaard dashed past three defenders on his way towards goal and fired home off the underside of the crossbar to round off a 3-0 victory.

His first Serie A goal came against a future Brentford team-mate, although Thomas Strakosha’s memories of that afternoon aren’t so vivid.

“I asked Thomas about this, and he said he didn’t play that game,” Damsgaard laughs.

“It was a crazy game. The whole team played so good.

“It was nice to see that my team-mates enjoyed the goal. I remember [Fabio] Quagliarella and Antonio Candreva were so happy for me, and that made me happy. They liked me and respected my game. It was a nice feeling.

“It was a good day for the fans and the team.”

Damsgaard started the next game as Sampdoria beat Atalanta 3-1 away from home. He assisted the first goal, magnetically drawing four defenders towards him before finding Quagliarella in space, who drilled beyond goalkeeper Marco Sportiello at his near post.

“I very quickly felt part of the team,” Damsgaard continues.

“Even though we couldn’t speak with each other because of the language difference, I felt like we had a connection on the pitch. I enjoyed playing with them.

“I was actually a bit lucky to receive the ball [in the build-up to the goal], because the pass wasn’t supposed to be for me, but it hit my leg and I took it with me.

“Quagliarella is a very good player with a crazy story. He’s a huge icon in Italy. It was nice to make an assist for him. He was very good that season and scored a lot of goals for us. He showed he still had it in him even though he was nearly 37 that season.”

Enjoying this interview? Read other instalments in our Long Read series, including in-depth features with Rico Henry, Christian Norgaard and Kevin Schade

Damsgaard featured in 35 games as Sampdoria finished ninth in Serie A.

He was responsible for six goal contributions (two goals and four assists) and ranked fourth in the Sampdoria squad for key passes (25).

Head coach Claudio Ranieri opted for a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 shape – a similar structure to his Leicester City team that won the Premier League in 2015/16 – with Damsgaard primarily used on the left of midfield.

But the Dane’s ability to switch flanks, play in behind a centre-forward, drop deep in midfield or even lead the line provided his head coach with multiple options to switch systems.

“I was on the touchline a lot and I had to show my dribbling skills,” says Damsgaard, who, with 51 successful dribbles, ranked in the top 20 ball carriers in Serie A that season.

“We didn’t always have the ball so much, so I had to become better at getting out of tricky situations, knowing when to take care of the ball and when to risk a pass.

“The role I played in Denmark was very different to the one I played in Italy. At Nordsjaelland, we had a very young team and our coach [Kasper Hjulmand and then Flemming Petersen]wanted to play a lot so we took way more risks.

“In Denmark it was about winning but also developing the team and the players, whereas in Italy you just have to win games. It doesn’t matter how, you just have to win.”

Damsgaard continues: “The team took good care of me and welcomed me from day one. It was easy to fold in with them and focus on playing.

“It was a very, very hard first year - the Coronavirus meant that I didn’t get so many people coming to see me - but also a very good year for my career.

“I played a lot of games, and I developed a lot as a player.

“Everything was new and cool and awesome, playing against teams like Juventus and Milan. It was very exciting.

“And Ranieri made a big difference. He’s a very good coach and a nice guy – very cool, calm and collected.

“He was able to speak English as well, which helped me a lot.

“He was always very nice to me. He took care of me and helped me to feel good at the club.

“He made me feel free. In Italy, as a young player, it can be hard to show your true self, but he made me feel comfortable to do that. I appreciate what he did for me.”

Waiting Game

After such an impressive season for club and country, Damsgaard began the 2021/22 campaign looking to pick up where he left off.

But an injury sustained in October halted his rapid rise.

What at first was a thigh issue developed into something more serious, with Damsgaard admitted to hospital for scans.

In November, during an operation on his right knee, traumatologists discovered that the midfielder was suffering from a form of arthritis.

A solution was found with a series of new treatments. All Damsgaard could do was wait.

“I heard the doctors say that it could be career-ending, but the chances of that were very, very low,” he recalls.

“I was young and fresh, so they were able to overcome it. So, I wasn’t that worried, but it was very unlucky.

“My girlfriend and my family and friends helped me. There wasn’t much I could do, it’s not like I could just work hard in the gym and it would be over. I had to wait a lot. I had to be patient.

“Yes, it sucked at times, but there wasn’t much I could do other than listen to the doctors and follow what they said. I had to continue to eat well and do what I could to keep my head up.”

Damsgaard returned in April 2022 during Sampdoria’s 2-1 defeat to Salernitana.

He made eight further outings for Sampdoria and Denmark that season – mostly as a substitute.

And the 22-year-old admits that he was nervous to take to the field again after more than six months on the sidelines.

“It was a relief to get back in, but I didn’t feel myself,” he says. “I’d lost a lot of kilos, so I was very, very skinny.

“I had confidence issues, and I didn’t have the same speed and power in my legs.

“I had to play a little smarter, and I played a lot worse than what I was capable of, because I wasn’t able to reach the level I wanted to.

“I was back, and I was playing without pain, but I couldn’t move the way I wanted to, and I didn’t have the confidence to try the same things.

“You want to be the same player you were before, but you can’t do that immediately. I had to be patient.

“I don’t think any player has ever come back from a long injury and played his best football straight after.”

On the Move Again

Despite his injury-hit second season at Sampdoria, Brentford made a move for Damsgaard last summer.

The midfielder’s arrival was met with great excitement, but head coach Thomas Frank and director of football Phil Giles knew that patience would be required.

“Thomas and Phil knew everything about my injury,” Damsgaard reveals.

“They’d done their research, spoken to my physios and knew everything that was going on with me.

“The club knew I was still a long way from physically being able to play in the Premier League, so from their side it was a little bit of an investment, if you can say that.

“They knew I was behind and had a lot of work to do, and I had thought that also, but this was the best place for me to develop, get some kilos on and get into the best shape possible. I could do that the fastest here, and the best here.

“I’ve got there now, but it’s something I’ve had to work on over a long period. Now I’m trying to get even stronger and faster so I can keep developing.”

Damsgaard has made 31 appearances for Brentford and Denmark this season, including a start against Fulham in March. Deployed as a no.8 alongside his international colleagues Mathias Jensen and Christian Norgaard, Damsgaard’s man-of-the-match display during the Bees’ 3-2 victory was a clear indicator that he is adapting to the physical demands of the Premier League.

While Damsgaard is often casted as a creator, he also developed his pressing ability as part of a Sampdoria side that ranked fourth bottom for possession during the 2020/21 Serie A season (45.2 per cent).

Against Fulham, he made the game’s joint-highest number of interceptions (three, the same as Tete) as well as three clearances and two tackles.

“Thomas talks a lot about the defensive side of the game,” says Damsgaard.

“We need to have everything at the defensive end under control, and then we can create chances.

“You have to contribute defensively and work very hard. This team runs so much, puts pressure on the opponent and looks to outrun them.

“We put a lot of intensity into it, so you have to be able to match that. The offensive stuff will then come. There were some good signs in the Fulham game, but I can improve a lot on that.”

He continues: “It felt nice to finally start. I’d trained good for some weeks and got the opportunity.

“I felt very good playing again, starting again and winning the derby. The fans were very happy as well!

“Fulham were just above us, so it was a very interesting game. It felt good to be part of that.

“If we play direct, it’s nicer to be a midfielder because it’s easier to control the game and take care of the ball.

“As a winger, I can run deep, but I wouldn’t say I’m the fastest deep runner. If you play very direct as a winger, you have to stretch the opponent and I wouldn’t say that’s the biggest strength in my game. It depends on how the team play.”

The objective for Damsgaard is clear: continue his progress between now and the end of the Premier League season.

“I thought it was the best league in the world, and it is,” he smiles.

“Every team, even the teams in the relegation spots, are very good. You can easily lose to them if you’re not there.

“The league is very good, and every team works hard. Every team has very good and strong players.

“It’s looking good for more playing time, so I’m going to keep trying to take my chances and do everything I can.”