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The Joy of Six: Norwegians in English Football

The Joy of Six: Norwegians in English Football

Sunday, 30 December, 2018 - 07:30
Jan Åge Fjørtoft, Alf-Inge Håland, Lars Bohinen and Morten Gamst Pedersen lit up football in England. Composite: Getty/Allsport/Getty/Getty
London - Nick Ames
1) Jostein Flo

Just as Belgians were à la mode for the early and middle parts of this decade, for a while in the 1990s there was hardly a Premier League club that would dare be seen in public without a Norwegian. The most significant influx was sparked by one of English football’s darker nights of the soul, a 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat in Oslo that saw Egil Olsen’s Norway provide live ammunition for cult documentary makers.

Erik Thorstvedt, Stig Inge Bjornebye and Gunnar Halle – playing for Spurs, Liverpool and Oldham respectively – had blazed the trail to England and six of their teammates would cross the North Sea soon enough. Among those to have caused particular interest was Jostein Flo, a beanpole 28-year-old strikerwho caught the eye of Sheffield United. He was integral to Olsen’s no-nonsense style at international level, cutting an unorthodox figure on the right flank with the sole purpose of nodding raking crossfield balls down to onrushing teammates (the “Flo Pass” even has its own Wikipedia entry). It was not hard, then, to see how Dave Bassett’s appetite might have been whetted and within weeks of England’s humiliation he had paid Sogndal £400,000 for their target man.

Flo was a replacement for Brian Deane and looked cut out for the task when he scored on his home debut against Wimbledon. He ended the season as the Blades’ top scorer; the problem was he only managed nine league goals and it was not enough to save them from relegation. Nor was it enough to make him popular at Bramall Lane; moments of brilliance such as a spectacular volley against Leeds and a winning pair at Anfield were far between and, in a division whose technical level was improving, his more rudimentary offerings seemed out of step. Flo hung around in the second tier to moderate effect before returning to his homeland with Stromsgodset in 1996. There, he would enjoy an astonishingly prolific Indian summer; meanwhile two of his clan, brother Tore Andre and cousin Havard, would continue the family’s English presence.

2) Jan Åge Fjørtoft

A few yards from the County Ground, a mural displays three of Swindon Town’s best ever players. Alongside Charlie Austin and Don Rogers, in trademark “aeroplane” celebration mode, is Jan Åge Fjørtoft.

Fjørtoft, who had played up front against England, joined the newly promoted Robins in 1993, at the peak of his powers after a prolific four years at Rapid Vienna. He cost a club-record £500,000, the idea being that – at 6ft 3in – he would provide the focal point around which the minnows pinned their survival bid.

It says something for Fjørtoft’s impact that his aviation-themed cavortings were as much a signature image of their season as Gorman’s exasperation on the touchline. Swindon finished bottom of the division by 10 points and never really had a prayer; Fjørtoft managed a dozen goals, all of them after Christmas, and fared well in the second tier, scoring 25 goals in all competitions the following year.

Further nibbles at the Premier League brought mixed results. Middlesbrough, who signed him for £1.3m in March 1995, had big ambitions and after a respectable first season he was moved aside for Fabrizio Ravanelli. Two more high-scoring seasons in Division One followed with Sheffield United, before one final tilt at the big time with Barnsley in 1997-98. In a callback to that salvage attempt with Swindon, he scored six times in the season’s latter stages but was unable to pull off the miracle.

3) Lars Bohinen

Olsen’s teams were not all blood, thunder and long balls. The side that beat England would have been hugely diminished without the promptings of its diminutive playmaker, Erik Mykland, and could always rely on Bohinen, a delightfully creative showman whose goal against Graham Taylor’s team completed a sweeping counterattack that would not look out of place from today’s top sides.

It took five months for the English game to witness those gifts more regularly. Nottingham Forest, recently relegated to the second tier, took the plunge and shelled out £450,000. They were 16th and going nowhere but Bohinen helped spark a 14-game unbeaten run, automatic promotion and a remarkable continuation of that form in 1994-95. Forest finished third in their first season back at the top and, while Stan Collymore’s goals took most of the headlines, Bohinen was brilliant throughout.

That was enough to attract the reigning champions and, in October 1995, Blackburn activated an insultingly low £700,000 release clause. A spell that began promisingly – and with two goals against his previous employers in a 7-0 shellacking – fizzled out, although the memory still burns brightly of a sensational solo goal at Old Trafford in August 1996. That put Rovers 2-1 up and required Manchester United to throw on an unproven debutant, who rifled in an equaliser. The player’s name? Ole Gunnar Solskjær.

4) Alf-Inge Håland

Football tends only to receive a fleeting mention when it comes to Håland, still synonymous with the tackle from Roy Keane that he believes hastened the end of his career. That challenge put the other flashpoint that brought him renown, a training-ground bust up with Stan Collymore while at Nottingham Forest, in the shade and meant the bulk of eight active years in the English leagues was all but forgotten.

Håland joined Forest in 1993, having not played for his country. He was 20 and had started out with little-known Bryne. Essentially his time in England was spent as a utility man – a midfield stopper who could also operate at the back – and his best moments probably came at Leeds, where he began strongly before playing a less prominent role in the run to the Uefa Cup semi-finals of 1999-2000.

Yet it was an incident while at Leeds that sowed the seeds for later dramas. Keane had been deeply unhappy about the reaction of Håland, who was no angel, to his own ligament injury in a match at Elland Road in 1997. That enmity crystallised four years later in that tackle during a Manchester derby. Håland already had issues with his left knee; this challenge hurt his right but, whatever the final straw was, he never played a full game of professional football again.

There is every chance that his son, the Leeds-born Erling Braut, will enjoy a more positive legacy: at 18 he scored 18 times for Molde last season.

5) Eirik Bakke

The memory of Bakke still comes with a tinge of regret. Like Flo, he arrived in the Premier League from Sogndal, David O’Leary shelling out a hefty £1.75m to add him, at 21, to the young side that would fly too close to the sun. Bakke, a rangy midfielder with an eye for goal, made an impact straightaway. He would later recall the punishing pre-season, led by Eddie Gray, that got him up to speed and set him up for a 1999-00 campaign that brought eight goals.

Leeds were fast becoming the nation’s darlings and playing some bewitching football. Bakke was heavily involved the following season in that improbable Champions League last-four run, and remained an important member of the squad in 2001-02, when they topped the league at new year before tailing off badly. As Leeds slid , Bakke’s form wavered and then injury struck.

He played a handful of games in 2003-04, Leeds’ relegation season, with knee troubles taking hold. They limited him to a single Championship appearance in 2004-05 and, while there would be a return to the top flight on loan with Aston Villa the following season, he was not the same. Leeds let him depart two seasons later; one of the last vestiges of a bygone conflicting era.

6) Morten Gamst Pedersen

Few Premier League players have hailed from anywhere as remote as Vadso, the tiny town in Norway’s far north that spawned one of the finest left feet the division’s modern era has seen. He was playing on the wing for Tromso when Blackburn picked him up in 2004 and it took the then 22-year-old a little time to find his range. When he finally did, the results were spectacular.

Pedersen’s highlights reel can make a gloomy winter evening fly by. He stuck around at Ewood Park for nine years despite frequent links elsewhere and the rewards for Rovers were rich. Few could strike a ball more cleanly: Pedersen’s free-kicks whipped, swirled, dipped around walls and under crossbars; his volleys – the most memorable a crashing effort against Fulham – could all but rip the net out and his precision was surgical.

None of it brought silverware but it did bring top-flight finishes of sixth and seventh. Pedersen, unmistakable for his boyish looks and blonde highlights, left in 2013, a year after Rovers’ relegation. Now 37, he can still be found teasing Norwegian defences with his beloved Tromso.

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