When Shakhtar Donetsk line up at Craven Cottage tonight the first thing they will notice about Fulham's central defender Brede Hangeland is his height. At 6ft 5in it is everyone's first impression. The day after he signed, Hangeland watched his new team play Arsenal. After Emmanuel Adebayor scored two simple headers Hangeland received a text from a club official. "That's why we need you," it read.
In the two years since Hangeland has frequently repaid that faith, but there is more to the Norwegian than stepladder height. He can play, the legacy in part of a youth spent in midfield, which will be important against the Brazilian-influenced Shakhtar. The Ukrainian side represent the worst of draws, strong but unglamorous opposition from the Continent's outer reaches. They are effectively the holders, being the last winners of the Uefa Cup.
"People who know about football know they are a really good side," says Hangeland. "They will be hard to beat but we'll try because although playing in Europe has been physically tough we've enjoyed it."
The Europa League has not won many admirers but Hangeland knows the value of the Champions League's junior partner. It was in the Uefa Cup six years ago he first came to prominence, and began to realise he could make a mark in the football world.
Hangeland was still making his way when he featured in a notable night for Norwegian football, being part of a Viking Stavanger team which defeated a Chelsea side featuring Frank Lampard, John Terry, Gianfranco Zola, William Gallas and Manu Petit, Fulham team-mate Eric Nevland scoring the late winner. "It was a match which made me realise the gap is not as big as you think, that I could play at that level," says Hangeland. Even more remarkable is the story of how Hangeland reached the Uefa Cup that season. Viking qualified by winning the Norwegian Cup final, a match Hangeland prepared for in military fatigues in the forest. "It was my last week of national service basic training. I'd been up at five every morning that week and was exhausted. When I said to my team-mates I had to go and run around the woods before training they barely believed me. But for a cup final somehow you find the energy."
Hangeland's untypical background also includes two years at university. Had he not made the grade as a pro he might, he said, have become a doctor. Which is one reason why a chill winter's day found him at a converted school in a a troubled tower block estate in Lambeth, south London, having his blood pressure taken. A man who is the living embodiment of the old adage, "eat up your greens and you'll be big and strong", is fronting a Premier League health initiative launched by Fulham aimed at encouraging men to pursue a healthy lifestyle.
Many English players hail from estates like this one, places where footballers can reach people who are either wary or dismissive of health professionals. Hangeland, who lives in Richmond, comes from a more comfortable background, his father having been in the oil industry (the reason he was born in Houston, Texas). Football was not an escape route, merely a career option. Making the sacrifices required to become an elite sportsman in such circumstances required, he says, "motivation from within, but that's what takes you furthest".
"At university I couldn't really enjoy that student life that all people talk about," he adds, "but my fellow students would like to swap with me as well so it goes both ways. I just like playing football. When I had the choice to play professionally or go for a proper education I just thought, 'if you can live off what you love to do the most, then why not try to do that?' I try to remind myself as much as I can how fortunate we are to play football for a living."
This appears to be a genuine sentiment. When asked about Roy Hodgson's preference for long hours on the training ground he replies: "Anyone in a normal job would not say we do long hours." And if he ever gets blasé, he can look back on basic training at the start of his year with the Norwegian Navy. "That first six weeks was proper warfare training. How did it compare to pre-season training? Well we had to get up earlier, about 4.30 in the morning. Then graduation was in November and we had to stand in the cold for two hours. It was hard but when you look back it is something all Norwegian men can talk and laugh about."
Having finished with the military, and quit university, Hangeland's decision to concentrate on football began to pay off when Hodgson took over as Viking manager in 2004. The Englishman found a centre-half who could pass. "I played in midfield until I was 18," says Hangeland. "It is good for a defender not to be scared of the ball and try to do something sensible when you have it."
Hangeland's height means his ability on the ball can go unnoticed, but not by former Fulham defender George Cohen, the 1966 World Cup winner. Cohen was at the launch in a dual role of club legend and cancer survivor. "He has two good feet, and he plays the ball," he said. "He doesn't just whack it – unless it is really necessary – he gets the ball down and he passes it. And he reads the game so well. When he first came I wondered whether he would be up to the pace, but his positional sense is so good he doesn't leave himself exposed."
Hodgson was similarly impressed as, when he took over Fulham in December 2007, he remembered Hangeland, then at FC Copenhagen, 26, and wondering if the Premier League had passed him by. Hangeland did not think twice, but the start was tricky. "It was a shock. I was on a winter break in Denmark and had done more skiing than football. Then I find myself in probably the toughest league in the world in a relegation battle. It was also a change coming from a team which used to win every match and I played in a back four that was on the halfway line, to one which was struggling and playing in our own penalty box."
Hangeland went on to play a major part in Fulham's improbable escape and subsequent European qualification. He was linked with a move to Arsenal but seems happy to have extended his Fulham contract. Longer term he wants to finish his education. "It would be nice to have a piece of paper that says I can do something else than just head and kick a ball."Reuse content