Football: Flo's ground skills pave way for heady Chelsea success

How the name of Flo went from being the scourge of Graham Taylor's England to being a favourite with Stamford Bridge fans. By Ian Stafford
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The Independent Online
IN TERMS of restocking the trophy cupboard, this has not been a particularly successful season for Chelsea. A year that began with victory in the European Super Cup looks certain to end next weekend with a third- place finish behind Arsenal and Manchester United in the Premiership to add to the other close encounters with glory in the European Cup-Winners' Cup, FA Cup and Coca-Cola Cup.

However, try telling Tore Andre Flo that this has been an unproductive season at Stamford Bridge and you will get a firm - albeit impeccably polite - denial.

"I was thinking about Manchester United the other day," the Norwegian international striker said. "They have grown better and better each season, and I think we will do the same. Even though we won the Cup-Winners' Cup and League Cup last season, we were losing too many League games and were never really title contenders.

"This season we have lost just three, and although I admit it will be difficult now, we can still win the League and we intend to fight all the way to the finish. If we continue to improve, then next season should be very interesting. We're definitely on the right track, though."

He has a point. The very fact that Chelsea go to Tottenham Hotspur tonight - with less than a week of the Premiership season remaining - seeking a win that will keep them in with an outside chance of the title says much for Chelsea's staying power.

Moreover, the sterling efforts and stylish football of Gianluca Vialli's team have already earned one precious reward - a place in the qualifying competition for next season's Champions' League. Even if they were to fall at their first hurdle in Europe's premier competition Chelsea would still go into next season's Uefa Cup.

This is all heady stuff for Flo, whose exquisite technique and skill with the ball at his feet have made him a firm favourite with the Stamford Bridge faithful. Everyone expects a striker as big as Flo to be good in the air -- which he most certainly is - but it is his skills on the ground which have made him such a key part of Chelsea's recent success.

As the Norwegian picked at his chicken and pasta in the club training ground's refectory the other day, he reflected on the most unlikely methods that honed his skills and prepared him and his remarkable sporting family for future careers in professional football. Flo has four brothers who all ply their trade in the game, plus a host of cousins and other relatives. Yet their home town of Stryn in the west of Norway is snowbound for much of the year.

"We have mountains over one thousand metres high on both sides of the town," Flo said with a sleepy smile. "The family skied, but football was always our first love. We used to watch a match every Saturday afternoon on Norwegian television and have bets, like all Norwegians do. And when the weather stopped us playing outside, myself and my brothers had games in the house."

This, so it transpires, took place without the knowledge of their mother. "We'd wait until she left the house, and often our only sister would keep a watch for us," Flo continues. "We had a nice, long living room, so we put the chairs to one side, used the legs of the tables for goals, and kicked a small, plastic ball. They were very competitive games, I can tell you."

Of this there is no doubt. After all, eldest brother Kjell Rune currently plays for the Norwegian First Division side Molde; Jostein, a former Sheffield United player, Norwegian international and scourge of Graham Taylor's England, is now at Stromsgodset; Bjarte plays for Second Division Stryn; and defender Jarle is at First Division Sogndal. Oh, and cousin Havard, another current Norwegian international, can be found at Werder Bremen.

In fact, so obsessively good is the Flo clan in western Norway that once, when Tore was still too young to play his part, Second Division Stryn fielded a team consisting wholly of the Flo family.

But back to Mrs Flo. How did she never discover her sons' antics? Tore Andre laughs. "We'd either be given prior warning by our sister, or we'd hear her come in and by the time she'd enter the room we'd all be sitting down looking innocent. The only problem was that we'd all be sweating. Sometimes we'd break a vase or a pot, and then we'd tell her it was an accident, and that she should take it easy."

When he was not causing chaos at home, or following the fortunes of Birmingham City (one of his elder brothers bought him the only football shirt left in a local shop when he was eight years old and Tore Andre felt duty-bound to support them), Flo had another obsessive hobby. "I used to see how many times I could keep the ball in the air," he reveals. "I had a little notebook, and I would keep a record of my scores." Can he remember his all-time best? "Sure," he answers. "I reached 600 once, and then I had to stop because I had to go and do something else."

Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why, contrary to most reports earlier in the season, Flo waited patiently for his chance at Chelsea to make his mark. No, he was not having showdowns with Vialli, and no, he was never on the verge of storming out. For a start, it's not in the man's nature. Last November at Derby, for example, was the first time he had ever received a yellow card.

"I still say the ball was in, which is why I kicked it," he insists, slightly miffed. Then, like a convent girl who has uttered her first swear word, he admits to a secret pleasure that his name has made the naughty boys' book. "The fact that I'd never been booked was getting a little embarrassing," he reveals. "And in England you are supposed to be a tough football player who battles hard."

Was it difficult biding so much time on the subs bench? "It's not that I'm so patient, but realistic," he explains. "Look at the players Chelsea had when I came - Zola, Vialli, Hughes. I knew I couldn't just walk into a team that had such famous players already there. At training in the first few weeks I'd be good, and then bad, and I think it's because I was a little nervous in the company of these people. So I said to myself: "Maybe I have to spend some time before I get my chance."

Which is what he did, although whenever a chance was presented to him, such as his League hat-trick at White Hart Lane in December, 1997, he took it with both feet and his head. "I think the fans were not too sure at first," Flo believes. "They thought I was some big guy from Norway who wouldn't stay long, not with all the famous players already at Chelsea. I think they were surprised to see that I can play with the ball at my feet. But I'm not a target man. I'm not someone who can just head the ball. I am a football player."

Then, at the start of this season, Vialli purchased both Brian Laudrup and Pierluigi Casiraghi. This prompted a polite meeting between Flo and his manager. "I was not angry, but I was worried about not playing," he admits. "I had a conversation with Vialli, and he convinced me that I was a good player and that my time would come."

With the quick departure of Laudrup, the long-term knee injury to Casiraghi, and Chelsea's sudden dependency on the big Norwegian who scored two more goals for his country in Georgia recently, Flo's time has now most definitely come.

For Flo, there is another ambition, too, which, in a quiet, snowbound valley, means as much as any honours collected either for Chelsea or Norway.

"My brother Jostein won 52 caps for Norway," Tore Andre reveals. "So far I have 35. So never mind Norway. It's important to have the family record." He smiles again, almost self-consciously. "That means a lot to a Flo."