Football: Rudi rises from Waddle mould

Simon Turnbull talks to Wednesday's gifted Norseman who proved a real bargain
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The Independent Online
MOLDE is known in Norway as "the town of roses". In England it has become known as a football nursery of some renown. It was from Molde FK that Oyvind Leonhardsen and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer proceeded to blossom in the English Premiership. And it was from the Norwegian premier division club that David Pleat unearthed the roving wide boy who has helped the Owls spread their wings so impressively of late. Sheffield Wednesday's rise up the Premiership table, from the fringe of the relegation zone at the turn of the year to the comfort of a top 10 position, has been inspired by the form of Petter Rudi.

In the Wednesday No 25 shirt, sponsored by David Ford Central Heating, Rudi has been red hot. At Ewood Park a fortnight ago he was simply irrepressible, picking out all 4,000 of the holes John Lennon detected in Blackburn, Lancashire - or so it seemed. He scored two goals, set up a third and wrought untold havoc in Wednesday's 4-2 win. "They just couldn't cope with him," Danny Wilson, the Wednesday manager, enthused. "His running off the ball was magnificent." If Brian Kidd thought Solskjaer a snip at pounds 1.5m, the Blackburn manager must have ruefully reflected that Rudi was one of football's sales of the century.

Wilson is grateful that Pleat persuaded the Wednesday board to part with the pounds 800,000 that brought Rudi from Scandinavia to South Yorkshire in October 1997. "Believe me, he's a quality player," Pleat told reporters gathered in the foyer at Hillsborough the day Rudi arrived. "When you see him play you won't be able to stop yourself thinking of Chris Waddle."

Seventeen months later, Rudi is routinely referred to as "the Chris Waddle clone". He has the same loping gate, the same slouched shoulders and the same devastatingly elusive dribbling skills as the Geordie original. "I am delighted when people say these things," Rudi confided after Wednesday night duty against Wimbledon at Hillsborough. "It shows that I am playing well. And I feel that I have played well while I have been here."

Wednesdayites would not disagree. Of all the foreign legionnaires who have been recruited to the blue and white cause in recent years, Rudi has been the most consistently impressive. And for that Wednesdayites have not only Pleat to thank but also someone who helped to inflict one of the most painful wounds English football pride has been obliged to endure. Aage Hareide played at left-back in the Norway team that gave "Maggie Thatcher's boys... one hell of a beating", to borrow the words of the late Bjorge Lillelien, in Oslo's Ullevaal Stadium in September 1981. Hareide was also the Molde coach who moulded Leonhardsen, Solskjaer and Rudi and encouraged them to follow in his studmarks.

In his own playing days as one of Norwegian football's pioneering exports to England, along with Einer Aas at Nottingham Forest, Hareide spent two years with Manchester City and two with Norwich. As Molde's coach-cum- manager, he bought Solskjaer for pounds 15,000 from Clausenengen, a Norwegian third division club, in January 1995 and sold him to Manchester United for pounds 1.5m in July 1996. He also made his club a clear profit on Rudi, nurturing him from the Molde youth team to the English Premiership.

"I owe Aage a great deal," Rudi reflected. "He was my manager for seven years at Molde. He would have liked me to stay there, of course. He wanted to have as good a team as possible. But he is a very good man. At the same time, he wanted his players to have as much success as possible. He had played in England himself. He could see that Ole and myself were too good to stay in Norway.

"It was not a difficult decision to come here because many of my friends from Norway already played in England and they told me they loved it. I had been to England before myself. I had played with the Under-21 team here a few times. I feel very settled here football-wise. It's the right place for me.

"Outside of football, though, I have to say it is not always so good. I lived all my life in Molde until I came here and I do miss it. It's not that I don't like England. It's just that you always like your home best. It's only natural."

Rudi, as it happens, has been back home since Thursday. He should have been at Highbury yesterday but Arsenal's advance in the FA Cup, at the expense of Sheffield United, postponed Wednesday's scheduled trip to face the champions. The next test for Rudi and the in-form Owls will be at Highbury all the same, the match having been rescheduled for Tuesday.

"I don't think we played too badly earlier in the season," Rudi said. "We lost many games 1-0 when we had been the better side. But there has been a change in the last month or so. We are winning now. And we are playing good football."

No one is playing better for Wednesday than the man who is flying the Norwegian flag with distinction at Hillsborough. At 25, Rudi has been capped 21 times by his country. He cannot, though, recall the night Norwegian football stamped its mark indelibly on the English game. "To be honest, I don't remember the match," Wednesday's Norseman said of England's 2- 1 beating in Oslo 18 years ago. "I have heard the commentator's remarks, though." So has Maggie Thatcher - and, no doubt, the ghosts of Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Nelson too.