Morten Gamst Pedersen does not exude the air of a sensitive type as he rolls up from training with his bleached blond hair, wristwatch the size of a brick and a colourful T-shirt bearing a seemingly irreverent image of a cartoon dog.
The task ahead of him in a room at the Blackburn Rovers training ground would turn lesser men to jelly. Pedersen has been asked to introduce a group of local schoolchildren to poetry by reading a few verses himself and he is following in the not inconsiderable footsteps of Robbie Savage, his arch-rival for the title of flashiest man at Ewood, who has just recited with no lack of gusto. Pedersen does not so much as flinch. "Are you ready for this," he asks a dozen transfixed young faces before launching into verse for a project which is part of the Premier League's Creating Chances programme. "Good isn't it?" he asks after an effervescent display.
But appearances, even those as brash as this, can be deceptive. Pedersen's might give Savage a run for his money when it comes to self-confidence – an attribute which the Norwegian will need in spades when sixth-placed Blackburn's European aspirations are tested to the hilt at Old Trafford tomorrow – but when he casts his mind back three short years, to talk about the days when he arrived in England from one of the remotest corners of Norway and took a shot at life in the big time, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he subsequently faced a mental struggle harder than most.
It was late 2004, and a characteristically drab autumn in Lancashire, when Pedersen arrived from the remote reaches of Tromso, inside the Arctic Circle. Graeme Souness had picked him up from the Norwegian top flight club and there was a promising debut in a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, which Blackburn had all but won before conceding in injury time. Souness was sacked soon afterwards, Pedersen didn't seem to fit into the plans of new manager Mark Hughes and his high hopes of filling the berth vacated by Damien Duff's close season departure to Chelsea seemed a long way off.
There then followed the kind of newspaper article which, you sense, debilitated him as much as anything. "It was about the biggest flops in sport that season. And I was one of them," Pedersen recalls. "I played two games and was then in the stands. Everyone was asking, 'Why spend £2m on a winger and don't use him?' That was in a British newspaper but there were also loads of people from the Norwegian press saying every day, 'What's going on? We've lost another guy to England and now he's not playing'."
It was an alien experience in every way for Pedersen. His footballing education had been undertaken under the watchful eye of his father, Ernest, a football coach, and he had never played outside of his native country so it was to his friends in Norway that he looked for support. "One of my best friends took a month off from work to come over and look after me," Pedersen recalls. "That made a massive difference and made things less solitary." Other footballing friends, plying their trade in Norway's fourth and fifth divisions, also pitched in with support and there were telephone calls from British football's Norwegian contingent. John Arne Riise, with whom Pedersen left the pitch in deep conversation after their sides' stalemate at Ewood seven days ago, told him to stay positive.
But, oddly enough, it was attention from the clubs which sensed Pedersen was unsettled which made the biggest difference: Marseilles expressed interest and clubs in Norway also asked to take Pedersen back. "Blackburn said no to that and that made me feel I could fit," says Pedersen. "I knew I had a chance. I was three months in the stands. I didn't play but I went into training, had a smile on my face. I tried to do well and do the things I needed. I knew if I had to take the opportunity when it came."
His optimism was well founded. Pedersen eventually returned to the fray, developing a reputation as a player who proves that touch and technique can play a part amid the power of the Premier League. He also understands Hughes much more now. "He knows what he wants but he also knows how to be a player. He gives you credit when you do well but he also says when you do something bad," says Pedersen. "He doesn't kill you but you need to do well when you're in the team."
The consequences of not quite firing in a game are still all too clear. Pedersen was particularly anxious after a relatively indifferent second-half display in Rovers' only defeat this season, at home to Portsmouth. "You shouldn't beat yourself up about an off day," he said, rather unconvincingly. "The second half I didn't do well, the passes didn't go where I wanted." His intuition about how Hughes might view the match proved right. Pedersen immediately lost his place to Tugay and has had to remain satisfied with four appearances from the bench before he started and scored in the Carling Cup third round, against Portsmouth, and re-established himself in the starting line-up against Liverpool.
A celebrity back home Pedersen now might be – his own nation's press has dubbed him the Norwegian David Beckham by dint of his hairstyle and spectacular goals and he recently beat King Harald V by coming second in a newspaper survey of the most famous people in Norway (a politician won it) – but Pedersen has retained some of his anonymity by settling on a home in Manchester with his Norwegian girlfriend. He'll often bump into Manchester United players in the city and there'll be plenty of polite acknowledgments. But the sight of Edwin van der Sar dining with Marco van Basten in a local restaurant on a recent Saturday night, sent him back to the status of a wide-eyed soccer-mad fan.
It wasn't Van der Sar who had this effect, Hughes will be pleased to know, but the Dutch legend Van Basten – Pedersen's childhood hero – and even summoning the courage to step up and introduce himself was evidently beyond the young midfielder. "I was thinking of asking him for his autograph but they were eating so I didn't want to be rude and interrupt everything," Pedersen says. "When I saw him I just thought 'wow.' I said to my girlfriend: 'He's been my star all the way and I've been looking up to him all the way."
Even a glimpse of such a great player seemed a long way off away when Pedersen was growing up in the far flung reaches of Vadso, in the north-east of Norway, on the same latitude as Siberia, Alaska and Greenland. Pedersen jokes that you grow up quickly playing your football in the Arctic Circle because if the fans don't have something to clap, the temperatures will send them home. But he started raising spirits when he broke into his local side Noril IL in 1997 and it was when he was 15 that his father decided that there were too many right-footed players in Norwegian football and that his son would not prosper unless he developed his left. "My dad played football and won the league and cup in the Norwegian league," says Pedersen. "He watches the games. I know what I have to do but my dad and mum always support me."
Ernest Pedersen's attention to detail saw his son signed up by Tromso, for whom he scored seven times in the 2004 season and brought Souness calling, to sign him. It was a journey into the unknown in so many ways. Only Sigurd Rushfeldt, who struggled in a brief loan spell at Birmingham City before moving on to Rosenborg, Racing Santander and FK Austria Wien, had made it anywhere near the big time among the footballing fraternity of Vadso. He is now back at Tromso, where he started his career. "Sigurd Rushfelt's career was a big thing for me as well," Pedersen says. "You can learn things from people."
In the tough acclimatisation process Pedersen has, in more ways than one, not been too sure of who he is at times. After playing two seasons with "Pedersen" the surname he answers to in Britain on the back of his shirt, he had to seek permission from the Premier League this season to change it to his mother's "Gamst". "It's because that's what people call me in Norway. I'm just Gamst there – not Pedersen or Morten Gamst, " he explains. But his game has developed. Hughes has introduced him to neuro-linguistic programming, a technique used by Jonny Wilkinson among others in which players are asked to conjure certain mental images in certain situations in games. The idea is to get players to do certain things in exactly the same way at critical moments in matches.
Hughes says there is "a bit of David Beckham" in the way Pedersen despatches from set-pieces and if you search for the Norwegian on YouTube you'll find the left-foot volley against Fulham which is legendary among Blackburn fans as well as a collection of his spectacular efforts with a moving ball: his 30-yard left-foot shot at Luton's Kenilworth Road and a right-foot effort from the same distance against Newcastle United which prompted the co-commentator and former player Mark Bright to ask: "Does he ever score a simple goal?"
Old Trafford does not feature but the Norwegian's track record there means that the place holds no fears for him. Pedersen scored the two goals that beat United there two seasons ago in a performance which did much to fuel the speculation that United might see him as Ryan Giggs's natural replacement.
For now, Pedersen is trying to keep football in some perspective. He and several other players in the Norwegian national squad formed a band called the Players two summers ago and topped the Scandinavian chart with a charity single, "This is for real", the purpose of which was to deter young boys from crime. Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle and "Diamond Lights" it was most certainly not, Pedersen admits. "Everybody knew that if you bought the thing it would go to charity. Some rich guy bought 10,000, I think," he says. But it made the Creating Chances poetry reading familiar territory for him.
The poems were recorded for a Rovers DVD which is designed to engage young people and Longshaw Junior School's headteacher Pam Barnes, whose pupils were listening, said it was more valuable to her than Pedersen could have imagined. "It really can help make the difference between children having the will to try to read and giving up," she says. "It's especially influential with the boys."
Goals, too, will also enhance Pedersen's impression on young minds in central Lancashire, not to mention his manager's on the day he visits his former club. So might he have the confidence to try one of those spectacular trademark efforts at Old Trafford today? Very probably. "If you don't buy a ticket you are not going to win," he says.
Norwegian would: How Pedersen scoring has surprised United
* 11 January 2006 (Ewood Park) Blackburn 1-1 Man Utd
In the first leg of the Carling Cup semi-final Pedersen cancelled out Louis Saha's 30th minute strike with a stunning finish from 18 yards. Shefki Kuqi contested an aerial challenge with Rio Ferdinand and as the ball broke free Pedersen struck a rising drive that left Van der Sar well beaten.
Manchester United went on to win the second leg at Old Trafford 2-1 and beat an outclassed Wigan Athletic 4-0 in the final.
* 24 September 2005 (Old Trafford) Man Utd 1-2 Blackburn
Pedersen struck twice for the visitors as Blackburn beat Manchester United. The Norwegian's first came in the 33rd minute from a brilliantly taken set-piece. Blackburn won a free-kick on the right corner of the United box and Pedersen's left-footed shot curled through a mass of players and beyond goalkeeper Edwin Van Der Sar into the far corner.
His second, Rovers' eventual winner, was a fierce, near-post strike in the 81st minute after a mistake from Paul Scholes. The United midfielder was robbed on the edge of his own area by Blackburn left-back Michael Gray, who slipped the ball through for Pedersen, who promptly lashed a left-footed shot into the roof of the net from eight yards. He would later be touted as Ryan Giggs's eventual replacement on the left-side of midfield.Reuse content