– You’re going in.
Those were the words that came out of the mouth of Tottenham manager, Gerry Francis, as he turned his gaze to 19-year-old Espen Baardsen.
He was in the away locker room at fearsome Anfield. Liverpool led 2-1 and Tottenham goalkeeper Ian Walker had to throw in the towel due to an injury.
Baardsen felt ready. It was this moment he had dreamed of all his life. Now the dream was to come true.
The match ended in defeat, but Baardsen’s Premier League career was in full swing.
Six years and two clubs later he had had enough. The 25-year-old had just received an offer from Sheffield United, but the offer was so bad that he saw no other way out than to start a new life.
– I turned around and thought «to hell with this». Then I got in the car and drove towards London. I was at the lowest point I had ever been. That was when I told myself that my career was over, says Espen Baardsen to TV 2 today.
Watch the highlights from Espen Baardsen’s matches against Arsenal and Liverpool in the video window above!
Coincidences made “Drillo” aware of the talent
Espen Baardsen grew up in sunny California in the 1980s. With two Norwegian parents, it is not just the name that ensures close ties to Norway.
The young Norwegian-American quickly falls in love with his parents’ homeland and every summer they visit their mother’s hometown Fredrikstad.
But it is coincidence and the cliché “the world is a small place” that will ensure that Espen Baardsen’s name fits into Norwegian football history.
In today’s society, one can find the names of Norwegian citizens with a quick Google search. This was not possible when Norway’s national team manager Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s phone rang in 1994.
– Mom called Drillo. They had gone to the same school together in Fredrikstad, so she knew him from the time there, says Baardsen in TV 2’s Premier League podcast.
Drillo ended the conversation by announcing that Baardsen would pack his gloves and go to national team training in San Diego.
– I was very young, Baardsen remembers.
Had a tough encounter with top football
Baardsen had shown himself to the Norwegian national team, and the coaching team liked what they saw.
Drillo’s assistant Bjørn Hansen fixed a test match with Rosenborg in 1996, but the Trøndelag team was out too late. Tottenham had already had him on trial when he was 14 years old, thanks to Erik Thorstvedt. The trial match was a success, and Tottenham invited him to England every summer afterwards.
When Baardsen trained with Rosenborg, there was already a three-year contract on the table from Tottenham, and a short time later he signed it.
– It was a very steep learning curve. The first year was pretty tough. I was not a star player who was brought in and thus did not get the respect that this entails. I really had to prove that I deserved a place there.
Can the Tottenham legend remember Espen Baardsen?
Week in and week out, Espen Baardsen was on the team bus, but the closest he came to the track were the British substitutes’ benches.
He envisioned the substitutes’ bench at Anfield when Tottenham traveled to Liverpool to play the penultimate game of the season. At 19, he sat down behind the coach and watched Darren Anderton send the Spurs into the lead. At the break, the score was 2-1 to Liverpool.
It was during this break that manager Gerry Francis asked Baardsen to tie his shoes and put on his goalkeeper gloves.
– It was of course incredibly exciting. At the same time, I did not feel any tremendous pressure. I thought there were low expectations for me, as I had not been an expensive signing. I simply thought that the supporters would be happy as long as I made a decent match, says Baardsen to TV 2.
Disproved “Mini”‘s prediction
When Ian Walker was back from injury, Baardsen was again referred to the bench. It would be a long time before he got playing time again.
But like the year before, Ian Walker was injured. Now Anfield had been replaced by Old Trafford. Walker’s injury was so serious that Tottenham chose to sign a new goalkeeper.
Norway’s national team goalkeeper Frode Grodås was brought in. Without affecting Baardsen’s playing time. While Grodås was the national team’s favorite goalkeeper, it was Baardsen who referred Grodås to the bench at Spurs.
It was at this time that Drillo chose to call Baardsen into the national team gathering. There he was reunited with several of the players he had trained with during the trial game at Rosenborg.
– Jahn Ivar “Mini” Jakobsen had told me that I did not have a chance to join the Norwegian national team. But here I was, laughs Baardsen.
Shock message from the manager: – 23 hours of football and one hour of sex
– The times around 1998 are the best years I have had on the football field. It was in a way when I reached my highest level.
But at the same time as life smiled and Baardsen loved what he was doing, he began to have other thoughts.
– Already around 1999-2000 I started to get a little tired of football. It worked in a way against me, he admits.
Gets bouts of sweating naked
He needed new challenges. He got it in the same city. Watford had relegated and were looking for a new goalkeeper. Espen Baardsen was the solution.
But what awaited him would prove to be a great contrast to the star life he had lived in Tottenham.
– It was a huge change. I had to wash my training clothes myself, the training ground was wet and dirty. They went home from training with a giant plastic bag full of dirty and wet clothes. It was nowhere near the standard I had become accustomed to at Tottenham.
The time at Watford was turbulent. An injury caused the space to smoke and again the goalkeeper ended up in a vicious spiral.
The idea of laying up had been there for a long time, but now Baardsen started in earnest to plan a future without the goalkeeper gloves. On the player bus on the way to matches, he used the time to read financial books and immerse himself in stock trading.
Watford boss Gianluca Vialli did not like it.
– I was not so happy with the life I lived and was simply tired of football. I remember very well that Vialli asked me to spend 23 hours a day thinking about football. The last hour of the day he wanted me to spend on sex, laughs Baardsen.
– To hell with this
When the season was over in 2002 and the players went on holiday, the goalkeeper had had enough.
– I came back in pretty bad shape after the holidays. It was really the beginning of the end of my career. I did not like what I was doing. So showing up in bad shape was maybe a kind of way I envisioned ruining my career.
Eventually, both he and Watford realized that there was no future. They agreed to terminate the contract.
A short stay at Everton, where he got one game, should prove to be the last thing he did on a football field. In an Everton kit at White Hart Lane, Espen Baardsen saved his last shot.
Six years had passed since his debut at Anfield. Now he was in a meeting with Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock.
– I would get 500 pounds a week to be second choice. Then I would get a bonus every time I played or was on the bench. The problem was that Warnock often did not have a reserve keeper on the bench.
That was when he thought “to hell with this” and realized that he was at his lowest point in life.
– I did not like what I did. I had no motivation whatsoever to play football. I was still quite young (25 years old) and had saved all the money I had earned. I was in a good position to start with something completely new.
Made success in a completely different arena
In total, there were 24 league matches at the top level in England and four international matches for Norway. He also got to participate in the World Cup in 1998.
Now there was no way back for Baardsen. He boarded the plane and visited China, Australia and South America. He did things he had not had time for as a football professional.
– I remember VG had a picture of me on their front page in national team uniform with the text “Here you can stand for the next 15 years”. That is probably not the best tip they have had, laughs Baardsen.
After the year off, he settled down in London. Now was the time to find a new livelihood. During his professional career, he had studied economics and the hours he had spent reading in the player bus were to prove to be worth their weight in gold.
He got a job in a hedge fund and created a life with the knowledge he learned as a football professional. Today, Baardsen lives a secluded life in London with his wife and their three young children.
– In a good year, I can do very well. I had a very good year last year, as I had bet that the oil price would rise, which it did. But you can also have difficult years. It all depends on what happens.
Once in a while he goes to the old club Tottenham and sees them play, but he admits that the visits have decreased over the years. But one of the visits has burned into his memory.
When Tottenham were to celebrate 125 years in 2007, all of the club’s greatest legends were invited to be honored out on the lawn at White Hart Lane.
Baardsen was present, but he was not invited by the club. His good friend Erik Thorstvedt was among the players who were to enter the grass and get his deserved tribute. Baardsen was there to watch the match with Thorstvedt.
– Haha, I remember. All the great legends were to be celebrated, also suddenly I was asked if I also wanted to join the field. It was actually quite embarrassing, but of course an incredible experience.
Listen to the entire podcast episode with Espen Baardsen by following this link: Espen Baardsen – PL goalkeeper who disappeared