Morten Gamst Pedersen exclusive: 'Would I sign for Wrexham? Of course... I would love to'
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"Do I miss England? Yes," says Morten Gamst Pedersen, his eyes welling up at the thought. "Every time I come back to Manchester, it feels like home. I spent almost 10 years there and they were the most important years of my football career. It will always be a special place for me. You never know... maybe I will come back one day."
From his spacious hotel room in Trondheim, a picturesque city in central Norway, the ageless Pedersen is reminiscing.
It has been almost two decades since a relatively-unknown midfielder from Tromsø– a destination renowned for its views of the Northern Lights – was introduced to the very-unfamiliar surroundings of East Lancashire; the home of Witton Country Park and five Wetherspoons pubs.
Sporting a pair of distressed flared jeans and a hairstyle featuring those soon-to-be trademark blonde highlights, it was a startling change from encompassing mountains, glaciers and deep coastal fjords but soon, he would fall in love with everything Blackburn Rovers.
At first, many were sceptical when he signed a deal with the Premier League club but days later, those doubts were put to bed when he notched an assist on his debut against Manchester United – a club he grew up supporting. Pedersen, and the Ewood Park regulars, would never look back.
He made a total of 349 appearances for Rovers before leaving in the summer of 2013, shortly after he used a walking stick to celebrate a goal against Leicester in response to Venky's Group global adviser Shebby Singh, who called him a "pensioner" that had "lost his legs".
Funnily enough, the Benjamin Button of Norwegian football is still going strong, a decade on from those comments.
The 41-year-old completed an impressive eighth transfer of his professional career last month, when he signed a one-year deal with second-division side Ranheim, who currently sit third in the OBOS-ligaen table. "I just want to do the best I can," he says. "I will give everything I've got. I've decided to keep on going because of my love for the game. I just love football."
Fresh from a training session with his new teammates, which is a short drive down the motorway from his hotel, the winger-turned-centre-midfielder sits down with SPORTbible to speak about is cult-like status in England and the tender subject of retirement.
Oh, and he wants to send a message to Wrexham owner Ryan Reynolds.
Type the name 'Morten Gamst Pedersen' into your Twitter search bar and a stream of affection towards a Premier League legend emerges. From several comments about his "absolute wand" of a left foot to more recent times, when he lobbed the goalkeeper on a 3G indoor arena pitch during his time at Norwegian club Alta IF.
His cult-like status for that spell in England alone – where he scored a number of compilation-worthy goals from range – will continue for many years to come. But for many, it's his undying loyalty to the "beautiful" Blackburn that separates him from the rest.
A perfect example of that special connection came in 2013, when he was told he could leave Ewood Park on a free transfer.
"A few English clubs were interested but I'm going to be honest. It would have been really, really tough to sign for another English team," he admits. "The love I had for Blackburn and the people that worked there. It wasn't easy just to walk away. I've been a loyal person to Blackburn and they've been loyal to me. That's why I still have good connections with them.
"Even last summer when they were discussing a new manager, the owners called me and asked what I thought about some of the options. I really appreciated that."
At one stage, Pedersen was being chased by a host of top European clubs but he turned all those offers down to stay. In fact, a decade after leaving the club to join Turkish side Karabukspor, he says the biggest regret of his career was leaving Ewood Park in the summer of 2013.
"I could have probably stayed but it was back and forward," he remembers. "There were so many things happening. I could have gone to another club in England but I told myself if I was going to leave, I was going to try a totally different adventure. I went to Turkey and it was a crazy trip."
Does Pedersen think he could have played for a big club? "I had the end product," he says. "That's very important in football. I'm not the trickiest one-against-one but I'm always involved in terms of assists and goals. I think if I played in a better team, or at a higher level, you naturally have even better players around you.
"Saying that that's one of the reasons why I did so well at Blackburn. I had the likes of Benni McCarthy and Roque Santa Cruz around me."
Away from the pitch, his humble approach to living in Manchester's city centre was another reason behind his unique relationship with fans and the press. In fact, when celebrity figures would ignore photographers in the local area, Pedersen would spare a few minutes of his time to help out.
"I think [people respect me] because I've just been myself," he says. "I lived in the city centre of Manchester and I always used to walk around the city centre. I was myself. I used to talk to people. If people want a selfie, let's take a selfie.
"Even the paparazzi... I remember meeting one for the first time. I asked, 'Where do you want me? Where shall I stand?' He didn't know what to say because normally they tell him to 'f**k off'.
"Be yourself. Smile. It's important. The reason you can play football and get paid a fortune is because everybody watches."
That special, tight-knit relationship with those supporters is one of the main reasons behind his love and admiration for Blackburn. In his own words, "they mean everything to me" and a story from 2012, when Venky's Group adviser Shebby Singh called him 'a pensioner that had lost his legs' speaks volumes.
"I had a strong bond with the fans at Blackburn and they weren't happy when he called me that," he says.
"That was the first thing. And of course, the squad didn't like he was saying those kinds of things. I was just angry and upset because calling a player a pension can ruin your name.
"We were playing Leicester at home and I went to Pudsey, the kit man. I said, 'You're going to do one thing for me. Bring me a walking stick for the pitch tomorrow. I'm going to score the winner and you're going to give me the walking stick and I'm to celebrate with it.'"
Some would have expected Pedersen to hang up his boots after those malicious comments but his love for the game remained.
After leaving Norwegian second-division side Asane last year, the 41-year-old has spent the last year or so training for a new challenge. Injury prevention work was, and still is, a key part of his daily routine, meaning his body is ready to face the demands of first-team football.
He also continues to run and swim on a regular basis to maintain his overall fitness levels.
"If you're going to build a house, you need a good base, and I feel I've got that now," he smiles. "I'd say the strength work is probably the most important. You can lose some power as you get older, so that's the most important thing to be on top of.
"Of course, pace is the first thing you lose. I've never been the fastest player in the world but you try and lose as little as possible. That's a major part of football. I'm working hard to stay on the same fitness levels as everyone else.
"Sometimes you have to think of your limitations. There is a life after football but at the moment, I can still focus on the things I want to do and challenge myself."
Although he has achieved so much in a 23-year professional career that includes 83 caps for Norway, Pedersen feels he has one more big adventure left; whether that be winning the league with Ranheim or even playing in League One or League Two in the English pyramid – something he believes is genuinely possible, despite his age.
Soon, the conversation turns to newly-crowned National League winners Wrexham.
Owned by Hollywood actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, who have invested a reported £10 million into the club, Phil Parkinson's side earned promotion to the Football League in April after picking up a record-breaking 111 points during the 46-game season.
"It's unbelievable what they are doing," Pedersen says. "I think it's so cool. Yes, they get promoted and everything, but they are also building a brand from a club that's quite far down in the system. It shows that if you get the right people and the right attitude, and everybody drags in the same direction, you can do a lot.
"Aren't they the second-oldest club in the UK as well?" he asks. "They have a great history."
The question remains; would one of Norway's finest products make the 1,600-mile trip to North Wales and play for the newly-promoted side? "Yeah, I would love to. Why not? Of course. Maybe if you tag me in a social media post, Ryan Reynolds could read this, and we get a chance to meet…"
For those interested *cough* Ryan Reynolds *cough*, the versatile Pedersen gave us an insight into the type of player he is today.
"I play more centrally now. I can play as a central midfield or a number 10; more like a playmaker role. I also play on the wing as well, because if you get a full-back that's good to overlap, that's perfect for me. I'll use my strength on my left foot. I prefer to play further up the pitch.
"I was playing as a holding midfield for the last 35 minutes in my last game. It was nice to ping some balls."
Morten Gamst Pedersen has a little sit down with himself before the start of every season to discuss the possibility of retirement.
This year, he felt good after receiving offers from several different clubs, including a handful from abroad. In fact, one unnamed team wanted him to go for a trial, just to see if he could still play at his age.
Ranheim eventually came in with the right offer and there was no doubt in his mind. "I just said to my girlfriend, 'This is what I want to do so I'm going'."
The subject of hanging up his boots for good brings an awkward smirk. Even now, when Pedersen thinks about retirement, feelings from that day in May 2013 come flooding back – a final day of the season clash against Championship side Birmingham City.
"I didn't play but when I walked out at Ewood Park to say goodbye, I had a feeling of almost emptiness," he recalls. "The tears were flowing. It just felt... I don't know. It's hard to describe. When I knew I was going to leave Ewood Park, it was a horrible thing.
"I think those feelings will come again. I'm not looking forward to it but it just shows that you have been doing something you love, and something you sacrificed your whole life for."
For now, Pedersen has the minerals to make an impact at a relatively high level and yet, the subject of retirement lingers. One thing is for certain, he won't be able to leave football behind when the time comes.
"I think the moment when I retire is going to be a big day for me," he says. "I'll continue to play football after I finish professionally. I've done all my coaching badges. I will be involved in football, that's for sure.
"A coach or manager or sports director or agent? I'm not sure yet. It will be something. Lots of clubs have asked me if I want to come and work for them the day I stop playing football. That means a lot.
"I cannot just walk away and leave this game because it's such a big, big part of me."
This is the second feature from SPORTbible's Streets Will Never Forget mini-series in which we hunt down some of the Premier League's most iconic names.
Featured Image Credit: Alamy
Topics: Wrexham, League Two, Blackburn Rovers, Norway, Spotlight, Premier League, Transfers