What Happened To Morten Gamst Pedersen: The Ultimate 'Streets Will Never Forget' Player
Morten Gamst Pedersen can feel a tear sliding down his cheek. "I tried to hold in all my emotions, but I couldn't."
It is May 4, 2013, and a sentimental Pedersen is standing in the tunnel at St Andrew's as he prepares to make his 349th appearance for Blackburn Rovers; a final day of the season clash against Championship side Birmingham City.
On the surface, there wasn't much to play for. Both teams lingered in mid-table after a mediocre campaign and many were looking forward to a well-deserved break following a busy period. But for the Norwegian winger, it was a game he would never forget.
"It wasn't 100% sure that I was leaving but I still had butterflies in my stomach and the tears flowed," the 39-year-old tells SPORTbible. "It was really tough to leave. Sometimes you have to do these things but if it was up to me, I would have stayed much longer."
Seven years on from that memorable day in the West Midlands, the former Blackburn man is clearly still in love with the club he calls home, despite a far from fairytale ending.
"They mean a lot. It's where I spent the majority of my football career. The opportunity to become a professional at Tromso was special, but when I signed for Blackburn, it really was a dream come true."
Many eyebrows were raised when Graeme Souness signed a relatively unknown winger from Norwegian side Tromso in the summer of 2004 for around £1.5 million. Pedersen was still only in his early 20s and lacked experience at the very top.
Souness, to his credit, was convinced by his talents. No other player had been watched more times by Blackburn during his four-year reign at the club.
"I hope he'll score goals for us and I hope he settles in quickly," Souness said, just days after his arrival. "The tempo of our game catches all the foreigners out when they come over here because it's so intense. There's no other league in the world where football is played like it is in England.
"It's in your face, it's very fast and very aggressive and it's all about how quickly you can adapt to that. He will be asked to do things two yards quicker than he was doing it in Norway and we'll have to wait and see if he can deal with that.
"But I'm confident he will be able to deal with it."
And deal with it he did. Pedersen was thrown into the deep end by Souness when he was handed his Rovers debut at Old Trafford against the club he supported as a child. The winger impressed many on his first Premier League outing, including a certain Sir Alex Ferguson.
In fact, years later, the Scotsman opened up about his interest in signing Pedersen before he joined the ranks at Ewood Park.
"Pedersen seems to be making his reputation against us," said Ferguson in 2006, two seasons after the Norwegian hit the ground running.
"We saw him play and had some good reports on him. We just didn't think he was what we wanted at the time because we had just signed Cristiano Ronaldo, we already had Ryan Giggs - and Kieran Richardson was coming through as well.
"It happens. A lot of times you see players who take your eye but you are maybe overloaded in that particular position. You don't do anything about it."
Pedersen has never shied away from his admiration of Manchester United and, when asked if a move was ever a possibility, he speaks honestly and openly about what 'could have been'.
"There were loads of rumours and everything," he says. "I know they were following me during my time at Tromso and in my best times at Blackburn as well. I know there was some interest. They were watching me from the stands. How close? I don't know. It could have happened if Giggs hadn't played for 200 more years... who knows!"
Pedersen also remembers a number of conversations with the "very polite" and "gentle" Ferguson.
"When I lived back in Norway, I was always a big Manchester United supporter. I mean, I was never fanatical but I always remembered thinking he [Ferguson] was untouchable. I never thought I would meet and or even talk to him.
"Of course, you can't get a bigger compliment from a manager like him. I spoke to him many times about lots of things. Football, Norway... actually I gave him some wine with my name on it, so there is a wine bottle with my name on it somewhere in his cellar.
"The thing that really struck me was he was just a nice guy. Every time I met him, he was in a good mood. I think he liked me as a person. I never had any problems with him. He always said nice things about me."
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Before he had time to think, the question was quickly put to him. "So, would you have liked to play for United?" - "Is that a question?" he laughs. "Of course."
The midfielder would make 27 appearances in all competitions during an eye-catching debut season as a Rovers player, scoring eight times. Pedersen had proved all his doubters wrong. And it was just the beginning for the fresh-faced winger.
He was starting to become a household name in his homeland; to the point where he appeared on posters in hairdressers across Norway after being sponsored by a wax company. "You're not the first or last!" he says, after I tell him the story of how I used to copy his hairstyle in primary school.
Over the next eight seasons, as more of those iconic blonde highlights ran through his boyband-like hair, the efficient winger would become a key figure in Blackburn's Premier League journey.
Memorable teammates include Benni McCarthy, Christopher Samba, Roque Santa Cruz and Tugay, the Turkish midfielder he would call the best player he has ever played with. "I think you could have put him in any club; Manchester United, Barcelona or Real Madrid."
He would also become synonymous for his free-kick-taking ability - a skill he crafted on the training ground thanks to hours of hard work and dedication alongside Blackburn coach Kevin Hitchcock.
"I just made sure to practice with both feet," he says. "To be honest, it might sound cocky but I was good at set-pieces. I practised a lot. I was confident when I walked up to the ball. I wasn't scared of missing either. That's probably the reason why I was so successful."
Blackburn's No 12 loved a screamer as well, with a cracking volley against Fulham immediately coming to mind, as well as a brace against Manchester United in the same season.
In total, Pedersen would score 47 goals in 349 games for the Lancashire club, with the majority of those making the customary goal of the month segment on Match of the Day; a testament to his quality in front of goal.
With that talent came admirers and transfer interest was never far away during his nine-year stay at Ewood Park. But time and time again, he rebuffed offers and remained in the famous blue and white - a decision he does not regret to this day.
"I could have left many times," he tells us. "I know Arsenal were interested and so were Tottenham. Even back in the days when Juventus had a points reduction and went down, there were talks but the salary was an issue.
"There was so much speculation around my future but when there was, Blackburn always gave me loyalty with a new contract. We had a great team and achieved so much. I have really fond memories of my time at the club.
"I feel like Blackburn appreciated what I did for them, and I really appreciate them. The way they took care of me and supported me. Like i said, when i left the club. if I could have shaken everybody's hand, I would have done."
Although he wouldn't change anything about his career, I pushed him on whether he had regrets about not moving to a bigger club. But he remained adamant that Blackburn was the club for him; a loyalty rarely seen in modern day football.
Did 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. I don't do tricks. 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 with me."
The affection Pedersen has for Blackburn is clear and, when he reflects on his sour departure from the club in 2013, where he eventually joined Turkish side Karabukspor, the 39-year-old speaks with emotion.
"I had other offers from clubs in England but it was more the adventure; to try something totally different.
"It was hard to join another English club because of my relationship with Blackburn, a club I loved so much. Things in Turkey started really well but it ended bad. I tried but that's football."
The Norwegian winger would only make a handful of appearances with his new club in Turkey before eventually returning to his native Norway to play for Rosenberg, where he would spend two seasons before fittingly moving back to Tromso; the club where he made his name all those years ago.
Now, after turning 39 on Tuesday, he is preparing to play a remarkable 19th season in football with Norwegian third-division side Alta IF after recently rolling back the years with two trademark free-kicks in a 4-1 win against FK Senja.
The veteran is also doing his coaching badges at the moment, but he's not ready to give up the game just yet.
"I'm still fit and well. I said I would play until 40, and then I would see.
"I'm so privileged to play the game I love. Why not do it as long as you possibly can? A football career is so short so I'm just enjoying the moment. I don't play for money. I just play for because I love the game."