‘I wanted to prove Ipswich wrong... I think I did that’ - Gaardsoe on his Town departure and ‘really annoying’ retirement at just 27
- Credit: Archant
Former Ipswich Town defender Thomas Gaardsoe tells ANDY WARREN about his time at Portman Road and his pain at seeing his career end early due to injury.
There are two recurring themes as Thomas Gaardsoe discusses his football career – confidence and pain.
The first of those is why he arrived from Denmark for £1.3million in 2001, convinced he could hit the ground running in the English game despite having just eight-months of regular football behind him.
It’s also why, with his blond locks flowing behind him and looking like a player supremely comfortable in his surroundings, he attempted an audacious shot from the halfway line just seconds after coming on in the Blues’ UEFA Cup victory over Inter Milan. That was just his second game for the club.
But as time went on, things didn’t come as easily as he hoped. Gaardsoe played just four more games in his debut season before being stood down by George Burley, at a time where he struggled to get up to the level he expected of himself. His confidence dipped and it made life hard, both on the pitch and off it.
But he built himself back up and became a regular under Joe Royle, before being sold for a bargain £520,000 to West Brom in 2003, much to the dissatisfaction of supporters.
That’s where the Dane’s confidence comes in again. He felt sure he would be able to prove Royle and Ipswich they were wrong to let him go prematurely.
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He was right.
“It wasn’t as if I wanted to go. I wasn’t screaming to get out,” Gaardsoe said.
“I think to be completely fair the club were struggling financially at the time because it had been in administration, but it wasn’t as if they got millions for me. I don’t think that’s the right excuse for it.
“They weren’t sure whether I fitted in or whether I was good enough for Ipswich at that time, that’s how I feel about it. West Brom came in and they accepted it although at the time I was hoping they would reject it.
“I think my value was higher than the £520,000 they got for me but I don’t think they felt I was right to build a squad around or be a regular for Ipswich if they wanted to try and get promoted.
“But I went to West Brom, won player-of-the-year, got promoted to the Premier League and had a fantastic season in which I made my Denmark debut against England at Old Trafford.
“I kind of left with the feeling that I had a great chance to go and prove Ipswich wrong and that was the motivation. I thought I could do it and I think I did.
“I loved my time at Ipswich but I felt, at the time, West Brom was maybe in a better place and I got a good feeling about it.
“I gave it a really good go and it worked out very well. I played against Ipswich a few games after I moved and scored the first goal, that made a few people at West Brom very happy.”
Gaardsoe’s departure left new signings Drissa Diallo and Georges Santos to form a new central-defensive partnership under Royle, with those players a far cry from the standard the Dane found himself playing alongside when he moved to England in 2001.
He came into a Town side which had just finished fifth in the Premier League, were embarking on their first European campaign in nearly two decades and were playing inside a newly-renovated Portman Road. Confidence (that word again) was flowing freely around the club and Gaardsoe only added to that.
The early signs were good and it was an environment he expected to thrive in. There was to be a reality check, though.
“I was very young when I came over and had only played in the first-team in Aalborg for eight months,” he said.
“I didn’t know what to expect in Ipswich. I didn’t know the differences between Danish and English football and I didn’t expect it to be so hard. I thought I could do exactly the same as I did in Denmark, where I was becoming very important for the first-team there.
“There was a reality check and I couldn’t do that, that’s for sure. I came with a lot of confidence and it didn’t take long to realise that I had to start from scratch. That was hard because I felt I could do the job but, looking back, it’s clear I wasn’t ready at all. It was hard being so far from home, so young.
“I made my debut against West Ham but then, all of a sudden, I was involved in giving away the goal which lost us the game (scored by Jermain Defoe) because I lost concentration. I thought I could do a job but maybe didn’t realise I was a bit too young to play from the start.
“It took me that first season to know the game. I tried to show confidence when I played because I believe in myself. I had a will to try and get the most out of my talent and I loved to play football. I loved being on the ball, being calm on the ball.
“That’s probably why I tried that shot from the halfway line against Inter. I came on late and thought, ‘why not?’ Francesco Toldo, the Inter goalkeeper, was big and was probably taller than the stand behind the goal but I tried it anyway. I did similar things when I was a youth player in Denmark. That’s just me, I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes.
“Tony Mowbray taught me a lot about being prepared and being ready as a defender because you didn’t always need to be the strongest, the highest or the quickest. You just needed to make good decisions in the right moment which is something I didn’t really get told in Denmark. When I came to England that was something which helped me.
“Players now are a lot more spoiled and protected when they move clubs and countries but, 20 years ago, I was told ‘just do it’. I didn’t think about whether it was right or whether it wasn’t, you just take the opportunities when they come to you.”
Gaardsoe did just that. As it turned out, relegation in his first season at Ipswich was something of a blessing in disguise for the defender, even if it soon brought another reality check.
“Of course getting relegated was hard,” he said. I didn’t play such a big part that season but I did score a goal (in the 5-0 win over Sunderland) and that was great.
“But then that summer brought another reality check because the club wanted us to take a pay cut after relegation because it was going through financial trouble. That was hard because I was only 22 and was now having to make decisions about my contract, my salary and things like that. I was thinking about those kind of things instead of just tying up my boots and going onto the pitch.
“Once Joe Royle came in, I was a regular in the team and he played me in a back three, which was great. I was enjoying my football again.
“In many ways it was good for me that Ipswich were relegated because the finances meant players were sold and the manager had to use what was left. I benefitted from that I think because I played a lot of football that season.
“It’s hard to believe we didn’t end up at least in the play-offs. The financial situation meant we couldn’t build the squad and maybe things happened a little too fast for Ipswich in terms of getting promoted and then getting into Europe in the first season. Then you try and spend money too quickly when you maybe don’t have to.
“Players were sold, like my friend Hermann (Hreidarsson), which was hard, mainly because I didn’t really know or understand what was going on because I was maybe too young to know how serious it all was. When you’re a young footballer you feel invincible and all these things, which have nothing to do with playing on the pitch, happen and it’s hard to know what to do or say. It makes things frustrating because you don’t know what to expect and who will still be there the next day.”
Gaardsoe ultimately became one of those departing players but, just as Ipswich’s relegation helped him progress, so did the move to the Hawthorns. It was non-stop success for the Dane, with even a season of struggle for his side in 2004/05 ultimately producing ‘The Great Escape’ as the Baggies avoided relegation on the final day of a dramatic campaign. The scenes on the pitch after that game remain an iconic Premier League image.
He made nearly 90 appearances for West Brom during those two seasons but, little did he know, his career would soon come to a crushing, painful halt from which he never really recovered.
A troublesome groin injury forced him to retire in 2006, aged just 27, having played just nine more games for the club.
Gaardsoe’s tone changes slightly at this point. You can tell the end of his career at the top level in England remains a painful subject.
“The problems began to become a bit of a problem in 2005,” he said.
“I played in the reserves and something happened to my groin. It was all downhill from there really and that was pretty much it. It was really annoying.
“It was a difficult time. I felt I did everything I could and the club tried everything they could. Operations, everything. I threw in the towel because I was just fed up with everything, but that was after a year away from the game.
“I tried to play a game against Fulham in the Premier League because they wanted me to play. But it was three weeks after I had a hernia operation and I got subbed at half-time. It felt like they were taking the p*ss.
“I retired because I was fed up and the club felt the same. They felt they tried everything and so did I. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
In many ways, retirement didn’t ease Gaardsoe’s pain, even though there was something of a happy ending as he returned to play in the Danish top flight, with Aalborg and then Esbjerg, in 2009.
His long battle with injury still causes him problems today, but the real pain came in the form of a long-running, and ultimately unsuccessful insurance claim which soured his relationship with West Brom.
“I moved back to Denmark and met with some Danish medical specialists,” he said.
“One of them looked at me and said ‘I know why you can’t play professional football, your body is totally out of order and out of place. You need to be straightened up from the back, the hips and the core’. They (West Brom) should have seen I was out of order.
“That told me that the so-called experts in England weren’t so good for me at the time and that was a kick in the teeth. I had an insurance case ongoing and West Brom did their own thing and didn’t want to help me. I spent a lot of money on that over two or three years and never got a result because I was on my own with it. The club didn’t help me in that situation because, if they had, I would have been a lot better off.
“I felt like I lost a little bit of respect for the club because they didn’t want to help me. I was off their books so I had to help myself. Martin Laursen, a friend of mine who played for Aston Villa, had to retire at a similar time and Villa helped him a lot. It was very different for me and it was a big battle.”
He continued: “I gave it another shot with Aalborg who let me train with the squad as an amateur and I did that to try and prove I could get back to playing. I spent about a year as an amateur trying to get back to a level where I could play again.
“I managed it and played for about three years but it wasn’t to the level I was used to. Something was wrong with my body because I kept having set-backs. When I came to a good fitness level my back gave up on my and a slipped a disc in there and had surgery.
“When I had to retire for the second time in 2012 I was a bit of a mess in terms of my body. My back still isn’t very good at all and if I play a round of golf or something I get trouble there, which isn’t great, but I get by.”
Gaardsoe’s still involved in football, working as an agent in Denmark, helping domestic players and others in Scandinavia realise their dreams just as he did.
So how does he reflect on his career, cut short in its prime?
“I feel like I could have done more,” he said. “Maybe if somebody had helped me do things a little more precisely when I was younger and done a lot more core work then my body would have been in a better place.
“I think I could maybe have gone a step further in England. Instead of being at the bottom of the Premier League (with West Brom) I think I could maybe have played for a team in the middle of the table for a few years.
“I can’t do anything about it now but I do have some great memories from my career.
“Ipswich will always be a special part of that.”