Music to Norwegian's ears

WHEN Brummunddal midfielder Vemund Brekke-Skard traipsed off at the end of a 4-0 drubbing by division leaders Oslo Ost, little did he know that the stranger waiting on the touchline to shake his hand was about to dramatically change his life.

By Derek Davis

WHEN Brummunddal midfielder Vemund Brekke-Skard traipsed off at the end of a 4-0 drubbing by division leaders Oslo Ost, little did he know that the stranger waiting on the touchline to shake his hand was about to dramatically change his life.

At first, Skard thought he was on the end of a practical joke from his mates when the man asked if he would like to play in a trial game in England.

Two days later, at a more formal meeting, Paul Hodges invited the 24-year-old to spend a week at Portman Road to showcase his talents.

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Before he travelled, Skard played in Brummenddal's final game of the season and helped them to a 9-3 victory to ensure survival in the second group of the second division, roughly equivalent to the Conference (South), and looked forward to his first-ever visit to the UK. Two days later, the wannabe teacher played against Tottenham Hotspurs' reserves in a behind-closed-doors friendly and achieved his aim of not showing himself up.

Two days after that, he was being offered an 18-month professional contract with a Championship club and his life had been turned upside down in a wonderful way.

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Red tape has meant the fairytale story has been put on pause, but the Norwegian will not let a little thing like that dampen his enthusiasm, or his determination to succeed in England.

On first meeting Skard, the likeness to Richard Naylor is startling. He has the same quiet, modest demeanour. They are physically alike and Skard's body, honed by hours of cross-country skiing, gym work and football training, resembles that of a Royal Marine Commando.

Like Naylor, Skard is clearly happier being in action than talking about himself, but the one thing that comes across is a quiet determination.

Skard exclusively revealed to the EADT how he overcame dyslexia as a child to become educated to a high enough level to become a student teacher.

In excellent English, Skard admits: “I struggled to read and write Norwegian as a young boy but my mother helped me and eventually I was able to keep up with the other people in school.”

That sort of resolve also helped him learn English in school and the all-round sportsman is also something of a singer/songwriter.

Along with a team-mate, he wrote a song to celebrate Brummunddal staying in the division, a year after being promoted.

He said: “I can play and sing a little and we wrote a song about fighting for the team and to bleed for the lads.”

It may never win the Eurovision Song Contest, although the way Skard has leapt from non-league obscurity from a small town in Norway to playing for the former UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Champions, you could not rule out anything.

As Skard takes a break from house-hunting in Ipswich, he tells the EADT that he is still slightly stunned at the turn of events.

He said: “When I first met with Paul I thought it was a trick, some sort of leg-pull. Even when it was arranged that I came over to Ipswich the first time, I didn't think much of it. I treated it like a week's vacation and had a bit of fun.

“All I hoped for was that I was not too far behind the other players and I would not be shown up.”

Far from being overshadowed by Town's professionals, Skard impressed the Blues' coaching staff so much that he was put into the side to play the behind-closed-doors match against Spurs, who were using it to test retuning players' fitness.

The Norwegian trained again on Thursday morning and was called into Joe Royle's office to be offered a contract until the summer of 2007.

Skard said: “When I heard I was being offered a contract by Ipswich I was speechless. When I spoke with Joe it was very strange, quite unreal.”

Although he immediately said yes, Skard went home to sort out his personal life, which included putting a teaching course in Oslo in abeyance and telling his family and friends. He said: “Their reaction was the same as mine, they were stunned. They all thought that I would go for a week, then come back and carry on by life in Norway.

“There was no way of knowing what would happen. I had never been approached by another club before, or even asked for a trial by any of the bigger clubs, no one had really shown that much interest.

“There was talk, after the news got out, that clubs in Norway and England were interested in me but I never heard directly from any.”

Being a single man, and a dedicated football fan who followed Manchester United on television as his favourite team and enjoyed watching Dutch striker Marco van Basten, it did not take him long to agree to the deal.

Skard said: “It was a big decision to change my life but not a problem. I have put my education on hold and now I will concentrate on doing my best and work hard to make the most of it.”

Skard is seen as a hard-working, ball-winning midfield who can run all day and makes good decisions when passing the ball.

Blues' boss Joe Royle has seen in him something which Town do not possess at the moment but, unless they can persuade the Norway FA to change their view that he is a professional, Town will have to wait until January to play him.

Although Skard was not paid a wage to play for Brummunddal, he was paid his travelling expenses for the 90-mile journey from Oslo, where he was on a teacher-training course, to play for his home-town club.

His contract ended with Brummunddal on October 31, the end of the Norwegian season, but unless the Norway FA, the English FA and FIFA all agree his amateur status, he will not be allowed to play before January 2.

Meanwhile, he will train with the team, although he has a slight groin strain at the moment, and settle into life in East Anglia.

He said: “I like Ipswich already. The club has very nice people and it is a very interesting.

“I still can't quite believe all this is happening but I can't wait to play. All I want to do now is get in the starting line-up and do the best I can.”

And to think a month ago, Skard was planning on finding a school to teach sport to nine to 13-year-olds, play for his third division home-town club and maybe write the odd song or two about the long, cold and dark nights of Norway.

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