This article originally appeared in MEHSTG Volume 2 Issue 36 – February 2004

A little while ago, MEHSTG reported the news that Espen Baardsen had taken to the road on a journey around the world after turning his back on the game.  How did this happen, when he was such a promising keeper at White Hart Lane ??  Howard Francis looks at where it all went wrong.

A lanky young American arrived at Mill Hill one day and was thrust into Pat Holland’s training session with the youth team players at the callow age of just 14.  The young keeper had been trolling around California getting matches where he could and using every link that he and his mother could think of to get him in at a top club for proper coaching.   

It was going through his mother’s home country of Norway that Espen arrived at Tottenham.  Managing to get to national goalkeeper Erik Thorstvedt, he arranged to receive the young glove-man at the Premier League club.  He made a couple of trips over to show what he could do and eventually he was signed in August 1996.  His family insisted he finish his studies first and this might be why he is going the way he currently is.  Therefore, Spurs had to accept that they had a year to wait before he could come to England, even though Espen was now keeping goal for the national USA youth (Under-18) side and performing well for San Francisco All Blacks. 

He came to Tottenham on a free transfer and was soon making progress through the Norway national teams, becoming the Under-21 keeper.  Where Espen started off in the reserves, he soon broke into the side once Erik the Viking had retired and Ian Walker got injured.  Coming on at Anfield to replace the floppy-haired goalie, he did well for the rest of the game and although Spurs were close to the bottom of the table, he kept Tottenham in the hunt to pull away from the relegation zone until Walker returned to fitness and the first team in March 1998.  one of his last games was the home 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers, in which he produced a full-length dive to tip a fierce drive around the post … a stop that won the Sky TV’s Save of the Season award.

Walker was in the team from then until September 1998, but his poor form saw a change in the possession of the gloves.  A first match clean sheet in a 1-0 win at Everton (in Christian Gross’ last match as manager) and a man of the match performance at home to Blackburn in the next match lead to Espen managing to impress the national coach enough to get his debut against Latvia and he won four full caps for his country in all, but with his descent into the Nationwide League and other Norwegian keepers getting more coverage in the Premier League, he fell out of the picture.  A real loss, because he was the youngest keeper at the 1998 World Cup as part of the Norway squad.

It was during this run that Espen had taken over as first choice when George Graham arrived at the club to replace Gross.  It didn’t take long for GG to drop Baardsen and his game against West Ham on 28th November 1998 was his last for the club.  His crime was not holding a ball into the box, leaving Sinclair an easy task of tapping home.  Not something Walker was prone to of course !!  This left him kicking his heels in the reserves and on the bench waiting for the call that never came.  Although a keen lover of Tottenham Hotspur, he decided to take the move when it was offered, so that he could get back to playing.  

He only made 22 league appearances and played five cup games in his time at Tottenham, moving on to Watford for £1,250,000 in August 2000 thanks to George Graham, who didn’t rate him one bit.  He always plumped for Walker if he was available, but then when he signed Sullivan, all of a sudden, the Scot was the one who could not be dropped !!  Espen stayed at Vicarage Road for two years playing 41 matches and five cup matches again, before he fell out of favour with Alec Chamberlain taking over between the sticks and he was the second keeper at the club all of a sudden.  With the Hornets going through a tough time financially, after Gianluca Vialli left, the club decide that it had to remove some of its big wage earners to try to balance the books and Baardsen was allowed to leave to go to Everton on a short term deal to cover their injury crisis.

Funnily enough, his last appearance at White Hart Lane was the only match he played for the Toffees, while Steve Simonsen and Paul Gerarrd were all out of action.  Richard Wright was due to play, but Espen made his Everton debut in bizarre circumstances, as Richard Wright damaged his knee in the warm-up and Baardsen had to quickly prepare himself for an appearance he probably didn’t expect to make.  It wasn’t a happy return for the popular goalkeeper as they lost 4-3, but he did get a good reception form the Spurs fans, who remembered what he had done in his limited opportunities in goal for the club. 

The weird thing about this was that he sat in the Lower East Stand about a month previously to watch us play against Arsenal and went almost unnoticed.  I caught his eye, but he quickly looked away and when down in the concourse below, looked as though he wanted to be invisible, turning to the wall to avoid being recognised. It was a shame to see him like this as he had served Tottenham well and if anything, they let him down than it being the other way around.

When he gave up the game he had loved he said, “a footballer who is not passionate about football will not get much success or enjoyment out of the game.”  For someone of 25 years of age, this is an indictment of the way the game swallows players up and spits them out, but more than that he was not willing to go through the motions, picking up his pay packet at the end of the month just for the sake of it. 

During his time at Spurs and Watford, the fans had nothing but good things to say about him and it’s not every player you can say that for.  His warm charm won people over as he was willing to take time to talk and sign autographs and he was always throwing his gloves (Erik style) into the crowd.  His mature attitude contrasts with many petulant footballers, who live out their childish (mainly because they are so cosseted) lives wasting their money and their free time.  At least he has made a decision on what to do in the future and when he has finished his travels, he will go back to Economics studies and look for a career in that area of work. 

Tall and athletic, Espen could have been here a long time, but like many before him, he felt he had to leave to make his reputation elsewhere.  With his outlook on life, it is a disgrace that football has lost not just a talented player, but also someone who a player who can see that football is just a game and there is more, much more, to life than just playing that game.

An interesting article in The Guardian with Espen is worth a read.