Jan Åge Fjørtoft On Frankfurt, Boro, Bryan Robson, The Premier League And Punditry

Jan Åge Fjørtoft On Frankfurt, Boro, Bryan Robson, The Premier League And Punditry

An interview with Jan Åge Fjørtoft, by Callum McFadden for WFi.

You started your career in your native Norway at IL Hødd then Ham-Kam before making the move to Lillestrom where you won the Norwegian league title in 1989. How would you reflect on your formative years as a footballer?

“My time at IL Hødd and then Ham-Kam were very important for me to show that I could score goals in the Norwegian first division.

“Those early years enabled me to confidently make the step up at Lillestrom when I signed for the club in 1988.

“I took all that I had learned from my early years and I arrived there as more of a complete player than I had been when I just started out.

“Arriving at Lillestrom at the time that I did worked out well for everyone as I joined the team as they were on the up. We finished 2nd in my first season before the arrival of a Scotsman in David Hay who significantly changed my career.

“David was a legend at Celtic football club and when arrived at the club, he helped take my game to the next level for my club which then enabled me to become a regular with the national team too.

“He taught me how to keep the game simple and how to utilise myself to the best of the team by keeping the ball effectively as a number nine in addition to scoring goals for the team too.

“We went even better as a team under David Hay as he took us to the league championship in 1989 which I was proud to be a part of even though I only played half of the season as I moved on to Rapid Vienna midway through the season.

“I earned a medal by playing enough games and I was proud to have contributed to that success during my time there.”

You adapted to life in Austrian football quickly by winning Foreign Player of the Year at Rapid Vienna in your first season there. How do you reflect on your time at the club?

“I am good at adapting and adjusting to new surroundings which helped me when I made the move to Austria. I loved the lifestyle there right away which helped.

“I was lucky that my coach was Hans Krankl who was an incredible forward during his playing career for teams such as Barcelona.

“As such, I learned a lot from him and I was able to start scoring from the get-go for Rapid Vienna. That is vital for the confidence of any striker.

“In the Austrian league, so many players took long shots from range and I was good at scoring rebounds so that was helpful for me (laughs).

“I was newly married when I moved to Austria and things were settled on and off the pitch for me which also made it a great team.

“We were playing European football in what would now be known as the Europa League and I was attracting attention from other clubs in a matter of months.

“Queens Park Rangers tried to sign me and my teammate Andy Herzog – who went on to have a great career in German football – under Trevor Francis but the deal fell through at the last minute when Trevor lost his job and the club pulled the plug on both transfers.

“I ended up playing for four seasons in Vienna and scoring a good number of goals to game during my time at the club which was enjoyable.

“Looking back, I would like to have left maybe one year earlier than I did but back in those days, it was not so easy to leave because there were no free agents. This was football pre-Bosman.

“When I did leave after four years, it was David Hay who was influential in my move to England when he recommended me to Swindon Town where John Gorman became manager and David became his assistant.

“That is what led me to Swindon Town and football in England.”

Swindon Town were a premier league club when you joined them in 1993. How did you adapt to life in the early years of the Premier League?

“Every Norwegian kid dreams of playing in English football because Match of the Day was broadcast in Norway even when I was a young kid so English football was always a part of the football culture in Norway.

“I was one of the first Norwegian players to move to the Premier League and flying into Heathrow to sign for Swindon gave me goosebumps.

“I knew that things would be difficult for us as a team because Swindon did not have a big budget.

“I had a difficult start to the season as I suffered an injury in my first game but played on which made things worse and affected my confidence.

“I thought that I needed to change my style because I kept hitting the woodwork rather than converting my chances like I usually would.

“The funny thing is that at the same time, I was playing well for Norway as we qualified for the World Cup in 1994 which was the first time we had qualified for the World Cup since the 1930s.

“My form for club and country could not have been more different.

“Thankfully, things turned around soon after my son Markus was born in the January of 1994 when I scored my first goal in the Premier League. He was my lucky mascot as I remind him to this day.

“Unfortunately, despite my form improving and scoring regularly, we were relegated from the Premier League at the end of my first season which was tough for everyone at the club.”

You stayed with the club after their relegation and continued to score regularly in the First Division which led to interest from Bryan Robson and Middlesbrough. You won promotion to the Premier League under Robson and played in the Premier League with the club too. What was playing for Boro like at that time? 

“It was an interesting time for sure.

“I did not play for the biggest clubs in English football but when I joined three out of four of them, it coincided with the best period that each club had experienced in a while.

“Middlesbrough later won the league cup long after I had left but when I was there under Bryan Robson, the levels of excitement were massive.

“We just moved into a new stadium at the Riverside and we were signing some top players such as Juninho and Nick Barmby.

“I scored regularly after relegation for Swindon and I thought that a Premier League club would sign me but Middlesbrough were also in the first division at that time when they came in for me.

“As soon as Bryan Robson called me, my answer was yes to join him and the club.

“He had such a pull power given his stature in the game and he made me his record signing before breaking that again when Nick Barmby arrived.

“It was a wonderful time to be at Boro because the club was growing at a fast pace on and off the field with quality footballers arriving at the club and the infrastructure improving off it.

“I played in the last game at Ayresome Park before we made the move to the Riverside and I played in the first game at the new stadium against Chelsea.

“I even scored what I refer to as the Buzz Aldrin goal at the new stadium as Craig Hignett scored the first ever goal at the riverside before I scored the second.

“The arrival of Juninho heralded an exciting time and we struck up a strong partnership together in attack. He was a top-class player who later went on to win the World Cup in 2002 under Scolari.

“It was a strong period for football in the northeast with us, Newcastle and Sunderland all selling out our respective stadiums.

“Overall, it is an era I am proud to have played in for the club.”

You also played for Sheffield United and Barnsley in English football before moving to Eintracht Frankfurt of the Bundesliga in 1998. Was playing in German football always an ambition of yours given your time in Austrian football previously?

“That is a very good question, Callum.

“You are right that it was an ambition because I actually followed German football closer than English football while I was in Austria because there was no YouTube back then so there was no ease of access to English football there.

“From then, I always wanted to one day play in German football because the quality was clear to see in the Bundesliga back when I played and even still today.

“When I left Middlesbrough for Sheffield United, I formed a strong strike partnership with Brian Deane in the first division before Barnsley – who were in the Premier League at that time – came in to sign me.

“I went there with the aim of keeping them in the Premier League which was a tough ask in the end. Despite that, my goal tally remained strong.

“I was around 31 at the time when Frankfurt came in for me and I had no hesitation over making the move there.

“The rest they say is history because I had a fantastic time in Germany scoring important goals for the club and it is now the club that I am most connected with.

“That is easier in the sense that I played for one club in Germany whereas I represented four in England who I still follow to this day.

“Playing at Frankfurt was great because I enjoyed integrating into German society which is something that I always tried to do wherever I went.

“It is vital to embrace the local culture and way of life whenever you move if you want to be successful in my opinion. You must make that effort because it will make you more rounded as a person too.

“The proof of that for me is that I am a proud Norwegian but a part of me will always be Austrian, British and German given my time living and working in those countries.”

You scored one of the most important goals in Frankfurt’s history against 1. FC Kaiserslautern to help keep the club in the Bundesliga during your time at the club. Can you talk me through that moment? 

“That moment was an incredible moment in my career and the impact that it enabled me to have.

“I was at Frankfurt for two and half years and I was fortunate to score many decisive goals during my time at the club. None more so important than the goal against 1. FC Kaiserslautern in our 5-1 victory to remain a Bundesliga club.

“The relegation battle came down to goal difference so my goal was needed in the end to keep us up as our goal difference was similar to our relegation rivals Nurnberg.

“That 5-1 win against Kaiserslautern is one that is in Frankfurt folklore and is mentioned to me a lot but it is also important to remember that we were able to win our last four matches of the season to keep us up too.

“That was a real team effort even if I am associated with the decisive goal.”

You mentioned that you are a proud Norwegian. You represented the national team on 71 occasions and played at the World Cup in 1994. Looking back, what do those international caps mean to you and your family? 

“Immensely proud. There is nothing better than representing your nation and being an ambassador for the country.

“It is much more than football.

“I gave my all on those 71 occasions when I pulled on the national team jersey and the feeling that it gave me was enormous.

“We qualified for the World Cup against teams such as England, Holland and Turkey by winning our group and scoring the most goals too, it was an extraordinary journey.

“We built a strong team ethic and to qualify was a wonderful feeling.

“I scored against Poland away from home in qualifying and that feeling was unbelievable.

“Playing for Norway meant so much to me and to be able to do so at a World Cup was beyond my wildest dreams.

“I also captained my country on fifteen or sixteen occasions and that was truly special for me too. The highlight of my career.

“I understand the fascination and passion that comes with club football which I also hold but there is room for both and international football should always remain a strong part of the football ecosystem.

“International football brings us together and it still has an important part to play in modern football.”

Finally, Jan, you are now a successful television pundit working with multiple platforms across the world. You also cover the Bundesliga alongside your son Markus. How much are you enjoying your new role as a pundit post-retirement?

“First of all, after football, I knew that I would do something with television.

“I also follow your career, Callum and I love the progress that you have made in such a short space of time. I love seeing that!

“It is important that young people have ambition but also work hard to achieve their goals so keep going.

“I tried to instil that mindset in my own kids too.

“As well as being a pundit, I also run a communications company in Norway so I have a proper job too but the punditry role gets more attention given the nature of it.

“I try to replicate what I did in my football career in my television work by having a strong work ethic and by looking to learn from others and gain as much experience as I can along the way.

“I want to be challenged and I want to remain curious about the game too.

“I used to host the champions league coverage in Norway and Markus was my researcher even when he was a kid.

“He played FIFA and games like that as a kid and he knew every player in the world, it felt like. He has immense knowledge of the game.

“He also played as a professional footballer in the United States, New Zealand and Scotland. I am so proud of everything that he achieved in the game and I knew that we would work together when he moved into media.

“We have always been a great team in our lives and he helps me understand new media such as TikTok and its use. He takes care of that kind of thing for me but I handle my own Twitter.

“I love doing the podcast with him and I am proud of all that he is doing now on the media side of things.

“He found the right time to take that next step in his career from being on the field to working in football off the field.

“It is a pleasure to work with him and a pleasure to work on the media side of things too. I enjoy it a lot!”