Stefan Johansen: Arctic Circle to Champions League

New signing Stefan Johansen tries a Celtic shirt for size at Parkhead yesterday. Picture: SNS
New signing Stefan Johansen tries a Celtic shirt for size at Parkhead yesterday. Picture: SNS
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CELTIC have proved in recent years that their search for burgeoning talent to enhance their squad knows no geographical limits.

In latest recruit Stefan Johansen, they have sourced someone whose journey to becoming a professional footballer could not have started much further off the beaten track.

Having completed his £2 million move to the Scottish champions yesterday, signing a three-and-a-half-year contract, Johansen reckons he may just have become the most famous person from his home of Vardo.

With no disrespect to the good citizens of the town with a most recently recorded population of just 1,885, that’s perhaps not the most difficult status to attain.

Vardo is located just about as north as it gets in Norway, in the Arctic circle, and it did not offer Johansen the most promising environment in which to try to fulfil his dreams of earning a living with a ball at his feet.

Yet with a steely determination which shone through during his impressive first meeting with the Scottish press pack, he managed to become his country’s most highly regarded young prospect, who is now setting his sights on Champions League football with Celtic next season.

“I come from all the way up north in Norway. It’s a little place of less than 2,000 people, so of course you can’t be a professional there,” said Johansen. “There is nothing bad about Vardo or the people there. But the reality is that if you are going to make it in football, you need to get away. They do all the winter sports there…skiing and driving snow-mobiles are the most popular pastimes. But I was always the kid playing football in Vardo, just me and two or three other friends. They are not in the game any more. There is one outdoor football pitch in Vardo and when it’s covered in snow, there is one indoor hall to play – not with an artificial pitch, just a hard wooden floor.

“If there was any green bit of ground anywhere in the town, I’d be out playing football on it. I used to pretend I was Guti or Zidane from Real Madrid. They were my favourite players to watch on TV as a kid. I loved the way they played, the way they always looked capable of finding an opening that no-one else could. When I was 14, I had to leave Vardo if I wanted to be a footballer. It was quite a big decision, but my interest was always football. My mother and brother moved with me and I joined Bodo/Glimt, which is a bit further south in Norway.

“For me, it was a really easy choice because I wanted very badly to be a footballer. Of course, it meant leaving behind friends from childhood, everyone I’d known from one to 14 years, and that was difficult. But I made new friends and I had something to aim for.

“I got a professional contract with Bodo/Glimt when I was 16, the earliest you can do so in Norway. I didn’t do well there but three years ago I got a move to Stromsgodset. That was great for me, a new start. I worked hard, played well and we won the Norwegian title last season.”

Johansen’s influence in only the second ever championship triumph in unfashionable Stromsgodset’s history led to him being acclaimed as Norway’s midfielder of the year in the annual Knicksen awards, so called in honour of the nickname of former Hearts player of the late 1960s Roald Jensen.

Having celebrated his 23rd birthday last week, Johansen has also broken into the senior Norwegian international squad.

With a reputation as a box-to-box midfielder who can pick a pass and has an eye for goal, Johansen has no doubts he has joined exactly the right club to keep his career trajectory on an upward path.

“Celtic play football the way I want to play it, so I think it’s a perfect match,” he said. “I was training with the guys today and they are good technical players. I’m looking forward to it. I am a passing midfielder, I want to make assists and goals and do it even better than I did in Norway. I hate to lose at anything, whether it is on the football pitch or playing a game on my mobile phone. When you come to a club like Celtic, you know there is a big pressure on you not to lose. But I’m the kind of person who can deal with that pressure. It is not bigger than the pressure I put on myself to succeed.

“I love the idea of playing in front of a full Celtic Park on a big European night. If that scares you, then you are in the wrong job. It will inspire me. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, I know there are hundreds of thousands of kids who dream of this chance. It’s a chance I need to take.”

Johansen has not played since the end of the Norwegian season three months ago and doubts whether he will be considered fit enough to make his debut against Motherwell at Celtic Park on Saturday, although that will be assessed by manager Neil Lennon at training today.

“To be honest, I don’t think so,” added Johansen. “But we will see. I passed all the fitness tests and medical, so I’m not far away. I spoke with Neil Lennon today and I’m looking forward even more to playing for Celtic.

“You can tell right away he has the passion for football, that he is a clever manager. He’s had fantastic seasons here as manager and it was very nice to meet him. I’m looking forward to playing under him because I respect him a lot.”