For those talented and willing to stand up to the test, the game environment in this country is a good place to toughen up, to add armoury to artistry. It’s a point not lost on such as Henrik Larsson, Brian Laudrup, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Stiliyan Petrov, who were improved by their often bruising experiences during a more gilded age for football in this country. More recently, even the likes of Ki Sung-Yueng did much growing and manning up during two years at Celtic that won him a £6 million move to the English Premier League.
The Scottish champions’ latest recruit, Stefan Johansen, is relishing the physical challenges that are guaranteed to come his way. The £1.7m signing from Stromsgodset, a small but thriving club in his Norwegian homeland, appears much in the mould of the South Korean. He describes himself as a “deep playmaker” with his attributes “passing and assists”. Ki possessed such vision, but initially could appear a little delicate in the face of the physicality he encountered. Scandinavian footballers don’t tend to come ill-equipped for such circumstances, but Johansen is convinced taking the hits can make him a bigger hit on the international stage.
“I have passion in my game. I hate to lose, and I have seen some YouTube clips about the way Scottish football is, and it is football that I love. I like that aggressive type of play,” he said. “The league of Norway is not the best. Of course, there are a few good teams but overall the league is better here. It is more physical. I think it will improve my game and, when I play for the national team, I will come with this mentality, this passion for the game. I will bring the tempo from the game here into the national team. I talked with the coach [Per-Mathias Høgmo] about it before I came here and he said he was very happy for me. He is happy when he can get people from Norway out to the biggest clubs in Europe.”
Johansen’s career may well have pivoted on his performances against some of the biggest emerging players on the continent in last summer’s European Championship under-21s finals in Israel. Norway made it to the semi-finals – beating England 3-1 in the group stage – before losing to eventual winners Spain. That England side comprised youngsters with a combined value of around £200m, with captain Jordan Henderson a £16m Liverpool purchase and others such as Chelsea’s Nathaniel Chalobah, Wilfried Zaha of Manchester United and the apparently Monaco-bound Thomas Ince considered in the same price bracket.
“It was OK,” said a modest Johansen of a celebrated victory. “England were good but we didn’t fear them in any way. I don’t think any of the guys were scared about it.”
One of those guys was former Celtic defender Thomas Rogne, who left Parkhead for Wigan in the summer after never quite imposing himself in Scottish football.
As with Rogne, it has never really happened for other Norwegians at Celtic, with neither Harald Brattbakk nor Vidar Riseth thriving in Glasgow. Yet, as Celtic manager Neil Lennon touched on the other day, it has really happened for the last player the club attracted from the Norwegian league, Swedish defender Mikael Lustig. It is forgotten now but Lustig did not hit the ground running so much as be grounded down by the hits in his early Celtic days. He was beset by injury problems during his first six months, which might not have been unrelated to him essentially playing without much of a break for a year-and-a-half after coming off a full summer season in Norway and into the second half of a winter campaign in Scotland. Although Lennon has said it will be a couple of weeks before Johansen is considered for competitive action, the midfielder believes he will be in good fettle for it whenever his debut does arrive.
“We were on holiday from 10 November but we had a national camp after that and I was 14 days in Thailand. There I had this heart monitor that you need to take back to see if you have done the work or not. The medical team at Celtic is fantastic, they have done all these tests, to see how my shape is. My weight was OK, my body fat was OK, the sprint test was OK. So I did my work on the vacation but it is something different to play matches.
“Last season was a long season, of course, because we had the under-21 championship in the summer. But, when you come to a club like Celtic, your battery just fills up, you are so motivated to get started. We will see, it is up to the manager. I’d be very happy to wear this jersey, it is a dream come true.”