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Dublin: 4°C Tuesday 26 January 2021

Premier League cult hero Jan Aage Fjortoft on Rosenborg, Bendtner and why Dundalk can inspire other teams

“We need some teams to do like your guys did last season – just to show that it’s possible,” the former striker tells The42.

ROSENBORG – DUNDALK CHAMPIONS League opponents on Wednesday – were seen for many years as the team that every major Irish club should emulate. If a side from Norway’s third largest city could thrive in Europe, then why not an ambitious League of Ireland outfit?

Led for the most part by legendary manager Nils Arne Eggen, the Norwegian champions reached the Champions League group stage 11 times in 13 years between 1995 and 2007.

No one liked a trip to Trondheim and Blackburn were the first team to freeze at the Lerkendal Stadium in 1995. They were followed by Real Madrid, Galatasaray, Valencia, Paris Saint-Germain and Celtic, while many others were relieved to escape with a point.

Rosenborg twice made it to the knockout stage and perhaps their best moment came in 1996, when they beat AC Milan at the San Siro to reach the last eight.

Bohemians – then managed by current Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny – lost 5-0 on aggregate against Rosenborg in a Champions League qualifier in 2004. It was around then that several sides – most notably Shelbourne – overspent in their bid to become an Irish version of Norway’s most successful club.

Rosenborg’s domestic dominance began to tail off at that time but – having gone four years without a title – they have now won a league and cup double in consecutive seasons. They are top of their league ahead of this week’s visit to Oriel Park and, according to former Norway international Jan Aage Fjortoft, the club have been trying to recapture what made it special on the international stage.

Kare Ingebrigsten Kare Ingebrigtsen. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

During the glory years, Rosenborg had a clear playing philosophy – based on a 4-3-3 system with quick wingers – and their current manager Kare Ingebrigtsen has sought to recreate it.

“When you know Rosenborg’s history in the Champions League, you maybe raise your expectation a bit higher and just expect them to fly away with the Norwegian title,” Fjortoft told The 42.

“They will win the title this year as well but they haven’t had the big game this season that you say ‘wow– Rosenborg is back to where we know them.’

“Maybe we’ll never get that because in small countries like Norway it’s all depending on generations [of good players] and a coach who has some brilliant ideas as Nils Arne Eggen used to have.”

Three years ago, ahead of a Europa League tie with Sligo Rovers, former Swindon Town, Middlesbrough and Sheffield United striker Fjortoft suggested that Rosenborg tended to blow hot and cold. It proved an accurate but unfortunate assessment from Sligo’s point of view, since the Norwegians lost the first leg 2-1 but won 3-1 at The Showgrounds.

Four seasons into Ingebrigtsen’s reign, Rosenborg have clearly improved since then. But Fjortoft believes there are similarities with 2014 in that he is not sure how far the Norwegian champions have come in their development.

Rosenborg’s ambition will be to reach the Champions League proper again but he feels a more realistic target is a place in the Europa League group stages. They will have to get past Dundalk over two legs first but – as ever – history weighs on their minds.

“You will always be measured on the past and at Rosenborg they still remember the great nights of the Champions League,” Fjortoft said.

“The coach was playing for Rosenborg in the old days and Erik Hoftun, the assistant coach, was playing in those times. [Sporting Director] Stig Inge Bjornebye was playing for Rosenborg. The CEO of the club was then the project manager for the Champions League [nights at Rosenborg].

“So I think that has always been a measure for Rosenborg. People are desperate to get back to those days and relive those 11 years that, for every year that goes by, are more and more fantastic.”

To make the dream a reality once more, Rosenborg are banking on a big-name striker. Nicklas Bendtner spent a decade at Arsenal but, despite his obvious talent, the Dane rarely delivered consistently.

Nottingham Forest v Preston North End - Sky Bet Championship - City Ground Nicklas Bendtner during his Nottingham Forest stint. Source: EMPICS Sport

A period at Wolfsburg ended in further disappointment and when a return to England did not work out at Nottingham Forest, the 29-year-old moved to Rosenborg in March. So how has he done since the Norwegian season started in April?

“As a guy that follows football, I will say as expected,” said Fjortoft, who also played in the Premier League for Barnsley.

“But I think for Norwegian football fans, they thought he would score more goals. In the last years Bendtner hasn’t been in brilliant form – I think that’s fair to say. But I think that will all be forgotten and will all be forgiven when he scores the goals.

“He’s got five or six goals this season. He scored in the last round [of league matches] and I guess that he was brought in to take them to Europe.

“So I think this is the time when we have to start measuring him. His success or lack of success will be close to the lack of success or success of Rosenborg in Europe. Because we know they are good enough to play and win the Norwegian league.

“It’s interesting because when [Icelandic striker Matthias] Vilhjalmsson has played, he has scored more goals than Bendtner. The press, of course, love to highlight that… and that has annoyed Rosenborg a bit. They say that ‘it’s up to us to get the best out of Nicklas Bendtner’ and, well, now it’s showtime.

“For a player who has been around for some years and experienced different leagues, I think this is maybe what he needs… So the next month, no doubt, will be the big final for him – to just show why he’s here.”

Bendtner is a threat to Dundalk but – with the likes of Patrick McEleney, Robbie Benson and David McMillan – Kenny’s side have their own battle-hardened European campaigners to worry Rosenborg.

The Lilywhites’ thrilling run through the Champions League qualifiers and into the Europa League group stage last season did not go unnoticed in Norway.  Fjortoft believes what Dundalk achieved was “very impressive” and was “an inspiration for all small nations” – serving as a refreshing reminder that the teams with the most resources do not always win in Europe.

“I think small nations, we are always depending on good generations and we need some teams to do like your guys did last season – just to show that it’s possible,” Fjortoft said.

“I think European football needs that… Norway, as well, a couple of years ago we had two teams in the group stage.

Soccer - FA Carling Premiership - Swindon Town v Manchester United - County Ground Source: EMPICS Sport

“That just shows you that it’s possible. But it also shows us that when the draw was made that it’s a tougher draw than some Norwegians tend to think.

“It also shows – and thank God that’s how it is – how far you can come with a good organisation, with passion, and with fans and a country that stands behind you. I think that’s great to see. I think Rosenborg can identify with that.”

Back when Rosenborg won 13 consecutive league titles between 1992 and 2004, they would not have been too concerned by being paired with an Irish team in Europe. Fjortoft thinks that has changed now though, which in many ways is positive for both countries.

“They could have wished for an easier path to Europe but having said that it will be a great test for Rosenborg as well to see how far they have come,” he said.

“So I think this could be – at this stage – a cracking game and it’s going to be a test for both of them. I understand that both teams will see it as a tough draw and I think that is a good basis for a good game.”

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Mark Rodden

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