Interview: Brede Hangeland

There are not many players who have captured the hearts of Fulham supporters quite like Brede Hangeland. A gentleman in every sense of the word showing class on and off the pitch. Daniel Smith caught up with the Norwegian to find out more about the friendly giants Fulham experience…

DS – How did you get your first opportunity in football & did you have any role models in the game?

BH – I grew up in Stavanger and our house was a long clearance away from my local club, FK Vidar, where I played from the age of 5 all the way up to the first team which then played in the Norwegian 2nd division. At some point I attracted interest from Viking FK, which was the top club in Stavanger, playing in the top league. I started training with them twice a week when I was 19 and signed not long after. At that point, I was actually a defensive midfielder, but I soon became a centreback and I started playing for Viking straight away in the top league. In terms of role models I always looked at the top players in the world in my position, but I thought it made more sense to look at the older centrebacks in my club. You need role-models that you can look up to every day. My process was simple: Look at what they do, copy it and then do it better. Then find a new role model, and another one, and another one, until you have overtaken them all… 

DS How did it feel playing for Norway and being born in Texas did you ever consider representing the USA instead?

BH – I was born in Houston when my parents were stationed there for two years. My dad was in the oil-industry all his working life. I was only there for three months before we moved back home, so I have always felt 100% Norwegian and it was perfectly natural to play for the Norwegian national team when that opportunity eventually came up. Looking back, playing for the US would have allowed me to experience World Cups etc, but you need to represent your home country and fight the good cause, so I have no regrets. Representing your country in the national team obviously gives you a sense of pride, but for me, the whole point of playing football is to win, and so it was at times frustrating to play against opponents who were clearly better than us. 

DS How did the move to Fulham materialise and why did you sign for us?

BH – In 2008 I had spent two years at FC Copenhagen, in what was arguably the best team Scandinavia has ever seen. I was part of winning the domestic league, cups, playing in the Europa League and Champions League, so any good performance was bound to attract some interest from bigger clubs in Europe. I remember Roy Hodgson calling me in January 2008, and he explained the situation at the time. I could obviously see the position in the league and it was a bit of a gamble, but it was the Premier League and also I knew and respected Roy as a man and as a manager. So really I couldn`t turn it down. You wait your whole life for a chance like this and you have to take it. But at the time I didn`t know much about Fulham and I probably would have signed for any PL club had the manager seemed like a reasonable guy. 

DS For a player new to England and new to Fulham you seemed to understand and appreciate the mentality of Fulham on and off the pitch respecting our heritage. Did this happen the minute you walked through the door or was there a particular moment that it clicked for you knowing that Craven Cottage was your home away from home?

BH – Football is one thing, the culture and values of a club is an entirely different story and a bigger picture. I think I have always had a strong sense of grounding and respect towards everyone, whether they were a chairman or a fan, the groundsman or a CEO, I judge them on who they are not what they do. As it happened, my views seemed to align very well with the culture at Fulham, and so it clicked instantly for me. There is no way I would have stayed at one club for that long had I not felt at home both on and off the pitch. Most players make the mistake of just going after the biggest contract or the biggest chance of winning something. For me, that`s an error. You need to look for a place where you can enjoy your football, feel at home and feel like you are part of something. Fulham was the perfect club in that sense. 

DS What was the highlight of the great escape for you personally?

BH – Looking back at the Great Escape there are many highlights, but for those of us in the midst of it it was a few weeks of high pressure. Football cannot come up with a more challenging situation than the one we were in. So for me, the obvious highlight is when the referee blew his whistle for the last time at Fratton Park. That`s when the pressure eased and we could enjoy a great triumph. Those last 14 minutes of that match are the longest 14 minutes of my life. I felt sick every time they launched one into our box, and so the relief after is the best feeling I ever had on a pitch. 

DS You seemed to have a telepathic understanding with Aaron Hughes. Did this come naturally or did you work on your partnership every day in training? Did you bond outside of work hours or was it just on the pitch?

BH – There are a few elements to this. Firstly, for me, it is important that I am able to respect my team-mates not only as players but also as people. This was easy with Aaron, he is a top bloke and a hard-working professional so we clicked straight away. Added to that was the endless repetition in training. Roy would set us up defending against the rest of the team, sometimes 11 v 2 and a goalie, for hours every week. Under those circumstances, you need to perfect everything; the communication, the positioning, the footwork, the blocking, the relationship with the keeper (Mark Schwarzer). The detail that went into this work was on a different level to anything I have seen or heard of in world football. And so it became telepathic after a while. Aaron and I did not need to speak on the pitch, we knew what the other would do. He also became one of many good mates in that team outside training and matches. I am amazed and full of respect for the fact he is still going at his age. Fair play. 

DS Some quickfire questions for you Brede about your time at Fulham. Who were your closest mates at the club?

BH – My best mates during my time were Aaron, Mark and Duffer, along with many of the guys in the medical department. 

DS Best and Worst trainers?

BH – Best trainer probably any of the above, including myself. 

Worst trainer during my entire time, probably Mitroglou, although that`s a bit unfair because he was always injured. God knows why we signed an injured player when we were desperate for some goals to keep us up. 

DS Biggest moaner?

BH – Biggest moaner is a competition between Bullard, Baird and Zamora, although they all did it mostly as a laugh. They would get stuck in and pull their weight when required. 

DS Best player?

BH – Best player is a tough one. It`s between Murphy, Dempsey, Dembele and Duff for me, but there were some fantastic players during my time.

DS Favourite cheese?

BH – I‘ll take a Spanish Manchego at a tapas restaurant, but cream cheese is awful, both in terms of eating it and for injury treatment. 

DS Favourite goal?

BH – Favourite goal is Dempsey`s chip vs Juventus. The stuff of fairytales. 

DS – What was your relationship like with Roy Hodgson?

BH – I think Roy Hodgson and I had a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. We were both totally professional in our approach to work and understood the need to treat everyone in a respectful manner. He is a role model for myself and many of the guys from that time both as a football-person and as a human being. I don’t think I ever argued with him at all. You would trust his judgment and dedicate yourself to putting his ideas into practice. 

DS – What was your favourite match and why?

BH – My favourite match has to be Juventus at the Cottage. I remember thinking it could get embarrassing when they went 4-1 up on aggregate after a few minutes, but then this magical thing happened and we just battered them for the remaining 80 minutes or so. It is one of those very special experiences of flow, where what you do as a team just can`t go wrong. In the end, it was probably perfectly natural that Clint chipped that ball into the corner at the Hammersmith End. I feel fortunate to have been there, as I am sure is a feeling shared by all Fulham fans at the Cottage that night. You couldn`t make it up if you tried to. 

DS In the home game against AS Roma, you were wrongly shown a red card instead of Stephen Kelly. What did you say to convince the ref that he had made the wrong decision because it’s unusual for a referee to change his mind?

BH – I can`t remember exactly what I said, but I remember it as a difficult situation. Obviously, there was no way I was going off after having done nothing, but at the same time, I had no intention of stitching up Kells. I think it sorted itself out when the assistant behind the goal got involved. I always thought it was pretty pointless to have two guys there in the Europa League, but at least on this occasion, he put the situation right. 

DS In the Europa League Final, it very nearly went to penalties. Assuming Murphy would have stayed on if they didn’t score the eleven left were Schwarzer, Konch, You, Hughes, Baird, Clint, Murphy, Etuhu, Davies, Gera and Nevland. First of all, would you have volunteered to take one and secondly if you were the manager which 5 would you have selected to take the pens?

BH – I wouldn`t have volunteered, simply because there would have been better penalty takers among us. You must always maximize your chance of winning, and so others would have been better. Murphy, Baird, Clint, Davies and Gera would have won it for us, with Mark in goal. I will never forgive myself for not tracking Forlan better on that run. A stupid mistake which I never used to do but of course it happens when you absolutely don`t need it. 

DS You reached your peak with us putting in displays that no doubt attracted other clubs. Did Fulham ever inform you of an offer from another club, if so who, when and did you consider leaving?

BH – I was never informed of any concrete offers, but there was info on interest from here and there, including Arsenal and Man United. To be perfectly honest, at the time I think there wasn’t a club in world football I would rather be at, and so I doubt I would have ever been tempted to leave Fulham. 

DS It was rumoured that the players got together and asked Mark Hughes to go back to the tactics/style that they were used to before he arrived. Did this actually happen and were things changed because of it?

BH – When Hughes came in he wanted to change some of the defensive principles that Roy had installed. This was, of course, pointless, but you have to go with the manager’s ideas. Around Christmas, we were in the relegation places and that`s when a few of us got together and decided to play the way we used to play. The effect was instant, we beat Stoke away and went on to finish 8th that year. Mark Hughes deserves some credit for the fact he just went along with this. We had a team that more or less ran itself, having been drilled so well by Roy for a few years. If ever you need proof that Hodgson`s methods were the best for that team then look no further. This is also why those of us who were at FFC for a few more years could never quite understand the urge to change style and tactics. New managers came in and wanted to change, and I asked myself why? In the end, too many people had left and the football philosophy had changed too much, and that`s when relegation happened. 

DS How did the players feel about the lack of ambition comments made by Mark Hughes and his sudden departure? Did the players start questioning their futures as a result?

BH – I am not sure exactly what happened when Mark Hughes decided to leave, but I think it was a big mistake and I think he has since recognized that. Hughes grew into his role at Fulham and he should have stayed. The point where he left was when it really started going downhill and Jol changed personnel too much and we became weaker year on year. For me personally, there was never a question of leaving, although I could see the decline coming many years before we got relegated. I loved living in Richmond with the family, and I decided to stay and fight the good cause, but it was hard when good players left and others came in. Most of the new players were good guys and decent players, but we lost that fantastic group mentality we used to have and so our competitive edge was no longer there. 

DS Why did you apologise to the ref after the game when you were sent off against Sunderland? Did you think it was a red because I thought it was harsh?

BH – I always felt it`s important to respect the referees. Their job is very difficult and for the most part, they do it really well. You also know that you`ll see them again and again over the seasons, and so a respectful relationship can perhaps give you some slack in a situation where you need it. And so I felt it was the right thing to do. Having said that, I don`t think it was a red card, I think it was a tough tackle but it`s English football, not nursery school. Still, there is no point arguing with referees. Players spend so much time on this, and it`s complete nonsense. When do the referees ever change their mind after having made a decision? Never. 

DS – You’ve been the captain of both Fulham and your country. First of all, what do you think is required to make a good captain and secondly was the Fulham captaincy expected or did it come as a surprise considering Hughes was the backup captain to Murphy?

BH – A good captain needs to know the players, the manager, the staff and fans, and how all these people tick. You need to have the perspective where you can see the different parts of the puzzle, and understand how it comes together. To do this, you need to be able to set a good example in your own behavior on and off the pitch, and also have the energy and ability to see the bigger picture. I had no clue I would be captain after Murphy, as it happened Jol just called me in one day and told me. I thought to myself I wouldn`t change anything anyway. You are who you are and you bring that into any role you find yourself in. 

DB – Were you planning to stay at Fulham after relegation or was your decision going to be determined by whether Magath stayed? We know this decision was made for you by the club in an email but you must have been thinking about your future with your contract expiring?

BH – Magath for Fulham was a disaster, anyone can see that. Being in the midst of it I knew it after a few days, and so that time was really challenging. All you need as a group of players is some sensible guidance and direction, we got none of that. Instead, he made our task much more difficult. When we were relegated there was a clause in my contract with which both parties could cancel the contract in a period of time. My thinking was to see how it developed during this time and make a decision right at the end. I was (perhaps naively) hopeful that the club would realise what a disaster this appointment was, and sack him straight away. If this didn’t happen, I thought player logistics would give me an idea of where we would be heading. Who was going to leave and who would we sign? As it happened I never got to the point of looking at these relevant factors, because the club decided to take the option to release me at the start of the window. Much has been made of this, but I don’t hold any grudge towards the club for this. Anything that happened during Magath’s reign should be viewed as nothing to do with real Fulham. Really, in world football, you couldn’t come up with a worse match than Fulham and Magath. 

DS I’ve seen you on Sky Sports picking the best eleven of your career. I would love to know who you’d pick as your best eleven teammates from just your Fulham career?

BH – Schwarzer, Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky, Duff, Murphy, Dembele, Dempsey, Johnson, Zamora 

DS You work in media now. How’s that going first of all? Secondly, did you always want to go into media as opposed to coaching/management?

BH – I am enjoying the media work, it has a similar rhythm to playing football, in that you prepare during the week and deliver in a match. The big difference is you sit around all day instead of run around. I didn`t have any plans written in stone when I retired from playing, I thought I`ll see what comes up and what I fancy doing. And I am sure that will be my way of thinking until my time is up, and so hopefully life will bring twists and turns and new challenges. Management is, of course, interesting, and I am sure I have the skill-set and perspective to do well in that field, but at the same time managers are under constant pressure. I quite like the experience of some sort of freedom to make choices on what I do with my time. 

DSFinally Brede, pie or pasty – Which filling?

BH – I couldn`t tell you to be honest. My diet in the UK consisted mostly of fish or meat with vegetables. You fill your tank with the best possible fuel if you have half a brain. And when you feel like your body has had enough broccoli for a while, you go and have a pint of Guinness. And then you get up the next day and you get busy bettering yourself again.