When Morten Gamst Pedersen arrived at Ewood Park, he was set to fill some big boots. In West London, José Mourinho was throwing around Roman Abramovich’s roubles acquiring players for Stamford Bridge like some Panini Sticker book enthusiast on a mission. The Portuguese’s latest raid had seen Damien Duff snaffled away from Lancashire to join the throng of stars, and the Norwegian winger was signed the following summer to fill the hole left by the Irish winger.
If the seemingly paltry fee of £1.5 million seemed a little lightweight suggesting a less than adequate replacement for Duff, especially when compared to the £17 million the club had received from Chelsea, by the time Pedersen moved on to Karabükspor in Turkey some nine years later, many of the Blackburn Rovers fanbase would have perhaps reconsidered such an assessment.
Graeme Souness was in the Ewood hot seat at the time and, reportedly, it was he who convinced the Blackburn hierarchy that Pedersen was the man for the job. It turned out that indeed he was, although, by September of that same year, Souness was gone, replaced by Mark Hughes.
It was hardly a great start for the new player as he sought to find his way in the English game. Arriving from Tromsø, a club based above the Arctic Circle in Norway, the English climate would not have been a problem, but the white-hot heat of the vapid thud and blunder of the Premier League may have been more of an issue. His debut against Manchester United was hardly a gentle introduction, and Pedersen struggled to make any meaningful contribution, leading to a period out of the starting eleven, something that was hardly helped by the arrival of Hughes. The £1.5 million spent on him began to look like bargain basement shopping, rather than an astute piece of transfer business.
It would be the new year before Pedersen found his feet, and when he returned to the fold against Cardiff City, he notched his first goal for Blackburn setting himself off on a run that saw him also net in the three succeeding games. By the end of the term, he had appeared in 27 games and scored eight times across all competitions. Given the stuttering start to his career in England, it marked a generally satisfactory debut season. Over the next eight seasons, he would become a key member of the Blackburn side, averaging more than 40 games per season.
The 2005-06 season marked the Norwegian forward’s most prolific time in England, scoring ten goals in 42 games for Blackburn. Never the most consistent of goal scorers, it’s a total that would dwindle over the years, but what Pedersen’s goals lacked in number, they often made up for in quality, spectacular action and importance. A sensational volley against Fulham in the first month of the new season was acclaimed as Match of the Day’s Goal of the Month, and in September, a brace against Manchester United saw Blackburn take all three points with a rare victory at Old Trafford. He was now the automatic choice for Blackburn on the left flank and would remain so for much of his time with the club.
Managerial upheaval is often a cause of players losing form as they feel that they are either not part of the new man’s plans, or that the way the team is set out to play does not allow them to exhibit the best of their talents. Paul Ince’s arrival at Ewood Park to take over from Hughes was just that sort of case for Pedersen, as he slipped out of regular contention for a place in the starting eleven. The former midfielder’s removal in December 2006 however, brought the Norwegian back into favour as Sam Allardyce took charge of the club, although the bluff new manager’s direct style of play often saw Pedersen slid into the centre of midfield where his passing ability was often the key to opening up opposition defences.
As a club, Blackburn were in a steady decline that would eventually lead to relegation, but across the next couple of seasons, Pedersen remained one of the stand out talents of the team and, whether deployed centrally or on the flank, he was a key element of the team. It was therefore of little surprise that in May 2010, the club announced that a new four-year deal had been reached keeping Pedersen at the club until 2014. The agreement came on the back of a season where a steady club performance saw Blackburn comfortable in mid-table and Pedersen scoring three goals from his 30 appearances with much of his game time focused on a creative role.
John Williams, chairman of the club at the time, emphasised the importance that the manager had placed on getting a deal done, declaring that, “Sam made this, together with finding a striker, being our summer priority. He regards Morten as a key member of the Rovers squad and his future at Ewood Park is now secure.”
With the new contract in his pocket, Pedersen enthralled the Blackburn fans with some more spectacular goals, a 40-yard free-kick against Wigan Athletic perhaps being the pick of the bunch. The season ended with Pedersen as solid a starter for the club as any other player, and the fans fully endorsing the manager’s appreciation of the Norwegian’s contribution.
Blackburn’s decline in fortunes was now taking on a more terminal look now and across the next few seasons, despite Pedersen missing only 15 league fixtures across three seasons, the writing was on the wall. At the end of the 2011-12 season, Blackburn finished in 19th position, some six points awry of the safety margin and were relegated. For a club set up on Premier League terms, it was a financial disaster and an early return to the top-tier was essential if their best players were to be retained.
It would be a hugely disappointing time for the club, though. Injuries and other issues deprived Blackburn of Pedersen’s services for all but 28 games of the league campaign, and Blackburn finished in a miserable 17th position. The club’s finances were unsustainable and changes were required to cut the running costs. With twelve months still left on his contrast, Pedersen was granted a free transfer to join Karabükspor in Turkey. It marked the end of an era for the club as it slipped into Championship mediocrity, a trough from which it has still to recover.
The stay in Turkey would be brief and unspectacular, before a move to Rosenborg took Pedersen back home to Norway and in 2016, he completed the circle, perhaps the Arctic Circle, by returning to Tromsø. For a player often seen as one of the most gifted of midfielders in the Premier League at the time, there were a number of rumours suggesting that a move from Blackburn to a perceived ‘bigger’ club would inevitably follow but, for whatever reason, it never did.
Morten Gamst Pedersen found a home at Blackburn and although that meant his skills were never really tested at the highest levels of the English game, for all Blackburn fans, there’s great happiness in that. The player bought for a pittance to replace a disappearing star brought more than his boy band looks to Lancashire, he also delivered a number of virtuoso performances and spectacular moments over nine seasons, and whatever stage he was performing on, his fans loved him for that.