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From out of the frozen north to a warm reception in the east end

THE weather forecast suggests the temperature will drop to as low as -8 today in Vardo, the little town tucked way up in the extreme north-east of Norway.

Stefan Johansen says he is a passing midfielder eager to score and assist. Picture: Colin Mearns
Stefan Johansen says he is a passing midfielder eager to score and assist. Picture: Colin Mearns

It is a one-horse town where it's sometimes too cold for the horse. Vardo - with a population of 2100, situated 1200 miles north of Oslo - was an unlikely topic of conversation inside Parkhead yesterday afternoon. It happens to be the home town of Stefan Johansen.

Vardo's remoteness does not prevent it from having adequate sports facilities, including a football pitch and an indoor hall with another hard floor playing surface. But those were adequate for recreational football, not for a teenager aspiring to forge a career in the professional game. Johansen moved away with his mother and brother when he was only 14 to sign for Bodo/Glimt, a few hundred miles to the south.

He continued to move further away in stages: next to Stromsgodset in the southern Norwegian town of Drammen, and, this week, across the North Sea to Celtic.

"When I was 14 I needed a move because you can't go for professional football up there," he said. "There's a little bit of football but it's a place of just maybe 2000 people. So of course you can't be a professional there. That's nothing bad about the city or the people there, but it's the reality. If you are going to move on in football, you need to get away.

"They do everything there, they go skiing, they drive snowmobiles, all the winter sports. I was always the kid playing football. Me and two or three other friends, but they're not in the game anymore.

"When it was winter there was a lot of snow on the outdoor pitch and we went to the indoor hall. But if there was any green on the pitch we were there! I used to pretend I was Guti or Zinedine Zidane. I had seen them on television and loved the way they played. They were probably the smartest guys in the football world.

"It was fantastic to watch, they always looked capable of finding an opening no-one else could.

"Moving away is quite a big decision, still, but my interests have always been football. For me, it was a really easy choice. I wanted to do it very badly. Of course it means leaving behind friends from your childhood, everyone you've known from one to 14 years, and it was difficult to leave them at that age.

"But I made new friends and everything went fairly easy. I had something to aim for, I got a professional contract when I was 16, which is when it's legal in Norway, so I was very happy to be there."

There is an admirable mental strength in someone who is prepared to uproot himself and move away from his home town when barely into his teens, and even the accompaniment of two of his closest family would not have removed all of the stress of leaving friends behind.

Moving from Stromsgodset to Celtic might in many ways be less stressful for him at 23 than leaving Vardo was at 14.

Johansen was relaxed and quietly self-assured when he spoke, in English of course, yesterday. He talked enthusiastically about Celtic and especially about the prospect of playing in the Champions League next season once the inevitability of being champions again is confirmed.

"European football is important for every player but first of all it is the league, that is where you play most of your matches. But I think it is a dream come true to play for a club like Celtic. You have the fans behind your back, you have the Champions League if we can qualify. It's going to be important to be 100% and to work hard because the qualification begins in July and hopefully we are going to make it.

"What I have seen of Scottish football in the past has been Celtic, I must be honest. Celtic and Rangers and the Old Firm. That's pretty much what I've seen.

"But I know it's a very tough league, a very physical league, but Celtic play football the way I want to play it so I think it's a perfect match. I was training with the guys today and they are good technical players. I'm looking forward to it."

Johansen broke into the Norwegian national team last season. He describes himself as a passing midfielder, eager to help himself to goals, assists, free-kicks, everything. "I just want to do things better than I did in Norway," he said.

A lack of match sharpness may prevent him making his debut at home to Motherwell on Saturday, but whenever he is ready, the man from frozen Vardo can expect a warm welcome.

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