BY JACK CORBISIERO-PETERS
Life presents opportunities when we have to decide whether to stick or twist. Do we apply for that new job, move to a new town or tell a friend that we want more than just friendship?
Sticking or twisting can leave you ruing your decision or can make you bloom in a way you never imagined possible.
Nicolaj Køhlert had to make such a formative decision when he was just 15 years old, playing table tennis with a friend in his back garden. Should he stick with the Esbjerg FB youth setup – close to his family in Denmark – or twist and try to make it alone in Liverpool?
Køhlert was spotted by the club while playing in a tournament for the Danish national youth side. He was invited to Melwood in the summer of 2009 for a five-day trial, and to train with the Liverpool reserve team.
“When I came back from Liverpool I wasn’t expecting anything. I was just thinking it had been a great experience – one I could learn from”, remembers Køhlert.
A few weeks later Nicolaj was called in from the back garden by his father, who announced that Rafael Benitez had offered him a contract. “First I was thinking: ‘no way that is true’, but of course I knew my dad wouldn’t make fun of something like that.” Køhlert can’t recall how his game of table tennis finished.
In a short space of time, Nicolaj went from training with the Esbjerg U16s to playing with the Liverpool reserves. The young Dane found himself sharing a pitch with the likes of countryman Daniel Agger (then recovering from injury and training with the reserves), reserve team regulars Raul Mereiles, Daniel Pacheco and Jonjo Shelvey and fellow youth team players Raheem Sterling and Jon Flanagan. This was unquestionably a step up.
Køhlert found life tough in his adopted home country, away from his friends and family. But it was something he had to get used to. “I lived with a lovely English family, and it was very good to have somebody to talk to and eat dinner with. After I’d been there for around a year and a half I moved into my own apartment.” Nicolaj would have been just 17, and living alone.
Many Danish youth players struggle to progress through the ranks of Premier League teams. Andreas Christensen and Niklas Bendtner are notable, albeit limited exceptions. Danish culture places an emphasis on communal support and technique, whereas the Premier League traditionally favours physicality and directness. “It was different with my new teammates than back in Denmark. In Denmark, I had my school friends to play football with, but here it was almost like every man for himself. This is how it is in a very competitive world where everybody is fighting for the same spot”.
Like the majority of talented youngsters parachuted into the Premier League at an early age, Køhlert didn’t quite make the grade at Liverpool. He was eventually sold on to Rangers, after a three-season stay yielding no first team appearances.
Spotting the next big thing is no easier from within than in the stands or the press box, it seems. Køhlert had his own ideas about the brightest lights in the Liverpool Academy. “At that time, I thought Dani Pacheco was the best player. He was very good with the ball and had a lot of X-factor”, he recalls.
That move to Rangers was intended to provide Nicolaj with the sustained opportunities his promising talent needed to mature. However, Rangers’ subsequent administrative chaos and liquidation meant that his move was short-lived. After six months Køhlert made the decision to move back to Denmark and sign for Silkeborg IF.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen next. Who was going to leave? Where we were going to play? Were we going to be paid? In the end, almost all the players I played with left the club at that point”, laments Køhlert. A few months later Rangers Football Club PLC was liquidated, eventually reforming as Rangers FC in the Scottish Third Division.
What conditions must be in place for a promising young player to fulfil his potential? Ample first-team opportunities, a single-minded attitude, precocious talent and a well-run club, for sure. However, Køhlert believes that there’s more to it than that.
“I think the most important thing is that the manager sees you as the type of player who can fit into his system and way of football. I have had a lot of different managers – especially in my time at Silkeborg IF – and these requirements are different every time a new coach takes over.”
Now 23 years old, Køhlert is currently on loan at NSÍ Runavík in the Faroe Islands. He is the club’s only professional player, and spends his mornings and afternoons training alone with his manager and ex-coach Anders Gerber – practicing his range of passing and shooting with his weak foot. It’s certainly a far cry from the state-of-the art facilities at Melwood or the roar from the stands at Ibrox. Perhaps the space and time on offer in the remote Faroe Islands coupled with careful cultivation from his manager will conspire to create the perfect environment for Køhlert to finally blossom as a player.
Køhlert’s delayed frondescence begs one question. What would Køhlert say to that 15-year-old version of himself, playing table tennis in the back garden? Would he advise him to stick with the Esbjerg youth setup or twist in favour of Liverpool?
“I would tell him to follow his dreams. You never know if you will get the chance again. I learned so much in my time at Liverpool – as a footballer and as a person – and I have never regretted that I took this chance”