MacDonald: Ashley here to stay.

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Former Newcastle United striker Malcolm MacDonald believes that Mike Ashley’s decision to reward manager Alan Pardew and his staff with eight-year contracts is a signal of his intent to stay on Tyneside.

Pardew, along with John Carver, Steve Stone and Andy Woodman, committed themselves to new deals with Newcastle on Thursday. The news follows the announcement in June that chief scout Graham Carr had also signed a similar contract.

Speaking to ESPN, MacDonald said he believes the club’s business profitability is a factor behind owner Ashley’s long-term commitment.

"The owner continuously does things out of the ordinary and makes it work for everybody," MacDonald said. "I’ve felt for more than two years now that Mike Ashley intends to stay.

"He knows a profitable business and that’s exactly what Newcastle United is - a profitable business for him and his organisation."

MacDonald, who spent five years on Tyneside, also believes that the news sends a positive message to the club’s players.

"I’ll be interested to see the kind of reaction there is from players on that, because it will have an effect on the attitude of players and they well may feel that there’s a tremendous stability at the club by this," He said.

However, MacDonald did concede that Pardew’s contract is likely to have demands on it - similar to the ones placed on Sir Alex Ferguson when he joined Manchester United.

"I always look at the situation that existed at Manchester United when they appointed Sir Alex Ferguson, which I learned about after a discussion with Martin Edwards," He said. "The deal that was struck was that in the next decade Manchester United would win the European Cup.

"I look at Alan Pardew and I wonder - you’re not just given an eight-year contract, you’re given an eight-year contract with demands and I’d like to know what those are.

"For that kind of contract you’ve got to be guaranteeing Europe every season, and certainly within those eight years they’ve got to win a trophy.

"Maybe if they’d given him that eight-year contract on Wednesday he may have named a different team."


Bajevic looks to move past the abuse.

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When Atromitos manager Dusan Bajevic steps into the dugout on Thursday evening at Newcastle, it is unlikely he will consider the moment a career defining one. But far from a slight on the quality of his opponents, it serves more as testament to the varied and often colourful life the man has lived.

A title winner at both ends of a fierce Greek rivalry - he has won the Greek domestic league eight times in his career and was chronically abused by fans of one club - it’s difficult to put an order to the chaos outside of chronology.

Extremely polarising as an individual, his career has followed a similar habit. When times were good - like his title wins with AEK Athens and Olympaikos, they were most certainly good - but when they were bad they often far surpassed what many would deem acceptable in his profession.

First weaving himself into the tapestry of Greek football with AEK Athens, he brought four league titles to the club in his first spell but left in a shroud of controversy by joining Olympiakos, where he secured his other four league titles despite fans bombarding him with death threats.

Far from meek in his response, Bajevic was blunt when asked about the threats from AEK fans, simply stating: “I have done nothing wrong. I will kill anyone who comes near my family.” Upon his return to the Athens club, fans showered him with food and even a moped was thrown from the stands, and yet amazingly this would not be the most chronic instance of abuse he would suffer.

It also wouldn’t be the first time he would immerse himself in a fierce rivalry - take his time at Red Star Belgrade as an example of that. On something of a sabbatical from Greek football, Bajevic suffered defeat at the hands of rivals Partizan, but as he gave an interview to local television a few days after the game, angry Red Star fans set about his company car, smashing one of the windows.

With his days at the club seemingly numbered, Bajevic left under a cloud as he resigned midway through a match against FK Vojvodina, leaving the pitch in the 70th minute, never to return.

However, despite the fact that his last act in Belgrade was not a normal one, it was not the first time he’d done such a thing. His second spell at AEK Athens had seen the club’s fans split over his worth to the side: some were able to forgive, others would never forget. What began with derogatory banners quickly escalated and reached its crescendo in a match against Iraklis, when Bajevic resigned before half-time. It would later be revealed his wife had also left the game prior to kick-off after receiving similar levels of abuse.

In the wake of that departure, he had once again joined Olympiakos. You would be forgiven for thinking this was an attempt to spite the fans of AEK once again, but fan pressure once again forced him out.

During his extensive management history, Bajevic has overseen five different Greek clubs including Atromitos, with not every job characterised by turmoil. His time spent with PAOK Thessaloniki and Aris brought one Greek Cup to add to the two he’d already earned as a manager. Amazingly, a third spell at AEK Athens came and went, albeit with a more sinister conclusion this time round. Like watching an arguing couple reunite, to an outsider the likely outcome seemed upsettingly obvious.

By this point Bajevic had mellowed - perhaps it was the maturity gained with age. Where once his press conference was barbed and filled with a determination not to bow to the will of radical fans, now Bajevic the diplomat sat and said: “I have said sorry to whoever I aggrieved and I say sorry again to everyone. We can’t afford to talk about it now though. We all love AEK. We need to forget the good and the bad and look forward.”

Sadly not everyone subscribed to his view and, again, the abuse was intense. Losing to second division Kallithea FC was embarrassing, but not befitting the punishment that was exacted. As Bajevic tried to leave the field he was punched by a fan. Many expected his resignation - he had walked from other clubs for far less - but after support from his staff, the players and a large section of the club’s fans, he remained.

Two months later, Bajevic would end his association with the club for the third time as manager. Firmly established within the history of AEK, admiration for him was far from universal in Athens, but his contributions were undeniable.

Now with Atromitos, life finally seems more peaceful. His side finished fourth in the Greek Super League, and while not garnering the headlines or trophies that some of his previous Greek clubs have, the unique individual that is Dusan Bajevic provides more than enough intrigue and excitement on his own.


Wolves reject Fletcher bid

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Sunderland have seen a £10 million bid for Wolves striker Steven Fletcher rejected.

Fletcher, 25, is a long-time target of the Black Cats and it remains to be seen whether Sunderland will return with a fresh bid, although reports have suggested any future bid may include Connor Wickham being loaned to the Midlands club in an attempt to sweeten the deal.

The former Ipswich striker, 19, joined Sunderland for £8 million last summer but found first-team opportunities limited last season and may be interested in a temporary move.

Meanwhile Fletcher is said to be keen to remain in the Premier League following Wolves’ relegation, despite comments from Wolves chief Jez Moxey on Monday that said the club will not sell its best players.

Elsewhere Martin O’Neill has confirmed the club have lodged several bids for players.

Speaking to the Sunderland Echo, O’Neill said: “We have made a number of bids for a number of players and we’re still waiting to hear back.”

With reports from the North West claiming the Black Cats are interested in Blackburn Rovers pair Martin Olsson and Steven N’Zonzi, it’s believed the club have now moved to secure their signatures.

"I can’t obviously mention particular players, but we’re definitely in the market to try to improve the squad." O’Neill added.

So far only Carlos Cuellar has joined the Wearsiders, despite the club being linked with a host of players. Speaking on the subject, O’Neill said: “It’s pretty obvious where we’re looking to try to strengthen and of course we’re going to be linked with a lot of players.


Lalas tips Cameron for success.

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By Kristan Heneage 

Former USA defender Alexi Lalas has tipped Geoff Cameron to succeed in England following news that Stoke City had agreed a fee for the centre-back.

Cameron, who joined Houston Dynamo in 2008 and was named an MLS Allstar in 2011, is to join Stoke in a deal worth a reported $2.5 million (£1.59 million) should he be successful in gaining a work permit.

The 27-year-old made his international debut in February 2010, and Lalas believes he has all the attributes he needs to succeed in England.

"I think Geoff has the mentality and all the skill-sets to succeed, but sometimes it’s not always the best players that are successful," Lalas told ESPN. "You need a little bit of luck, timing and coaches that believe in you but, just on sheer ability and potential going forward, yeah, I think that Stoke and England are getting a quality player that they can be excited to see.

"It’s also a great message for the Houston Dynamo and MLS in terms of developing talent that can make the jump to what is perceived to be one of the best leagues in the world."

Lalas, who spent time in Europe with Padova, feels the potential deal would be good for both parties.

"For Houston it’s good business because this is a player that came up from nothing and now they’re selling him on for a good chunk of money," he said. "I think for Stoke in the market, when you actually see the player you’re going to get, they’re going to recognise they’re getting a good quality player."

Asked how he would describe the centre-back, Lalas added: “He’s good with the ball, he reads the game well and he’s not going to lose possession of the ball while under pressure. If you’re playing with Geoff Cameron, be prepared to play with the ball.

"He has the physical attributes to bang when he needs to but he also has a real confidence in the way he handles the ball and the way he passes out of the back. He can not only play at the back but also in the midfield, which gives him versatility."


Fergie’s Fledgling

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By Kristan Heneage

The last seven days has seen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer first lead then depart the figurative race to become Aston Villa’s next manager. The 39-year-old had even flown to Birmingham for discussions with the Midlands club - surprisingly much to the displeasure of Molde’s owners. So why is the former Manchester United striker courting interest so early into his coaching career?

There was a hint of fairy tale to the beginning of Solskjaer’s managerial life. Leaving Molde FK in 1996 to join Manchester United, the man nicknamed ‘the baby faced assassin’ returned in the club’s centenary season to deliver the first league title of Molde’s history, weaving himself into the tapestry of Norwegian football once more.

The return to his homeland followed a stint overseeing Manchester United’s second string, a period that left an indelible mark on the young manager. When he decided to vacate the relative comfort of Manchester for his first full time job, he wisely chose not to depart alone.

His backroom staff was filled out by friends he had made in Manchester in the form of Mark Dempsey and Richard Hartis. Dempsey had spent his time coaching 13-16 year olds for the Red Devils. As well as coaching Molde’s first team, Dempsey also works with local youngsters as part of a bank sponsored scheme.

Hartis took control of the club’s goalkeepers after operating in a similar guise for United. Solskjaer gave glowing appraisals of both in his presentation press conference, and was expected to take both men with him had he opted to join Villa - an early display of loyalty and appreciation to those who have helped him earn his reputation.

Although much has been made of Molde’s billionaire backer Kjell Inge Rokke, Solskjaer has not enjoyed a period of extravagance in the transfer market. Operating on a stringent budget, Solskjaer has looked to promote youth, and never more is this typified than with his captain, Magnus Wolff Eikrem.

The son of former Molde player Knut Hallvard Eikrem, Magnus was born and bred in Molde, before being discovered at one of Solskjaer’s soccer schools. From there the talented playmaker was sent away to Manchester United’s academy before being allowed to leave with Solskjaer in 2011.

Ironically deemed a foreign player having spent so much of his teens in Manchester, Eikrem is the playmaking fulcrum of Molde’s midfield. Revelling in his role as captain, the youngster has fallen foul of his manager on one occasion for diving, a rare blot in an otherwise unblemished copybook.

Tactically, Solskjaer has developed a fast counter-attacking side in which full-backs are encouraged to venture forward, revolutionising Molde as a team. As a consequence of Solskjaer’s philosophy, American defender Joshua Gatt has become a much-admired member of the squad. The Michigan native was recorded as the league’s fastest player last season and the admiration of him seems justified when you consider his wonderful solo effort against league leaders Stromsgodset last month.

Despite spending time away from Sir Alex Ferguson, the impact his tutelage had on Solskjaer has not been diluted. Still referring to Sir Alex as ‘the gaffer’ in interviews, Solskjaer seems to have adopted the Scot’s infamous hairdryer motivation technique, as Jo Inge Berget learned to his cost this season after a poor attempt at diving.

It’s claimed Solskjaer’s disdain for simulation harks back to his time under Sir Alex, when he was given a similar blast and told that diving ‘was not the Manchester United way’ - something Berget said Solskjaer stressed to him. “I had to stand in front of everyone in the locker room to apologiSe. Ole Gunnar said that such things we do not have at this club.” Berget said. In fact, so incensed was Solskjaer with the striker, he even forced him to apologise to the referee, and opponents Stromsgodset.

Having been tipped for success by his former mentor, many had expected Molde to hit the ground running in Solskjaer’s first season. The story began diverting from script as Molde suffered an opening day defeat to newly promoted Sarpsborg 08. Arguably a better test of his abilities, the manager responded well to a difficult opening trio of results which included draws against Viking FK and Tromso.

It should be noted that Solskjaer suffered setbacks throughout his inaugural campaign, including losing leading frontman Pape Pate Diouf to FC Copenhagen midway through. Credit must go to his team’s ability to respond to defeat. They never lost back-to-back matches, a testament to his side’s character.

A narrow win against Staebaek in round four earned him his first victory and served as the precursor to a second win away in Brann days later. It also allowed Solskjaer to display his tactical expertise, a quality Ferguson had often noted. Converting the side from its usual 4-3-3 into a more defensively sturdy 4-2-3-1, they recorded an impressive 3-1 victory against the financially stricken side.

With pace out wide a key component of his style, Solskjaer plays in an unique way compared to the majority of Norwegian sides that prefer a more stable 4-4-2. Under the watchful eye of backer Rokke, Solskjaer has taken advantage of the top class facilities that have allowed him to nurture his winning side.

In an eerily similar situation to last year Molde suffered a difficult start as they looked to defend their crown - three defeats in their first six games meant an average opening to the season. However, a 2-0 victory over the weekend against Sandes Ulf saw Molde record their fourth straight win - placing them one point behind leaders Stromsgodset.

When fielding potentially awkward questions regarding his future, Solskjaer has been refreshingly honest in admitting he holds the same ambitions that any young manager does: “We strive for personal development and players who do well get requests all the time,” Solskjaer said. “I was asked by a friend whether I was interested in speaking with Villa. I called Kjell Inge straight away. We agreed that I could speak to them on Wednesday - that it was okay. Roberto Martinez has been given permission to speak to Liverpool, who are a fantastic big club and you know he has ambitions - not a problem.”

Having spurned the chance to join Villa in favour of staying with Molde, Solskjaer will now prepare himself for a Champions League second round qualifier - an amazing prospect when you consider the position the club were in when he joined. Far from minnows, they were also not title contenders.

As for his future, Solskjaer was often a substitute for Manchester United and you sense the striker is aware that much like in his playing days, his time to enter the big stage will arrive eventually.


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There was a philosophical feel to Alan Pardew’s postmatch news conference on a recent Monday afternoon. In the wake of his side’s 2-0 victory over Bolton on April 9 he fielded the obvious questions about his side’s opener — a wonderful solo effort from Hatem Ben Arfa.

In among the superlatives and compliments Pardew gave telling insight into how you handle someone with a heavy backlog of misdemeanors — which included going on strike to force through his move to Newcastle, and even visiting Tyneside without Marseille’s permission.

"With Hatem, you’ve got to let him have his world," said Pardew, before adding, "It’s his world when he has the ball, my world is when he hasn’t." It’s compromise, Ben Arfa is an individual, his desire to wear the No. 10 is a clear indication of how he views himself — the creator. Newcastle’s success is built on a hard working cohesive unit, admittedly more prominent during the tenure of Chris Hughton, but the team spirit and work effort remains a healthy part of the current success.

Those were not traits readily associated with Ben Arfa. The attacking flair he displayed on his debut at Everton in the 2010-11 after joining Newcastle on loan had ignited fans passions, but the leg break he suffered at Manchester City dampened the fires of excitement. At a considerably low ebb, many believe his year in rehabilitation is where the bond between player and club was formed and the man began to change.

Newcastle fans posted cards and well wishes in their droves to Ben Arfa and owner Mike Ashley and Derek Llambias paid him personal visits to check on his recovery (he was still a Marseille player at this point). He was even allowed leave to France and Tunisia for his recovery, provided he occasionally returned to Newcastle to be looked over by the club’s medical staff.

It was give and take, and for once Ben Arfa wasn’t just taking. Having given a number of interviews back in his native France recently, Ben Arfa has spoken openly and honestly about his situation. His leg break appears to have served as an epiphany for the man many feel is the most talented member of the ‘1987 generation’ that included Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri, and Jeremy Menez.

Of course the transformation was far from complete. An injury in preseason against Sporting Kansas City ruled him out for the opening few months of the season and left cynics questioning whether he would ever consistently stave off fitness issues. Pardew was careful in his approach- Ben Arfa had played less than a dozen Premier League games by August of 2011, and as a consequence was still grasping the nuances of the more physical English Premier League.

His eventual return as a substitute against Blackburn in September garnered a standing ovation from the home fans — further building of the relationship between player and club.

Pardew still had reservations. Ben Arfa wanted a central role, but the rigid 4-4-2 Newcastle deployed simply didn’t allow for it- — as a consequence he often found his name among the list of substitutes. As fans clamored for him to replace the melancholic Gabriel Obertan out wide, the manager remained defiant.

Tensions grew. When Ben Arfa did play he was able to display his threat, an assist in a defeat to West Brom on Dec. 21, 2011 and a goal against Bolton a few days later that changed the game seemed to vindicate fan opinion — and yet Pardew still confined him to the bench — citing a lack of defensive discipline.

January’s home game against QPR was the turning point. Replacing an injured Yohan Cabaye, Ben Arfa was a constant threat for the home side ,but more importantly he was chasing back. No longer the individual he was part of a cohesive unit that restricted QPR to few chances as the Magpies eked out a narrow win.

His work had not gone unnoticed, Pardew was keen to acknowledge his effort in his postmatch interview: “He’s starting to maneuver into the first team. I think he’s taken on board the team ethos that we’ve got here and in terms of tracking back and doing everything you need to do to play in our team.”

More than just running backward, there has been a definitive change in mentality — something teammate Demba Ba has duly noted. Speaking on French television Sunday he said: “Everyday in training [Ben Arfa] works really hard.” More surprising however was Ba’s claim that Ben Arfa does not like people seeing him working hard — preferring to exude an attitude of nonchalance, something Ba says is not the case.

Ben Arfa is not entirely unrepentant about his former self. Now willing to admit that his reputation of arrogance was justified — he explains that his overconfidence also saved him at one point. Mixing in questionable circles, Ben Arfa was close to joining what he describes as a cult — his reluctance to acknowledge the leader as a superior being putting an end to his potential membership.

With Newcastle’s formation changing in recent weeks to 4-3-3, Pardew has also found a way to finally accommodate his best players — in particular Ben Arfa. His standout game against West Brom on March 25 highlighted his strengths with two assists and a well taken goal. His form of late has even seen him enter contention for France’s Euro 2012 squad, something Pardew has championed him for via the media.

Yet just as the bandwagon begins to gather momentum Pardew cautions that tability and focus are what Ben Arfa requires. Talent has never been the issue for Ben Arfa. As a consequence Pardew has forbidden any more interviews for the rest of the season, a wise move from a man who seems to have learned a great deal in man management after his time with Javier Mascherano and Carlos Tevez at West Ham.

Now 25, Ben Arfa still has some way to go to prove all of his critics that he is a truly changed man, but with the potential stage of Euro 2012 just around the corner — he may be able to prove that calling him “l’enfant terrible” should be just a thing of the past.


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Pericard playing a supporting role.

Utter the name Vincent Pericard in England and many will be able to chart at least some of his club-heavy career. From Juventus to Swindon, via Portsmouth, the French-Cameroonian striker has called time on playing days at 29 years old with a new project already underway.

The venture is not a production company or a fashion line, and he won’t be appearing as an agent at your local club. Instead Pericard is a man on a charitable mission: ‘Elite Welfare Management’ (EWM) is a non-profit organisation that it’s hoped will benefit foreign players moving to England.

Far from an overnight concept, Pericard has been working on this project for a long time. “About four of five years ago, when I was on loan at Southampton from Stoke, I first thought about the concept,” he explains. “From my experience I found players that didn’t get that support structure to help settle and flourish in England.”

Having undertaken his own difficult journey from humble beginnings in Efok, Cameroon, to France at the age of four (where he made his name at Saint-Etienne), he admits it was far from a smooth transition when he arrived at Portsmouth on loan from Juve in 2002.

"I had to learn the language and the culture by myself with trial and error," he says. "I didn’t know in that country that’s how they do things or perceive things or that’s how they play football."

When life at home is stressful you may seek solace in your work, but for Pericard that was where his problems emanated. “The biggest shock was just the style of football,” he says. “It’s a lot more physical and a lot more direct. I didn’t want to leave England though - I’m not a quitter so I wasn’t going to give up because my first few months or first year were difficult.”

On the south coast, though, he was not the only foreign player who was struggling. “When I was at Portsmouth I had a French team-mate with a young daughter,” he reveals. “The travelling between France and England took a toll on him. He’d argue with his wife and in the end she stayed in France. I could see how unhappy he was because he missed his wife and his daughter. Something should have been done so they could live under the same roof in England.”

With a gap in the market and a viable business model, his tailored service could very easily be exported for financial gain; for footballers, trust is often a rare commodity. But any suggestion that money can be made from his idea is met with resistance: “It’s a non-profit organisation because it’s all about the wellbeing of the player and the family. The wellbeing of the family is crucial if he is to fulfil his potential.”

Of course some reservations still remain, for example: surely the aforementioned issues are why these players employ agents? To keep their affairs in order; to use their experience to help the clients settle. Again Pericard disagrees: “When an agent from, say, France has players based in England, Spain and Germany how can he look after them on a 24-hour basis? It’s impossible. The agent doesn’t have the resources to provide the kind of service we are suggesting.”

His rationale for EWM seems obvious yet so often unconsidered. “Football is a billion pound industry,” he says. “Football clubs spend millions on players, but they don’t cater for that welfare.”

Still in its infancy he has yet to approach football clubs but has seen backing from PFA chairman Clarke Carlisle and is on the lookout for funding to get it off the ground. Unfortunately that’s also the issue currently halting proceedings. As he attempts to gather backing from the FA and government sports ministers, he hasn’t ruled out a potential paid membership service.

With such honourable intentions it’s difficult not to champion Pericard and his plan. “I’m just a people person and I want to make people happy. I love seeing the smile of a footballer’s face and their family,” he says. “There’s nothing more than fulfilling than making someone happy.”

Given the potential scope of the organisation, Pericard’s varied playing career makes him an ideal figurehead, something he concurs with: “I was born in Cameroon and raised in France. I played in Italy and England so that’s already four different cultures I’ve experienced. I’ve been in the Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two and even non-league football. I’ve been conned out of money so I’ve suffered all the things a foreign player could.”

The benefits are not solely cultural, as EWM aims to help players suffering with mental health issues as well. “By having such a close connection with players, they will have a trust with us so they can talk to us about maybe having depression so we can put them with the right sports psychologist,” he adds.

Pericard may have stumbled into the field - “After retiring I realised how hard it could be for a player after the game. I thought what am I going to do? I’ve got no qualifications, am I going to have to work at Tesco?” - but could well be leaving an impact on English football long after he stopped lacing up his well-travelled boots.


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Luke Rodgers isn’t giving up.

By Kristan Heneage

Deep in the heart of northern Europe there is an Englishman with dreams of returning to New York.

After Luke Rodgers and the Red Bulls lost to the eventual M.L.S. Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy last year — amid talk of Christmas and New Year plans and a desire to watch his beloved Birmingham City when back home — his intentions were made clear: in 2012 he would do everything in his power to help the Red Bulls earn M.L.S. silverware.

That was nearly six months ago and a lot has changed. Now sitting in an apartment in Norway, Rodgers finds himself on the books of Lillestrom SK after his visa renewal was rejected by United States immigration. There are an abundance of questions that sadly Rodgers could not (or would not) answer, but he wants to make one thing clear; “If the chance comes about I’d love to return to New York.” It is believed that Rodgers overstayed his visa last year by several days and also failed to inform the club about a incident in England, though Rodgers, the club and U.S. officials have declined to discuss specifics.

Red Bulls General Manager Erik Soler said the club has not given up hope of getting Rodgers back, with Soler engineering his move to Lillestrom — where Solér was born and began his soccer career.

Admittedly the move is a culture shock to Rodgers, who describes Lillestrom as “nice but quiet” — it provides a dramatic change of scenery when juxtaposed with the bright lights of New York with which Rodgers had grown so fond. He is eager to reiterate, however, that the surroundings are not important, he went to Norway to work.

Making an instant impact with a goal on his debut with Lillestrom, the former Notts County and Port Vale forward remains positive.

“I need to play games right now, and it was great to do that against Rosenborg,” he said in a telephone interview from Norway. “I’d not played since November and to get a goal is an added bonus. I feel comfortable here, everyone at the club has been great helping me settle in, and I’m looking to repay that with some goals.”

It is safe to say Rodgers is not hugely invested in social media. When interviewed in June last year, he was asked if he had considered opening a Twitter account — his response? “Why? What’s the point of it?” It was hard to argue.

It was not a slight on the popular Web site as much as confusion about the concept. Allowing himself a Facebook account to keep in touch with family and friends back home, his page has few status updates but is littered with kind words from Red Bulls fans urging his return — something he describes as truly humbling.

In fact, so determined were sections of the Red Bulls supporters, they set up a Web site urging like-minded people to contact U.S. government officials.

Unaware of all this, Rodgers’s response was initially one of disbelief.

“Honestly?” he said with a sense of uncertainty. “They’ve set up a Web site for me?” After seeing his page, Rodgers was speechless (a nifty little trick) for the first time in during a 30-minute interview.

He broke the silence and said: “That’s amazing. I can’t believe that, just wow.” Clearly shocked by the support, he said that is part of the reason he wants to return, adding; “I really do love the fans, they’re some of the greatest I’ve played in front of. They make banners and it’s just amazing.” Something he has maintained throughout his time in M.L.S.

With fans claiming Rodgers arrival improved the local area, Rodgers is not so sure but appreciates the suggestion.

“Well if scoring goals improved the area then that’s great,” he said with a slightly embarrassed laugh. After a comparison to Mary Poppins was tossed his way, he laughed again. “No not quite, I didn’t fly round on an umbrella,” he said before adding: “I like meeting the fans to be honest. They’re always nice and polite. I mean what’s thirty seconds to take a photo or sign your name?”

Although he might be thousands of miles away, Rodgers is still aware of the club’s fortunes.

“It was a great performance against Columbus, we played really well.” he said. His use of the royal we suggesting part of him is still in New Jersey. And although the Red Bulls entered this weekend’s game against visiting San Jose as the league’s highest-scoring team (with Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper combining for 13 goals), the club is one or two injuries from desperation up front in Rodgers’s absence.

Rodgers’s attention, however, quickly turns to more immediate matters — last Monday Lillestrom played against last-place Odd Grenland. A game many would have expected it to win, saw a victory for Grenland, something Rodgers was far from happy about.

“That was a frustrating game to be honest.” he said. “The only positive is I got 20 minutes, which is what I need right now. We’ll be looking to bounce back as soon as possible.”

His Red Bulls teammates often admitted to difficulty in understanding Rodgers’s heavy Birmingham accent, he apparently faced another language barrier.

“It’s not bad actually,” he said. “A lot of the guys here speak English anyway, but I’m trying to pick little bits up. I think football is one of those games that you just understand each other, actions can replace words.”

A quick test in Norwegian proved he still has some way to go, his vocabulary currently confined to greetings, not that Lillestrom fans will care. Based on an assortment of YouTube clips they appear enamored with their newest recruit, who still stretches out his arms when he finds the back of the net — another nod to his favorite M.L.S. team

“Red Bull gives you wings doesn’t it.” he said before again erupting in laughter, proving that he has not lost his chirpy spirit or hope of one day running out once more at Red Bull Arena. Only time, and the U.S. government, will tell.


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Drugs 0, MLS 1: “They saved my life,” says Real Salt Lake’s new star

“They didn’t just save my dream, they saved my life.” That’s how Sebastián Velásquez perceives Real Salt Lake’s decision to select him during the MLS Superdraft in January.

After a whirlwind few months, the rookie reflects upon the moment he found out he’d be making his competitive bow against league champions LA Galaxy. “I saw my name on the board [the night before] and I just started grinding my teeth,” he said. “I was really nervous. In my mind I remembered what a friend from back in Colombia had told me: it’s two goals, 22 people on the field, and three referees. Just go out there and have fun.”

To truly comprehend his journey, you must go back. Born in Colombia’s second city Medellín, Velásquez moved to the US with his mother at the age of two. Throughout his youth he went to school and played club soccer with the aim of one day playing the game professionally.

At 17, his first chance came. Offered a trial with Barcelona after impressing their former striker Steve Archibald, Velásquez began an intense training regiment in preparation for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“I was good friends with a guy called Anthony Solomon. He owned an artificial pitch called Carolina Indoor Soccer,” he explains. “He would let me have the keys so I could start at six or seven in the morning till late at night. When I found out about the Barcelona trial, I spent eight months working and sleeping there – it had a couch in the building. I’d do things like shooting, running with weights on my legs, at a good pace. All kinds of things.”

He describes the trial with Barcelona as an unforgettable experience, but it failed to provide a contract, as did a subsequent spell with local rivals Espanyol. Undeterred, Velásquez returned to the US to play college soccer for Spartanburg Methodist College. The school not only helped him financially, but provided him with what he describes as an excellent soccer program.

After a two-year apprenticeship, Velásquez was ready to move on. Having agreed to join Clemson University, he received a shock phone call: “They told me they had heard about my try-outs in Europe and that because of that I was ineligible – I had no idea.”

With the college route apparently blocked and his dream seemingly over, Velásquez had little idea what to do. His mother was now back home in Colombia, which at the time seemed the only option. “I visited Colombia three times [in the space of a year] to see if I could fit into the lifestyle and adjust to it.”

As Velásquez begins to elaborate, he reveals the culture shock. “In Colombia there’s not as much security as there is in this country,” he said. “There you can drink whatever age you want; you can do drugs on the corner of a soccer field.”

With his mother also living in one of the most dangerous areas, Pedregal, Velásquez provides a harrowing example of day-to-day life on a gangland frontline. “I remember when she’d call me crying and you could hear the shootings outside between the gangs. I didn’t want to go into that.

"When you’re young there, if people don’t know you they’re always going to ask ‘Who is that? Is he trying to take over our territory?’ I didn’t want to be a part of that. I want to be safe and not make bad decisions.”

It’s at this point you begin to understand why Velásquez is so grateful to Real Salt Lake. Already possessing a one-way ticket to Colombia, he made a vital final phone call. “It was the best decision I’ve ever made in my life.

"I was thinking about doing it, and I asked my college coach. He said I should, but I didn’t want to give him the news I wasn’t going to Clemson. Five minutes later, my professional life changed forever. If I hadn’t made that call there would have been no Sebastián in MLS.”

At this stage it was only a trial, and as Velásquez had already learned, that was no guarantee of being picked up. Huddled with his mother around a computer back in Colombia, Velásquez watched the Superdraft process unfold – all the time hoping and praying.

“When the first two drafts got picked, my mom got nervous. I just sat there and said ‘Don’t worry, things will work out, stay positive’. As soon as they picked me… man, I just started crying – that’s all I did, was cry.”

There’s a flicker in his voice as he recalls the moment that made this all possible. Selected at No.36, Sebastian Velásquez was now a professional soccer player. As he begins to settle into life in Utah, he hasn’t forgotten his mother. “We’re looking at that right now and her paperwork situation,” he said. “RSL is helping me with that. They’ve put me on to the immigration lawyers, so hopefully I can get her back here or help out economically.”

Proud of his Colombian roots at a club with a heavy South American influence, Velásquez has fit into the squad seamlessly, even gaining a nickname. ‘El Mofeta’ (‘The Skunk’) refers to the blonde and black hair that two teammates shaved off last week, something he takes in good spirits.

He may be living life one day at a time, but what does the future hold for Velásquez? “Someday I want to be an agent,” he declares. But he wouldn’t be a merciless money-mad merchandiser: his reasons are far more positive. “So I can go to these different spots where I know things are bad, give my hand to a kid and say ‘There’s green land on the other side of the hill; you do have an opportunity at life.” It’s a noble wish and one that you hope he is able to complete.

For the time being, however, his aim is simple – and he believes achievable under the stewardship of coach Jason Kreis. “I want to learn something new each day and become a better player. Jason Kreis is an incredible coach. He’s always there for you. I have so much respect for him that it feels like a father and son relationship.”  

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