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.