GoPlay Sports caught up with Duke central defender Markus Fjortfoft, who told us about growing up immersed in soccer, life in the U.S. at Duke University, his famous father and his recent gaffe…
Rather endearingly, Markus Fjortoft is more than happy to tell me about his recent faux pas at the New York Red Bulls.
“I had a bit of a scare in one of my first sessions,” says Fjortoft. “I f*cked up.”
After a summer in the Premier Development League with the New York Red Bulls Under-23s, I ask the 23-year-old what is was like getting a glimmer of his dream. How was his experience mixing with the pros in Major League Soccer?
“I was playing centre-back and Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is a really nice guy, was playing and I went for an interception. I thought I was going to get the ball before him, but I didn’t and I caught his heel and he went down,” Swindon-born Fjortoft, whose dad, Jan Aage, became a Premier League cult hero in the 1990s.
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“It was my first session and I said to myself, ‘This can’t be happening, I can’t be injuring their best player three days before a game.’ I was like, ‘Sh*t, this is not good.’ I said sorry to him. ‘I’m really sorry I had to go for it.’
“After the session he (Wright-Phillips) came in and he was limping and I was thinking, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ and he was like, ‘I’m only joking.’
“I went to practice the next day and I came out of the weight room and he was a bit ahead of me and he looked back and he shook my hand and said, ‘Are you ok, are, how are you doing?’
“He had not forgotten, he was good about it and was a proper nice guy. I respected that.”
Fjortoft tells me his taste of playing with the big boys in MLS, bar the scare, has whetted his appetite for more. His ultimate goal is to play professionally in the MLS, a league he believes has improved immeasurably over recent years.
As a child, he modeled himself on David Beckham, literally. Copying the England man’s hairstyle for years after the soccer pin-up arrived at the LA Galaxy. Beckham was recruited by the Galaxy in 2007, on a five-year contract to raise the profile of the sport in the US.
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— Markus Fjørtoft (@MarkusFjortoft) May 18, 2013
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And Fjortoft is now a believer, a convert from Europe, a by-product of the Beckham era.
“Since I have been here MLS has experienced radical growth and more and more people are interested in it,” he says.
“I got interested when Beckham went to the LA Galaxy and had his jersey and a Thierry Henry one when he went to the Red Bulls. Those players just grabbed my attention and now I like watching the league and I follow it and the quality is getting better.”
I ask him about his summer spell with the Red Bulls and he confidently tells me “the level is manageable”. The towering centre-back has his sights on January’s MLS Draft and believes his time in New York helped raise his profile.
“Yes, I was there over the summer. It was great and a way for me to get my name out there with the Red Bulls. I lived with a mate, who also plays for the Red Bulls, for two months, and basically I just played football and got the taste of a professional’s life.
“I played a lot of games and got the chance to captain the Under-23s and I also got a stint training with the first team a couple of times and played against the second team.
“It was the mental aspect that was a surprise; I hadn’t given that much thought before.
“It was cool playing with players that play for the national team, Sacha Kljestan was there and Shaun Davis who was my captain at Duke. Mike Grella was there, who played for Leeds.
“But the big lesson was that it was as mentally exhausting as it was physically. You have to be so concentrated all the time and after those sessions I was so tired.”
Fjortoft can cope though, that’s the overriding impression I get. Duke expect him to go big too. The midfielder-turned-defender is highly-regarded by all at the North Carolina University.
“I’d love to play in the MLS and live out the dream of being a professional player. But I know I have a good education behind me to fall back on if things don’t work out.”
It’s that education which was just as big a pull to America for Fjortoft as Beckham was 10 years ago. Playing for his local side in Norway, Fjortoft made a big decision to leave.
“I was at Baerum in the Under-19s, I had a few stints with the first team, but I was done with it,” says Fjortoft eloquently, in a manner which belies his age.
“Norway and especially Oslo has become a growing market for players to go to the US. There has been a radical shift in the way the American college soccer was perceived. American soccer had that stigma. ‘You’re going to play in America, why?’
“But over time, players have chosen to go there and combine what I believe is the perfect combination between academics, athletics and the social network that you create. It’s an ideal mix, especially for a growing adult, it helps lay the groundwork for what will come in later life. I prioritised that ahead of signing first-team contracts in Norway.
“I had an honest conversation with myself and my father and I said, ‘What is the best case scenario if I make it in Norway? If I make it in the top tier in Norway, how much will that give me?’
“So I said I want to try America and get myself a brilliant education and I’d love to play in MLS, I just set myself that goal. And I think it has worked out alright so far.”
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His father, Jan Aage Fjortoft, has supported him all the way and continually demands text reports on his son’s progress at all hours of the night.
Fjortoft senior, now back in Norway, had a sterling career in his homeland, England and Germany – a career which Fjortoft junior has immense respect for. But the respect is definitely a two-way thing.
Asked if his father was proud of his decision to move to America, he says: “Yes he is. With the time difference between the US and Norway he will be asking me to send summaries after the games, and say our games finish at 9.30pm, if I haven’t sent him a text he will be contacting me and it will be the middle of the night in Norway and asking me how I did.”
One-time striker for Swindon, Sheffield United, Middlesbrough, Eintracht Franfurt and Barnsley to name a few, Fjortoft senior bagged 20 international goals for Norway. He was a bustling archetypal English centre-forward. Now though, it’s his his social media presence which has all the hallmarks of his blood and thunder approach to playing.
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I suggest his father is quite active on Twitter.
“Definitely, that’s an under statement. He’s created quite a name for himself on Twitter and it’s cool to follow,” chuckles Fjortoft junior.
“I’m proud of him and when we go back to England people recognize him and there are no fan groups in the world with a better memory than English fans.
“He benefited from these clubs when they were in their peak – he was at Swindon and top scorer when they were in the Premier League and he was at Middlesbrough at The Riverside reopening. He was part of a lot of clubs in exciting times in their history.”
Fjortoft was born in Swindon and lived there for five years, during his father’s time at at the club when they were dining at the top table, and he admits it was glaringly obvious he would be heavily involved in the game.
“It’s kind of inevitable isn’t it? Because when you are with your dad who takes you to everything you’re kind of addicted to it from birth. Being around him on the field, being a mascot and being in the locker room it really just made football part of my blood from very early on.
“I lived in England for the first five years of my life because of my dad. I lived in Swindon, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Barnsley, forgive me if I’ve got the order wrong. That really shaped my relationship to England.
“I have always had this inherent connection to the UK and it’s somewhere I’d like to go back to a some point and live.
“I’d love to play in the US but for some reason that doesn’t work out and maybe if my circumstances change then I would love to live in England and continue in football because that’s my ultimate passion, whether it is playing or in some administrative role.”
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— Jan Aage Fjortoft (@JanAageFjortoft) September 23, 2017
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At 6ft 5in and over 90kg, the atheltic Fjortoft is in the ideal modern-day centre-back mould, but it was his dad who ultimately shaped him from a midfielder to a “ball-playing quarter-back”.
“I didn’t hit puberty until I was 16, that may be a slight exaggeration,” he quips, “but I was the smallest on the field and I was a centre midfielder. I loved scoring goals and going up front.
“Dad didn’t want me to be a striker to avoid comparisons. I was a central midfielder until I was 16 and I loved David Beckham and he has been my hero throughout. I copied his haircuts for five years straight from 8 to 13 and I also loved Frank Lampard and all those box-to-box players.
“But when my dad took over the Under-16s he said, ‘I’m going to move you to centre-back.’ And at that time I started growing and now I’m 6ft 5in and 93kg and I kind of grew into the role.
“There was a transition period but I’m now a centre-back, who is comfortable with the ball and I envisage the position as like a quarter-back who can control the game from the back.
“It was definitely the right move. There are not enough ball-playing centre-backs around; there are so many central midfielders who are all competing. With age and experience I have picked up defensive learning.”
With three goals from defence for Duke so far this season – his latest last week’s match-winning strike on the road at Syracuse put the Blue Devils in a tie for second place in the Coastal Division – Fjortoft’s cool finishing has not left him and he believes his midfield grounding has helped him develop into the centre-back he is now.
“Yes, definitely. There are times maybe when coach Kerr’s heart skips a beat, when it may not be the right time to play out from the back but I feel very comfortable in doing it, but I believe I have found the right balance between being cynical and trying to play.”
After just a brief chat, the affable Fjortoft leaves an imprint of focus, supreme confidence, but also of self-deprecation – a quality not often seen in young athletes.
His drive and determination are obvious and it would not be a surprise to see his name on the roster of one of the MLS franchises’ early next year.
By Matthew Briggs