As goalkeepers go, Tottenham Hotspur Football Club has had its share of greats. But for me, Erik Thorstvedt epitomised everything that was good about the club during the 1990s. I spoke to him to discuss his career pre and post-retirement.
Whether you called him ‘Big Erik’ or ‘Erik the Viking’ during his seven-year spell between the sticks at Tottenham Hotspur Football Club in the 1990s, Erik Thorstvedt remains fondly remembered by supporters of the club.
Yet it could all have been very different for the Norwegian keeper, who pulled on the famous jersey no fewer than 218 times for the club, after a debut that he admits was nothing short of “a disaster”. Following his £400,000 move from Swedish side IFK Gothenburg to Terry Venables’ Spurs team, Erik was set for a debut on live television on a cold Sunday afternoon against Nottingham Forest in 1989 (the match came just days after Spurs were dumped out of the F.A. Cup by lowly Bradford City). But it did not start well.
“I woke up on match day with the stiffest neck in the world, and could hardly turn my head to either side. Probably not a coincidence – I must have been really tensed up,” recalls Erik.
“After waiting so long for this chance, I couldn’t really say ‘I’m not playing because of a stiff neck’. I played and made a massive mistake (it looks really ridiculous).”
Commentator Brian Moore’s words echoed over the TV airwaves as Nigel Clough’s tame shot slipped through Erik’s hands and into the net, leaving the “Big Norwegian” (as Brian Moore described him) staring at the ground, probably hoping that it would open up and swallow him (rather apt that he had stayed in The Swallow Hotel on the eve of the match).
“I could easily have saved it even without a neck, or arms,” jokes Erik now, recounting how defender Guy Butters told him after the game that it wasn’t that bad and that on his debut a year previous he had scored an own goal.
With the side struggling in the league, it was certainly not a smooth start for a keeper with a long-term ambition of playing in England.
“I think the first match I won was away to Southampton. At 0-0 a long ball was played in behind our defence, and there was a race to get to the ball first between me and an 18-year-old Alan Shearer. He won, but didn’t get far. I mowed him down, but for some reason only got a yellow card. Today there would have been absolutely no doubt – I would have been sent off. And I might never have got back in the Spurs goal.”
Instead, Erik went on to star in a Tottenham team that lifted the F.A. Cup in 1991 and he secured an impressive 97 caps for his country.
“Winning the F.A. Cup, and playing in the World Cup, ranks the highest for me. You see, taking part in the World Cup when you come from a small footballing nation, is something I never thought would happen.”
While some supporters will rate beating Arsenal in the semi-final as the crowning moment of the 1991 F.A. Cup campaign, for Erik, knowing for the rest of his life that his team won the cup ranks as his best moment at the club.
Erik was also lucky enough to play alongside some genuine Spurs legends, describing Paul Gascoigne as “probably the most naturally gifted”. But, he adds, how do you compare that to a goal-scoring machine like Gary Lineker?
“Gary Lineker, by the way, was usually the last to be chosen when two players picked teams in training. He didn’t really try that hard.”
As a goalkeeper, Erik had a natural fondness for central defenders and lists Gary Mabbutt and Norway’s Rune Bratseth as the most special players that protected his goal.
As for the best player Erik ever faced, he says the answer is easy: “Diego Maradona. We beat Argentina in a friendly just a few weeks before they became world champions in 1986.”
Retiring at the age of 34 as a result of on-going back problems, Erik admits that however much he wanted to keep going, it was a relief when the decision was made, saying that it is mentally draining in the long run when your body is not willing.
Yet he is not sad to have missed out on 100 caps for his country by just three appearances, adding that he would rather have reached 99 caps as it would have been “cooler”.
Following his retirement, Erik has worked mainly in the media, while he was also goalkeeping coach for the national team and does a lot of talks on team building to companies.
“I’m like everyone else – just trying to take care of my family and have a happy life,” he says.
He admits to being impressed by the strides that Tottenham Hotspur has taken and says that the club has very good and capable people running it.
And as for the goalkeeper position, Erik says he was surprised when the club brought in the veteran Brad Friedel but extremely impressed by his performances during the 2011-12 season.
“No reason to bring in another goalkeeper, but that is probably what will happen.” (This interview was conducted prior to the signing of Hugo Lloris)
Erik’s legendary status at Tottenham Hotspur owes as much to his match-winning performances as it does to his modesty about his own talent (I remember him sending me a signed photo some years after he retired saying ‘thanks for remembering me’). During our interview, he claims to not qualify for the label of legend.
“Sometimes the mind works hard on reminding you of all things that have gone wrong. And I can to this day still feel a distinct embarrassment for all the stuff I should have done better.”
But he remembers having a really good relationship with the fans, throwing his gloves into the stands after every win and holding up the correct number of fingers when they sang ‘Erik, Erik, what’s the score?’
“That relationship meant a lot to me. And coming back for the 125th anniversary a few years ago and being allowed to walk onto the pitch with other ex-players before the match against Aston Villa, seeing 35,000 cheering fans with identical flags, was amazing. That sense of belonging, being a family, was very touching; almost as good as when Kaboul hammered the ball into the top corner four minutes into stoppage time!”
Yet it was his intense relationship with the Tottenham faithful that almost led to what would have been Erik’s most embarrassing moment in football (yes, more so than the Nigel Clough moment).
Throwing his gloves into the crowd after winning a match quickly became a cult thing as everybody wanted Erik’s gloves. So when the referee whistled at the end of a match at White Hart Lane, Erik went behind the goal and threw his gloves to the celebrating fans.
“Suddenly they became very agitated, waving and shouting. I turn around and the referee had not ended the match, but just awarded a free kick to the opposition. And they were attacking. I ran back in goal and managed to catch the ball without gloves, to massive cheers from the crowd. Can you imagine the TV pictures with one team scoring while the opposition’s goalkeeper is behind the goal, celebrating an imaginary win? Wow.”
The gloves themselves were iconic, not least because Erik would prepare them on the eve of every game, making them wet for better grip, before putting them next to his bed. He would also train on match day, just to shorten the wait, and his pre-match meal was sandwiches (to the amusement of the chicken and beans brigade).
And so, the Spurs faithful will always remember ‘Erik the Viking’, as he was fondly known.
“Big nose was Gazza’s version,” quips Erik. “And even tortoise head (as in Thorstvedt). Bloody Norwegian was also often heard. But I prefer the nicknames you mention!”
More than two hundred games for one club is a rarity in the modern era, and it is his loyalty to the white and blue of Spurs, and his unerring talent between the goalposts, that will live on in the hearts of Spurs fans. And maybe, just maybe, that “disaster” on his debut, which endeared him to the footballing world, was actually the best thing that could have happened to him. The legend of ‘Big Erik’ lives on.
“We beat Argentina in a friendly just a few weeks before they became world champions in 1986…” Erik Thorstvedt
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