Safe as Houses
Espen Baardsen was a Norway international but at 25 he gave up football to work in finance.
Every now and then, Espen Baardsen gets a reminder of his former life. "One of the guys in the office will come in and say they were channel-surfing and saw Premiership Years," he says. "It's a TV show where they have the save of the season, the goal of the season, all sorts of stuff for a particular year. And I guess I had the save of the season [for Tottenham] against Bolton in 1998."
It was indeed a remarkable stop, Baardsen uncoiling the full length of his 6'5" frame to tip away Jimmy Phillips's right-footed strike as it arced towards the corner of the net. For Bolton it was also a pivotal moment, the save condemning them to a 1-0 defeat in the closing weeks of a season that would finish with them being relegated on goal-difference.
For Baardsen and Tottenham, however, it was a false dawn. The player, then just 20 years old, would go on to enjoy a fantastic year — representing Norway and being named as goalkeeper of the tournament at the European Under-21 Championships, then making his senior international debut in September. Yet despite such achievements he could never hold down the first-team job at Spurs and was sold to Watford in the summer of 2000.
Three years later, Baardsen retired. Aged just 25, he had suffered no critical injury, nor had he been discarded by the game. His form and career trajectory had undeniably taken a dip and he found himself temporarily without a club following a short-term contract at Everton, yet he still had his suitors. The thought of carrying on, though, simply did not appeal. Baardsen had, in the classic sporting parlance, 'fallen out of love with the game'.
If that can be a difficult concept to grasp for the many supporters who have lost countless hours daydreaming of how it might be to play for a living the sport they love, then Baardsen had identified a path that he believed he would find altogether more fulfilling. Rather than football, he wanted to work in finance.
Time has borne out that judgement. When I meet him at the west London offices of Eclectica, the asset management fund where he is now a partner, Baardsen is not only happy but in remarkably good shape. Despite having retired from football nearly a decade ago, he — seven years younger than Tottenham's present goalkeeper, Brad Friedel — claims to be in better physical condition now than at the end of his playing career.
Simply put, giving up football was the best decision Espen Baardsen ever made.
I suppose the obvious place to start is 2003. You're 25 years old and you've just decided to walk away from professional football. What happened next?
What happened next is that I went off travelling. I spent three months driving around the United States — despite having grown up in the country that was the most I'd ever seen of it. I set off from San Francisco, bought a car and travelled through Nevada and further east, through Yellowstone, Utah, the corn belt there, into Chicago. Saw a bit of the Midwest, then looped up into Canada, back down the whole East coast, stopping in Boston, New York, Washington, the South, around Florida. Then across the south of Alabama and into Texas, then back through Arizona. It was a long trip but it was very fun.
Was there a particular highlight for you?
There are certain towns or cities that I thought were really interesting to see and as a tourist looking for a different destination I'd recommend going to Savannah, Georgia. The place where I really didn't find anything interesting would probably be Texas.
And did you just get sick of travelling at a certain point?
Well I kept going for pretty much 12 months. After the three months in the US it was two months in South America before going on to New Zealand, which was a lot of fun, then Australia and south-east Asia. I remember driving north in the Atacama desert in Chile — I hired a car and I ran out of petrol, which was a real concern, so I had to just walk into this village of about 20 people and ask around. There was one guy with a jerry can who I could negotiate with to get enough to get to the station. That was a bit scary. And the desolation there … when you go for hours driving and you don't see any other car or any other person, then you look outside and you see no life, it's like being on the moon. There's literally no life, if you're away from the coast there's no birds either.
Rather different to the kind of travelling you would have been used to in your football career…
Football travelling is seeing the stadium, seeing the hotel, looking out from the side of the bus and that's it. It's not the same thing.
Did you take in any games during that post-retirement voyage?
Not really. I have to say that since I retired from football I've been pretty bad at actually watching football. I like to go and see live matches occasionally but… maybe I see a couple of Tottenham matches a year and that's it. I did watch the Chelsea v Bayern Munich [Champions League] final. But apart from that I don't watch much.
Are you just not interested?
Finding the time is a big thing. I enjoy watching a big match but I'm not a dedicated follower of any team. I would say I support Tottenham, but I'm not an avid fan.
You grew up in the States at a time when not many people were watching soccer at all over there. Did you follow the professional game as a kid?
I would certainly try. Nowadays in the States there are so many television channels and I believe there's a soccer-only dedicated channel. But back when I was a kid my Friday nights were so exciting that at 10 o' clock at night there was a once-a-week programme called English Football League Highlights and I was definitely a dedicated watcher of that from the age of about 12 onwards.
I guess in light of how things have moved on since, it's interesting to know that at a certain point you clearly were passionate about football…
Oh, I was engrossed in it. I would have known all the players, watched loads of videos. From the age of 13-14, I really dedicated my whole teenage years to football. I would go to school, but everything else was football.
Who were your idols?
Erik Thorstvedt was a hero of mine, someone I looked up to as a teenager. It was also fun watching other big Scandinavian keepers like Peter Schmeichel.
Were your parents fans of the sport?
My mum was very into it. She did a lot to make my football career happen, in terms of finding me the right coaching and helping me have the connections that I needed to find the best teams to play with, as well as driving me everywhere. She was definitely very inspirational in making that happen.
Was it you pulling or her pushing?
Oh, both. No, no, no. It was me pushing and her excited that I wanted to be part of it.
You mention Thorstvedt. The story goes that you were on holiday in Norway and he saw you playing …
That's right. In fact that was something that my mum helped organise. It was a football summer camp where he was going to come out and coach the goalkeepers for a couple of days. It was not too far from the area of Norway where my mother grew up.
That must have been pretty special, getting to work with one of your idols.
Oh, yeah. There was this great coincidence that my mum went to high school with Egil Olsen — 'Drillo' — who is the current manager of the Norway team [and was interviewed in The Blizzard Issue Three]. I don't think they were close friends but they knew each other as you do with classmates. She had tried to make contact with him, and he had told her to go to this football school. So that was where I met Erik and he along with another chap, my previous coach who made me a goalkeeper, the two of them were able to help arrange for me to come over the summer after that camp to train with the youth team boys at Tottenham.
At what point did you start to think "I'd like to do this for a career"?
I was about 15 years old and after having made that contact with Erik, the Norwegian team had a trip down to the United States to play against USA and Mexico. My mum and I flew out to watch the match — Norway against United States — in Arizona. I believe Norway actually lost 1-0 [actually, Baardsen had just turned 16 and Norway lost 2-1]. And then they flew to San Diego to play against Mexico. So I flew with them and Drillo, the Norway manager at that time as well, said, "Well, we could use another goalkeeper for training." It was incredible. Because I think I was 15 or just about to turn 16 and I was suddenly joining training with the Norwegian full international team. And I did quite well — they would do shooting training and I was up and down the whole time trying to make a save. I think I made a good impression. That was when I think I realised I could make it and also that I really wanted to — that this was really what I wanted to do.
And yet you stayed in school till 18 — even though Tottenham would have taken you sooner.
Being a high school drop-out by American standards isn't quite an achievement, so I needed… well, I certainly wanted to finish and get a high school diploma. They wanted me to come a year before, they were willing to give me a junior professional-type contract but I told them I wanted to come but a year after if they would give me a provisional agreement. And they did that.
With the benefit of hindsight, it's tempting to wonder whether you wanted to hang around because you were interested in things outside of football too, or maybe you were hedging your bets?
I guess, relative to what I currently do, it wouldn't make any difference really. I didn't need a high school diploma to get into the Open University, so that part doesn't really matter. But you kinda had to do it, it would have been something to drop out of high school.
When did you start taking an interest in finance?
I think the interest in finance began a little bit in high school but it certainly wasn't any focus of mine. I would say the point where I got quite interested in it was at 19. It stemmed partly from just having an initial small amount of money to save from football. Not that I was earning very much at 19 but at least having something… wanting to set aside stuff and wondering how to look after it. And then recognising that the financial world is fairly dodgy in terms of the way it operates, the fees it takes, and the poor quality of returns that professional managers have largely given. You look today and there are things that are just disgusting out there. In a world where you have incredibly low, 0%, interest rates globally, and you're talking about someone's pension pot over a 30-year period, 30 or 40% of it gets consumed in fees. That's 30% of the total capital. That's just an enormous amount — virtually unfathomable — and that still exists.
So you thought it best to look after your own money instead …
Exactly — if you look after your own money the fees are virtually zero. That was one element to it, but I was also just more curious at 19 and I was concerned because you can't play football forever and you don't even know how football is going to go.
Would it be fair to say footballers also have a lot of free time to do things like that?
Sure. There's definitely a lot of free time but it's a strange kind of free time. I have much more flexibility in terms of what I want to do now. If I want to book a summer holiday or time over Christmas I can. My work does follow me now, in the sense that if you're running positions in trades it's very hard mentally to switch off but it's very easy to be physically detached. You don't have to physically be anywhere. Football is the exact opposite. You only have to be mentally attached for certain periods — in training and then in meetings… ish! And obviously games. The rest of the time you could be mentally unattached but physically you were predetermined to be in a certain area at a certain time with a schedule that was totally fixed and not necessarily to your liking. And totally unpredictable, too. You'd anticipate that you'd get the Sunday after a match off, but the manager could change his mind on a whim and say, "You're all coming in tomorrow." So in terms of planning anything socially it was difficult. I found that part to be horrible. You couldn't say to a friend, "Oh do you want to grab dinner on Wednesday?" because you didn't know what was going to go on on Wednesday.
If you'd allow me to indulge in a moment of pop-psychology, self-determination theory holds that all people need three things to feel nourished: a sense of relatedness, competency and autonomy. I guess that last one feels salient because you had a career where you were told where to be and what to do — and then the minute it finished, you went off on an adventure where you could completely set your agenda…
I think that's a very good point. I think of those three autonomy is the one I value most of all. For me that's really the goal of money — it's not so much to spend it as to have the flexibility where you won't be forced into doing things which you might not want to do. Which is difficult, because a lot of jobs make you do those things. But I think that one of the main drivers from the age of 19 for me was that I wanted that degree of independence that would be afforded by having some money. That would mean having flexibility to pursue the interests that you want to pursue, regardless of how well compensated they are.
Plenty of people who work in your new field, finance, would say they have chosen it for similar reasons — to make some money now so that they can retire at a certain age and then have financial freedom.
I can understand where those people are coming from. But at the same time it leaves a bad taste if you're only doing it for that reason. I hugely enjoy the intellectual satisfaction of trying to piece together what is going on in this macro-economic political environment and how that relates to financial instruments and financial assets. And the interaction of those different forces. I find it hugely interesting and complex — it's like a maze or a puzzle that I'm trying to put together. Getting that part right is exciting in and of itself — even if there was no financial reward attached, it would still be exciting. I wouldn't enjoy winning the lottery — not that I would ever play because I think it's a scam — but it would be unappealing because at the end of the day you would know that it was just an extraordinary, improbable amount of luck that made it happen. Whereas succeeding in business or through investments is exciting because you've pieced together the way you think the world works and you've then had that idea, put it into practice and things came about in the way you anticipated. That process is an enjoyable one.
Graeme Le Saux has spoken before about taking a lot of flak from teammates and opponents in football simply for being the sort of person who has an intellectual curiosity and because he read the Guardian. Did you ever have that sort of trouble?
Well, I never read the Guardian! I was reading the Financial Times and yes, my colleagues would take the piss. But after they've done that about 10 or 20 times it probably gets a bit boring so they give up on that after a while. The ones who found it the most threatening were the managers. Gianluca Vialli and Ray Wilkins didn't like it, whereas a couple of the Tottenham managers I had didn't care. They found it curious but they didn't care. I think the first two found it threatening in some ways. I would have some bizarre book like… The Handbook of Fixed Income Securities by Frank Fabozzi on the bus and they would make it clear that they didn't like it at all.
Do you think there is an extent to which certain managers don't want you to be getting smarter, because they don't want you to think for yourself?
Oh, I think there's definitely some element of that, yes. Oh yes. The element of control is what you're talking about and there's a bit of implicit control in kind of dumbing players down to a certain level.
As soon as players get too intelligent, they might actually start challenging the coaches…
Right — football and girls is all players should think about.
What was the lowest moment for you in the game?
To be blatantly honest, the lowest point was staying in a hotel in central Liverpool for the two months I was at Everton. Completely nothing to do with Everton… Everton clearly was and is a well-managed club, especially when you consider that they don't have the same monetary resources some others have. So credit to them and credit to the manager David Moyes, who was the one who brought me in. I have a lot of respect for the club and the manager. But for someone who has lived in London now for 17 years and feels like a Londoner, it's a different country. To go from living in central London to living in central Liverpool… And it happened at a time in my life where I was almost egging myself on to fail. I was so fed up with football at that stage that I was sabotaging myself. I was overweight and not in good shape and I spent all my time reading finance books and trading stuff on my own. I must have been 24 and I just was not enjoying it, I wanted to get away. I was spending all afternoon eating bad food and drinking beer, which was a subconscious way of making sure I was going to fail. And making sure I was going to fail meant I could move on.
How did you get to that point?
Well, it came just after another low point which was the last period I had at Watford. I had been bought from Tottenham while Graham Taylor was the Watford manager and I was getting paid the exact same amount as I did at Spurs — I left for no improvement, because I wanted to get first-team matches. But the simple fact was that for Watford it was still a relatively high salary. Then, after a year, Gianluca Vialli came in to replace Taylor and he lost the plot thinking he was at Chelsea and that Roman Abramovich was the backer. The directors clearly lost the plot as well and he went on some massive spending spree, spending tonnes of money, bringing guys like Ramon Vega up to the same salary apparently as David Beckham. So that's when everything got totally out of perspective. And then the inevitable happened which is that the club blew up financially. Then they're having to get rid of people as quickly as possible to slash the wage bill. The problem was for me that we'd dropped a division, I'd not really been on good terms with Vialli and if I was a stock or a share my price would have fallen significantly. But I was still on the same contract, I still had two-and-a-half years left on the contract, and I was never going to get near those terms anywhere else. So that created a very difficult situation because I would have been happy to move to another club but I wasn't going to do it and take a 70% wage cut, not knowing what the future holds. As we've discussed, I wanted the autonomy and the independence that those, my best contract years, were going to afford me. So that created a horrible environment because then the club was trying to make things as miserable as possible for you, almost purposefully because they wanted you to say, "OK, I give up, I'll walk away, forget the remaining two-and-a-half years on my contract, you don't have to pay me for that." So that created a six months, well, almost a year period where it was just miserable.
You're talking about quite a long lead-in time there. So really you were thinking about life without football by even the age of 23?
Yeah, I think when I left Tottenham I was already thinking I would like to have a Plan B that's not just a distant Plan B but a close Plan B. Then as Watford went on and I found myself liking it less and less, then Plan B came closer and closer to Plan A.
Do you think that your form dipping was an element — that added pressure of having the supporters getting on your back for the first time?
To be totally honest, being in a football environment… I guess I have a certain geekiness to me. Let's just say I was dying for a vent — a place to have intellectual thoughts and ideas and discussions, and there was no source of release. It's like steam building up. I just wanted somewhere to vent the steam, these ideas and thoughts I had in my mind and there was nowhere to do it. Instead you were in an environment where that just wasn't available. The whole football community is somewhat that way. I don't mean to say it in a negative way, I just mean to say that I didn't fit in with that mould. And that made it hard for me. Wanting to put myself in a different environment where I could vent all these thoughts and where I could get intellectual ideas thrown back at me, I think that just started to develop more and more in my early 20s. And that kind of led to Plan B becoming more like Plan A in terms of my future career.
Did you find other footballers along the way who felt like you about that?
Yeah, I think there are some smart guys out there.
Do they feel they have to hide it?
Maybe things are changing. I was reading the Financial Times writer Simon Kuper just the other day about the poshing up of English football, I think it was a great article — it actually mentioned Erik Thorsvedt in it. But I think when I was playing it was less that way.
What was the straw that broke the camel's back? When did you know you were going to do it?
There was no single point. I knew while I was at Everton that last game I had [Baardsen conceded four in a 4-3 defeat to his former club, Tottenham] was sort of a make-or-break for my career — that if I didn't play well and get a bit of momentum, my career was only going to head further south into an area where it would be very, very difficult to get out. After Everton, it was pretty much all over in my mind. Then my agents at the time got me to go up in March up to Sheffield United to see… I can't even remember the guy's name…
Yeah, Neil Warnock. He had a bit of a reputation as a loud mouth. I went up to see him and I certainly wasn't in good form in training but after the training I went to see him and got offered about £25,000 per year. It was actually quite funny — I think it was £2,000 a month he was going to give me, gross, as a wage, but then he had this interesting theory that, "Oh yeah, but you would get £1,000 per game appearance bonus — which includes if you're on the bench." Then he takes a pause, then he says, "But I don't put a goalkeeper on the bench." At the time it was almost like I wasn't sure if he was joking. But actually the money didn't really make any difference. If I'd really wanted to do it I would have. I walked back to the hotel in Sheffield — and this is after being in a hotel for two months in Liverpool — and I just burst into tears basically. At that moment I just got in our car, drove back to London, and that was it. I called the agent and said, "Forget it, don't call me back." So that day there was no going back.
A few weeks later you were in America.
Yeah, a couple of months of planning, then I was off.
Was there any moment where you woke up in the next months, or years, where you woke up and thought, "Shit, what have I done"?
No. Absolutely not. I felt like I had bottomed. I had hit the bottom and I was only going up. Since then I've only felt like that.
If you had your time again, would you do it the same or differently?
I appreciate so much both the memories and the advantages in life that football gave me. So I would never take those back. And it will be a super-fun story to tell my kids and grandkids about the experience. I finished when I was 25, and I now have eight years working in finance under my belt. You can't start on this career I'm in now at 35. It was either do or die, you either make the decision at 24 or 25, or you continue what you were doing. Really if I was going to do what I do now, there was no choice in the matter. So I have no regrets. I'm very happy, and I feel very fortunate.
Since you mention kids and grandkids… would you have them being footballers?
[Laughs] Probably not! But I certainly wouldn't stop them if that's what they wanted to do.