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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
Gone but not forgotten:
Espen Baardsen
 
Position: Goalkeeper
From: Tottenham Hotspur - £1.25m - August 2000
Record: Played: 46 Scored: 0
To: ??? - free transfer - December 2002
Career stats: Soccerbase
See also: Past player profiles
He was: Confident and impressive, back then.

It's not exactly the stuff of Hollywood, sadly.

More riches to rags than the other way around, the tale of Espen Baardsen's time at Vicarage Road begins with a mighty transfer fee - which would've seemed even more mighty, had Allan Nielsen not arrived for a record fee at the same time - and a significant, impressive contribution to an unbeaten run that saw the team putting pressure on Fulham at the top of the table. It was a tremendous start.

At the time, we were praising the very qualities that we'd later claim were lacking. Such is the effect of confidence. Believe it or not, I once wrote this, and none of you mailed to call me an idiot:

"Espen Baardsen has barely made a save and already looks like a snip at 1.25m. It's in the way that he dominates the entire penalty area, coming out to intervene whenever necessary and without hesitation. You half expect him to put up a small picket fence, plant a few shrubs and display a neighbourhood watch sign to mark out his property."

Or, more accurately, patrol the boundaries with a shotgun. Anyway, the point was that his was a commanding presence around the penalty area. Espen Baardsen would, as his chant claimed, "save all your shots, and penalties too"...but, more commonly, he'd have taken preventative action long before. He was, in short, one of the stars of that early season push...and even when replaced temporarily by Alec Chamberlain due to an unfortunate injury, he returned to impress once more. You wouldn't have believed that we'd be settling his contract a couple of years later.

Espen Baardsen was not alone in being seriously affected by the slump that followed. It had different, sometimes unexpected effects on different players - one remembers a tremendously assertive, determined cameo from Clint Easton later in the season, Paolo Vernazza turning from an invincible powerhouse into an anonymous lightweight, Steve Palmer's usual reliability failing suddenly, and so on. With the defence falling apart in front of him, the goalkeeper's frailties were left badly exposed...and that applies equally to Alec Chamberlain, whose attempts to shore up the rearguard were hardly more successful.

The point, perhaps, was that Alec Chamberlain still had plenty of credit to use up. In contrast, Espen Baardsen appeared to shrink. His errors were rarely as severe or as numerous as those of the defence, although a ghastly equaliser against West Brom will lurk long in the memory...but that commanding presence had disappeared almost entirely, leaving just a slightly nervous mortal behind. The two keepers swapped between sticks and bench for the remainder of the season, both, presumably, waiting for some kind of defensive revolution to give them rather more hope of keeing the opposition at bay.

The revolution gave us Ramon Vega, Patrick Blondeau and Pierre Issa. It began at Maine Road, still a horrifically vivid mental picture. At the time, the choking realisation that we weren't even vaguely good enough to compete with City was tempered by the knowledge that forty-five games remained; in hindsight, the gut reaction was entirely accurate. Oh, and Espen Baardsen was "man of the match" by an absurd margin, keeping his team's humiliation in some kind of check with a series of outstanding saves.

That might've been the start of something. As we know, it was the start of nothing much...and Espen Baardsen's permanent transfer to the substitutes' bench was just a small part of a far greater decline. The reason? Well, in many respects, the two keepers were broadly equivalent, but Espen Baardsen was notably less comfortable with the ball at his feet...and that wasn't ideal, with the team adopting a playing style that involved a very great deal of ponderous sideways passing and, as a direct consequence, a higher than average number of rather panicked backpasses. I dare say that Luca would've put it differently - wanting the goalkeeper to contribute more fully to the outfield play, or something - but what he would've really meant was that the goalkeeper needed to dig Ramon Vega out of the brown stuff on a fairly regular basis.

This time, Alec Chamberlain regained his place and kept it, earning himself a new contract and leaving his goalkeeping colleague as an increasingly peripheral, frustrated figure. In the circumstances, that Espen Baardsen appeared to have more to say about share prices, civil liberties and gun control than football on his personal website did him no favours. Much as it's tedious to read footballers spouting clichés, it does them no harm at all to remain within those parameters...and it's certainly true that the website made him appear isolated within the club, a singular figure rather than part of the team. Appearance rather than reality, perhaps...but appearance is often crucial, particularly when you want your place back.

You rather expected his contract to be settled during the summer, really. When it wasn't, you briefly wondered if there might be a return to the fold...and those brief wonderings lasted until the first game of the season, when Ray Lewington chose young Richard Lee for his bench and Espen Baardsen became Watford's third choice keeper. No way back. Another wage cut.

It's regrettable, if inevitable. For the demise of Espen Baarden's Watford career has followed the demise of the club's Premiership aspirations remarkably closely. Somehow, this strong, confident young keeper, so obviously impressive on arrival, lost his way. Somehow, the purposeful, clearly defined football club lost its way too. The latter is on its way back, it seems. Personally, I hope that the former follows suit before long.