Michael Ledger got his first taste of Norwegian football last year and didn’t want to leave when Sunderland recalled him from his loan. Now he’s back in Scandinavia and ready to pick up where he left off.
“I was very keen to return to Norway if the right opportunity came about,” says the 20-year-old defender.
“I really enjoyed my first spell here with Viking; the standard of football here is very good and Norway is a country known for a good standard of living so coming back to play here here was something I was really keen to do.”
The young defender spent 13 years at hometown club Sunderland before deciding to move on for regular first team football. Back in March, he signed a two-year deal with newly promoted Notodden FK who are back in the second tier for the first time since 2012.
“Notodden are a small club in this league,” he says. “But I am confident at the end of the season we will be high in the table as we have a good quality squad here.”
Ledger’s first experience of playing football overseas came last year, when he joined Viking on loan, who were then coached by English manager Ian Burchnall. At the time, Viking were playing in the top division of Norwegian football, the Eliteserien.
“The move came about as after a number of good years in the youth set up at Sunderland, I was ready for the next step which was to play first team football week in week out.
“I had a few loan options in England which fell through and then Ian Burchnall got in touch and offered me the chance to join Viking and it all happened really quickly.”
From there, Ledger had no problems settling in and was helped by his compatriot Burchnall to get used to his new surroundings.
With off field matters under control, the English defender could focus on matters on the pitch and his performances soon caught the eye, even if Viking as a club were struggling.
“It was certainly a tough few months on the pitch with Viking, They are a massive club in Norway but were going through a bad financial period and it was expected to be a tough season.
“I managed to play thirteen games in the top level of Norway and I surprised some people with the level my performances. My agent said there had been a number of clubs asking about taking me on loan after Viking.”
The Sunderland loanee wanted to stay at his new club and help finish the job in battling against relegation but his parent club had other ideas.
“I wanted to remain at Viking for the full season but Sunderland wanted me back for pre-season which I did with the first team.
“The new manager [Simon Grayson] then brought in some new signings and I was told I could leave on loan again so it was a frustrating time as I felt I could have stayed where I was at the time.”
There were rumours of a move to Bundesliga club Mainz but Ledger’s next loan move was far from the German top-flight as he joined fellow north-east club Hartlepool United.
“My other loan move to Hartlepool in the National League was another good experience for me. The two loans were completely different and but I would say I learnt a lot more about myself from the Viking loan.”
But his spell at the Monkeyhangers lasted just eleven league appearances as injuries started to creep up on him.
“I had a good start at Hartlepool but I then started to suffer from playing threee consecutive seasons without any rest [due to the seasons in England and Norway running at different times].
“Even for a young player it is impossible to do and I was picking up muscle injuries which I had never had before in my career so they [Hartlepool] agreed to send me back to Sunderland for treatment, which was just a period of rest for the body.”
Now rested and recovered at Sunderland, the defender was itching to get back out on the pitch.
“I had to think about what was next for me, I didn’t want my career to stand still,” he says.
“So I told my agent to look at getting me back to Norway as the season was approaching. We had a few options but Notodden was a really interesting one. They are a club that had just been promoted, they had a good young coach [Kenneth Dokken] and have ambition of progressing further with good investment behind them.
“I did a lot of research into the club and the area that I would be living in. I spoke with some people who know Norwegian football and the people around me in the UK and I agreed to go for it.”
This time it was a permanent move for the young defender and it is fair to say the lifestyle in his new home was part of the reason he committed to a two-year deal.
“Life in Norway is very good. I am happy here. I have a daily routine which doesn’t change too much and obviously the training is the main part of the day. We train every day apart from one and it’s really enjoyable – I look forward to going in and training.
“The facilities at the club are very good. The club found me a house about five minutes away from the stadium and training ground.”
Just like on his last move to Norway when he was accompanied by Burchnall, Ledger also has a fellow Englishman with him again but just don’t expect him to help out with any of the chores!
“My housemate is Josh Robson who’s on loan from Sunderland. We get on well together and it helps having a friend here this time around.
“I do all the cooking and most the cleaning though, he has a lot to learn about living away from home!
“We play a lot of FIFA on the Xbox and watch all the football here as well.”
Life away from football in Norway also has its benefits as Ledger is delighted to share. “I am also a keen fisherman so I am looking forward to the summer because Norway is famous for the salmon and trout fishing!”
So far this season, the 20-year-old has made five league appearances and combined with his appearances for Viking last season, he has got a real taste of Norwegian football now – so what does he think of the standard?
“Norwegian football is different to football in the lower leagues in England and I have experienced both.
“I would say the best way to describe it is in England the fans want to see the ball go forward as quick as possible and therefore you end up with a very fast tempo end to end game.
“In Norway, I would say it is more tactical, a lot of teams play possession football, building from the back and playing through the midfield with more patient build up play.”
Another big difference in Norway is the use of artificial pitches. Most clubs in the country use them due to the severe winters but Ledger says they can be great to play football on, with the slick surface watered before games.
Again, life seems good for the young defender in Norway and it is time to focus on his game again as he sets out his ambitions for the future – but he doesn’t worry too much about that.
“My short term ambition is to play week in, week out for Notodden. It is important for young players to be playing football – not sitting on the bench or in the comfort zone of under-23 football. I have started well here, playing in every game so far and the club has had a solid start to the season.”
“I am a very ambitious person but I don’t worry too much about the future in terms of saying ‘by this age I need to be playing here’, for example.
“It’s down to me what level I will play at in the future and how I perform week to week but there are so many options from playing here. I have seen lads go on to play in Germany, Holland and other countries. Norway is well scouted and I wouldn’t have any concerns about playing in another foreign country.”
Although the 20-year-old’s career abroad is only just beginning, it still seems appropriate to reflect on what has been a whirlwind experience away from home so far and offer some advice to those who are willing to take the gamble of a move abroad.
“For me, moving abroad has been a fantastic experience and a one I certainly have no regrets about!
“When I spoke with young players at Sunderland, I told them to look at options of playing abroad to get some experience. It’s important to stay in full time football and I think now you are seeing more make the step, which is great.
“However, it is definitely not an easy decision to make and some people would struggle living here. You have days when you miss the comforts of home and you miss your family and friends but luckily for me, everyone I was close to at home were fully behind me and they are now all following Norwegian football!”
Ledger certainly seems to be enjoying his football career more than ever and he finishes with one final word of advice.
“I would say to young players thinking about making the step overseas that you have to be willing to make sacrifices in order to help your career and must adapt to the change in culture and make the most of any opportunity you are given.”
You can follow Michael on Instagram @michael_ledger