During the late 1990s, in what some would call the golden age of Championship Manager, there were some players of such unerring quality that transcended all levels of the game. Lower-league bargains that could seamlessly step into top-flight squads were worth their weight in gold. None offered more value for money than Bjørn Heidenstrøm.
Able to play as a centre-back or central midfielder, his statistics were truly amazing for a Division Three player: only determination, flair and set pieces were below 15, while injury proneness was 1. Leyton Orient had a strong side back then with the likes of current Liverpool Academy director Alex Inglethorpe pulling the strings further up the pitch. Heidenstrøm was the glue that held it all together.
So how did a Norwegian international come to play in the fourth tier of English football before the days of exhaustive interconnectivity? Two years before Heidenstrøm was born, Peter Shilton made his professional debut as an understudy to Gordon Banks at Leicester City. Such was his form that Banks was eventually sold to Stoke City and Shilton went on to have a stellar career spanning four decades.
At the grand old age of 46, Shilton was left stranded just short of 1,000 football league appearances. He signed with Leyton Orient to have one last crack at breaking the remarkable landmark in 1996, and in December the big day came around with Sky Sports cameras and a bumper crowd. One name on the team sheet was an unknown Norwegian who had been drafted in to cover for an injured player.
Manager Tommy Taylor had seen Heidenstrøm play before and called him up to ask if he would be interested in joining on a short-term deal. In an interview with Dave Black on cm9798.wordpress.com he admitted that he thought it was a drunken prank by one of his friends, but he gladly accepted the offer.
Ultimately his spell only lasted four league games in England but he still remembers the period fondly, even though he was a Cup champion in his native country and played against both East and West Germany. After working in administrative roles in Norway for Valerenga amongst other clubs, he dedicated himself to running a charitable organisation called The Shirt aimed at raising the profile of charities around the world.
He cycled solo to South Africa on an incredible 23,000km journey from Norway to South Africa and back in 2010 to kickstart the project, which has collected signed shirts to stitch together in a symbolic representation of unity.
“I said ‘The football family will take care of me,’” he told Black in their interview. “I have 1 billion mates out there, and it was right – in Russia, Belgium, Sudan, Denmark, Malawi, and Ethiopia – it was fans, ex-players, players who helped me and it was football journalists that exposed it. In the end the UN and the Nobel Peace Centre endorsed it because they did see that the huge volume was carrying it…”
If you somehow didn’t love him for his mastery of Championship Manager, you can appreciate his recognition of the Heart of Football.