From Bognor to Norway's top flight - an ex-Portsmouth player's inspirational footballing comeback

Snorre Nilsen sold his Hyundai Getz, packed two suitcases and purchased a one-way plane ticket.

Thursday, 7th January 2021, 6:00 pm
Snorre Nilsen appeared in Paul Cook's first Pompey match in charge - a pre-season friendly with Hawks in June 2015. Picture: Joe Pepler

Released by Pompey and rejected by Yeovil, with footballing dreams demolished, the heartbroken teenager retreated to his native Norway.

It was July 2016 and the former Bognor loanee opted for a tactical withdrawal from the English game amid a succession of jarring blows.

Now aged 23, he has still to return to these shores.

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Instead Nilsen rebuilt his career with admirable resolve, hauling himself up through the Norwegian leagues to now reach the top flight with Kristiansund BK.

Academy contemporaries Jack Whatmough, Conor Chaplin, Ben Close, Brandon Haunstrup, Alex Bass and Adam May would revel in Pompey first-team terrain.

Indeed, few of the Fratton faithful will recall the son of a Bronze medal-winning Winter Olympics skier, except for a few pre-season friendly outings.

Nonetheless, Nilsen’s gutsy football pathway serves as inspiration.

Snorre Nilsen celebrates top-flight club Kristiansund BK. Pictured with the club's director of sports, Kenneth Andre Leren

‘You go through those thoughts that you don’t want to play football anymore, that it’s making me more angry than happy,’ he told The News.

‘I had been rejected by Pompey two months earlier. Then it was Yeovil following a trial.

‘I always wanted to play in England, my dream was to be in the Football League. Then I had to go back to Norway. I needed to start from scratch, to work hard, keep my motivation up and come back form this.

‘There was never a sense of failure when I returned, but people would be saying “He didn’t make it, I always said he wouldn’t”.

Snorre Nilsen celebrates scoring for Norwegian side Raufoss IL. Picture: Marius Myklese

‘You come back with your tail between your legs. Then you have to prove people wrong – that's what kept me going for those years.

‘After my release from Pompey in 2016, Bognor was an option, but I was aiming a bit higher than that, I wanted to stay at a Football League club, so went on trial at Yeovil.

‘We started negotiating a contract after the first week, but they kept dragging it out, while I continued to play in most of the friendlies.

‘At the last minute, they instead signed a player on loan from Southampton. The manager, Darren Way, told me that would save them money.

Snorre Nilsen made 61 appearances and scored six goals during two loan spells with Bognor. Picture: Tommy McMillan

‘Then they wanted to take me on a pre-season tour to Wales, but since they were having money issues could only take a 23-man squad, so I was told I’d have to organise my own travel to get there!

‘To me, they weren’t really interested and I wasn’t prepared to be messed around any longer. I phoned my dad, who advised that I told them to either sign me or I’d leave.

‘The response was “We want to see you for a week more, but cannot sign you at the moment”. I told them “All right, I’m gone then”. That was it.

‘My agent wasn’t working on getting other trials because he was pretty confident I was going to sign for Yeovil. Nothing else was lined up and it was close to the start of the season.

‘I was on my own in England, I didn’t have a base to stay in, so flew home to Norway. I was quite upset, but it had to be done.

‘I needed to go back, play six months, then return to England in January for trials.

Snorre Nilsen (far left), Johnny Ertl and Gary Roberts in Pompey pre-season training in June 2015. Picture: Colin Farmery

‘A few Norwegian teams in higher leagues were interested, but were offering 2-3 year contracts. However, what appealed was interest from my local team, Gjøvik-Lyn.

‘They were in the third tier and wanted to sign me for six months. I could play for them to stay fit, get my confidence up, then try England again in the January as a free agent.

‘As it was, I never did come back. I picked up an ankle injury in my final match in December and couldn’t travel.

‘My agent was speaking to League One and Two clubs, so that had to be scrapped. At that point, I decided to stay in Norway permanently.’

January 25 marks a new challenge for Nilsen – and the start of life in the Eliteserien.

Having signed a pre-contract agreement with Kristiansund BK, pre-season commences later this month ahead of the campaign’s March start.

A reputation carved as an attacking right-back with firstly Gjøvik-Lyn and then Raufoss IL, earned him a crack at the top flight with a side which last term finished fifth, missing out on Europa League qualification by a place.

Turning 24 next week, Nilsen’s rise through the divisions after his agonising English football rejection is understandably a source of pride.

His journey began as an 11-year-old, when scouted by Pompey’s Jan Rowles while representing Boscombe Albion in Bournemouth.

Dad Harald Strand Nilsen was an alpine skier revered for winning bronze in the Lillehammer Winter Olympics and once his sporting career finished, he desired to retrain as a chiropractor.

With such options restricted in Norway, the Nilsen family instead relocated to Dorset, enabling Harald to study at the highly-respected Anglo-European College of Chiropractic.

Snorre was aged seven at the time of his move, yet four years later was admitted into Pompey’s Academy setup at under-12 level, playing alongside Conor Chaplin and Brandon Haunstrup.

Once his dad’s chiropractic studies were complete, the family returned to Norway, yet Pompey remained in touch, inviting him back for Easter and summer holidays, in addition to linking up with them for European tournaments.

At the age of 15, he was back at Fratton Park.

‘When I look back on it, my time with the Academy were the best years of my life. Without a doubt,’ he added.

‘Those group of lads became such close friends, we spent so much time together. I love England as a country and Pompey is one of the best clubs you can be at.

‘I still speak to Conor (Chaplin), Ben (Closey) and Adam (May) almost every week. I come back and visit once a year. Last year I was in Barnsley watching Conor and then at Fratton Park watching Closey.

‘In terms of talent, we had a really good group. Adam and Alex Bass played up with us, while Ben and Jack Whatmough were tin he age group above and team-mates for a season when we were first-year scholars.

‘Chappers always stood out. I remember my first season at under-12s, we played Chelsea in one of my first games and won 4-3. He scored all four as a left winger and I thought “Wow, this guy is good”.

‘When first-year scholars, we had Andy Awford and Paul Hardyman looking after us and Chappers was struggling with his back, injured for quite a lot of that season.

‘The following campaign, Mark Kelly and Mikey Harris were in charge and he was converted from a left winger to a number 10 and then into a striker.

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‘He’s so good in a one-on-one situation, while with back to goal can drive his way through players and is so clinical in front of goal. He’s such a good finisher.

‘Closey was a right-back the first time I saw him. Then he found his position in midfield, scoring absolute screamers, ridiculous volleys and captaining the side.

‘Me and Chappers would call him the Pompey Xavi. He’s so safe with the ball, never loses it, while has the potential to score from anywhere and sees passes not a lot of people can.

‘As a scholar, I also played a few games with Jack before he was taken up to the first-team early and disappeared from us.

‘Everything he did was quality. He won all the headers he could win, his passing range ridiculous, and he was an obvious captain with incredible leadership. He’s just been unlucky with his injuries.’

Nilsen graduated from the Academy to became a first-year pro at Pompey, coinciding with Paul Cook’s arrival as boss in the summer of 2015.

Although involved in first-team training over the campaign, he played his matches at Bognor during a season-long loan.

Representing his second loan spell with the Ryman League Premier Division side, Nilsen rattled up 53 appearances and six goals as Jamie Howell’s side reached the semi-finals of the FA Trophy.

In April 2016, a last-gasp 1-0 Nyewood Lane defeat to Dulwich Hamlet in the play-off semi-finals marked his last competitive match in England.

Now, four-and-a-half years later, his fixture list contains Molde, Rosenborg, Brann, Viking Stavanger and FK Haugesund, the club managed by Pompey fan Jostein Grindhaug.

Nilsen said: ‘You should never lose faith, just keep your head down and work hard.

‘Some people can be developed at the age of 16, maybe for first-team football. Some have to wait a bit longer and reach 21. Just get through that period, that’s the hardest part, it’s where most people fall off.

‘Conor and Jack were ready at 16, physically as well as mentally.

‘I remember growing 20cm in my two years as a scholar, my arms and legs were all over the place, it takes time to adjust when you grow that quickly. Plus your pace slows because you need to gain muscle.

‘When I returned to Norway that period was over and I got my confidence back.

‘You obviously have ups and downs but it doesn’t take long until you have a good game and it comes back.

‘From that Pompey youth team, there are a lot of players who don’t play anymore or turn out in non-league.

‘As long as you have the love for the game, that’s the most important thing. It’s football, you should enjoy it.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

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