What does it take to be a professional footballer? From childhood dream to playing in a World Cup, former Danish international and Premier League goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen reflects on life in the game and competing at the highest level.
James: I'm James Parkinson and this is By Association, a show about football and the human connection behind the beautiful game.
James: What does it take to be a professional footballer? For most, talent will only get you so far. To build a successful career in a sport that isn’t always forgiving, it requires an incredible amount of dedication.
Thomas: It all comes down to who you are and what you want because ultimately, you have to do it. You know, your parents can support you but you have to run the hard yards, you have to deal with the things that come up.
James: This is Thomas Sorensen.
Thomas: Yeah, my name is Thomas Sorensen. From Denmark originally and have recently retired from doing my rounds in the professional football game for 20 years.
James: Just a side note: I spoke to Thomas at his home, here in Melbourne - so you may occasionally hear some kids in the background.
Thomas’ football career began in a way that is fairly typical for a goalkeeper - discovering his abilities in goal, by accident at a young age.
Thomas: I played all different positions early on. I think it was by coincidence, really that I ended up in goal on a cold day and I think I hurt my knee and was crying a bit. And I think the coach just stuck me in goal just to keep me happy so I didn’t have to run around and I managed to do really well. So I think I discovered fairly early on that I had some talent in between the sticks.
When you start out you never know how far you can take it but my ambition was definitely to get to a very high level and gradually I started believing it was possible as you sort of take the small steps along the way and I had some parents that were really supportive. You know, they drove me around - a good environment to start my football career.
When I started college, I got spotted by one of the major clubs in Denmark called Odense. And they invited me in to play with their juniors and within a year I had a small contract and started training with the first team.
It was great experience. I had a really good keeper called Lars Høgh who was a great mentor for me at that time and I learned a lot from him, on and off the field. How he conducted himself and his attitude around training. So all these things helped me then to take the steps that I needed to take to acclimate in the senior game.
James: Despite training with the first team, Thomas would never make a senior appearance for Odense. However, loan spells with Danish clubs Vejle and FC Svendborg gave him the game time he needed. It was the national team where Sorensen would make the biggest impression though, being capped at U19 and U21 level.
This led to the first big move of his career in 1998, signing for Sunderland in Division One.
Thomas: Yeah, so I moved to England when I was 21. Definitely a different environment than Denmark and I left my family behind. I had my now wife, but girlfriend back then, she stayed in Denmark. She had to do her college so I was sort of left a little bit by myself in England.
You know, I’d lived on my own for about a year so I had a bit of experience by myself and you know, doing all the chores that you have to do. So in that respect it was an easier transition but then you gotta find a place to live. And I thought I was pretty fantastic at English when I got up to the North East - and I quickly just discovered that they have a fairly different accent up there. So I struggled in the beginning to understand what people were saying - especially when you know, they speak very, very quick.
But on the field as well; training was different, lifestyle is different. Suddenly you come from a quiet, nobody know you - to a place where everyone wants to know who you are, what you’re doing and why you’re not doing what they want you to do. So it’s a different environment altogether that I had to adapt to and it was hard in the beginning. There’s so much more going on, there’s so much more pressure and the tempo of the game there is so much higher than it was in Denmark.
But luckily I came to a team that was really successful. We played in the Championship at Sunderland at that time and they had just recently - the year before that - lost the playoff final. So there was great expectation but also they were set up for success and I just slotted in as a young keeper and they really took a chance on me and like, I spoke to the manager, Peter Reid a few years later when I was sort of established. And he sort of said they really took a gamble on me and had given me a couple of games and if I hadn’t panned out they would have found someone else.
And luckily I performed well from the start, we had some good wins early on and yeah I went on to have a really good season myself and we got promoted to the Premier League.
James: That promotion in 1999, came by winning the league and saw Thomas pick up 29 clean sheets - a club record. Later that year, he also made his senior international debut.
When Euro 2000 rolled around, Thomas was still the second choice goalkeeper for Denmark - but he’d play understudy to legendary shot-stopper, Peter Schmeichel.
Thomas: Peter is obviously, he’s a legend. Not just in the Danish game but in a world game, with everything he did at Manchester United and you know, winning Euro ‘92 with Denmark. An icon and something I looked up to and then suddenly you’re there. He accepted me and you know, helped me as well. And was also tough at times. You know he knew I was an up and coming young guy, hoping to take his place at some point. So we had a good working relationship and I’ve got massive respect.
James: Denmark would finish bottom of Group D, losing all three matches, with Thomas remaining on the bench. But his first major tournament would prove a valuable step in his career.
Thomas: Obviously I wasn’t in the direct spotlight because Peter Schmeichel was playing. So it was a great learning curve for me and to see everything that went on around it. Because it’s not just the games, it’s the media, it’s the build up, all the things that are happening around you - you’re isolated in a hotel for a long time. These things are something you have to deal with, it takes a little bit of getting used to, being away for so long.
James: Sorensen’s next big opportunity would come in Japan and Korea for the 2002 World Cup. With Schmeichel having retired from International football the year before and Thomas solidified as a Premier League goalkeeper, the world stage beckoned.
Thomas: It was a fantastic experience, first of all to go to Japan and South Korea because it was so different and just the excitement of these people who didn’t have a clue who we were. You know it’s a different environment and we had thousands and thousands of people at training sessions. We got close to the tournament - because we had our games in South Korea so we moved to our base there. And had a really good start to the tournament - we beat Uruguay 2-1 then we drew with Senegal 1-1 and then we beat France in the last game of the group, 2-0 and they we the reigning world champions and we knocked them out. So a really good tournament up to that point.
James: Through to the Round of 16, Denmark faced England. But that’s as far as they progressed as they were defeated 3-0.
Now living and playing in England, it was an opportunity that meant a lot to Thomas. But he says the pressure of the occasion may have been too much.
Thomas: You know I was so excited to play England and possibly too excited. I got really caught up in the whole build-up of things. You know they had the likes of Beckham and all these and I just wanted to go out and show we’re Denmark and whatever they’ve got, we’re better than them.
And it sort of got a little bit the better of me and I think after a couple of minutes on a corner, I think I just decided before it, “I’m just gonna come out and claim this ball”, and I ended up sort of undercutting it and tried to save it on the line and ended up dragging it over the line myself.
That was a big shock for myself because I went from being somewhere up in the clouds to then suddenly hitting the ground really hard. And yeah, so looking back at us losing that game 3-0, it was a really tough lesson, also for me personally because I got a lot of criticism after the game. You know, it didn’t end on a high note, the first World Cup. I think as sort of time went by, it was big lesson for me that you know you can’t get carried away and think that you’re better than you are and you gotta just do your job.
James: In 2003, with Sunderland struggling financially and relegated from the Premier League, after 171 appearances, Thomas was transferred to Aston Villa. It was a new chapter in his football career where he continued as a first choice keeper.
Then in 2004, came another chance on the international stage in the European Championships. Draws with Italy and Sweden and a win over Bulgaria saw Denmark through to the knockout stage. But disappointment struck again, with another 3-0 loss, this time to the Czech Republic in the Quarter Finals.
However, Thomas was better prepared to deal with things this time around.
Thomas: My focus didn’t change but you just learn to do things a different way, different approach. So going into that tournament in 2004, I was a lot more prepared and probably put some extra work into that aspect of like, mental preparation. And that’s something that has definitely helped me as my career went on is - makes your performances more stable. You have that same preparation, same mindset going into every single game and have a game plan that you try to follow.
James: What’s going through your head in those moments, where it’s like you’re about to walk out for a big Quarter Final match in a big tournament. You know, where is your mind at, at that point?
Thomas: I’ve always been pretty intense. Maybe it’s the way we are in Denmark, I dunno. But I’ve always been very focused and you know, not a lot of joking around and talking. When I get to sort of the dressing room an hour and a half before, it’s pretty much “okay, I’m focusing on my stuff”, going through everything. You know, you still have, you know you’re nervous, you still have some thoughts flying around in your head. But I always have a routine of how I get dressed and when I warm up. I think as soon as I go out for the warm up, I sort of leave everything behind. You know, I’ve had worries before games but as soon as I sort of get onto the field, it sort of just leaves behind and I just focus on my job.
James: With Denmark failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, Sorensen would have to wait even longer for another shot at an international tournament. In the meantime, he went on to make 139 appearances for Aston Villa before making his final stop in the Premier League.
In July 2008, Thomas signed a three year contract with newly promoted Stoke City and helped the club to a safe finish of 12th on the table that season.
Now 34 years of age and maintaining his position as a first choice goalkeeper at club and national level, Sorensen appeared in his second World Cup when Denmark qualified for South Africa 2010.
Denmark were able to overcome Cameroon, 2-1 but defeats to the Netherlands and Japan saw them crash out at the group stage. Obviously another disappointing result for Thomas but as a more mature and well-rounded player, he valued the experience even more than previous tournaments.
Thomas: I think some of the things you learn, or I learn, is just to relax a bit more and be less intense. I’d been there, I’d done it. So I probably enjoyed that World Cup a lot more. Because you know, I felt I knew how to deal with everything that was around it, the pressure and the schedule and being away. We we obviously in South Africa for that World Cup. Just really appreciative of being able to go to my second World Cup, obviously, that was fantastic and doesn’t happen to many. So I was really happy.
James: As Thomas reached the latter stage of his career, he signed two separate contract extensions with Stoke, but his starting position was constantly being challenged and he finished his last few years as a backup. He also retired from international football in 2012 after 101 appearances for Denmark.
Then in 2015, Sorensen’s career took its biggest turn yet as he made his way to Australia’s A-League, signing for Melbourne City where his experience made him a valuable member of the team. He made 37 appearances for the club before retiring from professional football in 2017 at the age of 41.
Not every player can taste success in terms of trophies but Thomas achieved more than most with a lasting career in the professional game.
James: Do you have to pinch yourself sometimes? How do you reflect on that, looking back?
Thomas: It makes me very proud, I think looking back at a nearly 20-year career, most of it at the highest level. You know, that’s something I’m proud of. Mostly proud of the way I conducted myself all the way through. You know, I had this goal as a kid and that drive - you know, I never lost that drive, that attention to detail. And I think that’s what got me 20 years in the game. It’s that I’ve always wanted to be better, always put maximum effort into training sessions and I always had these values that I’ve stuck to and that’s something I’m as much proud of as what went on on the pitch.
James: Many thanks to Thomas Sorensen for sharing his story and being so generous with his time. Thomas has been involved in charity work since 2005, which he continues to do since retiring from football - putting the values he learned through the game into helping sick and disadvantaged children. Give him a follow on Twitter, @ T Sorensen 1.
Special thanks also to Aleksandar Jason for putting me in touch with Thomas and making this story happen.
By Association is produced by me, James Parkinson and music featured in this story comes from Podington Bear under Creative Commons.
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