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JOHN ARNE RIISE INTERVIEW: Former Liverpool defender opens up on the constant turmoil in his life

In the early summer of 2005, John Arne Riise walked into a branch of McDonald’s in the Norwegian town of Alesund. He was not hungry.

‘I had seen someone go in there,’ Riise explained this week.

‘At school I was bullied. Never invited to parties and stuff. Not picked for sport.

Former Liverpool defender John Arne Riise has spoken to Sportsmail’s Ian Ladyman

‘Pale kid, ginger hair, freckles. You get it. That guy was one of them who did it.

‘It was a fluke that I saw him but he obviously worked there.

‘So I came to the counter for the Big Mac. I didn’t even want one, just the reaction.

‘He turned and it was: “Next please”. He looked straight at me, into my eyes. He knew.

‘I said nothing, walked out and threw the McDonald’s away.

‘It wasn’t planned but it was the perfect reply.

‘There is absolutely no disrespect that you are working in McDonald’s.

‘But I had just won the Champions League. It felt good.’

Riise saves that story for the final page of his new autobiography. That feels telling. It is meant to feel like closure and for the former Liverpool player it represents exactly that. 

The Norwegian opened up on the personal struggles he has faced throughout his career

The Norwegian opened up on the personal struggles he has faced throughout his career

Think of John Arne Riise and what do you get? Good player, certainly. A steady guy, probably. No drama. Not much to see. Wrong.

Jamie Redknapp played with him and called him ‘a machine’. His work up and down the left of that Liverpool team was metronomic over seven years and 348 games.

But that moniker was inappropriate. Riise carried frailties, worries and insecurities through his career that were so deep it is a wonder he made it out the other side.

During it all, he was too scared to articulate his worries, afraid it would derail life on the field. So he feels better now it’s all over. His third wife, Louise, has helped also.

But in his mind he still has what he calls his ‘black box’. That is the place where all the bad stuff lives, the trauma of his parents’ divorce, the loneliness, the unanswered questions, the guilt over two failed marriages and the difficulties that has placed on relationships with his three children.

And then there is his own late father. Did he really hit his mother as people said? Why did his dad never let him know he was dying? And why was he never told where he was buried?

Riise was a good, reliable player and was the face of Liverpool's left flank for more seven years

Riise was a good, reliable player and was the face of Liverpool’s left flank for more seven years

Riise’s book, Running Man, contains one of the most revealing sporting stories to be told this year but for the author the number of copies it sells is not the most important thing.

‘I was nervous about being that open, yeah,’ nodded Riise. ‘It was a risk but I needed it out there.

‘In football you are not supposed to show weakness so now is the perfect chance to open that black box in my head.

‘However well I played, I never thought I would start the next game anyway.

‘So I didn’t want to go to Rafa [Benitez] and say: “I am going through a divorce” or “I am mentally exhausted”.

‘I knew I’d be rested. So I played to the strong Riise image and hid my fears and worries.

‘Who wants to mess up a career by talking about personal stuff?’

Riise won a record 110 caps for Norway and a Champions League, FA Cup and League Cup at Liverpool. But he feels he was never popular back home. They preferred Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and he has never quite got over that.

‘He has never done or said anything wrong,’ shrugged Riise.

‘He is exactly how Norwegian people would like him to be. I am not.’

As Riise became well-known, his younger sister was also bullied at school. When she was older she had beer poured over her at a graduation event. Eventually she moved town.

A statue of Riise was erected outside his former club in Alesund in 2005 but at its unveiling he noticed it did not carry his name. Instead the plaque said only: ‘The Football Player’. This year they finally put that right.

On the closure of his international career, meanwhile, he was offered a dinner by the Norwegian FA. Riise accepted but it never happened.

‘It’s almost like jealousy,’ he said. ‘In Norway you are not supposed to talk about yourself or say what you want to achieve. Me? I said what I wanted to do and then I did it. They don‘t like that.’

Riise’s relationship with his country is complicated but he hopes it’s better now. The book — published first in Norway last year — has helped and so did a spell on a reality TV show.

‘People could see Riise the person and not Riise the footballer,’ he smiled. Harry Redknapp was loved already but now people know him even more after the jungle. For me a desert island helped.’

In terms of his relationship with himself, that has always been the hardest thing. At the root of everything has been a desperate, almost obsessive, desire to be liked. At times, it has crippled him.

Ignored for parties and school teams (‘They would pick someone on crutches ahead of me’) Riise took to running. Twice a day, three times a day, sometimes up a hill with his mum at the top with a stopwatch. It worked in that it got him in to football teams and earned him a move to Monaco as a teenager. But it didn’t solve the self-esteem issues.

Riise chose not to open up to Rafa Benitez about his troubles over fear of losing his place

Riise chose not to open up to Rafa Benitez about his troubles over fear of losing his place

‘Being good at sport usually makes you popular and happy but not me,’ he said.

‘That’s weird eh?’

A father at 19, Riise was divorced twice by the age of 31. Before both ceremonies he knew he was making a mistake but did it anyway.

He says he has good relationships with his children now, but writes that he finds it hard to hug them or express his love. It is hard not to think this is related to the break-up of his parents’ marriage when he was three.

Riise is actually the surname of his step-father, Thormod. His own family name was Eikrem. Riise has for years wrestled with a dilemma over whether to add ‘Eikrem’ to his many tattoos as a way of honouring his real dad, Hans.

His mother has claimed she was beaten by her first husband. Riise did not witness it but asked whether he had reached a decision on the tattoo, he said: ‘I now know more about the history behind my mum and dad than I knew before and so I am not gonna do that. I have decided.’

Riise’s father died at the age of 40 in 1999. Riise raced to his bedside from Monaco but was five minutes late. He has never forgiven himself for stopping for lunch on the way.

Kept away from the funeral by his mother, he was nevertheless asked to pay for it. He has spent two decades not knowing where his father had been laid to rest.

‘Someone heard me say about the grave and I got about 150 messages on Twitter saying they know where it is,’ he revealed. So the Norwegian people helped me there. I am going to the grave at New Year. It’s another thing I have to get out of my system.’ 

Riise’s father died in 1999 and he was five minutes late after rushing to Norway from Monaco

Riise’s father died in 1999 and he was five minutes late after rushing to Norway from Monaco

At his current home in Oslo, Riise has a photograph of him kissing the Champions League trophy on the pitch in Istanbul in 2005.

‘I said to myself as I held it that I had made it,’ he smiled.

‘Whatever happened after that would never matter.’

His insecurities had shown themselves there, too. Riise missed a penalty in the shoot-out against Milan after suddenly losing faith in a left foot that could propel the ball like a rocket. ‘I had cramp and felt insecure, ‘ he recalled. ‘Walking forwards I had three options. Smash it, place it or do a Panenka chip.

‘I went for safety and regret it because it is the only time of my life I went for safety in anything. Dida saved it.

‘I walked back and Carra [Jamie Carragher] said: “Ginge, didn’t you realise that Dida went to that same side for every penalty so far?”.

‘I was like: “Why didn’t you tell me before?”. It still annoys me!

‘But Carra is funny. He texted me the other day asking if he gets a good mention in the book. I said: “Of course”.’

Riise loves Carragher and also Steven Gerrard. They are two of the players he trusted enough to discuss his problems.

That Liverpool team flattered to deceive in the Premier League but did rather well against Sunday’s opponents Manchester United at times. The Kop still sing about the free-kick Riise fizzed past Fabien Barthez in 2001. Barthez already knew about Riise’s power, having had his wrist broken by a shot while the two were at Monaco. 

Riise scored a sensational free-kick for the Reds against Manchester United at Anfield in 2001

Riise scored a sensational free-kick for the Reds against Manchester United at Anfield in 2001

Riise describes winning the 2005 Champions League final as the moment he had made it

Riise describes winning the 2005 Champions League final as the moment he had made it

‘I used to love the big games against them,’ he said. ‘Rooney, Ronaldo, Ferdinand, Keane… all these players.

‘But I never saw myself as equal even though I had success. I just felt like a small boy from a little city in Norway. They had everything. Winning. Confidence. Ambition. And they knew it.

‘You can see it when a player comes to the pitch with confidence, you know. And they had it. Because they were so good.’

Riise is a fan of current United manager, Jose Mourinho. Less so of his team.

‘It’s weird to see a massive club like that going through what they are going through, on and off the pitch,’ he said. ‘I am a massive fan of Mourinho but he looks different than he used to and it’s weird to see them at Old Trafford sitting back.

‘They always had a go at you but now they are letting the opposition have 70 per cent of the ball. That’s not the United I remember.’ 

Riise believes his career could have been ended by a team-mate in 2007. Having argued with Craig Bellamy on a club trip to Portugal, Riise went to bed only for the Welshman to burst into his room and attack him with a golf club.

Bellamy has subsequently expressed his own regret, calling his behaviour ‘pathetic, drunk, and bullying’. Riise doesn’t disagree.

‘I just wanted him to think twice, go back to his room and then we can meet up in the morning and finish it off properly,’ he said.

‘I was ready to do that but he didn’t show.

‘He was strange as he was cocky and confident and loud — screaming and shouting in training — but if you stood up to him he was like a big puppy.

‘I remember Fulham versus Liverpool and Clint Dempsey said something to Craig and he s*** his pants. Bellamy is complicated and I don’t know much about it. So I can forgive but I don’t forget.

‘If he had hit me in his first stroke… if he had hit my shins I would have been done.’

Riise believes his career could have been ended after a row with Craig Bellamy in 2007

Riise believes his career could have been ended after a row with Craig Bellamy in 2007

Liverpool played Barcelona in the Nou Camp soon after the incident. They won 2-1 and Bellamy and Riise scored the goals. Bellamy celebrated his by swinging an imaginary golf club.

‘It was the most annoying thing for me that he did it,’ Riise said.

‘It was disrespecting me.’

Riise was told he was no longer wanted by Benitez towards the end of the 2007/08 season. The news came a week after he had scored an own goal against Chelsea in a Champions League semi-final that Liverpool lost.

After the meeting, the left back cried in his car at Melwood just yards from where someone had sprayed graffiti on a wall. It said: “Riise — Go Home”.

‘I spoke to Rafa yesterday about coming to see him to talk about coaching,’ Riise laughed.

‘I have always said that one day I will have him admit he made a mistake letting me go but I know it won’t happen.

‘I knew they wanted competition for me but maybe the own goal put more pressure on from the outside to do that.

‘But he was honest. He just told me face to face.

‘That is why I keep in touch. He is a fantastic manager and a good person and friend.’

Riise was no longer wanted by Benitez but respected his decision and still keeps in touch

Riise was no longer wanted by Benitez but respected his decision and still keeps in touch

Riise’s fondness for Liverpool endures and is reciprocated. Immigration at John Lennon airport used to wave him through without asking for his passport.

‘It felt like home here when I came,’ he said. I learned the Scouse accent quickly and I love coming back here.

‘I am doing my coaching badges. The plan is to move to the UK and Liverpool could be an option.’ 

Recently Riise’s seven-year-old son realised his dad had been a good footballer and wanted to know if he knew Cristiano Ronaldo. So they watched some video footage and Riise ordered him a Juventus shirt. Bit by bit, Riise is squaring the circles of his life, filling in the missing pieces.

In Norway they still raise eyebrows. They are not sure whether he will follow through his stated intention to be a manager. Only recently, they point out, he said he wanted to be an agent.

Some still reference the parts of Riise they didn’t like. The unsolicited text messages he sent to female celebrities at the height of his fame and the red Ferrari he once owned.

‘They hated that,’ said Riise.

‘They hammered me for it.’

Riise is now doing his coaching badges and his plan is to move back to the UK permanently

Riise is now doing his coaching badges and his plan is to move back to the UK permanently

Riise’s book, Running Man, contains one of the most revealing sporting stories to be told this year

Riise’s book, Running Man, contains one of the most revealing sporting stories to be told this year

Riise says he no longer cares. He has recovered from being left £3million in debt by an unscrupulous agent and has patched up his relationship with his mother who once represented him and subsequently published her own autobiography.

In his own book Riise describes her as a publicity-seeker, which is hardly diplomatic.

‘I have said that out loud to her,’ he said. But now we are in a perfect place and we learned from the bad parts.’

That could have been an apt title for Riise’s autobiography. Learned from the bad parts. He insists he has and we hope he is right.

If it turns out that he hasn’t, he will at least always have Liverpool, the club that gave him the courage to walk into a fast-food restaurant on a summer day in 2005 and deal with his demons.

John Arne Riise: Running Man is published by deCoubertin Books and is out now decoubertin.co.uk

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