Andreas Schjelderup is living the dream. The Norway Under-21 international's 2022-23 season has been remarkable for many reasons, and he now looks destined to make his mark at the very highest level.
The 18-year-old forward was the top scorer in the Danish Superliga when he took the decision to accept a January transfer away from FC Nordsjaelland, who rose to the top of the table thanks to Schjelderup's exploits in the final third of the pitch.
Benfica moved quickly to snap up Schjelderup for the bargain price of €10 million amid reported rival interest from Liverpool, tying him down to a five-and-a-half-year contract, and two months later, he has already managed to force his way into Roger Schmidt's first-team plans.
The 2023 NXGN finalist was an unused substitute in the second leg of Benfica's last-16 Champions League tie against Club Brugge, which the Portuguese side won 5-1 to solidify their status as dark horses for the European Cup, and made his senior debut off the bench in a Primeira Liga victory over Maritimo on March 12.
Schjelderup is pushing for a regular role in one of the most exciting teams in Europe, which comes as no surprise to Jan Laursen - the man who initially convinced him to join Nordsjaelland over some of Europe's elite clubs back in July 2020.
"The thing with Andreas, most people talk about him being a special talent, but for us, it was his training talent, how he looked to improve all the time," Nordsjaelland's sporting director tells NXGN in an exclusive interview. "You can have potential, but if you don’t want to take advantage of it, it doesn’t matter."
The likes of Ajax, PSV, Tottenham, Juventus and Bayern Munich expressed interest in Schjelderup before he joined Nordsjaelland from Bodo/Glimt, and the self-confessed Liverpool fan has previously admitted to turning down a move to Anfield due to his reluctance to become just "one in the crowd".
It was Nordsjaelland's academy that held the greatest appeal to Schjelderup after years of carefully assessing his options alongside his father.
"It was a long process, he was probably around 11 or 12 [when it began]," Laursen recalls. "When he and the family decided that he probably wanted to move, they visited all of the clubs they were interested in.
"It was probably the most thorough due diligence I’d experienced, but they looked into very relevant things like how many U21 players can be registered, how the club is set up to develop players for the next level, and how we train. There were several visits and in the end, they decided to move here, purely based on how we work in our academies and first team."Getty/GOAL
It was clear instantly that Schjelderup had the mentality of a special player, and Nordsjaelland's backroom staff did everything possible to bring him up to speed physically and give him the best chance to reach his full potential.
Laursen says of the teenager's early adaptation to life at the club: "He moved in and was on fire straight away. He wanted to improve and within the first year with us, he gained 10 kilos within our physical department after working with our nutritionist. They could see he should eat much more, then it was just a case of him following a programme and allowing his body to adapt.
"He’s so focused and ambitious and has been used to having his own goals from a very early age. At night, he’d come and knock on the door of one of the coaches or staff members and ask for the keys to the gym, or on a day off he’d come out here [to the first-team pitch] and practice free-kicks or penalties. He even experimented with virtual reality glasses to improve his cognitive skills!
"It was great to have him. He learned a lot here and we learned a lot from him."
The Nordsjaelland chief is convinced that the aptly-named Right to Dream Park is the ideal place for young prospects like Schjelderup to hone their craft, with former Chelsea and Ghana star Michael Essien among the coaches passing on vital pearls of wisdom.
"There’s 10-12 coaches and specialists on the pitch, and a Champions League winner working with the players," Laursen adds. "We like to see ourselves like a football university - if you are dedicated you can learn a lot."Getty Images
Schjelderup stayed loyal to Nordsjaelland after a dismal 2021-22 that saw the club narrowly avoid relegation, before inspiring their rapid transformation into Superliga title contenders, but felt the time had come for him to spread his wings when Benfica came calling.
Laursen wanted the Norwegian playmaker to stay until the summer, but harbours no bitterness over the swift nature of his winter exit, and looks back on his journey at the club with great pride.
"He’s an extremely clever boy. I know he made a list of some clubs that could be a perfect next step for him. Benfica were one of the clubs on his special list," he says.
"We said stay here, [embrace] the big responsibility of [potential] championship playoffs, which could give him one thing, but Benfica could give him the chance to play in front of 65,000 people and play in the Champions League. It makes sense. There are no random decisions with Andreas, he looks into everything carefully.
"We had to accept he was ready. He came here in order to become a top player and go to a top club, and that’s what happened in these two years. We are very proud and happy, and as I said to him, his legacy will live on here because he is someone we can all mirror."
Schjelderup is following in the footsteps of previous Nordsjaelland academy graduates such as Mikkel Damsgaard, Mathias Jensen and Kamaldeen Sulemana, with Laursen confident that he will not be the last player the club sets up for future stardom.
"I haven’t seen anyone like him [Schjelderup]," the 52-year-old replies when quizzed on who could emulate the Benfica starlet. "There’s a quite a few we expect to take the big steps, but we will let time tell. One of the players Andreas got to play with a bit before, Kamaldeen Sulemana, is now at Southampton. Ernest Nuamah, our striker, also has the potential to play at the highest level.
"Andreas, Damsgaard and Jensen came all the way through the academy. We now have former players playing against each other in top competitions like the Premier League and Champions League, which is amazing for the small club we have here. We hope these good stories will attract even more good players so we have a better chance of staying up at the better end of the league. It's exciting times and we are in a very good place."
Nordsjaelland's tried and tested blueprint for the development of younger talent now serves as a shining example for smaller clubs across the continent, and it will be fascinating to see how Schjelderup progresses at Benfica and beyond.