x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Chasing dreams pays off for the ambitious Joshua Gatt

The American, who sacrificed a university scholarship to pursue the life of a professional footballer in Europe, tells Jamie Sanderson of a tough ride from Michigan to Molde with some help from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

The American, who sacrificed a university scholarship to pursue the life of a professional footballer, tells Jamie Sanderson of a tough ride from Michigan to Molde with some help from Solskjaer

There are few true fairy tales left to be unearthed, but 18 months ago, a 20 year old named Joshua Gatt made the sort of decision rarely seen outside a work of fiction. A promising footballer forced to train on a baseball field, he passed up a university scholarship to pursue the type of footballing education American players know they can only receive in Europe.

Gatt has found it hard in the months since, which included a number of trials and a spell in the Austrian second division.

Recently, he slouched into his comfortable cream sofa, clutching a piece of shiny gold that vindicates his choice, and talked about how he got into a game still considered a second-tier sport in the US.

"My mom put me into football because I was such a high energy kid, and she needed to find some way of channeling that," he said. "I quickly got into it, and I always told my parents I wanted to play my football in Europe. They asked if I had a back-up plan, and I say no. This is what I'll do."

He was right to be so ambitious. The piece of gold in his hands was a league winner's medal, picked up two weeks ago having helped Norwegian Tippeligaen side Molde to claim the first title in their 100 year history, in his debut season.

With it comes a spot in next seasons Champions League, and a place as an immortal in the eyes of the Molde fans.

That's big stuff, but Gatt, who was educated at an all-boys Catholic school, refuses to get carried away. He knows better than most the precarious tightrope footballers walk between success and failure.

After becoming frustrated with youth football in the US - where he trained on a baseball outfield and played matches on an American football field - a chance meeting with a scout at the age of 16 gave him the opportunity to experience something he had only ever dreamed about.

"I had just committed myself to a scholarship at Indiana University, but then a scout named Jon Spencer approached my parents," he said. "He runs a team called the Orange County Blue Stars, who are made up of kids from all across America, who he sees as having the potential to play in Europe. He takes them to Switzerland, where they play a bunch of trial games, in the hope of winning contracts.

"I was on his first team he ever took there, and thought maybe I can get scouted, and after college, one of the teams will call me. After a bunch of games, I was stunned. I had two offers of a contract."

It was everything Gatt had ever wanted. One offer was from Bundesliga side Mainz, who wanted him to join their reserve ranks. The other, was with unknown Austrian second division side Rheindorf Altach, where they proposed Gatt would join their first-team squad straight away.

Yet as he mulled a decision, the quiet, confident boy from Michigan felt emotionally committed to his final year of high school, and backed out.

Altach, however, were not taking no for an answer, and promised to leave the door open for another 12 months. It was the perfect compromise, and realising he had to follow his dreams, Gatt moved to Austria a year later.

"It wasn't a contest between college or professional football in Europe. If you ask most kids, they'll tell you they don't want to play football in America, they want to go to Europe to play football. I followed my dreams, and I'm so happy I did. It was the best decision of my life."

Gatt looks back fondly on that memory. He smiled broadly as he talked about it, but although the choice was an easy one to make then, what followed would be a difficult reminder that only hard work would see him rise to the top.

He went on to explain how he was kicked about physically and mentally in his first few months, while stalling his column shift car and returning home to a tiny apartment at the top of a giant block of flats every night, made him question if this was his really what he wanted.

But 4,000 miles away, his father, Jeff, who originally wanted his son to play baseball and American football, had changed his mind, and was now helping manage Joshua's career.

"Joshua had a four-year scholarship on the table at one of America's best schools, and although he was having trials elsewhere, we were conservative about the possibility of contract offers," said Jeff Gatt, who had referred to soccer as "fake football".

"When he got them, it was a tough decision for us to make as a family, but then Joshua showed us why he's so special. For him, it was a no brainer - he was going to pass up the scholarship, move thousands of miles away, live alone, learn a foreign language and train with players five to ten years older, just to follow his dream.

"His maturity impressed us all, and I wanted to help him."

The father's intervention proved to be great timing, as on the field, Joshua Gatt had broken into the starting XI, and used the negatives to help push him on.

Then, after six months, after 22 appearances and four goals, Gatt would meet another man who would go on to shape his life.

Little did he know it, but watching his rise was Manchester United legend and newly-appointed Molde manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who had just returned to his former club as head coach after a spell working with United's reserves. He was a promising young coach who understood promising young talent, and was an attractive prospect for Gatt.

"As soon as I found out about the interest, I knew that if there was one man who could teach me the stuff I need to learn, it would be Solskjaer," Gatt said. "He's the type of coach who makes you work harder. He's an active coach, a motivator, and I've received the best coaching of my career from him."

Gatt speaks of Solskjaer as more than a coach; as a mentor, who gets inside players minds and unlocks their potential. When asked whether Solskjaer realistically could one day replace Sir Alex Ferguson, Gatt confidently gave his answer.

"He could easily be another iconic manager for Manchester United. He's different from Ferguson, but he's a winning person, a winning coach, a winning player, and that's what people want," Gatt said.

"Wherever he goes, success will follow. It's in his nature."

It's a glowing reference, but one delivered by a player who has experienced the power of influence Solskjaer has.

Take this for example: When Gatt arrived at Molde, he was a pacy, stocky right winger, but finished the campaign as one of the league's best right-backs. It's not where you play under Solskjaer, it's how you play. Belief and philosophy are key.

"He inspires us and gets us going before every game," Gatt said. "There is a certain way he wants us to play, and he's not afraid to be stern in letting us know when we're not doing it. We know he's right, when we play our football, no team in Norway can live with our pace." Gatt also hopes to one day play on the US national team, though a hamstring tear meant he missed last months Under 23 training camp. His rehabilitation, which consists of gym work, eating bread and cheese, and banter with fellow American and Molde reserve player Sean Cunningham, has him on the mend quickly.

"I'm always setting myself new goals. I'd love to play at the Olympics in London, and I've always said I want to play in World Cups, too," he said. "But I'd also like to work hard and show myself for a top European club.

"So far, my dream has been to be a professional, and now that one has come true, I'm just going to keep chasing my dreams."

sports@thenational.ae