Chelsea’s Pernille Harder: ‘I want to be where there is the biggest competition’

Chelsea’s Pernille Harder: ‘I want to be where there is the biggest competition’

P

ernille Harder is driven by a desire for European success, but on a smaller scale she is searching for a feeling. It’s the feeling you have “when you’re in a flow and everything you do is just … right”, she says – “You don’t think much, you’re just in it.”

Harder laughs when asked whether she gets that feeling a lot. It is easy to believe she does. “No,” she says with a grin. “But that’s the feeling that I try to get to, to find, every time I play because then I know I’m at my best, playing at my highest level.”

The 28-year-old was unveiled on Friday as the No 1 player in the Guardian and Offside Rule Podcast’s list of the best 100 female footballers for the second time in three years.

Harder’s form has been remarkably consistent. She arguably missed out on the top individual awards in 2019 only because they were dominated by players from the World Cup in France, a tournament the forward missed as Denmark failed to qualify. The Danes forfeited their qualifying group tie with Sweden as a pay dispute with the Danish football federation escalated, which meant the team finished second behind the Swedes and then lost their play-off semi-final against the eventual runners-up at the World Cup, the Netherlands.

Denmark lost their play-off match against Netherlands, despite Harder’s well taken goal.

The story of why the likes of Harder, the Paris Saint-Germain forward Nadia Nadim, Rosengård’s Sanne Troelsgaard Nielsen and the rest of a very good Denmark squad were not at the World Cup is often forgotten (they forfeited a qualifying tie amid a pay dispute, then lost in a play-off against the Netherlands)while the decision of the first Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg, to step back from the Norwegian national team, demanding greater respect for her country’s female footballers, continues to make headlines.

The absence of both Harder and Hegerberg from the World Cup was felt by fans of European women’s football, with the former’s only appearances being in the crowd, in a Sweden shirt, supporting her partner Magda Eriksson.

Harder’s numbers have been remarkable. On the way to completing a fourth successive domestic double with Wolfsburg and a Champions League runners-up medal in 2019-20, she scored 27 Bundesliga goals and 38 in all competitions. “Yeah, the season with Wolfsburg – I don’t think I ever scored that many goals in one season – it was incredible,” she says.

It was a fitting end to her time in Germany. When it came to choosing where to go next there was one thing that was very important for Harder. “The only demand I had for the team I would go to was that they would also have [Champions League] ambitions.”

In Chelsea she found the perfect match. The Champions League has long been coveted by the manager, Emma Hayes – now the only trophy she has left to win following Chelsea’s Continental League Cup success last season.

When it comes to European success Harder has, for want of a better analogy, been the bridesmaid but never the bride. She endured Euro 2017 heartbreak in the final after a goal to make it 2-2 as Sherida Spitse and Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema found the net to secure a 4-2 victory for the Netherlands.

In 2018 she was again on target in a major final as she scored in the third minute of extra time to give Wolfsburg the lead against Lyon in the Champions League. However, Alex Popp was dismissed for Wolfsburg and Lyon came back to win the game 4-1. And in 2020 she again endured defeat against Lyon in the final, with Wolfsburg losing 3-1 at the close of the rescheduled tournament.

Pernille Harder of Wolfsburg looks dejected after Lyon win the Champions League final.

It was time for a new challenge. “I thought that the English league was really interesting. I want to be where I feel like there’s the biggest competition. Then Chelsea because they have the same ambitions as me. Winning as many titles as possible and also the Champions League, they want to go for that.”

In 2019, Chelsea were close to ending Lyon’s European dominance when Erin Cuthbert’s away goal in a 2-1 away defeat gave them hope of progressing. But a gritty 1-1 draw at Kingsmeadow ensured the status quo was maintained. Since then Hayes has added the Australia forward Sam Kerr and Harder, a player who has often been a thorn in the side of Lyon, to her squad.

Hayes, for one, knows the importance of Harder when it comes to competing at the very highest level in Europe. “I know what her experiences are in Europe, it’s one of the big reasons why she is here and I’m looking forward to seeing how she progresses with this team because there’s much more to come from her,” the manager said before the Dane scored and provided an assist in Chelsea’s Champions League opener again Benfica on Wednesday.

Harder has settled quickly at Chelsea. She has scored twice in the league in addition to opening her Champions League account, but it has been her movement, link-up play and assists that have shown just how influential she could become in west London.

“The team have welcomed me with open arms, so it is has been really easy,” she says. In addition, with her partner Eriksson captaining the side her transition off the pitch has been easy. “Part of when you move to another country and to a new team is also about trying to feel at home away from the football pitch. Obviously I felt at home right away, coming into Magda’s apartment, where I’ve been a lot, and living with Magda.”

Harder celebrates Chelsea’s win against Benfica with goal scorer Bright, England and Eriksson.

Another bonus is that her relationship with Eriksson meant her connection with Chelsea began way before her summer arrival. “I felt like I knew all of the players already, and what they were good at, that makes everything much easier. I watched a lot of their games last season, so when they talk about a game last season then I also remember it because I watched it so that’s pretty cool.”

That in turn is helping her to make connections on the pitch, something that is improving day by day. “Fran Kirby, I felt a connection with her in the first game I played with her. I’ve felt a connection with a lot of the players, to be honest. But, of course, when new players come it is like a puzzle and it doesn’t just do it from day one.”

Now she just needs to add team titles to her individual awards. “The feeling you get when you win a title – you can’t compare that with anything. Individual awards are just a confirmation of what you’re doing. It’s a nice feeling, but it’s not like this happiness you feel when you win a championship.”