Remembering Svein Mathisen and Isak Refvik, the first Norwegians to play for Hibs

November 1978 was not a memorable four weeks for those of a green and white persuasion.

Thursday, 10th June 2021, 6:59 pm
John Fraser welcomes Svein 'Matta' Mathisen, left, and Isak Arne Refvik to Easter Road in November 1978

True, the month had started with a victory, but the 1-0 win against Strasbourg at Easter Road was in vain as the French side had won the first leg of the UEFA Cup second-round encounter 2-0, and Eddie Turnbull’s men exited Europe.

If there was hope that Hibs could exorcise their European ghosts on the domestic front, a 2-1 derby loss three days later put paid to any optimism.

Four days later Morton were victorious at Cappielow, winning a League Cup quarter-final first leg match 1-0, and St Mirren made it a Renfrewshire double when they won by the same scoreline in Edinburgh on November 11.

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Refvik and Mathisen pictured in Princes Street

Norway scouting mission

On November 13, two footballers named Isak Arne Refvik and Svein ‘Matta’ Mathisen arrived at the port of Leith, disembarking a ferry from Norway.

Refvik, a mechanic hailing from near Bergen, had been playing for Viking Stavanger while Sauda-born school teacher and winger Mathisen was a fans’ favourite at Kristiansand side IK Start and had just helped them to a maiden league title.

Hibs had been tracking both players for some time and invited them to Edinburgh for the Strasbourg game. When that didn't pan out, manager Eddie Turnbull and director Tommy Younger jetted out to Stavanger in a bid to seal the deal in the first week of November.

Refvik signs autographs in the North British Hotel (now the Balmoral) - in November 1978

Although the Norwegian season had ended, Mathisen had been playing for the international team – including a game against Scotland at Hampden the previous month – while Refvik had featured for Norway’s Under-21s, coincidentally in a 5-1 loss at Easter Road a couple of weeks earlier, so the pair were fit enough to play right away.

Nordic inspiration

Come the evening of Wednesday November 15, 1978 both players were pitched in from the start; Mathisen wearing seven, Refvik nine. They lined up alongside Mike McDonald, Arthur Duncan, Rab Kilgour, Des Bremner, Rikki Fleming, Jackie McNamara, Ally MacLeod, Tony Higgins, and Ralph Callachan.

Red tape made life difficult and with both Norwegians still waiting for their work permits to come through, Hibs registered them as amateurs to allow them to play.

Hibs chairman Tom Hart, left, with director Tommy Younger, who flew out to Stavanger with Eddie Turnbull

Morton had won 3-1 against league-leaders Dundee United at the weekend courtesy of an Andy Ritchie hat-trick and were in a buoyant mood as they arrived in the Capital with a one-goal advantage from the first leg.

Whether it was Hibs taking advantage of their opponents’ over-confidence, or simply the effect of the two signings, Turnbull’s side turned the tie around with two goals from Refvik.

Callachan engineered both goals; the first from a free kick, and the second a fine run and cross which Refvik volleyed home, with Ritchie skying a penalty late on for the visitors.

When the duo helped Hibs to a 2-2 draw at home to eventual champions Celtic days later it looked as though the Easter Road side had struck gold.

Eddie Turnbull pictured during the 1978/79 season

Permit problems

In the background, work permit hassles continued. In his “Matta’s Corner” column for a Norwegian newspaper on November 28 1978, Mathisen wrote that he was confident his compatriot would secure a work permit – even revealing that Refvik was due to have dinner with then prime minister James Callaghan.

"There has been a lot of talk about Isak and work permits,” Mathisen wrote. “We don’t know for sure what will happen, but I personally think Isak will get his work permit. His case has been taken up in the House of Commons and he will soon be invited to dinner with the Prime Minister."

The pair had both agreed initial three-month contracts. Mathisen secured a work permit thanks to his Norway caps but Refvik was a more complex case as he was not a full internationalist – and the government agreed, refusing to grant him the permit.

Easter Road chairman Tom Hart demanded an inquiry into the Department of Employment’s decision to reject Refvik's application but there was a suggestion the club had ignored advice and applied just days before the pair travelled to Scotland on visitor permits.

Hibs had the backing of the Scottish Professional Footballers Association but despite additional support from North Edinburgh MP Alex Fletcher, their efforts were in vain.

Hart was reprimanded by junior Employment Minister John Grant who said: “I must say that Hibs appear to have done their utmost to set up a situation in which they believed it would be impossible for my department to say ‘no’, quite regardless of the agreed criteria."

Grant later agreed to a summit to look at the rules allowing foreign footballers to play in Britain after pressure from Scottish Office Sports Minister Frank McElhone and his UK counterpart Denis Howell.

The aftermath

Amid the ongoing work permit saga, Mathisen ended up playing just three games for Hibs against Morton, Celtic, and finally against Aberdeen in the League Cup semi-final in December. Refvik featured seven times, his final appearance coming in a 1-1 draw at home to Aberdeen in January 1979.

Norwegian newspapers suggested an incident involving Mathisen, a cigarette, and an apoplectic Turnbull may have contributed to him falling out of favour.

By February it was being reported that Mathisen was on his way to the Netherlands but he eventually returned to Kristiansand and Start and played on until 1989, cementing his place as a club legend.

Sadly, Matta died with stomach cancer in January 2011 aged just 58.

Refvik returned to Viking and played on until 1986 making more than 400 appearances and winning seven caps for Norway.

Now 64, he was most recently working as a sales manager for a Lexus dealership in Stavanger and spent many years coaching Viking’s youth teams.

The pair may have made just ten combined appearances for Hibs but as the first Norwegians to play for the club – two of just three along with Scottish Cup winner Niklas Gunnarsson – they are fondly remembered by Hibees of a certain age.

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