Fulham defender Brede Hangeland strode out of the makeshift Santa’s grotto, swerved away from the man-sized badger wearing a Father Christmas hat and sidestepped a choir of Fulham young team players as they ploughed their way through Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a corridor under the main stand at Craven Cottage. It had taken almost a year for the Norwegian to appear perplexed by life in the Premier League. In the end it was the surreal scene backstage at the club’s Christmas at the Cottage event this week rather than anything out on the pitch that had rendered him dumbstruck.

The Norwegian gives the impression that he takes most things in his considerable stride. Since he swapped Scandinavia’s midwinter break at FC Copenhagen for what appeared to be a doomed relegation battle last January, Hangeland has progressed and impressed consistently and considerably. Fulham have long had a reputation for playing attractive football but they have rarely eliminated a sense of vulnerability at the back.

This term there has been no soft underbelly. The Cottagers boast the fourth-best defensive record in the division, with 12 goals conceded in 16 games. This team works feverishly but it is the giant in the midst of their backline who has shrunk opposing centre-forwards to size.

Given the 27-year-old’s form, Christmas came early for Fulham fans this year. Hangeland has had scouts salivating, with Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City alerted by the strength and composure coursing through his game. He is arguably the top flight’s most improved player and the initial wide-eyed uncertainty as slippery forwards threatened to leave him dizzy is forgotten. Once he had found his feet, Fulham won four of their last five games and scraped to safety. Hangeland believes his long-term future is at this club. “I can see myself staying here a long time,” he said. “The first 12 months have been excellent and I wouldn’t mind staying for some time to come.

“It feels as if we are building something. We definitely want to push on, improve and certainly avoid what happened last year because that was a nerve-racking experience. It’s about continuing to climb the table but, on the other hand, we must stay realistic. We are a small club in among a lot of good teams, so the sooner we can secure the points we need to avoid relegation, the better.”

Hangeland personifies the reinvention. The Houston-born centre-half — his father worked for a Norwegian oil company and Brede was born during his parents’ two-year spell in the United States — has worked steadily for his opportunity at this level, his apprenticeship served initially under Roy Hodgson at Viking Stavanger and his game developed in Copenhagen, with whom he qualified for the Champions League. “It was always the dream to come and play in the Premier League eventually but to have come here directly from Norway would have been virtually impossible,” he said. “It wasn’t always like that but the Premier League is on a different level these days. I don’t think anyone has come straight from Norway since [Morten] Gamst Pedersen joined Blackburn from Tromso four years ago. If I hadn’t had the Champions League experience with Copenhagen, I would not have been ready.

“It was still an eye-opener last season. I came straight from our winter break, hadn’t played for six weeks and was thrown into a relegation battle. There was no confidence here. At Copenhagen we were used to winning every week. I’d come to a club that more or less lost every game. But when the Premier League comes calling, you listen. For me it was still a shock to the system. I can cope with the physical side of the game but the speed of the football and the quality of the player? There’s no way of preparing for that when you’ve been playing in a league that’s so much slower. When you’re up against someone who’s 5ft 4in and running the 100m in 10 seconds, that’s where this comes into play [he taps his head]. You have to be clever.”

The centre-back arrived at Fulham with that reputation. The Norway captain is considered by his country’s press to be the most intelligent member in the national squad. “It’s a stupid team, though,” he offered through a grin. His modesty was left rather exposed by the reality that he fine-tuned his English by reading Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld last season. “Right now I’m reading a book by [Johannes Vilhelm] Jensen. I lived in Denmark for two years and it only occurred to me after leaving that I hadn’t read many of the great Danish authors, so I wanted to make up for lost time.”

On the pitch his rather cerebral approach has driven his improvement. “I’m self-critical. A lot of the job is thinking about your game and the way you play and to try and improve all the time. There have been times this season where we’ve been 2–0 up and conceded a late goal, and that drives you mad, but we’ve been solid. It’s been about all 11 guys defending, not just the back four and goalkeeper. And it’s all driven by the manager.”

Hodgson used Hangeland as a midfielder — “definitely a holding player, never a No10” — at Viking, bemoaning that he did not have “the luxury” of playing him as a defender, but the pair’s working relationship continues to flourish. The £2.5m spent on the centre-back already seems a snip, with Hangeland his manager’s eyes out on the pitch. “He was one of the main reasons I came here,” added the defender. “He has a lot of experience, has travelled the world and is influenced by cultures and football in a lot of countries. When he has something say, people listen to him.

“He has a more continental approach to training. He’s out there every day and does most of the work himself, and the other boys have bought into it, particularly now that they’ve seen it works. We improved so much towards the end of last season and we’re better now than we were then, too. What we achieved last year was remarkable but we can take this club on and avoid suffering like that again. For me this club is perfect.”