As part of a new interview series, Christian Wulff explores the experiences of Scottish players that have been involved in Norwegian football and Norwegians that have been a part of the Scottish league. In this edition he talks to the former Dundee United left-back Christian Kalvenes.
It’s been almost ten years since the first time I interviewed Christian Kalvenes. On an assignment for the (now sadly defunct) Norwegian version of Four-Four-Two magazine, I was waiting for him in the lobby at Tannadice Park, not being able to get a word in as Wendy the receptionist couldn’t stop for saying nice things about him and his family. It was a recurring theme with whomever I spoke to that day.
Christian and some of the other players were told to go to the gym to recuperate so we all got in the car, an injured Łukasz Załuska in the passenger seat and me in the back as we drove through sunny Dundee and started chatting about Christian’s new life in Scottish football. He had only been there one season but he already loved the city and the club.
A lot had changed for Kalvenes in a year. In the summer of 2006 Brann’s Erland Hanstveit got injured and he finally got a run in of games in his home town team. After making his debut for the club as an 18-year-old in 1995 this was his second stint in Bergen, both times marred by injuries and a lack of playing time. Former Dundee United player Charlie Miller was one of his team-mates in Brann at the time and when he heard that his old club was looking for a full-back he recommended Christian. Kalvenes, who had already completed a Masters degree while playing football in Norway, handled his own wage negotiations without the help of an agent: ‘It was a good business experience’ he pointed out at the time.
He became United’s third Norwegian player (Finn Seeman in the 1960s and Erik Pedersen in the mid-90s) and was an instant success, scoring against Rangers at Ibrox on his debut. Signed by Craig Brewster, Kalvenes become a stalwart in Craig Levein’s young team after he took over early in the 2006/07 season.
Speaking to him ten years later over the phone from Bergen (where he is the head of sales and marketing in one of Norway biggest telecommunications companies), he cannot praise his old boss highly enough
‘Craig Levein is by far the best manager I’ve worked under, both in terms of football expertise and leadership qualities. At United he had a clear purpose of building for the future and lay down the foundations of something special. When he left to take the Scotland job, Peter Houston was a natural replacement, building on the work and principles Craig had put in’.
Kalvenes spent two seasons at United and played a key part in one of the most dramatic and controversial cup finals of this century. Facing Rangers in the league cup final in March 2008, United was 1-0 up in the second half when Kalvenes snapped up the ball after a bad touch from Carlos Cuellar and the Spanish defender desperately man-handled him off the ball to prevent him from being one-on-one with Allan McGregor. Referee Kenny Clark inexplicitly waived play on.
Kalvenes still have mixed feelings about that day.
‘It was my greatest football experience to play in front of so many people on a big occasion and see half of Hampden bathed in tangerine. But I still get a knot in my stomach when thinking about the game. It was a clear penalty. I’m not bitter and it’s more frustration rather than holding a grudge against the referee. A lot of people think that the bigger teams get these decisions all the time. I hope the referee took his decision in good faith and from what he could see. He just didn’t think it was a penalty.’
Dundee United would concede a late equaliser in both normal and extra-time, eventually losing on penalties. I ask Kalvenes about Rangers’ subsequent liquidation, their use of Employee Benefit Trusts as a way of avoiding paying full income tax and whether he think the trophies they won in this period should be taken away from them.
‘I wouldn’t get any pleasure from receiving a winner’s medal now. Rangers beat us over 120 minute on the pitch and what’s happened has happened’
Kalvenes was all set to go back to Norway after that season but instead got a last minute offer from Burnley in the English Championship. It ended in a promotion play-off final victory over Sheffield United at Wembley and then a handful of games in the Premier League before returning to Norway for a third spell with Brann, this time mostly as a centre-half, before retirement in 2012. During his last two years at Brann he would face someone who would become the most famous Norwegian in Scottish football.
‘Strømsgodset at that time was an exceptionally good team. When Celtic appointed Ronny Deila I think we all had a sense of pride. It is such an incredibly pressurised job and I think it was the lack of Champions League football, even in the first season, that made it too difficult. Had he managed to get into the group stages he would have bot got more time and acceptance for what he was trying to do at Celtic and credit for what he achieved domestically’
Kalvenes believes the time at Celtic will turn out to be an invaluable part of Deila’s career.
‘It’s a very good experience for him, living and working within that football culture and all the passion that surrounds it. I think the more experience you have as a player and as a manager, the easier it is in a role like that. You are surrounded by critics and you’ll get some more critics when you’re a foreign manager as well’.
The role of the manager in Scottish football leads us back to Craig Levein and his position as a director of football at Hearts. Ian Cathro started as a youth coach at Dundee United the season after Kalvenes left, but he is confident that with Levein and Cathro Hearts has a structure that should be a lot more widely used in Scottish football.
‘You can’t just have anyone as a director of football, you need to have someone with the right personality and experience. Craig is perfect for such a role, especially as he brings that long-term mind-set. That the manager usually holds so much power is a big challenge in British football, a director of football is often badly needed in terms of running a club. But as I say, it’s just not about putting anyone in that role, it has to be the right person’
Kalvenes sees a close connection to the lack of stability at Dundee United after the Levein/Houston era and the club’s recent downfall.
‘After Peter left a lot of the continuity in club was lost. There seemed to be a change in playing style every time the manager changed. Then selling two of their best players in middle of a season in (Stuart Armstrong and Gary Mackay-Steven) was another blow that contributed to them eventually getting relegated’.
He still takes a very close interest in the club and Scottish football and claim there are many similarities with Norwegian football.
‘The quality of play is pretty even now, most teams would be able to swap leagues quite easily. Both are physical leagues and teams play football in a very similar style; there is a lot of running, high temp, duels and everybody giving a 100%. The culture is very much alike. Good players in Scotland would be good players in Norway.’
He says his own playing style fitted very well in the Scottish game, especially his fondness for getting stuck in.
‘There is a lot more passion in Scotland. When I performed a good tackle at Tannadice I would get as much cheers from the crowd than when I scored a goal at Brann stadion!’
Nine years after leaving Scotland, the two years spent in Dundee is as vivid as ever for Kalvenes.
‘It was fantastic living in Dundee and being back in Norway make me appreciate how good it was. There was a distinct difference compared to living in England as well. People in Scotland just seem to have a lot more time for you, while down there everyone seemed more busy and kept to themselves. And there was a much stronger sense of a national identity among people in Scotland than in England’
Kalvenes and his family still feel a strong connection with Scotland and Dundee and try to go back as much as possible.
‘We’re still welcomed with open arms when I come to visit. When I came last year they couldn’t be happier to let Nicholas (his eldest son that was born in Dundee) train with the youth team, they even asked me to help run the session. Our whole extended family some time come over with us as well as they have so many good memories from our time here. My brother has been over several times even without me as he just love visiting the club and the city so much and have made so many friends. Our time in Dundee and Scotland made a big and lasting impact on me and the family’