As part of a new interview series, Christian Wulff will explore the experiences of Scottish players that have been involved in Norwegian football and Norwegians that have been a part of the Scottish league. First up is the former Rangers and Scotland full-back, Maurice Ross, who has spent time as both a player and coach in Norway.
Maurice Ross, speaking down the phone from the Faroe Islands, is in no doubt that when it comes to managerial appointments in Scottish football there is a lot of clubs that is not doing the due diligence required for such an important decision. We’ve been discussing the reaction from some parts of the media to the appointment of Ian Cathro at Hearts, which has exasperated Ross.
‘How can we not welcome a guy like Cathro with open arms? He has coaching experience, new ideas and he’s worked with the best – he should be welcomed into Scottish football’.
The former Rangers and Scotland player believes there is a wider issue when it comes to how Scottish clubs decide on their new manager.
‘We need to stop pigeon-holing people in terms of their playing background. If you’ve played 200 games for, say, East Fife and Airdrie, that doesn’t qualify you as a coach. If you’re a barista in Starbucks that doesn’t qualify you to be the CEO of the company’.
‘You need to have a proper evaluation when making an appointment – just like in any other industry. Look at what kind of coaching the person has done, what are his ideas, what is he like as a person. Sometimes I think it is as simple as the chairman is a fan of a club and when an ex-player from that club shows an interest in a position, that’s enough’.
‘Competition for jobs in Scotland is cut-throat as it is – there were 30 people interested in the East Fife job recently. I think that is a big part of why new blood such as Cathro is met with scepticism and criticism; there is so much competition already so anybody from outside the circle of ex-players will be attacked. It’s survival of the fittest’.
Name recognition from your playing days is actually a route into Scottish management that Ross could take advantage of himself, but he is adamant that something needs to change when it comes to the managerial carousel prevalent in not only Scotland, but also the other country he has coached in until now; Norway.
Ross is currently doing pre-season with his new club, Tvøroyrar Bóltfelag (TB), one of ten teams in the Faroes top-flight. He moved over to the islands in January after three seasons of coaching success at clubs in the Norwegian third and fourth tier, bringing Mark de Vries, the former Hearts player, with him as his assistant.
Ross’ own coaching principles have been influenced by his playing days, but maybe in a slightly different way than expected.
‘I was not in any way as talented as most of the players at Rangers when I played there. So I needed to think myself through games; how I would operate within the system, constantly evaluating every single thing I needed to do on the pitch’.
It was a very useful grounding for him when it came to coaching in lower quality leagues with what he himself says are players of limited ability.
‘The main thing is your chain of thought, about understanding your position on the football field. If you have a bad day in terms of personal performance, positional discipline can still get you through a match’
‘Position discipline has nothing to do with technique or talent, it’s about making the right decisions, and to make those calculated decisions all through the game’
‘I want my players to play with freedom in terms of their action on their ball. I won’t criticise a bad touch or a pass but instead ask the right questions: ‘’Why did this happened? What were your position, but were the opponents doing?’’. It’s a calculated approach rather than screaming. So I won’t be tough on players when it comes to individual mistakes on the ball, but I will be when it comes to positioning and organisation’
‘If you can manage to manoeuvre these players up and down the pitch as you want them to, make them understand their role and their position, it’ll be a luxury once you coach players of a higher quality’.
‘Look at Bayern Munich this year; they are still a great team because they have great players who can do fantastic things on the ball. But they are not as slick as under Guardiola. The machine is not operating as well this year and that is down to the manager’.
In terms of managing players, Ross can draw on his experiences of being part of what he sees as very different cultures among players in Britain and Scandinavia.
‘When I walked into a dressing room in England or Scotland, there was an uneasiness there, a tension. While there were plenty of laughs, it seems like everyone were a coiled spring waiting to burst. Competition was very hard and it could easily kick off in training’.
When he arrived to play under Uwe Rosler at Viking Stavanger in 2007, the difference was immediately clear.
‘In Norway there is less testosterone, a happier atmosphere, less tension; just nicer.’
He thinks the reason is largely societal. The large working class in UK produces a big proportion of its footballers while in Norway there is a huge middle class with only a small working class and a tiny elite. It makes the consequences of not succeeding as a player in Britain potentially graver than in Norway, which is reflected in the atmosphere among the players and towards the coach.
The story of how Ross ended up in Norway is one of what he calls catastrophic events. During his last year at Rangers he was very close to signing for Alan Pardew’s West Ham. He was in in London with a contract agreed when Rangers called him back up to Glasgow because of an injury to another player. By the time Rangers were willing to let him go, Pardew had ripped up the offer.
Then when his contract with Rangers was up, Wolverhampton were willing to offer him a three-year deal if their first choice, Jackie McNamara, would not leave Celtic when his contact came to an end at the same time. As everyone expected McNamara to get a new offer at Celtic, Ross looked set to sign for the championship club, who would gain promotion to the Premier League the following season.
Instead, McNamara ended up leaving Celtic in controversial circumstances and Ross was left without a club. When McNamara then incurred a serious injury shortly afterwards, Ross was loaned out to Wolves after not settling at his new club Sheffield Wednesday, eventually signing a six-month permanent contract with the club. With McNamara back to fitness, Ross was released again, this time ending up at Millwall and what he calls the worst experience of his career.
‘It was a total culture shock in every sense. The football was completely different, kick and run. Players were eating baked potatoes and beans. The whole set-up was less professional than what I had been used to and it was a really bad time’.
Rosler and Viking offered him a way out.
‘I had a good feeling as soon as I arrived there. There was more money in the Norwegian league back then, Viking had just moved into a new stadium and had some very good players. Fit, hungry boys that tried to play proper football. It was a nice, fresh break from what had gone on at Millwall’
‘Uwe was a great coach, very enthusiastic and wanted to play football. We had a bit of a love-hate relationship, both being quite volatile characters and both desperate to win. We’ve both calmed down now!’
Ross left Stavanger after a year, having met his future wife and enjoying a successful season, Viking finishing third in Tippeligaen. After spells in Turkey, China and more football in Scotland with Aberdeen, Motherwell and Livingston, he moved back to Norway in 2012, finishing his playing career at third tier FK Vidar. He was coaching Sola FK in 2014 when Ronny Deila got the Celtic manager job after having lead Strømsgodset to a sensational league championship the previous year.
Ross’ reacts to the notion that Deila was not a success at Celtic.
‘Winning trophies is a success in my mind. We have to get away from the notion that you have to win everything to be a success. Ronny did OK’.
‘It thought it was a good appointment at the time, but it would of course have been a massive learning curve for him. It was a completely different kettle of fish when it comes to both the players and the surroundings; Strømsgodset is essentially a village team in that sense.’
‘Everyday life would have been so different from there to Glasgow, a total 180. In Norway he could pretty much walk around unnoticed, in Glasgow he’d have to sign 20 autographs just when popping out for a pint of milk’.
Ross is no strangers to living in the fish bowl that is the Glasgow football scene. At 90minutecynic.com we are of course heavily Celtic focused and I tell Ross about the opinions of him from some of the other members of the group, which can only be described as loathing – not in terms of him simply having been a Rangers player – but based on the reputation he had as a player and apparent actions off the pitch.
‘I was cocky as hell back then, I really thought I was the bee’s knees – as an Old Firm player you felt like you’re on top of the world. I was at fault for my behaviour at that time, the blame is on me. Then again, I’ve forgiven myself for it, and don’t feel embarrassed. I was 21. I’m totally different now. I’ve mellowed a lot and I’m a grown man with three kids’.
‘Football was different back then, there was still quite the bevvy culture. And there was no real policing of you, no evidence like there would be now with all the smart phones. People would say, ‘’you were out yesterday’’ and I could say ‘’no, I wasn’t’’ – there was no evidence! Players now a day – especially at Celtic and Rangers – would be scared to go out. Not because they wouldn’t want to but it would be instantly recorded with pictures and videos so there is nowhere to hide.’
‘Having said that, there were so many lies about me – there was even one about me dealing cocaine – I had never even had a fag my whole life! Another example was when I went to a Justin Timberlake concert at the SECC with my girlfriend at the time and fellow Rangers player Billy Gibson. I shouldn’t really be admitting to going to a Timberlake concert. Anyway, we went to the concert, drove Billy home to Hamilton, straight home to bed and then training the next morning. A couple of days later there is a tabloid splash saying ‘’Maurice Ross thrown out of Cube by Justin Timberlake’s bouncers – two days before a game!’’ It was a total lie!’
Maurice Ross has changed; from a cocky lad and temperamental player in a world famous club to a mellow man and calculated coach in one of the most remote football environments in the world. But the move from Norway to the Faroes Islands was a well-considered one
‘It’s part of an upward managerial curve. I rather be coaching top-flight in Faroes than third tier in Norway. I had success at that level in Norway, but there is simply more exposure in coaching top-flight football, especially within Scandinavian. I have a clear career path in mind and this is a step towards that.’
The strong links between the Faroes and Denmark means Ross will be dealing with a lot of Danish football people; players, agents, coaches and other club officials, making it easier to be noticed than down the league pyramid in Norway. There is also the possibility of European football at TB, although Ross is not optimistic in regard to securing one of the four European places on offer.
‘To be honest, we don’t have the quality to finish in the top 4. We only have four players left from last season when we finished 7th, with the rest having come in from second tier clubs. I’m also only allowed to sign three foreigners. If we finish towards the top it’ll be because of a freak season’
Ross has had a nomadic football career so far, but the Faroe Islands are by no means his last destination. Having just turned 36 he is ambitious and will work methodically and intensely to achieve his goals. If he does get a top-level job in Scotland he’ll want it based on his work, ability and coaching experience, not his name. Just as Scottish football has changed since he was at its centre, it would be a very different Maurice Ross that returned to it.