This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
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‘The players realise that they have to do this. And they can either hide and not put themselves out there, or you can be brave and do it. Everybody was so nervous but you just have to go out and do it.’
Ian Burchnall, head coach of Östersunds FK in the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s top league, is not talking about a cup final or a crucial away game. Burchnall took over the club this summer when Graham Potter left to become manager at Swansea, and while he’s had the usual talks with agents and drawn up plans for the next season his main focus after the club’s last league game has been on a more unorthodox performance: Östersunds’ yearly musical theatre performance.
Such cultural projects became a much-discussed part of Potter’s and Östersund’s fairytale journey which started in the fourth tier of the Swedish league and culminated in an away win against Arsenal at the Emirates in the last 32 of the Europa League earlier this year, losing 4-2 overall to Arsene Wenger’s team.
‘It’s a full musical theatre production! We rehearse once or twice a month throughout the year, but then there is a week of intense rehearsal once the season is over, so it was absolute full on to make sure we don’t embarrass ourselves. Well, don’t embarrass ourselves too much.’, Burchnall says on the phone from Sweden.
It’s not some sort of voluntary team building event, either. Östersund’s owner Daniel Kindberg has inserted a clause in the contract of all employees stating that participation in these events is a mandatory part of their employment with the club.
Not that Burchnall needed to be convinced of its benefits:
‘We do these culture projects because it creates bravery, puts you under pressure, it makes you do things you never thought you could do. If you can sing a song on a stage in front of a thousand people, you’ll think playing at the Emirates in the Europa League is easy. The supporters come along and think it is brilliant. Honestly, once we finished there were more celebrations than after we’ve won a game.’
Does he think Potter would have success with a similar production among the Swansea players?
‘You’d have much less chance of doing this in the UK! We do it to the extreme here with players singing a solo, dancing and acting – I’m pretty sure Graham won’t do that in Swansea! But you can apply some of the principles: taking players out of their comfort zones and challenging themselves as human beings, rather than just being a footballer, living in that ego bubble, coming out of that and seeing what is possible.’
‘There is kind of a mentality (in the UK) that footballers are so privileged and they should just concentrate on being good enough at football as that is what we pay them to do. We take the fact that they are human beings out of the whole conversation. If you start talking about that, many people think you are a bit wishy-washy and the discussion becomes steeped in that old-school mentality. You have to try and break out of that and create a mind-set around developing the person and the human being. That might not be through singing and dancing, but it has to be taking them out of their comfort zone, challenging them and testing them in different environments.’
The 90 Minute Cynic first spoke to Ian Burchnall for a podcast in 2015, when he was the assistant manager at Viking. Perhaps typified by Potter, he is very much part of a new breed of British coaches trying to make a name for themselves. Many have no or very little professional playing experience, often with a background from university, UEFA-accredited to the highest level, and willing to incorporate and embrace a lot more ‘modern’ and progressive ideas in everything from tactical approach to man management. Another trademark of this group of coaches is that because they are not known through a playing career, they’ve found it very hard to break into professional football in the UK. As a result, going abroad to get experience at a higher level is often necessary.
This reluctance to consider and embrace new ideas and people, especially from abroad, exist to some degree in all countries and industries but it is tempting to see it as being especially British these days, with Brexit the ultimate example of an inward-looking, superior attitude combined with a reluctance towards change. British football, and Scotland in particular, is showing similar signs, with scepticism to ‘modern’ ideas around styles of play, tactical and statistical analysis, nutrition and man management, and the running of football clubs themselves seemingly deep-rooted.
When it comes to what happens on the pitch, Burchnall doesn’t think being reluctant to new ideas and methods is an exclusively British problem:
‘Having worked in three countries, I’ve experienced a lot of different clubs and environments, all with positives and negatives. In Norway where I spent 5 years, there are some clubs working very well and trying to evolve in their way of thinking, but at times I heard ‘you’re too ambitious in the way you want to play, we have to make the game simple for the players, the players are not good enough.’ If you try to play football – keep possession of the ball and try to control things – I often heard words to describe it like ‘naïve’ and ‘romantic’, instead of ‘forward-thinking’ and ‘progressive’. But I feel to truly evolve you should be ambitious and challenge what is possible with players tactically, physically and mentally.’
There are some striking parallels between Ian’s description of Norway and what is happening in Scottish football. If a coach tries to be ‘pragmatic and organised’ and doesn’t succeed, it’s very unlikely the media or fans would point the finger at the style of play. Try a different tactical approach or – god forbid – adopt ‘new’ methods of playing and other progressive ideas in how to manage a team, it is likely to be called out at the first bad result.
For Ian, there is a bigger issue than just the coaches when it comes to trying to change the football mentality of a country: how clubs are run.
‘If you run a League Two club (in England), for example, like you run a Premier League club you’re never going to develop. If you are really brave, the lower leagues could be a perfect development league: in League Two, for example, there’s 24 teams and only two go down, that’s a big safety net. If you have long-term thinking and patience to develop a game model and infrastructure instead of thinking you have to have success in the next 5-10 games or we change, you will develop a better culture for playing, instead of constantly ‘playing safe’.
‘There is a sense that that ‘you can’t play in football in the lower leagues’. But you can play that kind of football even lower down in the football pyramid. You just need the time. You need to be prepared to lose a few games, you need to be brave enough to lose a few games, to evolve and develop the players.’
At Östersund, Ian has a chairman that is very different.
‘He knows a lot of football. The day after the game he is really reflective, he understands where the club is at and you can really have good conversations with him about football. He would never tell you what to do about players and how to play. We’re basically in a constant dialogue, whereas you often get chairmen who like to think they are running the team and if it is not quite going right then we’ll just change the manager and get the next one in. It is a mad culture, really.’
The concept of ‘if you just give someone time, you’ll get results’ seems so obvious and logical from the outside, and could just as easily be applied to the Scottish league, where even the bottom team in the league system is not guaranteed to get relegated. Then why are hardly any clubs willing to take that chance?
Burchnall came to Norway in 2012 as an assistant coach at Sarpsborg 08 under Brian Deane. He was 29 years old. After keeping Sarpsborg safe from relegation and then stabilising them as a top-flight club, he went to one of the biggest clubs in Norway, Viking, before the 2015 season to be the assistant to experienced Swedish manager Kjell Jonevret. With Viking in major financial difficulties after the 2016 season, Jonevret left and Burchnall was offered one of the top jobs in Norwegian football at the age of 33. With a squad that would be stripped of its best players and with almost no means of replacing them, it was a huge challenge, but one that was simply too good to turn down. With a decimated squad, Viking got relegated from the Norwegian top flight with Ian in charge.
When it came to recruiting Ian as the replacement for Graham Potter, Östersund again showed that they do things a little bit differently than many other clubs:
‘When I went to see the chairman, I wanted to talk about Viking as I felt I had to justify myself in terms of what happened there. And he was like ‘you don’t have to talk about what happened there. I’ve done my homework on you, I know about you, I don’t care what happened at Viking.’ He’d already called enough people to know the context of what happened there. It’s the same with the players here, half of them were thrown out of other clubs. They don’t care about their background, they are looking more about the people and their potential.’
Before accepting the job at Östersunds, Ian was interested in moving his young family back to the UK after 5 years of coaching in Norway. However, even getting an interview at lower league and even non-league clubs in the UK was the biggest challenge, and after many closed doors it became clear that the best route was to head back abroad again.
Ian explains that Graham Potter’s success with Östersunds seems to have triggered a real shift in Swedish football, with a range of young coaches now given chances at the top clubs and many clubs playing different systems keeping the ball and playing up from the back. While Sweden seem to have had their ‘eureka’ moment when it comes to a shift in mentality in terms of coaching and playing style, countries like Norway and Scotland still seem to have some way to go. In Ian’s view it can all come down to a coach like Potter breaking through and having success:
‘You needed someone like Ian Cathro to come in and do well at Hearts. I felt for him when he was at Hearts, when you saw what happened to him even before a ball was kicked, because he was a little bit different. It was probably too soon for him at a club like that. But he is still a very good coach, he is still going to have good knowledge. It’s interesting that Hearts took a punt but then they didn’t give him enough time and he was slaughtered in the press. They should have protected him a little bit better. It’s a shame because it would have been nice to see someone break the mould there.’
‘Brendan (Rodgers) coming in and adding young assistants and playing a certain style of football I think will have helped progress the game in Scotland as well.’
So what if his Östersund team had been parachuted into the Scottish Premiership next season – would Ian have changed his team’s style of play from what they do in the Swedish league?
‘I don’t think I’d change much tactically, I’d want to play my way still and control the game. We would have to prepare for more long balls and I don’t think we would press as high. Less teams play through pressure in Scotland and if they get pressed they go forward quicker. You’d have to prepare to challenge for more balls in the air and win second balls. So we would maybe have to adapt the way we play without the ball, but with the ball I think we would try to play with the same kind of principles.’
If he was put in charge of a Scottish club, would he look to adapt his man management style?
‘I’d just have to be myself. I can’t try to be anybody, somebody else. I’m managing in Sweden on a good level and I’ve been coaching for 15 years. If I went somewhere else, I’d just continue to be the same guy.’
But would the players expect something different? The leadership and management culture in Scandinavia is often very different, where players want to be more involved in decisions around how the team should play and operate. For Burchnall, it would be a case of trying to change the player’s attitude, rather than his own:
‘You have to try and draw more out of them in terms of opinions, have them give more input into what we’re doing. If it’s me telling a player what to do and it’s just ‘yes, boss’ and it then goes wrong, the player would turn around and say ‘but it didn’t work, boss’. He would not feel culpable when things go wrong, instead everybody looks at the coach and it’s his fault. If you have a dialogue with a player about how that game went, what they should do, how to approach a game, you get them involved and you give them accountability, make them understand their role. I just think it’s more healthy to do it that way.’
Another difference between Scandinavian and Scottish football is the general attitude towards artificial pitches. In Norway and Sweden – where there are no domestic games played for over 3 months in the winter – the majority of top-flight clubs don’t play on natural grass. Burchnall doesn’t share many Brits’ opinion of playing on artificial surfaces:
‘I like it. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather go and play on an immaculate carpet of grass pitch. But some of the grass pitches are terrible. And then the way I want to my team to play it’s much better on the artificial pitch. Teams find it much harder to come and play us here and press us, because we move the ball so much quicker.’
The debate about playing surfaces in Scottish football does get a lot more attention than what is a far more important issue: the role of women in the sport. Quite simply, women’s sport in general is a far bigger thing in Scandinavia than Britain. In Norway, female skiers and handball players in particular are national celebrities, just as popular with spectators and TV viewers (if not more) than their male counterparts. While not as big as men’s football, the women’s national team is still responsible for some of the greatest Norwegian sporting moments of the last century; winning the World Cup in 1995 and Olympic gold in 2000. Ada Hederberg, just crowned winner of the first women’s Ballon d’Or, could make a genuine claim to be the most famous current Norwegian footballer on a global scale.
With the success of the Scottish women’s team and their coach Shelley Kerr, now a pundit with BBC and the first-ever woman to take charge of a men’s team in Scotland, there are some signs of improvement in Scotland. But the suggestion that Kerr could be a candidate to take over the men’s national team in the future was mocked on social media by some members of the press.
For Ian, it is not a big stretch at all:
‘One of my assistants is a woman! I’ve got Shaun (Constable), Brian (Wake) and then Johanna (Almgren). She’s got over 40 national caps and has played in the Olympics.’
Graham Potter brought Almgren into the coaching staff after she moved to Östersund with her boyfriend Tom Petterson, the team’s centre-back, before the 2017 season. Having managed in the Swedish women’s top flight, she’s been involved with Östersunds’ men’s team ever since.
‘In terms of football knowledge, tactical awareness and game management she’s absolutely top class. I was naturally sceptical in terms of how a female coach in the men’s game would be perceived, but I was blown away with the qualities she has and the players respect her a hell of a lot. To break through as a female coach in the men’s game you probably have to go through so much more, it’s not easy. But women starting to coach regularly at the top level in men’s football will happen.’
In a time where British footballers are finally starting to see the benefit of playing in other leagues and experiencing other football cultures, it is important to remember that there is already a network of British coaches who have done exactly the same for several years already. As one of the architects behind Östersunds FK’s fairytale journey, Graham Potter is the first to have managed to break back into league football in the UK.
Ian Burchnall, a bright, progressive, determined coach, still only 35 but with 15 years of coaching experience, most recently in leagues on par with the Scottish Premiership, was not even deemed worthy of an interview with lower-league teams in Scotland or England. Scottish football is crying out for new ideas and people to challenge the norms and structures that have led to minimal international and European success. The next club that finds itself in need of a new manager might just want to widen their horizon. Fortune favours the brave.
This article is from Edition Nine of The Cynical, our free online magazine.
Download the magazine here: