Few British managers take the chance on managing overseas; even fewer make that move as their first in management. One of the small number in that latter category is Brian Deane and on Sunday he takes his Sarpsborg 08 team to the Arasen Stadium, Lillestroem, on the opening day of the Norwegian Tippeligaen season. Taking his first steps in top level management.
To those who know of Brian this will come as little surprise. A strong advocate of players gaining experience of different cultures and playing abroad, something he did in Portugal and Australia, it seems only natural that he follows in the footsteps of Roy Hodgson, David Hay and George Curtis in managing in Norway.
In fact there is already one Englishman out there; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assistant at Norwegian champions Molde is Mark Dempsey, a former coach at Manchester United and a name familiar in South Yorkshire after spells both at Sheffield United and Rotherham United.
Whilst Hodgson had two mid-table finishes with Viking Stavanger and Hay took Lillestrom SK to the title, it is a less well known and less established name in Norwegian football for Brian. Sarpsborg is a city of over 50,000 people, about 100km south of Oslo. It is a city that has seen football success with Sarpsborg SK six time winners of the Norwegian Cup, albeit the last of those was over 60 years ago.
In recent years, local clubs had struggled to gain a foothold in the upper echelons of Norwegian football and in 1999 sixteen local clubs decided to collaborate and combine into what is now, after further tweaks to the structure and name, Sarpsborg 08. The way the club was formed, becoming a single focal point for the city, means it has a culture that appealed to Brian.
"It is a well-structured community club, with a young board who are realistic and good fans who are realistic. It is such a good opportunity for me personally.”
The new club gradually progressed from the 4th tier of Norwegian football and reached the top flight Tippeligaen in 2010, only to be relegated the following season. 2012 saw the club promoted again, as runners-up and they made a move to appoint Brian as manager for their return to the Tippeligaen.
Brian had spent quite a bit of time in Norway, with the Football & Education programme he was running in Leeds, visiting colleges and making connections over there. He liked the country and its culture. One of those contacts, former Oldham, Blackburn and Wimbledon defender Tore Pedersen, was the man who facilitated his move into club management. Over three interviews Brian convinced the management of Sarpsborg of his footballing philosophy and the way in which he would take the club forward.
“I have joined a sensible club. After Promotion, Relegation, Promotion in the last three seasons, we need to establish ourselves and stay up; that’s important to me and important to the club. Steady progress is good and it is about putting a structure in place, introducing new ideas and changing certain aspects of the club."
For Brian it has been a positive first few months; "I got to know the players and they have got to know me and how I want to do things.” With budgets limited, Sarpsborg probably have the smallest budget of any club in the Norwegian top tier, Brian is largely working with the squad that took the club to promotion last season. Some adjustments have been made, such as bringing in Icelandic pair Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Thorarrin Valdimarsson.
Joining as his assistant is Ian Burchnall, who worked with Brian in the Football and Education Academy at the University of Leeds. The partnership is in some ways forged in adversity. Both had knock backs in trying to progress their careers and on coming together, despite quite different backgrounds, they found shared philosophies and beliefs, a mutual respect and developed a cohesive working relationship.
“Ian was a good semi-professional footballer and a talented coach with ten years of experience, but breaking into professional coaching is very hard for someone who hasn’t played professionally. For me, I had the professional background, but as an example, when I was doing my coaching badges I was asking people if I could join them on the coaching ground and try things, the existing team were looking over the shoulders. It wasn't easy to get the opportunities to develop myself.”
“If you were going into something like this you could bring your mates in with the same football background, same career path, but they are not going to offer you anything different. Ian is academic, with a sports science degree. He has come through in a more modern era. We build on each other’s ideas using our contrasting backgrounds; it works well.”
Results for the pair have been good, with the club unbeaten throughout pre-season.
“There is one thing I know from my time in football, you take pre-season games with a pinch of salt. Yes to be unbeaten is nice, but with the budget constraints we have we have to beware as a couple of injuries and it could be really tight for us.”
The players will be very clear on the standards he expects and he knows that, despite the results, there is still plenty of work to be done. Last weekend the unbeaten pre-season culminated in a 3-3 draw at second tier club Mjondalen with Sarpsborg coming back from 3-1 down. Post-match the manager talked of his disappointment with the naivety of some of his side’s play and recognised there was further work to be done.
Changing things is always going to be tough when monies are limited. Even when faced with offers of players, Brian is rarely in a position to accept.
“I get calls from agents, as you can imagine, offering me lots of players, but our budget is that tight we have to be creative.”
Brian has already mentioned in previous interviews how he sees the Development squads back in English football as a potential source. Loaning young talented players who cannot get first team experience at their club is one potential avenue. He also has plenty of contacts and knowledge of promising players from his work at Leeds University and at the colleges and universities in Norway. However, he won’t bring players in for the sake of it.
“I have had calls about players wanting to come out here, but the reality is I only want to bring players in who are going to add to what we have got. We are going to have to try and develop players and bring players through as well. That is important for the longevity of the club and the finances.”
Brian mentions that there are probably calls he hasn’t returned, something he recognises from a player's perspective when he was the one making calls to managers late in his career. Now he recognises that it isn’t necessarily ignorance on the manager's part, but a need to find the time and focus to devote to his job and his team. We speak very late on a midweek night, with Brian having spent the rest of the evening meticulously preparing for the weekend fixture.
“Management is about managing and making sure that your players are prepared. You are ensuring that they are alert mentally and physically; you could be mentoring them, getting them in psychologically prepared so they believe that they can take the World on.”
In a long and varied career, Brian benefited from playing under a whole host of different managers, each with their own characters, ways and methods. In the time since joining Sarpsborg, he has sought the counsel of people he has played for such as Alan Pardew and Peter Taylor and those who have experienced playing and managing overseas, such as Roberto Martinez. Each give him ideas about how he could manage.
“I have looked at the managers I have had and draw on what they did well and what they didn’t do so well, balancing that by looking at what I am doing from a player’s perspective. Respect plays a big part and it is two way. I don’t mess about. That’s one thing I learned under George Graham, you have got to have discipline."
"There is one manager, the moment you let your players have an opportunity to have a say it doesn’t always work and I don’t think it would work for me. I think I am fair, but there is only one captain of a ship.”
When asked which managers he played under influence the way his teams are set up to play, he emphasises how he is trying to build on existing foundations.
“We have inherited a philosophy here of playing very good football through the thirds, something the club is renowned for. I reviewed a lot of last season’s games and I have worked on increasing the tempo, because we are going to need to do that. The fitness and discipline are going to be key. Sometimes it is just about being a little bit more professional.”
With these incremental changes across the piece, increasing the intensity and sharpness, focusing on maintaining possession in small areas, Brian is confident that the club can start to make great strides.
It may not be at Premier League level, but the standard of football is good and when the opportunities are not there for young ambitious managers in the football league, you have to be creative in your thinking. Creativity is a word that comes up frequently when talking to Brian, it is one of the reasons he finds himself in Norway now and is something he will need to apply to his thinking in ensuring the survival of what many would perceive as the league's smallest club.
So with a strong pre-season behind them and the long term foundations starting to be built, Brian can look forward with some positivity to Sunday’s game against a team they drew 1-1 with at the start of pre-season back at the end of January. That should give his team some confidence, but they also know that in their manager’s words that the pre-season result and performance is meaningless, it is getting off to a positive start on Sunday that matters.