BY KEVIN O’NEILL
A towering Irish goalkeeper, Gary Hogan had an unremarkable playing career in his homeland.
Flitting in and out of regular first-team action, he made just 19 appearances in a four-year spell with the semi-professional and now defunct Dublin City FC.
It was hardly an earth shattering résumé; providing back-up, as he did, to a plethora of run-of-the-mill, amateur goalkeepers in a league where financial reward, for players, has always been as minimal as the media coverage gained in a country obsessed with the English Premier League.
In search of greater recognition, Hogan packed up his gloves (and boots) and headed for the non-league ranks in England, turning-out for Sutton United for a season in 2006/07, before deciding that enough was enough searching for fame and fortune in this part of the world.
And so, he decided to leave it all behind. The family and friends in Dublin, and the acquaintances made in England. To make his name somewhere else he had to put them to the back of his mind.
But where could he go, you ask, to find professional and personal satisfaction?
After all, it was extremely rare for British and Irish players to leave their comfort zone, and seek a fresh start far from home. Sure, they weren’t meant to do that sort of thing, were they?
To show an almost child-like enthusiasm for thinking outside the box and trying to rescue their failing career on foreign shores.
No, instead they were meant to simply take their medicine, if they couldn’t make the grade in England or Ireland, and bow-out gracefully from the scene.
But not Hogan, who was convinced the wider football world had something to offer.
As importantly, he was adamant that he had something to give, too.
The knock-backs and spells spent on the bench, in Ireland and England, had failed to quench his thirst for success or the desire to find a place that he could genuinely call his football home.
Nevertheless, he had never envisaged finding himself knee-deep in snow, in the height of a swirling, treacherous Nordic snowstorm in the early part of 2006, as his search for a craved-for football haven took him to the small and closely-knit city of Steinkjer, in Norway’s fourth least populated county, Nord-Trondelag.
But that was, indeed, the awkward setting in which Hogan took the first tentative steps in his new career.
“As well as playing for Sutton, I’d been training a bit with Fulham reserves and was close to joining Torquay United when an agent called to say that Stuart Gibson, an English coach in Norway, wanted to meet up,” Hogan explained.
“Yeah, the weather when I got there, in March, was quite harsh. But Stuart convinced me I was better off trying something new rather than slumming around the lower leagues in England,” he added.
Settling in, said Hogan, would be made much easier by the presence of an English-speaking manager and such was the sense of homeliness he soon discovered in Norway – and having fallen in love with the game and lifestyle there – that Hogan has never since even contemplated a return to Ireland.
He would spend the majority of four years with Steinkjer, aside from a season with Second Division rivals Skeid, before enjoying a short spell in Estonia with Tallinna Kalev.
Soon though, the country in which Hogan ‘feels most at home’ (Norway) dragged him back to join, firstly, Nybergsund and then Ullern, Sandefjord and, finally, Stjordals-Blink earlier this year. At the age of 33, Hogan has become so well respected around Norway’s Second Division that he now finds himself as the top-man and head coach at Stjordals-Blink.
It has, indeed, been one hell of a journey since Hogan ditched the prospect of a journeyman career in England to investigate what it might be like to join a Norwegian club that he never previously heard of.
“I think Irish people grow up in a sort of bubble where only English football exists.
“Then, if you can’t make it in England, Scotland is close enough. It’s just ignorance to be honest, not realising there’s so many other good options out there. The Norwegians are far more relaxed than the Irish and English and the people have their own pace. There’s also more acceptance of the importance of sport to a balanced lifestyle, so playing sports professionally or semi-professionally is widely encouraged, unlike the attitude we sometimes have back home. Mentally, the Norwegian players aren’t as tough – they are quieter with less aggression. Application-wise they are fantastic and don’t believe in days off, it’s ridiculous. Technically, they’re very good and they want to learn by working every day to be better, but I do sometimes miss the toughness of Irish/English players,” he said.
But just because you miss something it doesn’t mean you want it back in your life. And for the foreseeable future, Hogan remains fully committed to life in Norway.
“I’ve been here the guts of eight years and am very settled.
“I’ve got another year on my contract with Stjordal and have no desire to go back to Ireland or England. Steinkjer is my favourite place in the world and where I feel most at home, so to get such a good management job so nearby (roughly 67km away) was just fantastic. Maybe after a few more years here, working hard and learning, the only job that might tempt me back is the Shamrock Rovers post, but that type of thing is a long way off and I definitely see my long-term future in Norway.”
Surprisingly enough, Hogan was not the first Irishman to pitch-up in Steinkjer with that particular honour going to the former Republic of Ireland and Manchester United full-back, Tony Dunne having managed there, briefly, in the early eighties.
Generally, however, the presence of Irish players and coaches in Scandinavia has been fairly minimal, despite the admirable efforts of Patrick Walker – a native of one of Ireland’s hurling hotbeds (County Wexford in the south east of the country) – who finished his playing days in Sweden before managing six Scandinavian clubs from the early nineties until 2011.
Otherwise, the stand-out Irish-born players in Scandinavian football in recent years have been Shane Robinson, who was twice named Player of the Year for Finnish club Haka, and Conor Powell, the former Bohemians and Shamrock Rovers left-back who featured in the Norwegian second tier for Vard Haugesund.
Both Robinson (now retired) and Powell have been well respected figures in the League of Ireland for years, boasting eight major domestic honours between them, while John Andrews, a defender from County Cork, would also make a decent impression in a four-year spell in Iceland, where he later started his coaching career with the Afturelding ladies’ team.
But Britain’s association with Scandinavian football has been, undeniably, far stronger over the years, beginning with the astonishing impact made in Sweden in the seventies by Bobby Houghton.
Despite having a playing career of little consequence, Houghton would revolutionise the way people felt about Swedish football by guiding Malmo FF to three league titles and four Swedish Cups in the mid-seventies to the very early eighties.
But of even more significance was when Houghton steered Malmo to the 1979 European Cup final, where only Brian Clough’s excellent Nottingham Forest side would deny them the remarkable distinction of actually winning European club football’s most valued accolade.
Houghton’s Malmo had become the first Swedish team to reach the European Cup final, an achievement not since repeated by another Swedish outfit.
And around about the same time, fellow Englishman and, again, a largely unheralded former player, Roy Hodgson would also prove a wonderful success, as a manager, in Sweden’s top-flight, as he kick-started a post-playing career that led to Hodgson managing Inter Milan, Liverpool and the England national team.
In Sweden, the level of success attained by Hodgson was second to none, as the Croydon-born supremo claimed seven Swedish league titles between 1976 and 1988 (with Halmstads BK and Malmo FF).
His terrific haul of honours in Sweden also included two domestic Cup titles with Malmo FF (1986 and 1989) before Hodgson departed the region in the early nineties, to experience Swiss football.
Later, in the 2000/01 football season, Hodgson returned to Nordic territory to win a League and Cup double with FC Copenhagen in Denmark.
Meanwhile, in the eighties and beyond, the Scotsman Stuart Baxter would also prove his managerial credentials in the region when blossoming in plentiful posts between managing Orebro SK (in 1985) and the Finland national team for two years from 2008.
Such luminaries would, indeed, pave the way for many other British coaches in Scandinavia, where various ex-pats now find themselves trying to make a serious name for themselves – including Leicester native Ian Burchnall, the current assistant manager of eight-time Norwegian champions, Viking FK – who are based in Stavanger, the country’s fourth most populous municipality often referred to as the Oil Capital of Norway (unsurprising given the presence there of the energy company Statoil, the largest company in the Nordic region).
Burchnall’s football background, as he says himself, had not been glamorous.
He played semi-professional in the Northern Counties Football League but soon realised, while juggling playing with a Sport & Exercise Science degree at Leeds Met University, that it was coaching – and not playing – that best captured his imagination.
He quickly undertook the role of head coach with the University football team while working part-time in the Leeds United academy. All the while, Burchnall had been accumulating vital coaching qualifications on various FA courses.
He then combined coaching roles with Bradford City, Leeds Uni and England Universities before a famous friend made from his time coaching at Leeds Uni – the former Leeds United and Sheffield United star Brian Deane – came calling with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Burchnall had helped Deane – who scored the first ever goal in the newly formed English Premier League in 1992 – through his coaching badges, and when Deane was appointed as manager of Norwegian Premier League club Sarpsborg 08, in 2012, the three-time capped former England striker turned to Burchnall for assistance.
Their reunion was in unfashionable surrounds. Yet, Sarpsborg had offered Deane and Burchnall a major challenge in a foreign land.
The club, formed less than ten years, would achieve promotion to the top-flight under the English duo and, as importantly, then maintained Tippeligaen status the following year.
“It worked out well for us in Sarpsborg,” said Burchnall, who is still just 33-years-old.
“We kept the team in the top division and then finished in the top eight. At the end of the second year, Brian decided to move back to the UK and I stayed, taking the assistant manager role at Viking, which is a big club in Scandinavia with a great history, so it was an exciting challenge and another great learning experience.
“In my first season we finished two points away from a Europa League spot and were in the semi-finals of the Cup. This season has been a tough season, economically, and we had to sell quite a few players,” he added.
While the task of restoring Viking to the top table in Norwegian football looks difficult – Viking has not won the League since 1991 – Burchnall, whose two daughters were born in Norway, simply has no intention of saying goodbye to Stavanger’s scenic locale.
“I signed a four-year contract extension last January, so my thoughts are to continue the progress at the club. At the same time, I have a goal to manage myself and to eventually go back to the UK and manage there. But I am open to working in new places and trying to gain as much experience as I can to best prepare for the craziness of football in the UK,” Ian said.
But would Burchnall – and the club’s Swedish manager, Kjell Jonevret – be able to keep Viking pushing toward the top end of the table without adequate assistance from their backroom staff, which includes a 35-year-old Welsh fitness coach called Sean Cullinane?
A Football Coaching & Performance graduate from the University of South Wales, Sean spent time working as a sports scientist for the Cardiff City and Wales youth teams when a daily trawl through Twitter suddenly caught his eye.
“I was working at Cardiff, with the U18s, after completing my MSc at the end of last year, when I noticed an opportunity posted on Twitter to work as first-team Fitness Coach/Sport Scientist with Viking. I got in touch with Ian (Burchnall) and the club invited me over to discuss the role at the end of last November. After seeing the club and the facilities I knew the move to Norway was the best thing to advance my coaching career, so I made the move in early January,” said Cullinane.
It’s fair to say that Sean followed what was, initially, a spontaneous reaction to the job advertisement. But less than a year later, he believes the decision to relocate to Norway has proved one of his most prudent choices.
“The experience has been an enjoyable one – both on and off the field,” he said.
“The players are top-class professionals and have been a pleasure to work with. Being able to help some of the younger players break into the first-team has been especially satisfying, as the club don’t have the finance to go out and buy experienced players. I have enjoyed living in Stavanger; the people are incredibly friendly and myself and Stian (Viking Kit Manager) have enjoyed numerous days/nights in the town centre attending the annual food festival or watching Wales get to the semi-finals of Euro 2016,” he added.
But, one might ask, exactly what is the day-to-day involvement of a Fitness Coach/Sport Scientist?
He explained: “A typical training day consists of morning daily physiological tests for the players, ensuring their availability and readiness to train. A staff meeting then takes place to discuss the structure of training for the day – with training starting around 10am. During training, I perform pre-habilitation exercises and session warm-ups based around the theme for the day. I also monitor the players training load via live GPS capture and this allows us to ensure players are meeting their daily/weekly physiological markers and are not over or under training. The afternoons often consist of the analysis of the day’s GPS and a gym based injury prevention session with the players.”
And although Sean sees some flaws in the physical capability of Norwegian players, and a few things they could do to improve their nutritional intake, he does see a bright future ahead for football in the country.
Similarly, the former Southampton Sport Scientist, Ben Rosen – the current First-Team Fitness Coach at Swedish club, Malmo FF – feels the game in Scandinavia could make giant strides in catching up some of the more prestigious European leagues, if the necessary investment is made in the right places.
“I think the biggest difference between British and Swedish players is that the British teams, in general, invest much more money and resources into youth development, from a physical perspective. To address some of the shortcomings in that department, we brought over another Fitness Coach from England (Mark Read) to work specifically with the young players, and he has done a fantastic job ensuring they are prepared, from a physical perspective, when they reach the first-team. But definitely, more could be done in this area in Sweden,” said Rosen, who since March this year also serves as Fitness Coach for the Danish senior national team.
“Yeah, I came to work with the Danish team because I spent my first two years in Malmo (from 2014) working with the current Danish head coach, Åge Hareide. It’s a different role in that I spend ten days trying to manage lots of players who have come from very different places in terms of total training volume and minutes played. I am with the team during every international break and really try to provide the very best service to the players over that time, while also trying not to contradict too much what they do with their clubs,” he said.
Though obviously balancing two busy and important roles in Scandinavia, Rosen very much promotes the significance of foreign players, coaches and backroom figures immersing themselves in the local ways of life and, just as importantly, learning to speak the native tongue.
“Of course it’s a big decision to pack up and move from England to Scandinavia but, for me, it felt like a relatively easy one to make. The club made it obvious they wanted me and it felt like a great opportunity to go to a club where I could really implement my philosophy. It didn’t take long to settle in – and it’s really just a case of trying to learn the language and culture as quickly as possible,” said Rosen, who is far from alone, as a British man in Sweden, where others like the former Stoke City, West Bromwich Albion and York City defender Graham Potter (manager of Ostersunds) and ex-Sheffield United, Rotherham United and Macclesfield Town midfielder Mark Dempsey (manager of Djurgardens) are also currently enhancing their coaching credentials.
Naturally, all the managers/coaches mentioned will be judged, in Scandinavia, by the standards set by their respective clubs. Certain individuals might progress to wonderful things while given the precarious nature of modern management, others could simply fade away over time, forever failing to be recognised anywhere except in Scandinavia.
Realistically, it’s probably unlikely that any of the above will match the heights reached by the former Scandinavian resident, Roy Hodgson. But for people so averse to doing things conventionally, anyway, is that type of career trajectory really the be-all and end-all?
Having interviewed these people, my guess is not, but that’s not to suggest they lack ambition.
Rather, the over-riding feelings this writer was left with by those involved in the piece was that they have found, through a sense of adventure and ambition, places where they have achieved happiness and contentment, as the headline (in Norwegian) says.
And for that, no matter what awaits in their futures, they can be wholly satisfied, for now.