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Mjondalen and the allure of the ‘other’ side

Norwegian side stir memories of following heart to random clubs


HOW do you explain little dalliances with football clubs that are not your own? Back in the days when Portsmouth found themselves locked two-step with a number of teams to escape the old English division two I chucked my hat into the ring with Pompey and their band of hapless pros between the years of 1984 and 1987.

Hapless is perhaps a tad unfair. It wasn’t that Portsmouth – then managed by Jim Smith – were shockingly bad, it was more that they just weren’t good enough.

When they finally secured promotion in ’87, they went straight back down the following season.

Once after a trip to Milan to watch AC in the San Siro I came away supporting their opponents – Fiorentina. La Viola’s fans had been marched into the stadium under police guard, all waving arms and clenched-fist braggadoci­o. They were outnumbere­d significan­tly but they did not stint in their chants of defiance directed towards the best team in

Italy – and then promptly marched back out again with a 2-1 victory and SuperCoppa to celebrate on the train back to Florence. Gabriel Batistuta’s performanc­e that night – when he gave the great Franco Baresi a torrid time – lit a flame in me. For several years after that game, I was smitten.

In Scotland, my paramour for a while was Livingston. I loved nothing better than watching a side romp through the divisions. Then came the financial difficulti­es that always seem to accompany such unhindered progress. Latterly, the Lions were replaced by Gretna who found themselves in a similarly spectacula­r upward trajectory before they, too, hit the buffers.

Meanwhile, for a period in the last 80s Reading had a place in my affections – the result of discoverin­g that they had once scouted me as a teenage youth footballer before, quite rightly, coming to their senses.

What is it that makes us yearn for these fleeting romances? It might just be that they are permanentl­y imprinted on to your weekly football coupon or that they provide a morsel of comfort during periods of ailment at your proper club. But they tend to ensnare us for all kinds of barely logical reasons.

These days I have little time for any of the aforementi­oned teams, yet every once in a while I find myself veering towards another lost cause or other.

Take Mjondalen in Norway’s second division, for example. Speaking to Kevin Nicol, their Scottish manager, last year was an education that helped change some of my opinions on what a coach does. The former

Hibernian and Raith Rovers midfielder moved to Scandinavi­a in 2007 and now lives in

Drammen just a few miles from

Mjondalen – where he has been manager since the tail end of last season. It’s a small club with a relatively big name and they have ambitions of returning to the top flight. It is a division in which they have had mixed fortunes, almost winning the title in 1976 only to be pipped on the final day by Brann Bergen but usually serving as relegation fodder.

His first coaching job in Norway was with Asker – another lower tier club – and he says he learned plenty of lessons from it, especially around his treatment of young players. He admitted he was dismayed a few years ago to find out that those players were afraid of him. He was the “scary, sweary Scottish coach” that so many of his coaches had been to him.

“I was much too hard on some of the boys. In Norway, the culture is a lot more democratic, diplomatic, [there’s] a different way of bringing kids up in school and you have to involve the players as much as possible in decisions, you can’t just tell them what to do all the time. These are things I have gradually learned as I’ve gotten older. I did a Masters degree in performanc­e coaching at Stirling Uni and that taught me a little bit more about the pedagogica­l side of coaching and teaching, and instead of just shouting at people you are actually trying to develop them and give them leeway for some mistakes. I did struggle with that in my playing career early on in Scotland. It was the old school, authoritar­ian management style where if you made a mistake you got told about it.”

That has, he says, brought about a change in his coaching style. He took over at Mjondalen with the club on the outskirts of the promotion play-offs and despite a massive upturn in form after his appointmen­t they could not quite break into the top six. And so to this season. There has been another slow start. Mjondalen sit in 10th, just below the spot they occupied for a fair chunk of the previous term but there’s hope. Kristian Lien is the league’s top goalscorer with seven in 10 games and was on the scoresheet again as Mjondalen lost to Sandnes who leapfrogge­d them in OBOS-Ligaen table.

On paper, it looks as if it could be another struggle for Nicol and his side but that’s part of the charm, isn’t it? You’re never quite sure what you’re going to get with a surrogate team.

What is it that makes us yearn for these fleeting romances? It might just be that they are permanentl­y imprinted on to your weekly football coupon

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