Football manager enthusiast, real life football manager and North-East England native Paul Wandless is currently living the dream in Norway. Unlike most, Paul decided to move not for his football career but rather for love. It just so happened that it ended up leading to a fantastic opportunity for himself at Bjerkreim IL and although it has been, admittedly, tough, he has relished every moment. In this interview Paul speaks to us about his life in Norway, both footballing and otherwise. This is Paul’s story, in his own words.
Tell me a bit about yourself? How long have you been a football manager? What other football experience do you have?
I’m 31 years old and I am currently in my third season as manager of Bjerkreim IL, and management in general as this is my first management job. My previous experience within the world of coaching is none. I was what some would call a promising young player but injuries hit me hard and after a failed come back in the non leagues of England with Peterlee FC, I retired from football aged 18. After this, I dedicated my spare time to studying football and learning more about the game in any way possible.
This resulted in me spending more and more time playing the simulation game Football Manager, which I still play to this day. Doing which helps greatly in increasing my knowledge of world football. As well as this, I spend days watching games back on repeat to study how and why teams used certain tactics, and how some shapes can be used to counter others.
I took charge of Bjerkreim just before the 2016 season, the club had just recorded one of its lowest ever points totals in its over 50-year history and I was told the squad was struggling to get enough numbers.
I had come in to a club in turmoil. We managed to start the season fairly well with three draws in a row before hitting a bad patch, losing every game leading up to the summer break. Summer was the first chance I had to work week after week on plans and drills, as when I joined we had only had one week before the season started.
Over the summer we picked up some victories in friendly games and players started to pick up the ideas and plans I had to turn this club around. I remember telling the chairman how I thought it would take a few years to get us moving how I wanted. We picked up some wins and points in the second half of the season but we finished in last place. One of the hardest years of my life, I jumped into football management and did it with one of the biggest challenges anyone could take on. But I was determined not to let that get me down. In the end, we survived the drop as another team had folded but we knew that this would not be the case the following season.
My 2nd season as manager started with a winter cup, it was a pre-season cup but one I would use to test some new things. I had managed to convince some locals to return, young players who went to rival clubs in previous years and we had started putting things in place as a club to move forward but our team was still very young.
Pre-season went poor results wise, but I had the belief that we were learning as we trained. This was proven right when we won on the opening day of the season at home, this gave everyone a lift. We continued to develop and learn throughout the season and we ended up in a respectable 7th place from 9 teams, only a couple of points from 4th place. The league was tight but we had survived and we had shown people what we could do.
Our biggest issue was we had still not won a game away from home and this was becoming problematic. Players and fans spoke of how it had been 5 years since we last won a game away from home in either pre season or competitive action.
I have again added some new players going into this 2018 season, my 3rd as manager. We have started pre season with three away games, against Dirdal and twice versus Eiger3. Dirdal are one division higher than us and Eiger3 are in our division. We have won all three games whilst keeping a clean-sheet in all of them also, and now have a 7-0 aggregate scoreline across all three. Hopefully, this will permanently put to bed the issue of not winning away.
2018 is a year which will continue to be a learning curve for my young team, but also one which I believe we can have great success in. We were so close to 4th place last season that I believe with the new players and the changes we have made, we can aim to secure a place near the top of the division this season.
How did you end up in Norway?
Moving to Norway was a journey of love. I met a girl and within months I was here on holiday discussing moving over. After losing my job in 2012 with the crash of work in the UK, I decided to move to Norway and see what would happen.
Where are you from originally?
I am from a small mining town called Shildon, close to Darlington in England. It’s more famous for a multi million pound railway museum that anything else.
How exactly did you come into the job at Bjerkreim?
In March 2016, I emailed the club as I wanted to find out if the local football team was looking for players and I was invited down to the training session of the season. Little did I know, I was walking into a club that had been in freefall; a club that had suffered greatly over the years leading up to my arrival. Training was more of a meeting to discuss who could play and who couldn’t play that season. With just over a week until the new season, the manager of the team decided to step down due to work and other commitments. I offered to take the training session leading up to our first friendly against Gjesdal FK. We won the friendly match with a new tactic and a new shape of play I tried to instill quickly into the players. The next thing I know, the chairman is asking me to stay on for the new season, the players enjoyed training and I enjoyed my time with the players, so I thought why not! Maybe this was a decision that, looking back on, I should have taken more time to think about. Although I would not change my decision for the world, and I’m extremely content and proud of the work I have done, it was tough taking my first management role at a club with so many problems.
What are the most noticeable differences between the different leagues you have worked in? Or how would you describe Norwegian football in respect to these things?
Norwegian football is very direct and teams do not like to hold onto the the ball for long periods, there is no time spent on the ball, no time spent to drag players across the pitch before attacking. That is something I have looked to do with Bjerkreim, finding gaps in the opposition’s play. This has resulted in many months of training drills running the same things over and over, developing our team so that it is one of the most comfortable when in possession of the ball in our region. We love to play football and we love to move it across the field looking for the spaces to open up.
I like the fans and atmosphere in Norway. I often find myself watching Egersund IK who are a third tier side, the singing and atmosphere in general is always very positive. People go out as families and friends to enjoy the football.
In terms of coaching methods I can only speak of what I have witnessed from opposition managers. It is a very quiet sideline, I am known for having a big voice and often in games, mine will be the only voice coming from the sidelines with only the odd words from the other bench reaching the players.
What are Norwegian players like to manage?
The players are very keen to learn, they have always been very forward thinking in listening and learning from the drills and plans I have. The language is never a problem with 99% speaking very fluent English, often better than mine!
Any culture shocks or difficulties as a manager?
The biggest shock is the quiet nature of the opposition. There will only be 1 or 2 players who shout and direct the team. Most of the time, the field is a quiet place and it seems to be a similar thing for many teams we face.
Do you have any stand out footballing memories from your time in Norway so far?
The biggest stand out memory for me was a 5-1 victory last season, it was one which put us in a great position for survival. We had lost an away game only a matter of days beforehand due to us having a weakened squad. But the players bounced back and that victory helped us massively on our way to staying up last season.
The club had dropped 2 divisions and finished bottom for 4 seasons in a row, only surviving due to a restructure of the league and another team folding. Finally showing the locals we could start to move forward was a great feeling.
Norwegian Football has suffered quite a dramatic decline over the past twenty years? What do you think has caused this?
One of the biggest issues is the bigger leagues around the world taking the best talent before they have time to develop. A prime example is Martin Ødegaard, a player who filled all of us over here with excitement when watching him play but before we had time to enjoy it, he had gone. These level of players staying in Norway longer can only boost the reputation of the league and attract more to want to come here, as well as convincing more young players coming through to stay.
Another recent shock for me was Sander Svendsen, a great young talent at Molde who decided to make the switch to Swedish Football. This shows what level we are at, at the minute we are losing people to Sweden, never mind the top leagues around Europe.
Finances do of course play a part in this, clubs here are not knee deep in money like some divisions around Europe. But in my opinion, when you look at where some of the talents are going, we should be doing more to keep them here, making the league stronger and long term making it even easier to keep people. The stronger the league, the more chance of the National team developing over time also.
Can you ever see the national game getting back to where it was in the 90’s?
In my opinion, the Norwegian youth of today are the best they ever have been. The depth of talent around the ages of 15-25 is huge, we have players playing in the best leagues in Europe. A big problem had been the previous manager, Per-Mathias Høgmo. He was someone I was not a fan of, his desire to stick with the old guard has really hindered the development of what I have seen as a great bunch of players coming through. With the new manager, I hope to see new players given a chance and maybe now the new talent coming through can push Norway into the 2022 world cup
What is life like in the country outside of playing football? Especially, in comparison with the UK? Differences/similarities, etc?
Life is quiet, I have not heard of a single crime in this village since I moved here. In general in this region, crime happens very rarely, which is a complete change to my upbringing. People are quiet but friendly and if you are ever in need, they come to help you. Which I must say was the same in England.
Was there anything about life in Norway you found particularly difficult to get used to?
I have really struggled with the language. It has a different structure to English so learning to change my sentences when speaking is a problem and often I ramble in Norwegian for way too long.
Stand out memories or observations of the region in terms of your life there?
Stand out memory of the region has to be the parades on May 17th which is national day. Every town in the region comes together to march, and everyone is involved in some way during the day. We never had that in England, growing up I remember people talking about street parties from years gone by but I had never witnessed it. Over here, though, it is still a big part of life.
What do you miss the most about the country where you are from?
Apart from my family, I must say the food! Fish and chips, pasties, anything you think of as British food I miss greatly. Even more that pasties and sausage rolls don’t exist here.