I still remember the celebrations on the last day of the season.
They were like nothing else, the best I’ve ever seen. I remember grown-up people crying. The relief, and the emotions.
Celtic is more than a team, more than a football club.
Stopping Rangers from winning 10 Scottish league titles in a row was something we knew was so important to so many people. A lot of fans let us know almost every day how important that was, so we knew – and we had to live with it.
We had a strong unit, a strong group of players and, in that 1997-98 season, a new coach in Wim Jansen who maybe didn’t feel the weight on his shoulders. It must be quite a burden, being the manager of Celtic in those circumstances, but he handled it well.
We improved as the season went along, and made some really good signings – Henrik Larsson (below) the most prominent of them all, and what a teammate and wonderful player he was. It was great being part of that squad.
I joined Celtic in 1995, and those were the years when things started to change. We were playing some great football but not winning the league, and that’s what it’s all about at a club like Celtic. So to win the league in 1998 was fantastic, and I have wonderful memories of it. It’s probably the pinnacle of my career.
Celtic is one of those clubs where it means more than just the game. It was always such a privilege to play in front of that many fans, especially at home. You represent a huge club, and it’s very rewarding when things are going well, but there’s pressure too. The players have to know that, if they’re playing for a club like Celtic, they’re there for a reason. They have to perform.
They have to be able to live with that pressure, and that season we did. We had a manager who at times protected us, but also had a feel for whether within the group there were some players who could guide the others. Who could let them know if the team needed to step up.
Even in a league-winning season, you have tough spells. We had that. Questions were asked if we were good enough. At times like that, it’s not enough for the players to be strong. The manager has to be very strong too. He has to be able to take the criticism and protect the players. Then the players have to respond and help. At that time, I think we had a good balance.
“Any coach in the world will look for players who can guide others on the pitch. Do we have them? Can we develop younger players into them?”
Right now, as the head coach at Aalborg, I know we don’t have that experience, or that kind of player.
We have lots of youngsters. At times, I need to protect them. Other times, I need to put pressure on them if they are to develop. I want to help the ones we think can become top players, to help them develop into players who can handle and play under pressure. There’s always an ongoing process of trying to gauge where both your team and your players are.
It’s so important to have not just one but several players in a team who, when the pressure is on and it’s difficult, can guide their more inexperienced teammates along. The inexperienced ones can be very important in their own right, and have real talent. But if they don’t have someone at their side who can say “Right, now we’re doing this”, it’s not good for them.
As a coach, it’s very difficult to get to your players during a game – the presence of lots of fans makes it difficult to shout to those at the far side. That’s why it’s important for players on the pitch to guide each other. Any coach in the world will look for those players. Do we have them? Can we develop a younger player into being someone like that?
Some players never develop into vocal players, but they can be leaders by example and that’s equally important. As coaches, we are always looking for leaders on the pitch.
I’m sure most head coaches in Denmark would say that we lack vocal leaders. Players who can protect other players, guide them. We all look for the same thing. One thing I certainly do when I speak to my director of football is ask: “Can we identify Danish players who have been abroad and played at a higher level in Europe?”
If they have two, three, maybe four good years left in them and the appetite to go back and play for a Danish team – especially if they’ve played for the club before and know it, the area, the DNA – then it’s a very good thing to try and sign them again. Then they can be the leaders on the pitch.
When I signed for Brøndby from Celtic, I was that kind of player, and I’m sure that’s what the boss Michael Laudrup saw in me at the time. I could help the younger players along and still play a part in the team.
“When I’ve been under pressure, one of my strengths is to stay steady. I don’t panic”
When I got my illness, Guillain–Barré syndrome, it was late in my career. It was a nasty thing, but I like to look at it a different way and say that at least I had a chance to come back, be a footballer again and lead a normal life. I felt lucky in that respect.
As a footballer, having worked my way back from major injuries helped me get through the illness. It was lots of hard work, physically as well as mentally, and of course I’d rather never have had it. But in other ways, it has really helped me, shaped me as a person and made me stronger. It’s a cliche when people say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but it’s true. Certainly for me, at least.
I had the strength and character to get through it thanks to my footballing background. And getting through it reinforced those abilities. If I think I’m having a hard time, I can think back to those days and realise: things can get worse. If you lose your independence like that in a physical sense, that’s more than football.
The way I act as a human and a coach is a product of what happened to me, and if I have to think of something from my coaching style that shines through it’s steadiness. When I’ve been under pressure and the team has been too, one of my strengths is to stay steady. I don’t panic.
When the players look at me, I don’t look as if I’m going to panic. I still believe in what we’re doing, and give the feeling to the players that they have to be steady too. When they look to me, they don’t see a coach who is shaking or unsure. That’s one thing the illness brought to me; I learned how to be very, very patient.
I had to be happy and grateful for every little improvement for a long period of time. Sometimes it’s like that as a coach. Of course, you don’t always get a lot of time, but that’s for other people to decide. But when things aren’t going how you’d hoped, you have to steady the ship, look for small improvements and encourage players that you’re going in the right direction.
“The first trophy is always the most difficult one to get, but it is also the one that creates history”
I started my coaching badges with Brøndby at the end of that 2004-05 season, when I retired from playing. Straight away, I had the chance to join Nordsjælland as assistant coach, and I thought: “Let’s go for it. Let’s see what it’s like, if it’s something I enjoy.”
It’s safe to say most players find it completely different being a coach. The amount of time you spend doing it is one thing that surprises a few people when they stop playing. Also, the mental process – the amount of things you have to think about is completely different, and that takes time to get used to. But it’s a very interesting world, and it can be very rewarding.
It’s great becoming a more experienced coach. As a player, I always felt that you were never the finished article, that there was always something more to learn. That is certainly the case as a manager and coach as well.
The game changes. Rules change. Society changes. The players you have to deal with and work with change. But you have to follow the times.
After my first season as assistant at Nordsjælland, I had the chance to become head coach. I took it, and I was there for five seasons as head coach. It was a hugely enjoyable time.
Nordsjælland is a very young club, and had never won anything before we won our first Danish Cup in 2010. The first trophy is always the most difficult one to get, but it is also the one that creates history.
Among the management and staff, we had said that if we could get that first trophy, it would show the players and the fans what was possible. That win laid the path for what happened in the following seasons: we won the cup again in 2011 (above); then, after I left, Kasper Hjulmand did a wonderful job with the players to win the league in 2012.
That was important for the club, and they are still doing very well now. With the resources they have and the way they do things, they are different to other Danish teams. But they believed in me when I was a young coach, and I will always be grateful for the chance they gave me to be in charge of a top-flight team.
“Today, everything revolves around mobile phones. As a coach, you have to remember that”
Football has changed a lot in the 10 years or so since I started coaching. It has become faster, even in that short space of time. It’s more intense now, at the highest level. Staff have grown in number. When you’re a head coach or manager, you’re now in charge of more people.
It’s amazing to go into a Premier League set-up and see how it is. In 2013, I was there as an assistant to Michael Laudrup at Swansea: so many coaches, people analysing, staff in all sorts of roles. I can only imagine the number of staff at the bigger clubs.
In Denmark, we don’t have the financial capacity to have staff that size, but numbers have still grown. Ten years ago, I was doing all the editing of videos myself, then sending it on to the players! Now, with more technology available, you have to get more people in to take care of that.
Society has also changed. Ten years ago, players and staff didn’t have the same possibilities with their mobile phones. Everything revolves around them today, and as a coach you have to remember that.
It may seem like a small thing, but if you have international players from South America, say, you have to think of the time difference when it comes to them speaking to their family and friends back home. If they are in Europe, they could be up late on their phone or social media when you want them getting a good night’s sleep. That can have an impact on performance.
The most important thing I’ve learned as a coach? To be true to yourself. As much as possible, believe in the ideas you have. Those ideas may change as you become more experienced, but you have to stand by what you believe in at that moment, and not try to be someone else.
I think that’s very important, because once you start down that route it’s very easy to become something or somebody that won’t bring you to the best possible position you can get to. You’ll start to wander. You’ll end up somewhere that won’t be beneficial in the long run.
Stick to your principles, but have an open mind and you will learn lots of new things. But don’t take too much advice – you have to find your own philosophy.
Author: Tony Hodson