Östersunds FK, 2011-2018
“Does anybody actually live here?”
My wife Rachel looked at the empty streets and closed shops around us with a mixture of amusement and confusion.
Welcome to Östersund.
We were here to see a man about a job. The sporting director of Östersunds FK, Daniel Kindberg, wanted to offer me a coaching position in their academy. I was intrigued, but the timing was off. Rachel was pregnant and I was finishing a Masters degree alongside coaching at Leeds Metropolitan University.
Besides, who wants to live in a ghost town?
We’d actually arrived on a Röd Dag (Swedish Bank Holiday). But, by the time we found that out, it was too late. First impressions are hard to shake.
So, when I told Rachel a year later that I’d been offered the role of manager at Östersunds FK, she wasn’t exactly excited. I was asking her to pick up her life – including a business she’d spent 10 years building – and leave her family. In return? Temperatures of minus 25 degrees in January and February.
It was a massive risk. I had a good coaching job at Leeds. A career I’d built up over five years. We had a life that was safe. Comfortable. And here I was, suggesting we swap it for a city in the middle of Sweden. In the middle of Scandinavia.
The middle of nowhere.
But it was too late to change my mind. I’d been sold on the idea.
Sold on two ideas, really. The first: simply the idea of being a manager, and putting into practice everything I’d learned. Over the previous five years I had been trialling things. Failing with some. Succeeding with others. Now I was ready to put everything I’d learned into practice. To see what worked in the real ‘results world’ of football.
I knew opportunities to manage in England weren’t going to be there - I’d been out of the professional game for five years since finishing my 13-year playing career. Östersunds FK was my chance to get back in.
"We arrived in Östersund, and reality hit. Almost as hard as the Arctic air that took our breath away the moment we left the airport"
And the second idea? That belonged to Daniel Kindberg, now the Östersunds FK chairman.
There was a clarity about him. It struck me the first time we met. He had a clear idea of what he wanted from the football club, and an understanding that Östersund’s location meant he had to do something different to get it. And I could see he had the courage to do just that.
He was a visionary.
Like I said, I was sold. On his vision of a football club that was different. A club that was looking to make a difference.
Then we arrived in Östersund, and reality hit. Almost as hard as the Arctic air that took our breath away the moment we left the airport.
The vision was still there, but suddenly it was fuzzy around the edges. Further out of reach.
The club was coming to terms with being relegated to the fourth tier of Swedish football, and I could sense the negativity around the city. A sort of mistrust from the public. I got the feeling people in Östersund didn’t actually like the club much.
We had around 200 people in the stands for my first game in charge. And I’d say around half of those wanted us to lose.
At home, there were other challenges. My eldest son was 11 months old when we moved to Sweden, so while I was at work Rachel was adjusting to our new life with him. She admitted to me later that, for the first six months, she pretty much cried every day.
I desperately wanted to make it work. In the early days, that meant spending hours in the car – the nearest town to Östersund is around four hours away - travelling to games. Trying to understand Swedish football culture. Trying to understand the teams we’d be playing.
It was a tough six months.
"You need to know about football to coach, but you need to know about people, too. Sometimes that can be the difference"
But it was also six months that showed me I’d made the right choices at the start of my coaching journey. I decided early on that relying on my playing background wasn’t enough for me. I’d experienced players going into the professional game as coaches after their playing careers without having the skillsets behind them.
I wanted to learn the art of it. Develop my skills as a coach. Learn how to communicate my message.
I’ve always had a desire to learn. It took a backseat for most of my playing career until one moment, when I was at Southampton. I caught myself skim-reading a tabloid newspaper article. My brain was getting lazy. I had to do something. So I started a degree in social sciences.
There were a few raised eyebrows when I got on the team bus carrying books on the European Union or American politics. But that didn’t bother me. In football you can work hard and not get the result on a Saturday. Studying was different. I worked, I got the marks. I liked the consistency.
When I found myself coaching in the university environment a few years later, I decided to try and get a Masters, too. In Leadership and Emotional Intelligence.
When I looked at the curriculum of the course, I realised how much of it fitted with football. I’d done my A Licence, done my ‘practice’ for four years. This was a way for me to theorise the concepts of leadership.
Self-awareness. Empathy. Responsibility. Motivation. Relationship-building.
You need to know about football to coach, but you need to know about people, too. Sometimes that can be the difference. It’s about how you bring a team together. How you communicate as a team. How you understand each other. And, ultimately, how you unite the group for a common cause.
I was the only person on the course from a sporting background. The others were mostly surgeons who recognised the need for extra awareness around emotional intelligence. And the lecturer had a military background. It was fascinating to learn how different environments looked at different concepts. One thing that really resonated with me was thinking about how we deal with failure.
"When I was doing my coaching badges, I never thought I’d end up singing a cappella or performing to Swan Lake in a theatre full of people"
In football, we focus on the mistake. We want to blame something, or someone. But in the military and the operating theatre – life-and-death situations – it’s the opposite. It’s about how you deal with the mistake. And creating an environment that allows you to learn from it.
In my first season at Östersunds FK, this was key.
Negative results would spiral into negative feelings. Negative attitudes. I had to get the players to enjoy their football. To come away from the traditional blame and fear culture. To understand that mistakes, failures, losses will happen – but that we have to try and respond in a good way.
I had to find a way to develop that side of the players. To develop the human being outside of the football pitch.
The chairman came up with an idea.
A ‘culture academy’, exposing players to aspects of life they wouldn’t normally experience. Every January, we announce a performance art project that everyone at the club – myself included – works on throughout the season, with scheduled rehearsals and workshops. Then, come November, we perform.
When I was doing my coaching badges, I never thought I’d end up singing a cappella or performing to Swan Lake in a theatre full of people. But that’s what it’s about: becoming (a little) comfortable in uncomfortable situations.
It’s a process. I can’t say it’s something that’s greeted with universal excitement. The players aren’t skipping with joy when a project is announced at the start of pre-season. But they adapt. And, sometimes, they surprise themselves.
I remember one player who was quite negative. He’d sit in the back of singing rehearsals and didn’t want to take part in anything. Come show day, he was a different man, strutting up and down the stage like Mick Jagger. It’s amazing how people transform.
This year, we’re working with a comedy musical group. I don’t know too much about it yet, but I know it’s going to be a real challenge. They always are.
People ask what ballet or singing has to do with performing on a football pitch. It’s a hard thing to quantify. But you see individuals grow. And if you’re more confident, more self-aware, better at taking responsibility and at understanding the viewpoints of others, then I believe it enables you to carry out your football actions in a better, clearer way.
We got promoted in my first year at Östersunds FK. And then again the next season.
In 2016, we played in the top tier of Swedish football, the Allsvenskan, for the first time. It’s where Daniel Kindberg always envisioned we would be. But that was only the first part of his plan.
Europe was next. The Europa League, that was his vision. His goal. And from the start I naively believed it could be possible.
It turned out I wasn’t so naive.
Our Europa League journey last year gave me some real goosebump moments. Getting a standing ovation from the Galatasaray fans in Istanbul after we knocked them out was certainly one. As was seeing our team play with huge courage to come back from 3-1 down after the first leg against PAOK to progress to the group stages.
In those moments, I had a sudden realisation of what I’d done. What the team had done. And the implications that had for the club, the players and myself.
When the final whistle blew in that PAOK game, my eldest son – now a Swedish-speaking six-year-old – ran on to the pitch. I saw the chairman, and how much it meant to him. And to the fans. There were almost 6,000 of them in the Jämtkraft Arena that day. I think they’ll remember it for the rest of their lives.
It was an outlying moment for the outliers.
Welcome to Östersund. The middle of nowhere no more.