Ian Burchnall, who’s 30, is assistant manager of Sarpsborg 08 in the Norwegian top division. He has worked for Leeds United and Bradford City’s academies and, before moving to Norway, was head coach at Leeds University – winning the British universities’ championship in 2010. Here, he talks about moving from college to full-time football, life in Norway, and working under Brian Deane… 

It’s embarrassing how good Scandinavians are at English. I’m learning Norwegian but I coach in English, as we’ve got players from Iceland, Denmark, Jamaica, Nigeria, France, and elsewhere. One day, I was putting up statistics in the dressing room, little messages like: “Our opponents have lost nine of their last 11 away games”. I saw the players reading them, and I thought “That’s good, they’re taking this in”. Then one of the players said: “I think your grammar is wrong”. I couldn’t believe it – the Norwegians were picking me up on my grammar! That’s how good they are.

Me and Brian Deane, who’s the manager, are about to start our second season. The aim in our first season was to stay up, and we achieved it. We started well, but went on a bad run in the summer. With eight games to go we were bottom, six points off the relegation play-off spot. We’re a small club and people had written us off. But then we beat Haugesund in the 92nd minute, and we went on a run, beating Tromso, Brann, and Molde at home. We went into the relegation play-off and won over two legs. When you win them, the play-offs are a nice way to stay up. There’s a nice tension.

My coaching career really started at uni. I studied sports science at Leeds Met – I planned to do physio, but I didn’t get the grades – and towards the end, I did my dissertation on coaching styles at the Leeds United academy. It just so happened that, while I was there, a coach left. They asked me to fill in, and I ended up working part-time for a couple of years with eight, nine, and ten-year-olds.

When Leeds got into financial trouble, I lost my job. So I went to Bradford City and worked part-time with their 14 to 16-year-olds, plus one day a week with the youth team. One of my colleagues was John Hendrie, the former Middlesbrough striker. He was friends with Brian, who was doing his coaching badges, so John invited him down to Bradford. I met him, got on well with him, and said: “I coach at Leeds University, the pitches are round the corner from your house, why not come down?”

I became head coach at Leeds University when I was 22, and I stayed almost seven years. As an undergraduate, I played for Leeds Met – a separate university to Leeds – and I also took a lot of sessions, as I was doing my badges. One of the Leeds Met players went to Leeds Uni to do a Masters, and played football there.  When the coach’s job became available, he put my name forward.

I think Brian enjoyed the atmosphere of university football. Compared to the professional game, there’s less politics – just guys coming down two nights a week to enjoy their football. Having said that, we had a good team at Leeds Uni – the season Brian helped out, we won the British Universities championship. There were some good players – we had Dave Syers, who signed for Bradford and is now at Scunthorpe. Loughborough had Bradley Pritchard, who’s now at Charlton.

Working with us, Brian really got into his coaching, and he went on to do his A Licence. He wanted to get into management, so he put his name out to a couple of clubs in the UK, but there wasn’t much interest. Then he played in a charity game organised by Jan Aage Fjortoft, who he played with at Sheffield United. He got speaking to a Norwegian agent, Tore Pedersen (the former Oldham, Blackburn, and Wimbledon player) and he said there was an opportunity at Sarpsborg.

I already had a small business in Norway, running football schools. I spoke to people, and told Brian that Sarpsborg sounded like a really well-run club. He accepted the job, but said he wanted to bring his own coach – me – with him. I didn’t know how the club would receive me – they knew all about Brian, but nothing about me. I had a couple of interviews, and they were happy to take me on.

Standard-wise, it’s a big leap from university football. We’re working with international-level players; we’ve got four or five involved with their national teams. But I don’t treat the professional players differently to how I treated the university players. The game doesn’t change, even if the stakes are higher. I wanted professionalism, even when I was working with university students.

Have any of the uni players been in touch, asking for a trial? Yeah, most of them! But we’ve got a settled squad, and we haven’t needed too many trialists. Also, we’ve got some really good young players coming through. We want to give them an opportunity, so bringing someone over would take one of those spots. It’s no different to the UK – you’d rather give the chance to a local player.

When I got the job, my mates at home immediately became staunch Sarpsborg fans. I remember our first game last season, away to Lillestrom. We drew 2-2 after being 2-0 up, and they’d got a cheap penalty. I’m from Leicester, and my mates live all over the place, but they’d all streamed the game. When I got onto the bus afterwards, I had something like 148 messages on our Whatsapp group. It was all “Never a penalty!” and “What’s going on!” They’ve been like that every game.

There isn’t the same going-out, pub culture in Norway. Sarpsborg is a town of 50,000 people, and it’s very peaceful. I’ve just had the weekend off, so I went skiing. It’s an outdoorsy country: in the winter you ski, walk in the snow, go ice skating. In the summer you go to the beach, spend time at your summerhouse, have barbecues and so on. I’m over here with my wife, and she enjoys it. After six months, I said she needed to get a job – but she got pregnant instead! She’s due in June.

Brian and I get on well socially. He’s bought a house here, but while it was being completed, he lived with us. I’ve seen him all states – walking to the shower in the morning and whatever. We try not to spend every day in each other’s pockets, but we’ll get together some evenings. It’s hard to spend time socially without talking about work! I think the girls get bored with that.

Long-term, I want to manage. But I’m not in any rush – we’ve got a good project here. I look at Stromsgodset, who won the Norwegian league last year. They were probably in a similar position to us five years ago – smaller club, not much money. But they’ve slowly built a team without spending loads, and they’ve got a fantastic style of play. There’s the potential to do that here.

Sarpsborg players to look out for? There’s a boy called Gudmundur Thorarinson, who’s just had his first call-up to the Icelandic team. He’s technically very good, left-footed, can play centre mid or number ten. Then there’s Aaron Samuel, 19, Nigerian – he’s gone to Monaco for a week’s trial. And Mohamed Elyounoussi, also 19, has just played for Norway for the first time. He’ll go a long way. The league is full of talent – there’s not much money, so young players have a good chance to develop.

I consider myself fortunate to be here. I’ve worked hard, but at some point you have to meet the right people. After my first year at Bradford, I sat down with my boss and he asked where I saw myself in five years. I said full-time with a club, and here I am. I always had the ambition to coach at a high level, but when you’ve not been a pro – I only played semi-professionally – it’s not easy.

For any coach or player looking to develop, moving abroad is a fantastic decision. I think a lot of people brought up in the UK think the game begins and ends in England, but it doesn’t. When you get here, you realise people in Norway are obsessed with football, and the standard is very, very good. There’s a football life outside the UK, and I’d really recommend trying it. You can always come back.

Our aim for this season? We think we’ve got the players to finish top ten. The lads have come in for pre-season and they’re absolutely flying. But we also know that, when you’ve got a small squad, things will depend on injuries and suspensions. It should be a good year.

Interview by @owenamos. Follow Ian @ianburchnall and read about his and Brian’s academy here:

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