Living the Football Manager dream: an interview with Bjerkreim IL’s innovative boss

Living the Football Manager dream: an interview with Bjerkreim IL’s innovative boss

Messiahs, masterminds, magicians – the best football managers in history have been bestowed with one or more of these admiring monikers throughout their storied and often varied careers. These sort of unofficial titles rarely get dished out flippantly and it’s a credit to the talent and approach of a select few widely praised coaches that they earn such acclaim from so many.

Building regimes from scratch, re-imagining a team’s particular identity or fashioning a title-winning season from a series of undefined ideas scrawled excitedly on a tactics whiteboard; the top football brains have done each of these and a whole lot more.

Images of these shrewd spectres hovering on the touchline shade the spectacle of match day with their antics, gestures and artful manipulations. They add a classy edge to proceedings, and their ability to swing a contest’s momentum one way or another with a deft decision or a smart substitution kindles engrossment and allure.

The pressure of that responsibility also intrigues. Taking charge of an entire squad is not for the faint of heart and yet they boldly go where few can only talk or dream about. Indeed, that’s the case when the coach in charge has all manner of qualifications and badges – but what about the football everyman? Could they jump in and do a job, too?

That’s precisely what These Football Times looked to find out when the chance to interview Paul Wandless after his appointment as manager of Norwegian minnow Bjerkreim IL cropped up. A Football Manager enthusiast without any formal coaching education, the former owner has accepted the posting in the south of Norway to help guide the club back up from division six as close as possible to the big leagues.

A self-confessed “decent player” in his heyday, the brave Wandless made the move to the Land of the Midnight Sun with a view to 2016 being his chance to get back experiencing regular football following an ankle injury which had plagued him since his non-league playing days. However, a chance encounter with local side Bjerkreim threw him a positive curve-ball as he spotted an opportunity to swap the pitch for the technical area.

“Over the winter months I joined some local people at the club’s facilities where they were playing five-a-side football. I learned that many of them played for the local side Bjerkreim so I said I would give it a chance and come along and see how it goes in terms of my ankle and the squad. With the season coming thick and fast, I was struggling to see where the team was as we had not had any training and we were still just playing for fun on a Tuesday night,” he told me.

“Around a month before the season was due to start, Gabriel the original manager called a meeting for the squad. Here, he got an idea of numbers for the squad this season after a very disappointing relegation last season and talked about the plans for the season. With the first plan being to be able to put a squad out for the opening day, it was clear this was a club in a lot of trouble.”

Clearly a self-starter, with the campaign rapidly approaching and the trainer temporarily unavailable, Wandless stepped in to take a session in the lead-up to an important pre-season friendly which they wound up winning 2-1 against Gjesdal Ålgård thanks to a ‘five and five’ tactical system which he had grown accustomed to using on Football Manager.

A conversation with the club’s representatives later and he had been offered a full-time role as manager after showing them the short-passing, intelligent style of football he wanted the squad to buy into.

It’s fascinating to think that a hobby could be turned into an everyday, full-on responsibility but that’s precisely what has happened for the 29-year-old. In short, it’s gone from ethereal to real. Of course, more and more clubs are using the FM database to give them an in-depth knowledge of the global game so it’s fair to say that the series is having an increased impact, but this is still a very rare development.

Wandless isn’t alone in transporting his tactical mind from the virtual world to the actual one because the inexperienced Vugar Huseynzade took charge of FC Baku’s reserve team a couple of years ago after his VR prowess gave him the opportunity.

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BjerkreimBjerkreim’s picturesque ground

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As impressive an accomplishment as that was, the Bjerkreim boss’ story is a far more romantic one than that, however. Appropriately, it mirrors the adventurous nature of the FM series to a far sharper degree because it’s all about the desire to take a relative unknown and dauntlessly attempt to transform them.

Admittedly, as his team are in the sixth tier, he’s really starting from the ground up, but he isn’t one bit fazed by the challenges ahead. Frankly, it’s that testing aspect which makes it all the more relatable because it really is the type of FM fan fiction we all try our hand at navigating, and creating. To do it for real magnifies the excitement tenfold.

Instead of living vicariously through a laptop screen (though he still takes time to relax with the Miles Jacobson-created game), he’s in the dressing room to soak up the atmosphere after a real-life win, loss or draw, he’s out in the howling wind, pelting rain and rare sunshine with his players or he’s studying new approaches to try out in training, and it’s all happening in a transitional period.

“With a club that is in total rebuild we will always need to focus on making the club stable and secure, on and off the field,” Wandless informs me.

“We have done this with everything from me bringing in a friend of mine in Paul Squires to run the social media side to get exposure for the club, to myself running drill after drill on the training. My relationship with the leader Asgeir Osland is fantastic and I am lucky that he sees the bigger picture, a club that has struggled for a few years now and needs a lift is finally getting it. We are working very hard and the players are on board with the process.”

In terms of how much his FM experiences have actually helped tune him into the intricacies and challenges of managing a club from one week to the next, Wandless feels it is a valuable apparatus to not only better understand the beautiful game for everyone but for prospective managers to test out their theories, tactics and suspicions without fear of ridicule or defeat.

“This starting tactic has been a very much FM-formed tactic, it is something I worked on to prove to people that you can keep clean sheets in Football Manager, originally a post on our website in FM15, I then recreated it for FM16 to find the same success, moving it over to reality. I have found it is as solid as in FM with the only issue currently the quality of the squad.

“I have no coaching experience from England. I offered my services to clubs in the past with no success. Looking back, I wish I had gone down to clubs and offered to collect cones, clean water bottles and do anything to get my foot in the door, but now I have been granted this great opportunity of starting at the top of a club and I am using all my knowledge of studying football.

“And yes, of course, Football Manager has helped me as you often emulate what you see on the field when you’re watching football inside the game when you get home.

“You see players like Xabi Alonso sitting deep for Bayern Munich and you try to emulate his role or alter the base of the idea to suit a plan you may have. You see mistakes inside the game from your tactical ideas and you can work on ideas to stop them happening again and in the process learn what can be possible in the real world also. You can then test your thoughts in the simulation. It is a powerful tool to use.”

He tells me that the club are up against it in more departments than merely the on-field one. A turbulent stretch included multiple relegations in recent seasons which saw their stock decline. Naturally for an outfit which has tumbled so far in such a short space of time, the finances are no longer as available as they once were, and many of the division’s more settled teams are out-muscling them with resources that extend beyond the confines of the pitch.

However, the arrival of Wandless hints at a new era of relative prosperity for the club and with a new image under construction, powered by his social media-savvy assistant, there are plenty of positives to appreciate including increased attendances. Indeed, when I ask him what he might think of any cynics lambasting his lack of prior managerial experience, his determination to feed off the pressure is as clear as the locality’s emotional investment in the team’s fortunes.

“I would ask them to step up and give it a go. Anyone can sit in a bar, sit at a desk or stand on a bus and give opinions and anyone is welcome to, but to step onto the training field, to look the 18-man match-day squad in the eyes and get them all to believe in what you want to happen is a different situation.

“The pressure of people stopping you to ask what the plans for the match are, people stopping you to ask if you can win, people asking who is starting, who is substitute…all of which happen daily when I go to the shop, take my child to school or go for a walk.”

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Read  |  United London FC: the real-life Football Manager club

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That’s probably the most admiring chapter of the Bjerkreim-Wandless story, how refreshing it all is and how charming, too. Having submitted his FM-laden resume, he is one of the few who have actually been successful in receiving an offer, and even though they are way down the leagues there can be no detracting from how big an achievement this is and, as Wandless tells me himself, the level of football is not to be downplayed.

“The level is good,” he states. “Fans at this level still turn out, we average this season around 30-40 people, which is double what last season had in division five. Away at Moster, I would put a number of closer to 100 came out to watch the match and the atmosphere was very loud throughout the game. Competitively it is high, fast tempo, hard tackles and very high expectations with me having the biggest. I expect nothing but 100 percent.”

It would be easy to scoff at the task at hand, but the truth is that Wandless’ endeavour is an innovative one, and there are sure to be plenty of interested admirers watching and waiting to see how he gets on during his Scandinavian encounter. Plenty of FM enthusiasts around the world will hope he gets on well because it could be the real-life success story so many have hoped for, especially if they go on and win the title.

So, what advice does he have for budding supremos looking to break into the world of coaching in a similar way?

“You have to try. It sounds silly but if you try and work hard then it will happen, go to a club and offer yourself as a cone collector, you help at training and just tidy up after.

“Speak to the manager and coaches over the months and you will get a chance to help coaching then step by step you learn and develop for a role…or be very lucky like me and push yourself in to take a session but that takes a lot of guts and confidence to walk in front of people in a nation where you do not speak the language fluently and get respect from minute one.”

Having arrived with little Norsk in his vocabulary, the English boss stepped up to the plate to showcase his willingness to take on a trial and he’s been articulating himself well with his instructions and personal performance since. An unbeaten streak of three games from their opening set of fixtures gave him a great start to the journey, and while the season is sure to be a long one with plenty of humps, bumps and jolts along the way Wandless is relishing the challenge of getting his “technically-gifted players” playing to his liking.

“My objective is simple: to work hard and we will finish where we deserve to finish,” he continues.

“The club has the objective to become secure, to get a group together who wants to work for the shirt and make the town proud again as after years of disaster on the pitch it is now that the town needs to be proud again. Philosophy is simple, play football. I manage a team to enjoy watching them, I do not want to see long ball after long ball, I want to see us playing football.”

To the untrained eye, Bjerkreim are just another lower-league team battling to break free of the shackles of a lack of finance, struggling to get large crowds through the turnstiles and working hard to stop playing kick-and-run football.

Under the skin, though, they are a trend-setting club eager to battle against a tide of mediocrity with innovation, intelligence and commitment. Re-branding the image of the club so that it’s more professional off the field has been one of the key redevelopments in recent times, but it has undoubtedly been the introduction of their new manager Wandless which has helped give them the added boost they have been looking for.

Instead of re-starting from a previous save whenever something comes a cropper, or manipulating the controls of an established football power from the comfort of his armchair, he has taken on the opportunity to live, breathe and devour the non-stop piquant thrill of managing the little guy in a harsh football environment.

In an age where blind tribalism runs rampant in the game, this is an endeavour we should all celebrate and it might just be the start of Wandless mirroring the greats who came before him.

You can follow Paul’s exciting adventure through the Bjerkreim IL Twitter and Facebook accounts, as well as keeping up to date with his FM musings here.

By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90

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