When Englishman Paul Wandless moved to Norway a few years ago, the only work he could get was in a local supermarket, but after a lot of perseverance and hard work he is now a semi-professional football manager making big waves in the transfer market.
With no prior real-life management experience, kick-starting a football revolution was just a dream when he took charge in April 2016, but with a second season fast approaching he has his sights set on going ‘all the way’ to the Eliteserien – the country’s top tier – with minnows Bjerkreim IL.
“It was just me, a small bag of clothes and my old laptop which has now sadly died the death of age,” Wandless says of his initial arrival in the Land of the Midnight Sun, a destination he describes as ‘beautiful’. “Living in England I did not work in a store or with customer interaction. Coming to Norway, it was the only job I got offered. I still work in this particular field but I am not a fan of it.
“I’m currently looking for a driver delivery job like I had in England, this would be fantastic with the views but a new job must fit around my coaching of Bjerkreim.”
These Football Times caught up with Wandless during his debut season in charge, and there was a lot of excitement and interest in his venture but, such was the uncharted territory of his destination, it was impossible to tell if it would work out or not.
The checkout is still a weekly sight for the adopted Norwegian a few months on, but he is much more comfortable in his home ground’s dugout as he aims to improve on their standing as a seventh-tier outfit.
While he had never managed a football team in real life before his appointment less than a year ago, readers will remember that it was his forte for the computer game series Football Manager, a past-time he has enjoyed for over 20 years, which equipped him with the pseudo-experience of controlling a club for fun.
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Indeed, as he is not yet fluent in Norwegian, his virtual-reality prowess was likely a doubly important positive in helping him hone his managerial philosophy with Bjerkreim and he’s continuing to dabble in it. “It is still a very useful tool although it now needs updating with Vetle Skjæveland moving to us from Ålgård as he is in the game, as are many of my team and myself since we last spoke. In terms of tactical planning, without a doubt it still leads me to ideas.
“I love to be in control of how and why we are playing a certain way and I also like to know everyone is doing what I believe is best, so being manager gives me the overview to decide training and match plans.”
Although Wandless is a self-confessed semi-pro coach, it’s clear that he is as involved with the role as any full-time professional would be, and the 30-year-old has a very hands-on approach to it all, mucking in on the training ground and having a more direct involvement than others would be used to. Wandless spends nearly every spare minute he has, outside of work and family time, dedicated to the club and while progress was always going to take time, plenty of improvements have been made since last summer.
What started out as a past-time, kicking a ball around the park for an hour-and-a-half with some of the Norwegian locals quickly developed into a full-blown passion after he was invited to ‘come and play with the team’.
His decision to settle in Norway was something of a happy accident, but that hasn’t stopped him from making the most of it. “Moving to Norway was something I never planned, meeting my girlfriend was a surprise and one with many obstacles, mainly us not living in the same country.
“The distance needed to be made shorter so me moving here was an option I was excited to take. We first lived in Egersund for three years and I never really settled, always felt like a visitor. But since we moved to Vikeså, Bjerkreim, it has been fantastic and I feel like we are putting down roots now.”
Indeed, Wandless is certainly ‘putting down roots’ as he has already started revolutionising the club from the bottom up, making a handful of impressive signings – seven in total. He has high hopes for three of these players whom he has coaxed away from bigger clubs. “We signed Skjæveland from Ålgård, a player who was due to be playing for the ‘A’ team. We have also brought a player from their youth side called Stale Vaule who would have been knocking on the door of the ‘A’ team.
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“The third signing I hope to make a big impact this season is Trym Skjæveland, a player we have signed from Eiger based in Egersund.
“He is a player who many clubs in the area wanted a couple of years ago, but after some tough years he is ready to rebuild his career at his local club Bjerkreim and his talent in pre-season is clear to see.”
Skjæveland is also the club’s new captain and has complete faith in the boss to lead the club in the right direction as well as opening up briefly about why he moved from a club higher up the rankings. “It’s great to finally have a manager who really cares about the club and are willing to put down a lot of work and effort to make the team as good as it can,” the player informs me.
“I moved because I wanted to help my moderklubb [hometown club] and build a solid team and hopefully move up some divisions, and I have always wanted to play for Bjerkreim because many people in my family have done great things there.”
Indeed, while each of those signings have been impressive, it’s arguably the manager’s desire to promote youth as the most-eye-catching. If it pays off, it would be an absolute masterstroke, but regardless of what happens, it shows a real belief in some of the local talent, because although this is Wandless’ pet project, he hasn’t lost sight of the fact that this is ultimately the community’s team.
“In Football Manager, I always like to build slowly, develop the players we have who come through the youth teams and focus on the long-term project, and here at Bjerkreim we are doing the same.
“Vegard Merkesdal and Kristian Eia are two fantastic [youth] players. Both will be exciting to watch as they try to break into the starting squad. Youth is without a doubt the direction I wanted to go in,” Wandless explains.
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“We have also promoted Joakim Espeland from our under-14 side as he just turned 15 and he will be in a position to battle for a first-team team slot. He is one of the brightest talents we have currently in the team and one that will take the league by storm with me predicting some larger clubs watching him once we as a club begin to get noticed more,” he adds.
Wandless is a big-picture guy and is also aiming to implement some integral infrastructural plans, too. “We have a plan for a new clubhouse on some land next to the stadium. Promotion will convince the owners to spend on that. We have an ideal spot on both sides of the pitch for a stand, I spoke with the owners and that is possible – again, promotion and stability guarantees that,” he adds.
Having taken the reins in 2016, it was always going to take time for the club to improve in as short a time as Wandless would have liked, with the squad failing to secure automatic promotion at his first attempt. Defeats and draws were a mainstay of the ambitious team’s 2016 season as they struggled to bring Wandless’ ambitious plans to fruition in the seventh tier, but it was never going to be an easy task.
Back in 2012 the club were living comfortably in the fourth division, just a few jumps away from competing in the big league, but four bottom-of-the-table finishes since then has seen them slide down the ranks to where they currently reside. However, Wandless is unfazed by the challenge of resuscitating them and even appears fortified by it. “I see nothing stopping the rise of Bjerkreim,” the trail-blazer says.
“I believe that if we can get a couple of seasons under our belts which includes stability, a promotion and some development within the youth team, one or two more teams at aged 16 level, we can go all the way over the years,” he says.
“I see no reason why in 10 years we cannot be in division two as the quality below that is not divided by mountains, only the towns are. We show passion and more players come as you grow.”
One of the big positives from his debut season as Bjerkreim’s coach was that he led the club to just one defeat in seven home games as well as drafting in someone to man the club’s social media channels, plus they have new kits, complete with local sponsors, arriving for the 2017 campaign.
Now with things off the field improving, Wandless has his sights set on improving their on-field form, especially away from home – that is likely to be key in seeing them move up the table to challenge for promotion. Because, the truth of it is that they had to deal with their fair share of bad luck and unfortunate timing last season.
“In terms of looking back at 2016, we always knew it was going to be tough. We had a team which was pieced together with no preparation time. For a team of any ability to go into a season with only two training sessions was always going to be tough.
“The lads we had gave their all and after the summer break we put some results together and lost some games where on other days we could have won, including a final day defeat at home to league champions 2-1 which saw us dominate the game, only to lose due to two goalkeeper errors [as well as] missing our first and second choice goalkeeper on the day.”
From the outside looking in it would be easy to remark that this club are in the same position they were a number of seasons ago. Struggling for form, and a long way from the money-laden success of teams vying for back-page glory and a chance to play in the UEFA Champions League or Europa League, they really are at the bottom of the food chain.
Wandless is only interested in improving the team’s fortunes, however, and far from burying his head in the sand, has been eager to identify the many problems and drawbacks to set them up better for an improved future.
When I ask him what his biggest achievement is, he doesn’t hesitate in stating how it has been the way he has gone about ‘saving the club’ with the backing of his loyal squad. “With a club so close to being on its knees, the A team not getting any funding from the owners, it all going into youth football – it is great to see the lads turning up to training in full tracksuits, new kits arriving within days of this interview, a large sack of new footballs, whole new training equipment overhaul and best of all, 25 players all wanting to take this club to the next level.”
It is not going to be an easy feat and the path is sure to be set with obstacles, but if Bjerkreim stand any chance of finding their way again they’ll surely need the continued passion and pride of the daring Wandless to help guide them back
By Trevor Murray @TrevorM90