Even Pellerud, a titan of women’s coaching, talks winning the Euros and World Cup

Even Pellerud, a titan of women’s coaching, talks winning the Euros and World Cup

Even Pellerud is one of a select amount of head coaches who can say he won both a European Championship and a World Cup. He can also say he coached in a further two European finals and won an Olympic bronze medal. Not bad.

The 68-year-old is one of the most decorated coaches in the history of the women’s game at international level, with all his success coming with his home nation of Norway, while he also had a nine-year spell as Canada head coach where he pushed forward the development of the women’s game across the pond.

Across an hour-long interview from his home back in Norway, Pellerud reflects on what he constantly describes as a “lucky” career – not necessarily in terms of he didn’t work hard, but that he is privileged to have enjoyed so much success, especially when he discusses just how little he knew of the women’s game when he was asked by the Norwegian Football Federation to lead the women’s national team in the late 1980s.

After retiring from playing in 1986 and taking over as manager for the team he’d last played for, it was in 1989 that Pellerud’s coaching career took a new path, a path he would not look back from. “It was a strange incident really,” he chuckles. “I was asked to meet the federation. My name had started to grow a little bit, but I was kind of expecting it to be maybe one of the men’s youth teams. 

“In the meeting, they offered me the job of the women’s team and that was a big shock for me. I think I had the right attitude for it, but I hadn’t actually seen one women’s game in my life, not even on TV.”

He adds, “They seemed to think I was the man for the job. I was ready to move on, so I was motivated and I wanted to be part of that environment, to grow something, that’s what really triggered me to do it. All I asked is that I have a contract for only two years, because I didn’t know how it would go.”

Two years would become seven, and an unprecedented period of success for Norway which saw Pellerud lead his nation to a European Championship in 1993, and after coming up short in the final of the inaugural World Cup in 1991, the grandest prize of all two years later in 1995, plus an Olympic bronze one year later in 1996, Pellerud’s final tournament of his first spell with Norway.

“To cut a long story short, I fell in love with the team,” he smiles. “We had a very strong team, a lot of success, I had a lot of fun. It was a great team to coach, such characters, such committed players. They were fit, well trained, it was just a fun team to work with and there was a lot of work to do, but it was a great job. It ended up being seven fantastic years.”

Pellerud inherited a side that included players who would go down in legend. Captain Heidi Støre, future Team GB head coach Hege Riise, one of Europe’s finest goalkeepers Bente Nordby and hotshot striker Linda Medalen, among many others.

Norway had won the first unofficial World Cup in 1988, but with a lack of footage, analysis or any of the things a modern-day coach would now have access to, a novice in the women’s game had no real understanding of where his squad of players was at heading into the World Cup, so how did he do it?

“That is a good question,” he exclaims. “Norwegian players in the league played in front of 50 spectators, in small venues, no media, they were playing games we won quite easily with the national team. It was only when we met Germany, Sweden or Denmark we were challenged.”

Pellerud, therefore, took his side to Winnipeg in Canada for a tournament against said hosts and the USA in 1990 to get a better understanding of what challenges he would face come the first World Cup in China, which was just a year down the line.

“That was the biggest eye-opener for me,” he recalls. “I was so happy we had that challenge. We beat Canada, but the USA just played us off the field, we had no chance. I think we lost 4-0 and it was a real shocker for me. I knew they were good because in 1988 the USA were the best team, even though Norway won, the coaches told me the USA were the best team. It was an eye-opener as to what to expect in China. We flew home and had some serious chats about what to do, how to bridge that gap in the space of a year.”

Pellerud admits going into the opening game, against the hosts, he had no real idea of what to expect, it was a whole other world to what his players had experienced back home, with the locals absorbing and engaging with the tournament on a level the women’s game hadn’t seen before.

“We went from these small games in Norway to 65,000 fans in China. Stands filled with people, we’d been in Europe and not seen this. My eyes were opened. Big buses, police escorts, people in the streets, it was so big you can lose yourself a bit. You don’t feel connected to the games or your team. The sound, the music, the opening ceremony, I will never forget the hours in the changing room after the opening game.”

Norway had lost 4-0 to hosts China and looked a world away from a side that would reach the final just a few weeks later. Pellerud and his side had been completely taken aback by what lay in front of them and had to act quick to ensure their tournament got back on track.

“We started well, we missed a penalty, but after that we didn’t have the ball, China totally outplayed us. That was my first World Cup game, you can imagine. We had to learn quickly how to raise a team that wasn’t used to losing, and here we are losing 4-0. They were rough days and for me, I learned a lot in that period.”

They bounced back to beat New Zealand 4-0 and Denmark 2-1, progressing past Italy in a dramatic and enthralling quarter-final, before disposing of neighbours Sweden in style with a 4-1 semi-final win.

The final didn’t go their way, a last-gasp Michelle Akers goal sealing the tournament for the USA, but Pellerud and his side had come so far from their 4-0 loss to the same opposition a year earlier, and had set the foundations for what was to come.

“We knew we had that level. We knew we had the players and we had the support from the federation,” he says. “The main thing for us was to create an environment where the players could be challenged enough in the league games. That was issue number one. We had to compensate for that by being super fit, super organised, we worked so much on defending. We had to introduce girls to training with the boys just to step them up a little bit. We had some really good years.”

“Good” is perhaps an understatement. Pellerud became European champion in 1993 when Birthe Hegstad’s late goal sealed a win in the final against Italy, before they headed to neighbouring Sweden in 1995 with renewed vigour ahead of the second World Cup. Riise was named player of the tournament and striker Ann Kristin Aarønes was the top scorer in the tournament with six goals, with Riise just behind on five. No other player for any country scored more than three.

Norway dominated from day one, winning all three group games without conceding and scoring an incredible 17 goals. They beat Nigeria 8-0, England 2-0 and Canada 7-0. A 3-1 win against Denmark in the quarter-finals was followed by the toughest test of all and a 1-0 win against defending champions USA.

Germany stood in their way of glory, but goals from Riise and Marianne Pettersen ensured it was Pellerud who came away as a world champion, and he admits he knew throughout the tournament his team would come out on top, and the feeling of being a world champion has only grown stronger in the subsequent 27 years.

“At the time, you live by the day, live by the training, live by the next game,” he says. “You don’t think so much about it, but I have to say in the years since it gets bigger and bigger for me. It was one of the tournaments where everything flies in your direction, everything we did was a success. 

“We lost our captain in the semi-final against USA. Usually, we should be concerned, but we weren’t, we knew we were going to win. That is a very rare feeling for a coach. I’ve had that maybe twice in my life, that nobody was going to beat us.”

On the final itself, he recalls, “We pressed Germany super high. They got frustrated, we had full control, both games against them and USA was an extreme example of competitiveness, but not beauty. None of these games were beautiful. They were tough, a struggle, just don’t make mistakes, take your chances. But for the neutral, it was not fancy football. If Hege Riise and Linda Medalen and others played today, they would have been stars. The talent, the understanding of the game, the brilliant football minds. With today’s facilities, they would be stars.”

After a bronze medal one year later at the Atlanta Olympics which saw hosts USA win out in another tight semi-final, Pellerud stepped away and returned to the men’s game, but his affiliation with the women’s game was far from over. “The Olympics was another huge highlight in my life, but we weren’t quite as good, not quite as sharp, that was my feeling and I was right. I had many offers to coach men’s teams and had a desire in me to do that again.

“I’d got divorced and moved away from my home town, there were different things in my life which were both exciting and difficult. I was actually offered a lifetime contract with the federation.”

After a spell with Norwegian side Lillestrøm, Pellerud became the first Norwegian to coach a top division side in Denmark when he took over at Ikast FC. Three years since his last involvement in the women’s game, the opportunity soon arose to go back into it with another exciting new challenge.

“The General Secretary in Canada called me to discuss a contract to coach the women’s team. They had been very unsuccessful in 1991, 1995 and 1999 and wanted a European coach. It was a good fit in many ways. I’d remarried, we had two young twin daughters and we agreed on a mutual desire to see something of the world before the girls became too old. We went to Toronto, met the people, got a house, and like in Norway, two years became nine years!”

While now an experienced coach in the women’s game, Pellerud’s challenge almost outweighed that of him walking into the women’s game a decade previous with no knowledge of the sport, such was Canada’s position at the time.

After failing to qualify for the first World Cup, Canada went out at the group stage in both 1995 and 1999 and there was a lot of work to do for a country that was yet to embrace the sport of soccer.

“It’s almost impossible to think about,” says Pellerud of the challenge of taking on the Canada job. “It was not a soccer country then, there was no soccer on the news, no writing about it. The only information I had was that all my players after the 1999 World Cup were released from their contract. They said it was up to me if I wanted to bring anyone back.

“I didn’t complicate things, I ran around the country to see games that were set up as trials for the national team so I could see the best players in each province. I started to pick a team, had a camp in British Columbia and I used my contacts back in Europe to get us into the Algarve Cup in 2000.

Canada held their own with what was largely a brand-new side filled with young players, losing 4-0 to China, only 2-1 to Pellerud’s former employers and ending with a 2-1 win against Finland, followed by a 3-2 win against Denmark in the fifth-place match, a certain fresh-faced teenager by the name of Christine Sinclair scoring twice.

“Everything happened so fast, so fast. I had to take risks and I got a lot right, but some wrong. I had a couple of good leaders, then I had Christine Sinclair, that was the biggest thing. When I saw her in one of the setup games, I was quick to decide she would come to the Algarve with us. She was 16, but she was very special, so I built the team around these few players and played a very simple game. We pushed things, these players went from training twice a week to twice a day.

“We did ok, the federation was very helpful. We went to tournaments, we lost a lot, then we lost a little bit less, then we started to tie games and then we started to win. I promised the team we would beat the USA within a year, that was a bold statement, but we did. We beat them in the fall of 2000 in the USA, that was a very big moment for everyone.”

By the time the 2003 World Cup came around, Pellerud had been working on developing the Canada team for almost four years, but they still very much crossed the border to their tournament hosts as underdogs compared to the bigger nations. Pellerud though had a bit of “lucky timing” as he puts it, as FIFA introduced the first Under-20 World Cup a year earlier in 2002, to be held in Canada. 

Given how young his senior squad was, many of them qualified for the tournament and indeed took part under the guidance of his assistant head coach, Ian Bridge. The squad would include six players who had gone to the senior World Cup a year later – Sasha Andrews, Carmelina Moscato, Brittany Timko, Kara Lang, Erin McLeod and Sinclair.

Canada reached the final, topping their group, before Sinclair scored an incredible five goals in a 6-1 win over England, another in a penalty shootout win against Brazil, before a narrow 1-0 loss to the USA in the final, but a core of Pellerud’s youngsters had gained valuable tournament experience.

“We had that advantage because these players came through together, they knew each other so well, had already played for the senior team and some got very good scholarships to go to the USA. That 2002 group was so talented, many went to 2003 and many others went to future tournaments. Some went on to play for Canada for years and years, so it was lucky for us with the timing.”

A year later, Pellerud led Canada out of a World Cup group for the first time and their dream journey continued with a 1-0 win against China in the quarter-finals. A 2-1 loss after two goals from Sweden in the final ten minutes denied Canada what would have been an incredible appearance in the World Cup final, but Pellerud had led them further than anyone could have imagined.

It meant expectations were high four years later when Pellerud took his team to his fourth World Cup, back in China where his journey had started 16 years earlier. The likes of Sinclair were now leaders of the team, while they’d been joined by other 2002 squad members such as Melanie Booth, Robyn Gayle, Andrea Neil, Tanya Dennis, Diana Matheson, Candace Chapman, Amy Walsh, Katie Thorlakson and Taryn Swiatek.

After defeat to Norway in their opening game, qualification was between them and final group opponents Australia. When Sinclair scored with five minutes to go it looked like Canada had narrowly avoided elimination, only for Cheryl Salisbury’s 92nd-minute goal to send Pellerud and his side home early.

“Oh yes … Australia,” he reflects. “We overachieved in 2003, we had some really good players, but at the same time we had major issues with funding moving forward. The federation didn’t care much, we basically lost all our funding, so we weren’t able to maintain that level. We trained a lot, maybe we trained too hard, maybe I asked too much of them. We had injuries so didn’t go to 2007 full strength or where we should be. It was disappointing.”

Pellerud went to another Olympics oneayear later but, after another narrow defeat to the USA, this time in extra-time, Pellerud decided that not only was it time to step away, but retire from coaching altogether. “It was always one goal. We could be competitive but we didn’t have the level to control games. We had to rely on Sinclair. The timing for a new coach was great because at this time these players were reaching their peaks. It was a solid foundation, so it was the right time for a new coach to come in with a new view.”

Pellerud had a deal in place to move into the shadows in a development role with MLS side Vancouver Whitecaps, but no less than a month after leaving the Canada role, another national team offer within the women’s game arrived in his inbox. It was from Trinidad and Tobago, very much still a developing nation in the women’s game and an even bigger challenge than Canada.

“I had a deal in Vancouver, then this thing with Trindad and Tobago came up and I was very surprised by it,” he recalls. “I didn’t know much about them, but it was a development opportunity to work with young players and that’s what I wanted.

“It was a fun experience. Different, not always easy, it was the opposite of easy, but I had good local staff. The general mentality was not really team orientated. There were social problems, getting a commitment was not easy and for me to try and get the best out of them was hard. We tightened discipline, we trained a lot and trained hard, but we started to increase the number of players and started to have a team that looked like a soccer team.”

After four years helping to develop the sport in the Caribbean, Pellerud was offered the chance to go back to where it all began – back to the Norway national team ahead of the 2013 Euros and the 2015 World Cup.

Norway was about to welcome an exciting group of bright young players including Ada Hegerberg, Caroline Graham Hansen, Maren Mjelde and Ingrid Engen. “There were some rumours Norway was looking for a technical director. I showed interest but they changed their mind, so that job no longer existed. Then someone said they were going to change their coach and would I be interested? I said ‘hell yes’, so I went for a meeting and the job was mine.”

It had been 17 years since Pellerud had last coached the national team and was welcomed by a completely new squad of players, but some of the brightest young players anywhere in Europe. “A lot had changed, but also a lot hadn’t changed,” he says. “Sometimes it felt like the world had stood still. I had the same number of support staff, even with Canada I had more. In 2013, nothing was really that different to 1995, that was surprising for me.

“I think perhaps they had rested too much on successes from the 1990s and not moved forward. I really liked the players though, it was a really talented group.”

With 18-year-old duo Hegerberg and Graham Hansen gaining plenty of attention and experienced heads such as Ingrid Hjelmseth, Solveig Gulbrandsen and captain Ingvild Stensland, expectations were high for the Euros in 2013.

Pellerud once again reached a major final, losing only 1-0, while missing two penalties, in a tightly contested final with Germany, but Pellerud was more circumspect in a different stage of his career and despite the defeat, talks of his return to Norway as one of the fondest times of his career.

“I had a fantastic time,” he smiles. “If you jump to the team I came back to, I was shocked by what I saw. The skill, the ball control, the agility, the love of the game and the intense play. That was another level, and there were many of them, not just the big names.

“I could not believe what Caroline could do with a ball, to me it was just unreal. What is going on here?! I had been so many years away and not really seen her. She was 17 when I came in, but what she did for me between 2013 and 2015 was unreal. She wasn’t a mature player then, but had pure talent, speed, agility, the solutions in tight situations. She was the closest I’d seen to the best men’s players.”

Pellerud’s last hurrah would come two years later at the 2015 World Cup, ironically held in Canada, and if not for a second-round defeat against England, his last game as a national team head coach could have come between the two nations he spent most of his coaching career with.

While Hegerberg’s emergence as one of the best young strikers in the world had plenty of eyes on Norway, Pellerud lost Hansen to injury before the tournament and despite a respectable draw against Germany in the groups, Norway bowed out after losing 2-1 to England despite taking a 1-0 lead.

“I was so happy and motivated going into 2015. The team was good, but I had some concerns because we had major problems with injuries, a lot of injuries. Caroline was not there at all, but we still did ok, we should have beaten England.”

He admits he had no idea going into the tournament that it would be his last, his departure was not pre-planned, but he quickly decided after that defeat that now past the age of 60, it was time to walk away. “After that game, I knew,” he reflects. “That was it for me. I went straight to the technical director. I said ‘you don’t even have to try and ask’, but he said take a holiday and call me again in 14 days. I said ‘you can call me, but it doesn’t matter’. He did call me and I said I didn’t have the motivation or the energy to raise a team again. It was actually a very easy decision for me and I went into a new position within the federation.”

Pellerud got the technical director role he’d applied for in the first place, a role he kept until 2018, and admits his days as a head coach are done, but he’s not against helping others via his own experiences.

More importantly, though, he ends our interview reflecting back on that “lucky” feeling, appreciating every day what he achieved across a 26-year career at international level, and the medals and memories he still cherishes. “I really wake up every morning and appreciate something I just regard as being there at the right time, I was the lucky one,” he says. “I’m healthy, I met amazing people, met amazing friends. I used to compete against them, but now I see them in hotels, airplanes, I was just so lucky.

“I cherish those years very much and it makes me happy now to be able to mentor young coaches. I enjoy travelling and meeting them and being an instructor on the UEFA Pro Licence courses. It helps me meet the next generation of coaches and to help them…with no ambition of taking their jobs.”

By Rich Laverty @RichJLaverty

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