The 13th of October 2006 may mean very little to you, another inconsequential day lost in your life. To the fans of Strømsgodset IF, it was the day their club began to turn itself around from the very precipice of oblivion and financial ruin.
‘Bankruptcy’ has all too often crept into the vocabulary of modern football conjecture. The glut of financial mis-management from teams across the globe chasing success has made those who achieve it with prudence even more admirable. Liquidation was a fate that Strømsgodset skirted towards in 2006. Located near the industrial city of Drammen, it is fitting the city’s crest of a sword and key holds the motto: “In Fide Et Justitia Fortitudo” (in faith and justice is strength), as they required both in abundance to turn themselves around.
The four men with the key to their eventual safety were; Atle Kittilsen, Tom Saxegaard, Thor Nilsen and Svein Nikolai Helling. A primary motivation of fandom over financial gain, their changes held all the composure and diligence of the shrewdest business minds. One of their first motions was to appoint Dag-Eilev Fagermo as manager, with former Wimbledon and Liverpool midfielder Øyvind Leonhardsen returning to play out the final year of his career.
Jostein Flo became Director of Football in January of 2006. Formerly of the club’s marketing department, many saw Flo’s departmental shift as a particular masterstroke. Blessed with a wealth of contacts inside football, Flo was instrumental in securing a player partnership with Manchester City. Providing continuity to the club’s operations, the intention was that the manager moulded themselves to the club rather than the other way around.
Winning the 1st division in 2006, a tenth place finish was the result of their first season in Norway’s top flight. Firmly on the road to stability, the departure of Fagermo to Odd Greenland placed the club at an important juncture. Faced with a safer option or the more radical appointment of Ronny Deila, Flo opted to take a risk that was subsequently rewarded.
Appointing Deila to the top seat in the dugout, he had spent the final throes of his playing career as a central defender for the club. However, even with a term served as a terrace favourite, the task facing him did not ease. Inheriting a squad with a number of older players, on wages higher than the club wanted to spend; he was informed funding would not be forthcoming – youth being the bedrock of the new-look Strømsgodset.
The club had already invested in the facilities of the youth academy – a partnership with Drammen Secondary School, further improving what was on offer. Since the takeover, ambition has coursed through the veins of Godset, but it has been tempered with the realism of cost: “Even if the club has plans we don’t own anything ourselves, and we don’t have the financial power to invest in it,” said Stian Lund, one of the club’s youth coaches remarked.
Now working as a single-minded cohesive unit, all available money is maximised. The selection process when bringing in new members of staff has been diligent. Speaking after Lund’s appointment in 2009 Deila remarked: “It’s not about the number of jobs – it’s about the right people.”
A straight talker Deila was candid in his assessment ahead of the 2009 season. Admitting the task of even remaining in the division with his crop of youngsters would be difficult. Regardless, his aim to play attractive football remained, eloquently stating he would rather go down playing well than survive with ‘shit football’.
Despite his early pessimism, that year saw the momentum of the revolution increase significantly as the team quickly began to display his instructions on the pitch. A free-flowing style that meandered between 4-2-3-1 and the more in-vogue 4-3-3, Deila has never been afraid of tinkering and being flexible with his tactics.
For instance, Deila has been known to implement striker Péter Kovács if the opponents rely heavily on set pieces. If there is a weakness in at fullback, Gustav Wikheim is his man of choice, especially away from home. When entertaining at Marienlyst Stadion, Deila’s attention is focused more on the energy of the players he selects. Having lost just one league game at home in two years, there appears justification for Deila’s methods.
Their impressive playing style has not gone unnoticed. Speaking to Molde wideman Joshua Gatt, I asked his thoughts on Norwegian football in general: “A lot of the other Norwegian teams are kick the ball up in the air and try and win that fight. That’s not our strength we like to get it on the floor and play. Stromsgodset have been a very good team at doing exactly what we do. They’ve been very successful and have been building the same team for three years and they’re very connected. It shows with how well they’ve been doing in the league.”
If there has been but one criticism, it is softness at the back in years gone by. It is an issue Deila has attempted to rectify this season with the signing of Jørgen Horn from Fredrikstad.
Keen to nurture his side into reaching their potential, he is just as eager to further his own personal growth. Thus he can often be found in stadia across Europe. Taking in games, watching, listening, and learning: “It´s the only way to get references to where the world leaders are,” he explained.
With his side consistently producing talented young Norwegians to the first team, his side’s cultivation of youth has evoked memories of an early millennium production line, in Deila’s head: “The club operates a bit like Arsenal,” he explained. “We need to buy young players and develop them.”
Even if the Gunners have not enjoyed a wealth of success in recent times, few can contest the benefits of an academy that has produced the likes of; Ashley Cole, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, Wojciech Szczęsny, and more recently Jack Wilshere. Much of Deila’s philosophy centres around the concept of developing people, not simply players. “I hate to train teams that have no growth potential”, he once revealed.
Citing Arsenal as his greatest influence, in part due to their financial stability, Deila has gone on to nurture young talent in the ranks of Godset.
Take for example Stefan Johansen, a young talent that has flourished under his guidance. Towards the end of his time at former club Glimt, Johansen’s feet were more often found in the dugout than on the pitch. Signed in January 2011, he had operated as a winger or forward for his previous club. Deila’s catered instruction and personal touch saw Johansen shifted inside to attacking midfield.
His progression, like any worthwhile process took time. Creeping into the side, October saw his first start for the club – one fully earned. Despite the positional shift, attacking midfield was not where he would come to prominence. Instead following the departure of loanee Mohammed Abu in August 2012 (a benefit of the partnership with City) that a gap for a deeper-lying playmaker was created.
Presenting Johansen the chance to fill that crevice, he took it with both hands. Moving from strength to strength Joahnsen made his debut in the same position for the Norwegian national team against Sweden in August, with some believing him to be the best player the Norwegian league has to offer.
In aiding young talent to reach its potential It is not just Strømsgodset that have benefited. From 2001-2007, not a single player from the club earned a cap at youth level for Norway. It was a damning statistic that even the most experienced PR professional would struggle to spin positively.
However from 2007 until now, that figure has grown exponentially, to 179 caps. Described as the ‘lifeblood’ of the club, the importance of youth emerging into the upper echelons cannot be understated: “We have a continuity at all levels. It creates confidence and clarity,” Deila explained.
This season has seen the crescendo of the staff’s hard work. Sat atop the league for a considerable period of the early stages, Deila feels that with a good generation, his ambitions to fight the top teams such as Rosenborg are achievable.
Not content to end his manifesto at the league’s summit, his goals stretch out further in terms of the club’s youth development: “It must not be a rest pad [where we are now],” he explained. “We still have much to go on. We must aim to become Scandinavia’s best player development club. We have the opportunity, and we must constantly be looking for new ideas and ready to build the organization bigger and stronger.”
He aims to achieve this by being tougher on youth development from an early age. Frank De Boer stated it is between 10-14 that a player’s technique develops most significantly. With an U15 side, it is likely there where the club will start the next phase of its project.
Currently two points from top, although Godset may not earn the coveted gold that their efforts deserve, few can contest the scale of their revival. A team now founded on youth, it seems that what did not kill them only made them stronger.
By Kristan Heneage
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona