Ulseth hits the mark with full-length biography of Nils Arne Eggen

Mads Skauge
Nord University (Bodø, Norway)
Translated from Norwegian by
Jeremy Crump

Otto Ulseth
Nils Arne: Et liv i svart og hvitt [Nils Arne: A life in black and white]
479 pages, hardcover.
Oslo: Aschehoug 2018
ISBN 978-82-03-29747-2
A few introductory remarks

Few, if any are better suited than Ulseth to write Eggen’s biography. He has been close to his subject for several decades, as sports journalist and editor for the Trondheim newspaper Adresseavisen (which follows Rosenborg closer than any other paper), and as a football coach, as head coach for Tromsø and as Egil “Drillo” Olsen’s right-hand man with the Iraqi national team. This biography of Eggen takes its place in a series of good biographies from Ulseth’s pen, including those of the footballer Arne Larsen Økland and skiing champions Oddvard Brå and Petter Northug. In my opinion, this is the best of them all.

The raw materials for Ulseth’s exciting story about Eggen are love, conflict, humour, tragedy and triumphs. The task of condensing Eggen’s rich and varied life between the covers of a book is an inviting one. The book gives deep insight into Nils Arne Eggen’s life, his thinking, his positive attitudes and determination, and the basis, in football and teaching, for his footballing success. All this is done much more comprehensively than in previous books about Eggen. Good too are the supporting descriptions of all the people who have influenced Nils Arne to a greater or lesser extent, people he has met along the way and who have shaped his career. Ulseth describes the contrasts in Eggen’s eventful life too, and he does so very well – in black and white. The book’s title hits the mark. Ulseth spends some time on this title’s double meaning, bringing in stories which naturally have a central place in the narrative about Nils Arne. Eggen’s many triumphs, both in the classroom and on the pitch, are sadly balanced by setbacks in his life outside football, especially by serious illness in his close family. Such stories have an impact on a reader. For example, there is an account of how Nils Arne’s father, Knut, was captured by the Germans. His prospects looked bleak until the Germans realised they had arrested the wrong Eggen. Another Eggen was taken to Falstad prison camp, shot and dumped in the sea. Nils Arne’s brother, Torbjørn, drowned in a boating accident when Nils Arne was 16. Consequently, Eggen grew up quickly. His wife Karin died of cancer in March 2011. In February of the following year, his son Knut Torbjørn, who had been both a promising footballer (some of the time in Nils Arne’s team) and manager, took his own life after a long struggle with mental illness. Nils Arne’s other son, Trygve, who also showed great promise as a footballer, developed a tumour which threatened his sight when he was still in middle school and had to give up his footballing ambitions.

If I had to point to something I would have liked to read more about, it would be Nils Arne Eggen today and what he thinks about the way forward for Rosenborg FC and Norwegian football, and how the inheritance from the godfathers of Norwegian football (especially from Drillo and Eggen) can best be passed on.

As a player, he won the league three times (for two different clubs) and the cup, played in numerous U21 and 30 full internationals as well as being named for the all-Scandinavian team and chosen as VG’s player of the year.

Ulseth’s account of Eggen follows quite a strict chronology and comprises 33 sections of varying scope. The tone is set by the description of Eggen’s hotel room in Genoa in 1991. Rosenborg had lost 5-0 against Sampdoria and Eggen was thinking hard. A new philosophy had to be developed. According to Ulseth, the Rosenborg dream began in 1959, when Eldar Hansen and Eggen were called up to the junior national team. In the spring of 1960, Eggen had just completed his school-leaving exams. Eggen received the insight into teaching that was to form the basis of his approach to football coaching through an encounter with an inclusive group of teachers in Orkanger, just west of Trondheim. On the field, Rosenborg reached the cup final against Odd in 1960, with Eggen as one of the most important building blocks of the team.

In this review, I am going to concentrate on the period of Eggen’s life which I found most interesting, probably because it was the one I knew least about from before. This is the time when he was an active player and coach, up until the period of his great success in the 1990s. It contains a new account (for me at least) of how his philosophy of football developed and who influenced him.

I hadn’t been aware either of all Eggen’s honours. As a player, he won the league three times (for two different clubs) and the cup, played in numerous youth internationals and 30 full internationals as well as being named for the all-Scandinavian team and chosen as the newspaper VG’s player of the year. He was also a first-rate ski jumper, who won regional competitions and the long-established events at Gråkallbakken in Trondheim and Bekkelagsbakkene in Oslo, where he set the course record for a jump. Eggen was said to be the most talented ski jumper in the Trøndelag region. He made his last jump in 1960, the same year as he played in the cup final. As a manager, he won the league 15 times and the cup six times, and reached the group stage of the Champions’ League six times, including the quarter finals in 1996-7. There have been numerous other awards both inside football and outside it.

Here, I give a summary of what I consider most merits reading.

Meeting Drillo

In autumn 1962, Eggen took the train east from Oslo to meet up with the national youth team in Västerås, a town west of Stockholm, Sweden. The last member of the team got on at Fredrikstad. He didn’t look like a footballer. His only luggage was a shopping bag with his boots and shin pads. This was Egil Olsen, later to be known as Drillo. It is said that Drillo’s father, completely coincidentally, got on the same train and, to his complete surprise, saw his son. “What are you doing here?”. “I’m playing for Norway”, Drillo said. “Blimey, you don’t say”, thefather replied. Ulseth describes how Drillo and Eggen later became team mates in the Oslo club Vålerenga and fellow students at the School of Sports Sciences. They drove to training at Vålerenga every day, or rather, Eggen drove and Drillo slept. Ulseth writes that Eggen learned the importance of the common touch and humour in a high-performing team from the culture of openness at Vålerenga.

Many people later became very interested in the differences between the two greatest managers in the history of Norwegian football, Eggen and Drillo, but it was a matter of their personalities rather than their footballing philosophy. Bjørn Hansen, who was an assistant for both of them, put it like this: “The difference is that if you played the ball backwards in Nils Arne’s team, you were shot at once, without a trial. With Drillo, you got the chance to explain yourself before you were shot”. Whilst Eggen travelled to the Netherlands, Drillo was fascinated by the way statistics were used in England and Canada. They came back with the same knowledge, but called it by different names. Eggen spoke of ‘play on the long axis’ (spill i lengderetning), Drillo called it ‘breakthrough football’ (gjennombruddshissig fotball). In defence, they were identical. According to Ulseth, the difference was that Drillo was less worried about structure in attack. It was almost impossible to achieve structure in attack in a national team, but not for Eggen who could grind away at it every day with his club side.

Inspiration and knowledge from Curtis

Rosenborg were promoted in 1966, largely thanks to Trondheim’s best player at that time, Harald Sunde who had transferred from Nidelv after making friends with Rosenborg’s striker Odd Iversen in the national team. Nils Arne directed from the back with both words and action. According to Ulseth, Eggen was one of those who revolutionised the roll of the defender in Norwegian football by joining in attack, which defenders were previously told not to do.

In 1969, the Englishman George Curtis was taken on as manager of Rosenborg. He is supposed to have begun his first training session by saying (in English) “This is a ball”. Odd Iversen answered (in the Trondheim dialect) “Slow down a bit!”. Curtis brought analytical approaches to football from the home of football. Eggen took everything in as captain and translator. Rosenborg won the league with ease. Rosenborg, with Curtis’s revolutionary principle of zonal marking, was probably among the best defensive sides in Europe. The following year, they came second.

Curtis had to return to his wife in England. The club was not well off, so appointing the 29-year-old Eggen was a cheap solution. In addition, he knew the club, was a trained teacher and had a sports education. His assistant was Tor Røste Fossen, who had learned football in England. Rosenborg won the double and reached the second round of the European Cup. Eggen built morale by getting to know the players personally, as he did with his pupils at school. According to Ulseth, he often invited pupils home to discuss literature and football.

Sparring partner and colleague Schou’en – the academy begins to take over Norwegian football

In 1973, Eggen was told that Rosenborg no longer needed his services – something which he was to hear again on another occasions. Eggen was invited to give a lecture jointly with Kjell ‘Schou’en’ Schou-Andreassen at a managers’ conference. They wearied the meeting with something as unusual as ‘analytical considerations’ – which was to be the basis for the national team’s success 20 years later. The two were soon to be the management team for the national U21 team, with great success.

Eggen got into conversation at a national team meeting with the Barcelona manager Rinus Michels. Eggen learned about 4-3-3. Attacking play was not to be a matter of inspiration but of shared patterns in which all knew where they should go. The whole world was soon to be looking to Michels but, as with Curtis’s zonal marking and ‘flat back four’, Eggen was ahead of the game. For the best possible teamwork, the players needed to have fixed positions and there should be no team changes if they weren’t necessary.

Eggen argued for an ideology of attacking football and attacking thinking, with an emphasis on the individual’s strengths and how these could be developed – both in football and in life more generally.

Success with the U21s meant that Eggen and Schou’en got to take over the national team after Curtis. The ‘academicization’ of Norwegian football was truly on the way up and there was vigorous professional enthusiasm in the whole of the Norwegian Football Association (NFF). Eggen, Schou’en, Røste Fossen and Andreas Morisbak were in the vanguard. Drillo was doing research on scorelines at the Norwegian School of Sports Sciences. They were all academics and teachers who treated football like an academic subject. They discussed Alan Wade’s book about the principles of play, sought out the football statistician Charles Reep (who by the way has been given the honour/blame for the traditional physical, long passing English game), established the Coaches Association in NFF, and went on study tours.

With the phenomenal Tom Lund and Odd Iversen in the team, considered to be one of the deadliest pairs of strikers anywhere in international football, Norway nearly qualified for the World Cup in Argentina in 1978. At the same time as he managed the national side, Eggen was also de facto manager of Rosenborg, formally as Curtis’s consultant. In 1977, Eggen was brought back to Rosenborg as manager, in part by the same people who had shown him the door five years earlier. Knut Torbjørn was the top scorer. Rosenborg were promoted, followed closely by Drillo’s Frigg Oslo.

Before the start of the 1981 season, Eggen had discovered Sverre Brandhaug, ‘the new Sunde’. Sverre was told to improve his heading, which was a weakness. He was keener to strengthen his good points – from which came the ‘good foot theory’ (godfotteorien). Knut Torbjørn discovered Rune Bratseth in a church cup competition and the team began to come together. But Eggen had had enough of Rosenborg, and the feeling was mutual. Bjørn Hansen was preferred as his replacement and was soon to get the job after the team had short periods under the management of the Manchester United man Tommy Cavanagh and then Sunde. Hansen subsequently resigned and Arne Dokken led the team to its first championship since 1960.

Sensation in Moss and a philosophy of football which was close to perfection

Eggen wanted to be head coach the following season. He didn’t get the job and went instead to the second-tier club Moss, winning promotion at the first attempt followed by a sensational championship the following year. Eggen turned Moss upside down – harder training, more training, longer training and more training with the ball. Game exercises, cones and markers were kept to a minimum since they didn’t fit with the principle of specificity which Eggen had learned at the School of Sports Sciences. Training sessions had to be as similar as possible to matches. Eggen argued for an ideology of attacking football and attacking thinking, with an emphasis on individuals’ strengths and how these could be developed – both in football and in life more generally. Specifically, there was a fundamental difference between going onto the pitch to score yourself (offensive tactics) and preventing the opposition from doing so (defensive tactics).

At the same time as managing Moss, Eggen, together with Schou’en, trained the national team for the Olympics. This is where Eggen came into contact with the social anthropologist Cato Wadel, and the ‘Good Foot’ was turned into a system. Schou’en talked about ‘the small society’ in the team and the law of complementary skills was developed. Eggen took zonal marking from Curtis, Michels showed him the way to structured attacking football, Schou’en taught him about complementary skills and Wadel about being in the flow zone. These were useful tools, not just theoretical constructs. In his earlier years, Eggen was informed by the ideology of village football – kick the ball as far as possible, as often as possible, and hope for the best. Now he had a completely different view of the game. What mattered was playing forward to the next player dressed in white (the color of Rosenborg’s jersey).

Third time lucky? The time before it all took off

Eggen went to Rosenborg for the third time in 1988. He had developed his philosophy of leadership and football and had got the assurances he needed that it worked. He developed ‘postulates’ for attacking play in discussion with the players. It was after all easier for the players to have confidence with something they had had a part in creating themselves. Rosenborg won the double and their ambition turned to Europe. There was to be more training, but it was most important to get the players better rested by buying them out of their day jobs. Eggen’s principal employment was still as a school teacher. His pupil Vidar Løfshus (now the head of the national cross-country skiing team) remembers him as a whirlwind, always active, never angry. The pupils had a bad conscience if they hadn’t prepared for his lessons. They knew Mr Eggen had. The daily drive from the school to Rosenborg’s ground at Lerkendal provided an important breathing space, time for reflexion, philosophising and building energy. It was a moment for a few idle thoughts and a cigarette, or classical music on the stereo. He often talked to himself, always looking for discussion.

The encounter with Europe was hard and Eggen gave the players brutally frank feedback about what they needed to get to that level.

The team kept winning but, as Ulseth describes, they became victims of the law of continuous success:over time equally good performances are considered worse. The encounter with Europe was hard and Eggen gave the players brutally frank feedback about what they needed to get to that level. He had learned the need for honest feedback from an old maths teacher who had said to Nils Arne “You have the brightest head, but the darkest inside”. The training sessions got longer. Jahn Ivar “Mini” Jakobsen once told him he should go and fetch the children from the kindergarten as he had been training long enough (the session lasted for hours). Eggen answered “I’ve been here since 1960”.

Nils Arne was so intense that the players had eventually had enough of it and briefly wanted him sacked. The Aftenposten journalist Kjetil Siem (now general secretary of NFF) wrote that Eggen was no longer welcome at Rosenborg’s clubhouse “Brakka”. Eggen handed in his resignation and left but even as he was passing the house of the top cyclist Jostein Wilmann in Viggja, twenty miles from Trondheim, he began to have his doubts about leaving Rosenborg. The following day, the chairman, Nils Skutle, rang and asked him to come back. Eggen squared it with the players. Tellingly Ole By Rise said “It’s irrelevant if you say your door is always open if we feel as though there is a verbal guillotine hanging above it”. Eggen understood that way of talking.

The important thing for the European campaign was to be the best at everything that didn’t cost money, for example, stamina. By diligent use of of the 4 x 4 minutes interval training programme developed by Jan Helgerud and Jan Hoff (professors at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology), Rosenborg got a 12thplayer, ‘Mr Oxygen’. The results were so remarkable that the two professors were in demand all over Europe. Eggen’s leadership style was also of interest. Drillo appeared at a Rosenborg training camp in Cyprus accompanied by a group of students from the School of Sports Sciences. They were there to study Eggen’s leadership. Their most interesting observation was that Eggen had physical contact with every player during a training session.

As is well known, the Rosenborg dream took off in the second half of the 1990s, and the rest is history. In 1999 both World Soccer magazine and Sports Illustrated ranked Rosenborg as the sixth best team in the world. Nils Arne received UEFA’s managers award in 2001. It wasn’t without reason that some called Eggen ‘the world’s best football coach’.

Copyright © Mads Skauge 2019
Translation @ Jeremy Crump 2019

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