“I was very sceptical about the appointment and wondered if Ronny knew what he was doing. The board had faith in him but many people were shaking their heads.”
Not the words of a discerning Celtic fan following the surprise appointment of promising Norwegian coach, Ronny Deila, in August 2014 but the concerned musings of fellow countryman, John Michael Glasse, when looking back on Deila’s 2008 appointment as head coach of Strømsgodset.
Glasse is one of the heads of Godset Unionen, the vibrant fan group who were founded in the late nineties. With nearly 2000 members, the Unionen are among the strongest terrace tribes in Norwegian football, and their repertoire of chants now includes some borrowed from Glasgow’s Green Brigade.
In an effort to find out more about Deila, I contacted Glasse back in 2014, and his views on Celtic’s then newly-appointed coach were largely positive. Some of his early niggling concerns, however, would resurface in Glasgow, resulting in depleted numbers in the stands of Celtic Park in the two campaigns that followed. Here is what Glasse had to say about the pre-Celtic Deila:
“Ronny was a fans’ favourite as a player… He always played with a great deal of passion, and I’ll never forget one goal in particular that he scored away at Rosenberg. We won 2-1 and the expression on his face when he scored typified what the victory meant to us all. He played with his heart on the outside of his shirt, as we say in Norway.
“Our manager, Dag-Eilev Fagermo, moved on in 2008 and was replaced by Ronny Deila. That’s when the adventure under Ronny started.
“Ronny was always open and very clear about how he wanted to play and what he wanted for the club. He wanted us to play his attacking brand of football no matter what. I have always thought he was a bit too open in discussing his methods, especially now in recent years after his initial success. He created magic through the use of psychology with his players, and I have always thought that he should have kept his approach secret. I didn’t want other managers to replicate what Ronny was doing.
“The fans could see that the team had bought into Ronny’s system, and performances did improve, but we still weren’t winning enough games. Ronny came out and told the media that he’d rather be relegated than play bad football – that’s how stubborn he was.
“When Ronny took over, we were a relegation-battling team. That season, we just got enough points to stay up. From that point, we started to sign talented players that Rosenborg and other big Norwegian clubs didn’t want. And Ronny made them stars.
“When he saved us from relegation in 2009, Ronny stripped on the pitch for the fans. Godset Unionen kept singing, “We want to see Deila strip,” and he did it!
“Youth development was vitally important when Ronny took over because of the club’s poor economy. The money was gone, and he had to make stars out of nothing – he managed to do that every year.
“We were then forced to sell our best players, which meant Ronny had to rebuild his team all over again, but he improved it every year. He would take on players who had been troublemakers at other clubs, but, somehow, they would shine under Ronny. How he did this, and what he said to them, is a mystery.
“Ronny could see his own faults, and was prepared to take full responsibility for them, rather than blame others for our losses.
“The fans stuck by him, but we didn’t expect much at the time because we were a small club with no money. Since Ronny brought success to the club the expectations have clearly changed.
“When Strømsgodset improved under Ronny, we became a popular destination for talented young players. We gradually began to attract better players, who wanted to play for us on a lower salary than they would have received at clubs like Rosenborg and Brann.
“Ronny made Strømsgodset a name, and that reputation remained after he left for Celtic. It is still here.”
“It was inevitable that our best players moved on to bigger clubs, and then Ronny had to rebuild the team again and again. He didn’t just build one team at Strømsgodset, he built a new one every season.
“Ronny never deviated from his attacking football. That’s why even supporters from other teams wanted us to win ahead of Rosenborg.”
“In 2010, we won close to all our home games, but we had difficulties away from home. We were lucky in the draws on our way to the Norwegian Football Cup final. In the semi, we met our rivals Odd Grenland at home, and we won 2-0 after extra time. It was a fantastic day for the fans and club, and we were ready for the final at the Ullevål Stadion. We were going to meet championship side Follo, a lower-league club from outside Oslo, and everybody expected us to win. Of course, we did, and that’s why the semi-final was a bigger game than the final, in my mind.
“I still can’t explain how he won us the title – it’s a miracle. Nobody had it in their dreams that we would win the league. Some so-called experts in Norwegian football call it the biggest achievment of all time.
“Stefan Johansen was a real success story. When we signed him in 2011, he was only part of another deal to bring in Anders Konradsen from FK Bodø/Glimt. I remember one special game, away to Haugesund, where we lost 5-1. It was raining sideways and Johansen was shocking, even though he gave everything he had. He was running and running, but he didn’t look good. Despite his poor performance, at the end of the game, he was one of three players who came over to us supporters and shake our hands. That meant so much to us. We were thrashed, and he had a shocker, but even then he came over and thanked us for the support. Those things made him a fans’ favourite before he became the great player he was the year after.
“Ronny saw things in Stefan, he had faith in him. And what a player he became. Of all the talents that Ronny nurtured, the best player I have seen playing for us, until now, of course, was a 15-year-old Martin Ødegaard.
“Ronny is still regarded as a true legend in these parts. He made history that may never be repeated. Our supporters view him as a messiah – he made our wildest dreams come true, and gave us the best day of our lives that November night in 2013 when he won us the league.”
Ronny Deila was a manager who appeared to have more of a strategy at Celtic than his predecessor. While Neil Lennon tapped into the frenzied support of fans to provide an emotional wave on which the team could ride, Deila spoke endlessly about, “pressure… penetration… high press… increased tempo,” while continually emphasising the modern-day requirement of players having to live as 24-hour athletes.
Fans found a distinct lack of player identity in many of the signings during Ronny’s tenure, however – Mubarak Wakaso, Aleksandar Tonev, Jo Inge Berget, Carlton Cole and Colin Kazim-Richards all emphatically failed to impress. Although several of these acquisitions arrived with impressive pedigrees (they were all fully-capped internationalists), they will be recalled on the vague periphery when the current domestic domination is looked back on in generations to come.
However, what should be universally appreciated when Deila’s time at Celtic is analysed (as well as the three trophies won) is the sheer raft of talent he developed or identified during his two years at the club. As well as giving Callum McGregor and Kieran Tierney their first taste of top-team action, the Norwegian also signed Ryan Christie and Kristoffer Ajer.
Following his two seasons at Celtic, Ronny returned to Norway with Vålerenga before going on to enjoy success with New York City. His next destination was Belgium with Standard Liège, who he has just left for Club Brugge.
Celtic gave Deila an opportunity to manage outside of Norway for the first time, and Kjetil Knutsen seems destined to follow his countryman out of the Eliteserien. Whether or not his destination will be in the east end of Glasgow is less certain, with his meteoric rise also attracting the attentions of Ajax.
There are similarities in that both managers took over unfashionable Norwegian sides and transformed them into title-winners. They both achieved this with a laser-focus on their own football philosophy and style, which they refused to deviate from.
Knutsen has been a popular choice among Celtic fans over these last few days, and his arrival would undoubtedly be met with less cynicism than our last Norwegian appointment was back in 2014.
PAUL JOHN DYKES