Culture shock

Kevin Nicol on navigating Norwegian culture shock and letting go of Scottish stereotypes

Kevin Nicol speaks eloquently about self-assessment. The 40-year-old, who played for Raith Rovers, Hibernian and Peterhead in his homeland, was recently named head coach of Norwegian second division side Mjondalen. Norway has been Nicol’s home since 2007 and he says living there has changed him as a person – and specifically as a coach.

The Scottish manager’s photo ID is that of a gruff, stone-faced figurehead, barking orders and making players shudder at his mere presence. Certainly, Nicol confesses that the stereotype matched his own behavior during his early years in charge of Asker, his first coaching job in Norwegian football. Over time, however, he realized that was a method that didn’t work.

“I was way too hard on some boys. In Norway, the culture is much more democratic, diplomatic, [there’s] a different way of raising kids in school and you have to involve the players in the decisions as much as possible, you can’t just tell them what to do all the time,” he says. “These are things I learned as I got older. I did a Masters in Performance Coaching at Stirling Uni and it taught me a bit more about the pedagogical side of coaching and teaching, and instead of just yelling at people you actually try to develop and give them leeway for some mistakes. ”

HeraldScotland: Kevin Nicol in Mjondalen trainingKevin Nicol in Mjondalen training (Image: Mjondalen)

“You often end up coaching as you were coached. I think deep down I’m a very competitive person. I did a psychological profile once and it was all red. Red is more of a hardworking Type A personality, highly driven and can get angry at times. I wanted to be the outright Scottish manager, the angry guy, but I found out about two years later that the younger players were quite scared of me, didn’t want to talk to me. So I had to calm down a bit. It is very important that coaches learn to give players autonomy and freedom of choice in their daily work.

It was an approach that rang with the ownership of Mjondalen, who had been alarmed following a slip that covered 10 defeats in 13 matches for a side that had been relegated the previous season under Vegard Hansen, the man replaced by Nicol. The Scot was installed last month (August), has undergone a tactical overhaul and says he has already seen changes in the attitude of his players.

“The main thing for me was to change the environment a bit and put a smile back on the faces, to put more enthusiasm into our game. We have a lot of young players playing in the team, so it’s very important that we create a safe environment so that they can maybe make mistakes there, feel comfortable playing under pressure, and that we’re not going to kill them for doing anything. ‘shouldn’t have. It was a big change, and we changed the style of play slightly to more intense and intense pressing. It looked good and I think the fans liked what they saw. .

In the remaining weeks of the season, all but one opponent, Mjondalen, are expected to face below them in the table. Nicol says that at their best his side ‘can beat anyone’ and since his appointment they have won three of their four matches – including Saturday’s 2-1 away win against Stjordals Blink – to reduce the gap with the teams of the Eliteserien dam. places just four points away.

Life is good for Nicol in Drammen, the town he calls home, a place he first experienced while on loan at Stromsgodset while still a Hibernian player. When he left Peterhead in 2006, he spoke to his then girlfriend about the possibility of returning to Norway one day. He proposed while on vacation in Fuerteventura and a day later took a call from 1. Division side Haugesund offering him a deal. Nearly two decades later, he has no regrets.

“We love it, it’s very safe here,” he says. “These are just small things: the infrastructure for electric cars is incredible, one in two cars is electric. My wife has one, I’m thinking of getting one, they have charging stations everywhere. The schools are great, every town has artificial turf where the kids can play, it’s not locked, the bases don’t get stolen. There’s less vandalism, it’s just a different mentality here. It’s not perfect, of course, there’s still crime but it’s different.

HeraldScotland: Consto Arena, the home stadium of MjondalenConsto Arena, the stadium of Mjondalen (Picture: YouTube)

So much so that, while Norway is in the midst of a cost of living crisis, people’s experiences there are significantly less poor than in Scotland.

“Last winter it affected clubs quite significantly. Because it is so cold in Norway, we use the underground heating a lot for the artificial turf. There were clubs that lacked money. We have noticed a difference here, prices have gone up but luckily there is probably less poverty in Norway than in Scotland at the moment simply because the standard of living is quite high. We pay a lot of tax and that way the poor get a lot more benefits than in Scotland, so the consequences of high energy costs may not have hit us as hard as in Scotland . It’s quite difficult at home, I think, and it makes me very grateful that we are well here.

A typical day for Nicol starts early at the club and ends late at the same venue with errands three times a week to take his son, an aspiring midfielder in the youth side of Mjondalen, to training. Nicol’s duties encompass everything you would expect of life at the helm of a modern football club, especially one with ambitions to return to the top flight.

“Mjondalen itself is a small place, there are only around 8000 people living there. They are one of the smallest clubs to have been in the top league for the past 20 years or so. The hardest thing for a club of our size, it doesn’t have a big budget, is to stay in the top league.

“To do that we’re probably going to have to develop our own players better and sell them for a lot of money so that we can generate the revenue to hopefully build the club even more – that’s the strategy of the club right now. It’s a traditional football club that’s been around for many years in Norway and even though it’s a small place everyone in town loves the club I’m from Kirkcaldy and Raith because a football club is probably about the same size, but Kirkcaldy as a town is much bigger.

Raith was the club where Nicol got his start in Scottish football, but it was at Hibernian that he got his break. It’s a chance he readily admits he didn’t take.

“I never realized the potential I had. I wouldn’t say that was my biggest regret but after playing at Hibs [I realised] I didn’t do enough when I joined the team. There were international guys around me and I kind of missed the mark. I got to a certain age, around 22, and there were young guys like Scott Brown and Kevin Thomson and it was natural for the coaches to play the younger guys who had more potential and were better than me. I never enjoyed him enough and that is perhaps my biggest regret in football. I felt pretty uncomfortable playing in front of 20,000 people, things like that.

“Sometimes on the team bus you would hear Derek Riordan and Garry O’Connor talking about how many goals they were going to score at Ibrox or Parkhead on the way to the game. They had absolutely no fear and that’s how I knew at that moment that I was completely different.

What the coaching did for Nicol, however, was provide him with an epiphany. The one who helped him realize that his true calling in life was to coach.

“My highlight in Scottish football was making my debut for Raith Rovers, my hometown team at 17. But I enjoyed being a manager more than a player. People think I’m crazy when I say it. As a player, I was probably the most professional player at the club I was at, so dedicated but, at the same time, I wish I had let my hair down. I was too serious. I would have liked to go out and drink a few pints here and there and maybe I could have played better.