Football: Olsen extols order of the boot

Norway's coach has confounded the critics of his long-ball approach with a string of impressive warm-up results
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EGIL OLSEN never did set much store by conformity. This is a man who used to zip around his workplace on roller skates and espouses left-wing views in a largely right-wing sport. But what really marks Norway's manager down as idiosyncratic, at least in the context of the World Cup, is his belief in the viability of the long-ball game.

To hear Olsen extol the virtues of "the penetrative way of playing" is to be transported back to the mid-1980s. To a time when Watford and Wimbledon terrorised defences with their direct approach. When indignant guardians of the beautiful game demonised those who championed concepts like the POMO (position of maximum opportunity, aka the far post).

In the Premiership, where 30 Norwegians earn their living at clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Leeds, such methods and theories are outmoded, not to say discredited. If employed at France 98, where they open against Morocco tonight, they would almost certainly make Norway the only ones in step.

Olsen, who leaves his post after the finals and has been linked with everyone from Celtic to Switzerland, has no qualms about being different. He is confident that work-rate, athleticism and organisation - the basic values which Jack Charlton exploited to raise the Republic of Ireland's profile in international football - can take Norway through to the second phase for the first time.

In the United States four years ago, they finished bottom of the so-called Group of Death, despite gaining as many points as the Irish, Italy and Mexico. They are in a strong-looking section again, with Brazil - whom Olsen calls "the best team in the world" despite Norway's stunning 4-2 victory over the holders in a friendly last summer - plus Scotland and the Moroccans.

"Scotland will be something like Ireland," he anticipates, "and Morocco are a very strong African team. We beat Brazil and they were very eager to take revenge. They invited us over there but we couldn't go. It's difficult to visit the other side of the world for a friendly. But I know that Brazil in the World Cup is a very different matter.

"Everything is concentrated on qualifying from the first stage. I can't imagine that Brazil won't get through, so it's between the other three for one place."

When Plan A failed at USA 94 there was no Plan B, but Olsen is unrepentant. "I don't think we'll do things very differently from last time. I believe we did things right, although we're aware that we didn't play well. What we did wasn't good enough, but the heat had something to do with that. We played in about 50 degrees in the first match. After that we were empty. Due to our style of play we were penalised very hard. We run and move a lot."

Even in flaming June, France should be more to their liking. Olsen looks to have a better squad than last time - in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Tore Andre Flo they have palpably superior strikers - while critics who argue that such talents require more sophisticated tactics have been disarmed by Norway's stunning qualifying and friendly results.

Olsen, who lectures at Oslo's University of Sport and Physical Education when not working with the national squad, also finds vindication in academic research. Renowned for a fondness for statistics, he has studied data from all over the world in an attempt to analyse how, why and when goals are scored.

An English scientist called Richard Pollard, who now works in America, has been particularly influential. Pollard reputedly collaborated with Wing-Commander Charles Reep, who invented the acronym POMO and was cited as an inspiration by Graham Taylor for his statistically-based endorsement of "route one" football.

"Reep is in his nineties now," says Olsen, "but he's still bright. I've spoken to him on the phone and he has written me 20-page letters."

A combination of their analyses and his own experience has led him to the conclusion that "the penetrative way is more effective than the possession way".

It is an extraordinary statement which flies in the face of the global game's conventional wisdom. "I haven't seen any [international] team playing like us," he adds proudly, defiantly. "We're special. We're playing a very strict zonal defence. More so than in England where they mark and follow opponents more than we do. They're going in the opposite direction, with more possession and more passes. But the way we play is exciting.

"I like being called a long-ball team. It means nobody will imitate us. The long ball is only a small part of my philosophy. But if you don't play the ball through the midfield, you won't lose it there. Many goals are conceded by losing it there. It's simple!"

When he starts to eulogise the doyen of direct play, the FA's former head of coaching Charles Hughes, one suspects it might be an elaborate piece of kidology designed to wrong-foot the Scots. But no, this really is the Norwegian way; right down to the old Graham Taylor ploy of using a tall player out wide and aiming diagonal balls at him like some Nordic Ian Ormondroyd.

The irony of Olsen's stance is that he was evidently a skilful player, famed for his dribbling prowess. Now, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and fitted with an artificial hip, he cannot play at all. Before the operation he worked in a college with long corridors. Hence the roller skates, no problem for one who played ice hockey as a child.

The political radicalism stems from a working-class background and his student days in the 1960s. "For some reason, if you're on the left, the press are interested. Though I'm not so active now, I did get involved in the debate over whether we should go into Europe. We won that fight - 51 per cent of Norwegians said no."

He does like a statistic, but the mental image of Olsen as the nerdish boffin poring over Reep's missives is belied by the sight of him supervising training in his Wellingtons on a cold, rainswept day. "I mustn't get my feet wet because I'm rheumatic. They're effective."

A non-conformist down to his toes, Egil Olsen brings a whole new meaning to the idea of the big boot.

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