Football: Olsen's gang will be even crazier

Trevor Haylett says Wimbledon and the new man are well matched
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The Independent Online
FOR ALL that Egil Olsen has conducted a long-lasting if distant love affair with Wimbledon Football Club, he is clearly no Joe-clone. While Kinnear, his astute predecessor whose true worth to the south Londoners became graphically evident with last season's alarming loss of form, grew prickly at any suggestion that they still adhered to route one principles, Olsen revels in such "criticism".

Looking ahead to Saturday's opener at Vicarage Road and mindful of Watford's erstwhile reputation for preferring the short path to goal, it was with glee and some understatement that he declared: "I don't think it will be a beautiful game."

The newcomer offers no advance apology for the team who will bear the idiosyncrasies of his managerial stamp over the coming months. If he ever had a sensitive bone in his body, it was long since hardened by the criticism his methods have always attracted, even in Norway as he was driving his small country to a level they had previously only encountered in their dreams. He is on record as saying he wants to make the Crazy Gang still crazier; the health warnings can be re-attached to the Premiership's most redoubtable survivors.

It is difficult to think of a manager so obviously suited to his new surroundings as this 57-year-old Marxist, unorthodox right the way down to his size- eight wellies. Those who thought Wimbledon espoused a less refined approach before are in for a rude awakening. He said: "The thing that has amazed me most in training is the amount of possession. Both in 11-a-side games and six v six, there is much more passing, both square and backwards, than I like to see.

"I know the trend in English football is now to pass the ball to feet rather than into space, but I did not expect to see so much of it at Wimbledon. I want the players to be more forward-thinking and forward-running. The key word is balance. If the opposition are unbalanced it makes sense to take the most direct way to goal. In that situation the long ball can make the other team very unbalanced and you can take advantage but it's a question the player must answer quickly when he wins the ball. The skill is in his head."

There are many Olsen theories culled from those notorious long-ball sponsors, Wing Commander Charles Reep and former FA coaching chief Charles Hughes, and underpinning them all is a vigorous fitness regime. For the lucky lot of Selhurst Park that now means a Sunday workout as well. "The players have to understand that if they do a bit of light training the day after a game they will be able to endure the rest of the week better," Olsen said.

You can be sure he knowingly picked his verb there. As we sat talking there seemed to be an awful lot of "enduring" happening around the vast acreage of the Roehampton training headquarters beside the A3. Small groups of squad members were clocking up an impressive mileage under an unrelenting sun, mixing a punishing jog with intermittent sprints. The ball could enjoy a day off.

"Always you have to consider fitness up against skill and most of our time in pre-season has been spent with the ball. But it is so important that the players are fit. More than 50 per cent of goals come about winning the ball back in open play."

When Kinnear decided that the life crossroads that was his heart attack should divert him away from the club, Olsen, performing a matching survival mission at Norwegian side Valerenga a year after taking his country to their second World Cup finals which included a second victory over Brazil in 12 months, was the obvious choice for Sam Hammam and Wimbledon's two Norwegian millionaire backers.

Deprived of Kinnear's sure touch from March onwards, the Dons had embarked on a dismal run, amassing just two points out of 33 and plunging from sixth to 16th, a loss of altitude that, had it started two weeks earlier, would have led to them falling out of the division. With the departure of the resourceful Chris Perry to Tottenham placing an onus on Olsen's defensive replacements from the outset, the bookmakers once again make them among the favourites to go down. Olsen, who can regularly be seen conducting a training session in Wellington boots to offset rheumatism, is confident they can prosper by introducing the direct approach back to a sceptical English game which for some time has believed in more sophisticated ways.

But he knows the critics will be awkward, constant dancing partners. "I remember after we had defeated Denmark the biggest-selling newspaper in Norway said that the Danes had produced football as it really should be played. We had won 2-0 and yet it was our opponents who had played the right football. It was like we were playing something entirely different. That kind of thing doesn't make me angry; I just use it as an example. But even in Norway, who twice overcame Brazil, a nation with a populus of 160 million, and qualified for two World Cups, that there was this criticism... It is important to be humble and I continually ask myself `Are you sure this is the best way?' I still believe the penetrative approach is the most effective on a football field."

He looks forward on Saturday to renewing acquaintance with Graham Taylor whose reign with England never recovered from the embarrassment of dropping points to Norway in both qualifying ties for the 1994 World Cup. It is a reminder of conflicts past but what awaits the Wimbledon supporter in six days' time? "If it goes like I hope it goes, there will be more penetration and more pace in the game. We will lose the ball more often, but hopefully we will have more regains. I can't wait to get started."