Kevin Nicol discusses swapping Scotland for Norway as he strives to take third-tier club Asker to the next level.
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You probably haven’t heard of Kevin Nicol, but if you’re into Norwegian football, you may just be coming more familiar with the Scottish manager.
You probably haven’t heard of Asker either, a small town with a population of a mere 60,000 just on the outskirts of Norway’s capital city, Oslo – that one you’ve probably heard of.
The club currently resides in the third tier of Norwegian football, oddly though they had one of the most successful women’s teams until they joined up with Stabaek in 2008.
Nicol, only 35, is already embarking on his third season as manager of the club, but his love affair with Norwegian football started when he picked up an injury while playing for Hibernian over ten years ago.
“I broke my foot and ended up being out of action for eight months,” confesses Nicol. “I got my fitness back at the end of the campaign but instead of doing pre-season, the club thought it was a good idea to send me to Scandinavia.”
With the Norwegian league running through the summer, Nichol was playing top-level football while his team-mates were returning from the beach in time for a gruelling pre-season schedule.
It was previous top-division winners Strømsgodset who would take up the option of giving Nicol a six-month loan spell in Norway before the midfielder returned to Scotland after Christmas.
Then in the second division, Strømsgodset would go from strength to strength, eventually winning the top division title for a second time in 2013, but the experience was enough to place Nicol on the Norwegian football map.
Nicol said, “I got back to Scotland in January and went to Peterhead, we were in the third tier at that time and we narrowly missed out on promotion to the First Division.
“Then I got an offer, a good one financially, from a club called Haugesund. Me and my girlfriend went over and liked what we saw and ever since we’ve been stuck out here!”
Haugesund were an ambitious club, only created in 1993 but had worked their way into the second tier by the time they signed Nichol.
Promotion to the Tippeligaen would follow in 2010 and it would be the club would provide Nicol – along with his growing family – the stage to move his career to Scandinavia full-time.
“The lifestyle is great out here,” he says. “Now we’re married with two children, we have a boy who’s seven and a girl who’s three. It’s safer and more family-orientated than the United Kingdom.
“The childcare is great; the schools are great and it’s more easy-going than England or Scotland. It’s a great place to live, there’s not a lot of crime and it’s always voted highly in the best places to live.”
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After a season with Haugesund, Nicol and his family would continue their Norwegian adventure with Mjøndalen, Moss and Frigg, before ending his playing career with Asker.
Behind the scenes, Nicol was preparing for life after football and had already taken his coaching badges back in Scotland when the opportunity to take over at the helm of the club came up in 2015.
“I’m very thankful to the Scottish FA for the support they gave me while flying back and forth from Norway, I went from my UEFA B to UEFA Pro.”
Despite two full seasons in the job, 2017 has so far provided Nicol with the biggest challenge of his short managerial career so far.
“I’ve had a sticky start,” he admits. “We’ve played three games and lost two of them 5-1 and 3-0,” the latter coming just the day before we speak.
He adds, “I’m going through my toughest spell right now, you’re going to have ups and downs but the previous two seasons were great so now it’s a test of character for both me and the team.
Despite a reputation well behind that of the English Football League and even Scotland’s top clubs, Nicol is quick to praise Norwegian football and admits it has its advantages over the game in the UK.
“Tactically I’d say it’s on par, if not a little better. You’d be surprised how much good football is actually played in Norway, most clubs have artificial turf which is good for a passing game.”
Nicol also states he learnt a lot about working as part of a team while moving from club to club around some of Norway’s smallest towns, and goes as far to say the determination level in football is ahead of back home.
“It’s not as big or as professional as it is at the top clubs in Britain, but everybody here loves the game,” he says. “Even if the facilities aren’t great, they love it. It’s quite refreshing to come across players who aren’t professional and do it for the love of it.
“Professionals can be very spoilt and sometimes you don’t know how lucky you are. It’s very humbling to play in these small villages with 120 people watching but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Regarding the mentality of players, Nicol adds, “The one thing I learnt working in smaller clubs was about helping other people. Back home it’s an obsession to get in the team to earn money so you can wear nice jewellery or get fancy tattoos. I think it’s a society thing now, kids are brought up around reality TV and everyone wants to become a star without putting the work in.
“In England, you can be so removed from a normal life, it can be blown out of proportion to what it actually is.”
But right now, Nicol’s only aim is to improve the fortunes of a side struggling for form with ambitions of one day reaching the top division of Norwegian football.
While a sticky start may put promotion beyond them in 2017, Nicol admits the first priority is to establish themselves in the league above where they sit right now.
“We’re in the third league but really we want to be competing in the league above, we’re big enough for it.
“We do have some good players, it’s a young team which brings inconsistency but I do enjoy working with them and developing them. We just need the balance, it’s about being a team player first and foremost and I think we’ve struggled with that a bit.”
Despite the early season struggles, Nicol has no intention just yet of moving his family back home, but admits it would be an easy decision if they ever become unhappy living in Norway.
“Both the kids speak Norwegian fluently, I speak a little bit but not as much. My wife has found work wherever we’ve been and she’s never had a problem.
“That’s a big thing for me, sometimes people miss home but we’ve got through it and our life works out here. It’s tough at times but if it wasn’t going ok I would have gone back home. Football’s important but family always comes first…”
Follow Rich on Twitter at @RichJLaverty