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Oct 29, 2013

Hats (and clothes) off to Norway's Klopp

During the 2009 Norwegian season, when things looked grim for Stromsgodset at the foot of the table, coach Ronny Deila promised to strip off in front of the fans if his team beat the drop. On Oct. 25, after a dramatic win over Viking in their last home fixture in the Tippeligaen had ensured just that, he duly took his clothes and shoes off and ran around in tiny underpants, while the stands at the small Marienlyst Stadion erupted with joy. "Why didn't you take your underwear off as well?" he was asked. "I didn't want to shock little children in the crowd," Deila responded.

Four years on, and his Stromsgodset side are on the verge of an improbable triumph. They need just three points from their last two games to be crowned Norwegian champions for only the second time in the club's history -- the first title having been won in 1970, five years before Deila was born. Their success will be greeted with great excitement around the country as the modest team that plays exuberant attacking football are the neutrals' darlings. Godset, as they are known, serve as an example of an almost impossible dream come true through vision, long term planning, commitment, hard work and a very good choice of coach.

Deila is the face of Stromsgodset. He is all about positive energy and charisma. His seemingly endless self-belief and confidence enable the players to move mountains. A qualified teacher, his man-management skills are second to none. He lives every second of the game, unable to quietly sit on the bench, and celebrates every goal scored with wild jumping, his fists pumping the air. Deila's style is very similar to that of Juergen Klopp, and he shares his footballing philosophy with the Borussia Dortmund coach too.

Just like Klopp, Deila was appointed to his current post in 2008 with the club in a difficult situation. He was just 32 years old then, but had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do and the style in which he wanted to do it. Back in 2009, when Godset were tipped to be relegated, the young coach boldly stated: "I would rather go down than play ugly football." When asked by a journalist from local newspaper Drammens Tidende if he was aware that such an attitude could put his job at risk, Deila replied: "Players' development is much more important than my own future. My job is to develop the players."

He wasn't really worried about his position, because his views were coherent with those of the management, in a set up very similar to that at Borussia. Like Dortmund, they come from an industrial town, Drammen. Like Dortmund, Stromsgodset were desperately close to going bankrupt in 2005, saved at the very last minute. Like Dortmund, who employ club legend Michael Zorc as sports manager, they have a former star and captain as sporting director.

Jostein Flo, a former Sheffield United striker and Tore Andre's big brother, is doing phenomenal job at Stromsgodset. He is responsible for purchasing players, usually at nominal cost, and then selling them on. He is also the man who used his ties in England to build a partnership with Manchester City that brings some youngsters on loan. This term, for example, Somalia-born midfielder Abdisalam Ibrahim was an important addition.

Flo's best decision, though, was to promote Deila, the former defender with little coaching experience, from his position as an assistant. They have worked in harmony ever since. "Our attacking philosophy will lead us forward. We will become better because our style is consistent. I have great faith in what we do, and there is no doubt in my mind that we will produce results in the long term," Deila said in 2009.

Statements about long term projects when your immediate future is far from certain are rather rare in football world and Deila deserves immense credit for taking on such an ambitious project. Like Klopp, he is an educator more than anything. The coach demands focus, discipline and team spirit from his players, and aims to improve their skills by urging them to think deeply about the game.

"Good players can explain every step they make on the field. It is useless to tell a player to run somewhere if he doesn't understand why that is necessary. Norwegian coaches tend to think too much for the players, but the hardest thing is to get the players think for themselves. To do so, I must ask the right questions," Deila said four years ago when setting out his philosophy. Stromsgodset's progress has been extraordinary since.

Deila guided the team to survival on the penultimate week of 2009 season, the club's final tally standing at 36 points. In 2010, Godset won the Norwegian Cup, their first trophy since 1991, while finishing seventh in the league with 43 points. In 2011, the record improved slightly to 45 points, while the fans were delighted to return to European competition for the first time in more than a decade, and entertained Atletico Madrid at their small ground, fondly nicknamed Gamle Gress (the Old Grass).

It's an apt name as the ground is indeed old; the Marienlyst was built in 1924, and the club desperately wanted to build a new stadium. However, luckily for them, the project fell through, and investments were instead only made into youth academy, which helped Deila to continue their surge. The picturesque stadium also became a real fortress for Godset. They haven't lost a league game at home since June 2011 -- more than two years of nonstop celebration for the fans in Drammen.

In 2012, the rise and rise of Stromsgodset suddenly saw them challenging for the title. They were easily the most attractive side in the league, scoring 62 goals in 30 games and entertaining the crowds with a swift and vertical style, based on good movement off the ball and quick thinking. Rapid attacks from one penalty area to another with just a few touches of precise quality became a trademark -- just like Klopp's Dortmund.

However, the battle with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Molde for the championship eventually ended in disappointment last season, as some poor away form, with just one win in last seven games outside of Drammen, saw Godset miss out on the title and finish second. It was still an amazing achievement for the club, though. Take into account that Stromsgodset's budget only stands at 8 million euros, as opposed to 24 million euros at Rosenborg, the richest club in the country, while Brann Bergen, Molde, Valerenga and Viking also possess much bigger bank accounts.

Many pundits expected Stromsgodset to fade away in 2013, especially after selling their midfield prodigy Anders Konradsen to Rennes at a hefty profit, but quite the contrary happened. Deila's outfit only became better, and sprinted away from the pack at the start of the season, winning nine out of their first 12 games. The only team capable of keeping the pace was Rosenborg, and it soon turned into a two-horse race at the top. The whole country, but for Rosenborg fans, are backing Godset and everyone held their breath when bad away results in the summer again threatened to curb their challenge, with the rivals leapfrogging them into the top spot.

But Deila remained confident in his team: "We are more experienced, and I am sure we won't miss out this time." It looks like he could be right.

While Rosenborg faltered, Godset won four games in a row. Luck is also very much on their side, too. In the beginning of October, it was a dramatic last minute own goal by Valerenga goalkeeper Gudmund Kongshavn, who punched a corner into his net, that gave Stromsgodset the points. At Aalesund, the referee controversially awarded Peter Kovacs's late winner, failing to spot a handball in the buildup of the move. Kovacs, a 35-year-old Hungarian striker usually used as a sub to add aerial power, also netted late in the all important 1-0 win over Start last Sunday. That might not have been pretty, but nobody can complain. After all, Godset are still playing the best football in Norway, and have improved on their own stats from last season. This term they reached 62 goals scored with two games still to play, and already have 59 points as opposed to their total of 58 in 2012.

Kovacs, who came back to Drammen two years ago because he has a Norwegian girlfriend, herself a footballer, is one of the few veterans in the squad. Another is Oyvind Storflor, a former Rosenborg midfielder, who possesses great vision and a brilliant right foot, leading the league with 12 assists and scoring five important goals. Most of Deila's troops, though, are youngsters, and none better than Stefan Johansen -- a technically supreme midfield dynamo who was promoted to Norway's first team from the Under-21s this year.

The national team disappointed in the World Cup qualifiers, and with Egil Olsen leaving, some wanted to see Deila replace him. The man himself didn't rule out such a possibility, but at just 38 he is too young, and more importantly, his skills are much more useful on a daily basis at club level. Currently three points clear of Rosenborg, he is on the verge of bringing a historic title to Stromsgodset.

Passionate, dedicated, charming, visionary, bold and a brilliant mentor, Deila can be considered to be one of the brightest rising coaching talents in Europe. If any Bundesliga club is looking for a man who has potential to emulate Klopp's astonishing success, they would be wise to check out the availability of Stromsgodset's hero. Hats off to him -- and clothes off as well if you like.