European route sees former Leeds United and Bradford City academy coach Ian Burchnall smash through football’s glass ceiling
Ian Burchnall coaches Ostersunds, whose chairman Daniel Kindberg was last month imprisoned for three years for serious financial crimes. In the coming days they could be thrown out of Sweden’s top division.
“In Sweden you have to have a licence to play in the top league and they’ve threatened to take it away,” explains 36-year-old Burchnall, a coaching product of Yorkshire.
“We were probably written about more than any other club in Sweden last season and most of it was not about the football. That had a knock-on effect on things like sponsorship.
“When a club like ours does well, everybody gets picked off. It’s very hard to recruit players to northern Sweden but that hasn’t stopped expectations going through the roof.
“I came in just after they’d beaten Arsenal in the Europa League (in February, 2018), when Graham Potter left to become Swansea manager. Now, pretty much every player from that Europa League success has been sold.
“All the players we’ve signed have been under 25, the majority under 20. We started the season well but it became difficult (they finished 12th out of 16).
“My first managerial job was at Viking when they were heading for bankruptcy, they’d been overspending for years. They’re the kind of jobs you have to take when you don’t have a name to fall back on.”
“I’d love to tell you I was going to be an England player but for a bad injury, but that would be a lie,” chuckles Burchnall.
“When I did a degree in sports science at Leeds Met I began coaching part-time with Leeds United’s Football in the Community programme aged around 21. I moved to their academy and took their Under-9s for a year. The group I had included Lewie Coyle (on loan at Fleetwood) and Tyler Denton (now at Stevenage), although they were tiny little ’uns.
“After my degree, I got a job as head performance coach at the University of Leeds as well. When Leeds United had financial problems, I moved to Bradford’s academy.”
There he was told he was unlikely to progress beyond youth football, “because you haven’t got a (playing) career or a name.”
Many English coaches complain about a lack of opportunities, but Burchnall was willing and able to do something about it thanks to someone he coached alongside at the University of Leeds.
“I went out to Norway at the age of 29 to be Brian Deane’s assistant at Sarpsborg,” he explains. “I was very, very confident that I could go in at that (junior) level but I didn’t know anything about professional football. Brian had the empathy and understanding of professional footballers but I’d done much more coaching, so it was a good combination.”
Hopefully, with Brendan Rodgers and Jose Mourinho at the top end of the Premier League and the likes of Sheffield United’s Chris Wilder and Huddersfield Town’s former PE teacher Danny Cowley working up from non-league level, English football is losing its snobbishness. Including caretakers, three-quarters of current Premier managers started as youth coaches.
“I think people are starting to look at management in a different way now. It’s more about the skills set,” argues Burchnall.
“I’d done thousands of hours coaching at academy, university and football in the community level before I moved into the professional game and it allowed me to develop my own way of working.
“My first coaching session was at Ireland Wood Primary in Leeds with the reception class. Everything’s about communication and understanding who you’re working with. I’d deal with Under-9s completely differently to first-team players. The football principles are the same, it’s just how you deliver the messages.
“When Brian had his first daughter, he decided it was time to head back to England but I felt my journey in Norway was still going.
“In England, there was a bit of ‘Where have you been and who have you played for?’ but having done my pro licence in Norway I got three or four decent offers there.”
Burchnall became Viking’s assistant in 2014 but when he succeeded Kjell Jonevret two years later they were suffering financially. Told to cut the playing budget and backroom staff, he was sacked within 12 months, bottom of the Eliteserien.
Last year, former York City player and Leeds Met coach Potter recommended him to Ostersunds as his successor. “It was almost the same as following Alex Ferguson,” he argues. “Graham won three promotions, the cup and qualified for the Europa League. They wanted to name the stadium after him, build statues, the lot!
“In my first season, we finished sixth, one point behind the season before.”
Even now Burchnall works alongside Yorkshiremen, having added Leeds-born Alex Purver to a squad which already included York’s Jamie Hopcutt.
“Within Sweden a lot of players tend to gravitate to the bigger cities so at times we’ve looked to England,” explains Burchnall. “Some players just don’t suit the English game and it gives them another window of opportunity.”
Does Burchnall see his as a route into English football? Last month, he was linked with Barnsley.
“I’d love to, but it has to be when the time is right,” he insists. “I’ve really enjoyed my time abroad and I’m learning masses. It’s always flattering to read (being linked elsewhere) because you certainly get enough of the opposite!”