Fredrikstad. A grand old club with 9 league titles and 11 cup wins to their name, who got relegated in 1984 and spent 18 years in the unsettling wilderness of the Norwegian lower divisions before returning to the big-time in 2003. Since then they’ve won a cup, built a shiny new ground and gradually made themselves a force in the league again, as last season’s runners-up finish clearly shows. In 2009 they face a fork in the road: The contracts of nine of their players as well as their manager expire at the end of this season. This fall they hired Tor-Kristian Karlsen, a renowned talent-scout with considerable experience from behind the scenes of European clubs, as their sporting director with the idea of letting one of Norway’s most competent young football-men modernize the club and use their current success as a platform to take club forwards. Karlsen went about his work, his abilities in the transfer-market being brought to bare with the shock-singing of Costa Rican midfielder Celso Borges, and he started planning a bright new future for Fredrikstad. It all looked so perfect.
You can imagine then that it rated about a 9,5 on NFN’s WTF-o-meter when one of Norway’s largest tabloids reported a few days ago that there was serious unrest in the Fredrikstad-camp, and a few hours later the club held a press-conference where they explained that Tor-Kristian Karlsen had resigned. Just how did that happen?
The Norwegian press has reported it as a personal conflict between Karlsen and Anders Grönhagen, the club’s Swedish manager who orchestrated last season’s remarkable silver medal in the league, though this depiction only partly accurate.
In the aftermath of Karlsen’s resignation it becomes clear that yes, him and Grönhagen were incompatible: “We are two different types of persons who have very different approaches to how a football club should be run,” Karlsen told local newspaper Fredrikstad Blad. Reportedly he wanted the club to focus on youth development while Grönhagen represented a more short-term, results-orientated view. While there’s no evidence for this, it’s not an unreasonable assumption to say that these differing views would have clashed badly on the subject of contract re-negotiations.
In an attempt to simplify the situation Fredrikstad’s chief executive Runar W. Henriksen told TV2 that “Karlsen chose to resign after a meeting we had. He chose to resign because we didn’t agree with his plans”, a statement which cuts to the heart of the problem in ways Henriksen himself probably isn’t aware of: You don’t hire a sporting director and then undermine his plans for the club, it’s the administrative equivalent of the board deciding on the team-selection. As Karlsen himself told Fredrikstad Blad: “I’m no longer at FFK because the board didn’t back me up on the plans I was hired to implement”.
Grönhagen for his part has been rather two-faced in this situation, which will surprise many since the Swede expertly cultivated a sort of sympathetic old uncle-image through the press last season. “There’s no power-struggle,” he told Norwegian tabloid VG. “I had act, or it would all have gone to hell”, he told Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. Make of that what you will.
What it all boils down to is this: Having hired Tor-Kristian Karlsen this fall to lead the club to a bright new future, the Fredrikstad board flinched when it turned out that backing their man and his vision for the club meant parting company with a manager who has made himself very popular with the public, and like most football executives the idea of making themselves unpopular with the public didn’t really appeal to them.
As dust settles around the situation, what remains is a Fredrikstad board with very little credibility and a manager who isn’t quite the benevolent uncle people thought he was. And Grönhagen will now be under serious pressure to get results, as the club have effectively exchanged their long-term vision in favor of his short-term ambition.