American Exports: "Bob Bradley the Messiah" inspiring delirious devotion at high-flying Stabaek
AMSTERDAM – In case you're not keeping score at home, Bob Bradley has been in charge of Norwegian Tippeligaen club Stabæk for 148 days. That's worth noting because the way the locals talk about the new boss, one might think he's been there 20 years. Watch Stabæk Support - Bob Bradley tifo + pyro on YouTube.
The former US and Egypt national team coach has the suburban Oslo side off to a fine start this term. They surprisingly sit in third place through 10 matches and have already survived a pair of Norwegian Cup tests.
As good as the campaign has been so far, however, many people in and around the club were giddily prepared to give their collective heart away to the first American to manage in a European top flight even before he signed the dotted line on Jan. 2.
"When the rumor about Bob coming hit the fan, nobody was sure what to think," Bjørnar Posse Sandboe, tifo officer for the club's main fan group, Stabæk Support, told MLSsoccer.com. "Should we expect this to actually happen? Or would this generate interest from other clubs with more cash, swapping him away from us in the last minute?"
This type of skeptical reaction was the norm in town. Just for starters, the 2008 league champs are often under great financial constraints, so much so that fans had to ante up part of the signing package necessary to add former LA Galaxy midfielder Michael Stephens (below) as a winter free agent.
"Personally, I felt that it was unreal," the group's membership officer, Maria Borgersen, said. "I would not let myself expect anything before we knew for sure that it really was true."
There fears were well placed. Another club, current league leaders Molde FK, did try to hijack the hiring of Bradley in order to replace Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who departed for EPL side Cardiff City.
"Bob Bradley came to our little club and a salary of just above a hundred thousand quid (about $170,000) a year because he wanted the challenge," said Sandboe. "He saw how Stabæk had something in its culture that gave birth to great dreams and visions. It's a family club with a great deal of volunteering, passion and inspirational people. When Bob comes into the room, everyone listens."
And the more they listened to Bradley, the larger their respect and admiration grew.
"Stabæk Support got the first interview with Bob, and we were amazed by his enthusiasm and dedication to the sport, and of how much he already knew about our blue club," recalled Borgerson. "One of our favorite things to hear a coach or a player say is that they will bleed for the jersey. And that was exactly what Bob said in the first interview. In that moment, we looked at each other with the biggest eyes, not believing what a man we had just signed."
After the initial excitement, Bradley got to work. He is a tough coach, and he quickly realized that his side need to be whipped into shape. Things don't always go over well when a new manager hits the system-overhaul button. But this time, nobody blinked. The players, the fans, the management, the media -- all just kept on smiling and bragging about Bradley.
"I talked to some of the players during the prior to the season, and they all said the same: He is demanding in a positive way, and we are so incredibly fit," said Jens Andreas Moe, who has worked both in the club and near it in a voluntary station through several coaching administrations.
As Bradley drilled the team to a new physical level, he also began to reshape their practice habits and tactical outlook.
"I went to a Saturday training a few weeks back and watched him use the players as chess pieces, leading them around the field," Moe said. "And then he shouted, 'Action!' They did this for a good half hour, and what I saw was that each action played out totally different, but with a steady improvement of quality. The basic message was, make the smart play, fast and with attacking purpose. Amazing way to tell the players to act smart and believe in themselves."
This effect was not confined to the players. Despite their repeated financial woes, the club is ambitious with a fanbase to match.
"Stabæk is a small club, but with big dreams and great visions," Sandboe said. "We shoot for the stars, we fall spectacularly, over and over. No other club has had ups and downs like we've had the last 20 years."
Despite not speaking Norwegian, Bradley communicates fluently with the players and the locals. And the true believers are in every corner of Bærum.
"We are still amazed over his professionalism and all the time he spends on the club that we all love," said Borgersen. "I know that what many have been surprised by is how Bob is taking hold of the little things in addition to his main duties – the changing rooms, fitness room, eating habits, routines, etc. He came into Stabæk and took full control. We had a tifo with a banner where we painted Bob as Captain America, because that's just what he is!"
Noted Moe: "He brings steady improvement to a relegation-tipped team and raises morale and pride for everyone inside the club. [This past weekend], three players were on Team of the Round. The proof of what Bob has done? One is a teenager [Morten Thorsby], one is 21 [Nicolay Næss]."
Now that the results are coming in, and up more than down, the Stabæk faithful have had time to fully tie their lofty ambitions to Bradley's star.
"When it comes to the expectations we have for Bob as our club's coach, I think they are higher than they have been for some years now," said Borgersen. "For many, it is enough to keep us in the Tippeliga, but with Bob as the leader we both think and hope for more. If Bob does stay with us for a longer while, which I really hope he does, we will probably expect to be fighting for a medal in short time."
Sandboe may be more cautious, but he still easily passes for a Bradley optimist.
"I don't think people are taking off with wild ideas about medals this year, but we no longer fear relegation," he said. "We know Bob won't be here forever, but we hope his ideas and inspiration can live on for years and years. His influence on the entire club is phenomenal, and basically every other club in Norway is in envy."
At the moment, the Stabæk family is busy strutting like a peacock – and it all emanates from the American guy setting the new tone.
And while he may have struggled at times to gain due respect or acceptance while with the US national team, he certainly did that and more with Egypt. Now the theme continues with Stabæk.
"Everybody in Norway have questioned how a resource like him chooses a surefire Norwegian loser club," said Moe. "I say that because all the experts had Stabæk at 16th of 16 in the speculations for the season. Now, in four days, we have beaten last year's winners [Strømsgodset] and runners-up Rosenborg.
"Bob is maybe not God," Moe insisted, "but definitely a messiah."