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Former Forest Green manager Ian Burchnall on early career in Scandinavia, managing Rovers at League One level, and getting Wolves call from Gary O’Neil

From Accrington to Antwerp, and Morecambe to Molineux. The journey since leaving Forest Green has had quite the rise for former boss Ian Burchnall.

In the space of 12 months, he’s swapped the pressure cooker of first-team manager in Gloucestershire to the coaching staff of one of the Premier League’s most astute sides with Wolves.

Having entered via the lesser-trodden pathway of seven years in Scandinavia, his time at Swedish club Ostersunds helped carve his footballing style.

“The biggest thing with the chairman, away from all of the outrageous things he did off the pitch and trying to create a culture, was the playing style,” said Burchnall.

“He was uncompromising with it. He said, ‘this is how we’re going to play, nobody will change it, we will try to be the bravest and most ambitious football team in Sweden’ in terms of how we’d play.

“He told me, ’I’ll never ever fire a manager as long as you are true to the club’s identity and how you want to play’ – he would shoulder all blame for results.

“It was to take the pressure off and go for it and the way we wanted to develop the team. He felt this was the best way to develop players and sell players that we needed to do being a small club in Sweden.

“For the two years I was there, we had a top-six finish and sold players for a lot of money. It was the playing methodology that was the biggest thing I took from Ostersunds.”

It can be seen as an opportunity to prove a point abroad and it’s that element of risk that football has become so intertwined with pursuing. That risk gave Burchnall a chance.

“The competition is fierce in England – you have to try and set yourself apart.

“When I came back, I thought maybe my stock has risen from being abroad but sometimes people don’t know a lot about you – it’s the fear of the unknown.

“I often got called a ‘left-field appointment’ whenever my name was suggested about jobs. I guess it’s left-field because you’ve done something different rather than a lack of experience.”

Choosing the right opportunity back home was difficult – Leicester-born Burchnall found Notts County the perfect step in his career.

Having arrived in March 2021, his side fell agonisingly short of promotion on two occasions after playoff heartache to Torquay (2020/21) and Grimsby Town (2021/22).

“My only objective was to get the team back into the football league and it was sad when we didn’t make it.

“I thought I’d had two shots at it in the playoffs and the National League is tough. You can have an unbelievable season and it comes down to realistically a one-off game.

“I said to myself, ‘can I do another 46 games with Wrexham still in the league?’ We were strong enough for the playoffs but it could be down to one game – that’s why I decided to leave.

Enter Forest Green Rovers. A Rob Edwards-inspired group of players forged a historic promotion to the third tier in the 2021/22 season with a famous title-winning campaign.

The shoes were hard to fill but the pull of then director of football Rich Hughes was a determining factor in bringing Burchnall to the southwest.

“Rich was the main reason I went to Forest Green.

“A lot of people I spoke to said, ‘It’s a really good football club to go to, especially because Rich Hughes is there’ and he’d done an amazing job with recruitment and ran the football operations in a good way.

“You can see what a job he’s done with Portsmouth since going in there. He’s extremely astute at what he does.

“Because Rob (Edwards) had done so well and kicked on as a coach, I spoke to him and he spoke very highly about the club and the people in it.

“I thought maybe this is a good one, it’s a really small club in League One but at the same time, it had a good history of developing players and coaches.

Burchnall being interviewed by BBC Radio Gloucestershire & Gloucestershire Live at Forest Green

“It seemed a progressive one to take. It was clear that I was the coach Rich wanted so I felt like as much as it was about Forest Green, I thought Rich was somebody I could work with and the two of us could’ve done good things.”

After he departed Forest Green in January 2023, the batteries were low. However, when Belgium’s most decorated club comes calling just a few weeks later, it can be quite difficult to turn down.

“Strangely, I got a phone call in December just saying what’s your situation by Anderlecht because I knew the sporting director and he’d tried to sign me for a club in Denmark years ago.

“He’d moved across to Anderlecht and the manager was Bryan Reimer who was Thomas Frank’s assistant so I knew Bryan. I said no, I’m contracted here and working with Forest Green.

“They saw that I was unemployed and were about to appoint a new assistant. They said, ‘now you’re out on contract, what’s the situation, is it possible?’ – the only thing was because it was so far down the line, they needed a decision in a couple of days.

“I’d gone from enjoying a couple of weeks where I was having a break, then I had to say to the kids and my wife that I think I’m going to go to Belgium.

“They were still playing in Europe, in my first week we played Villareal twice and knocked them out of Europe. It’s a really strong league so the opportunity to go there was too good to turn down.

“I felt like I was taking the next step in terms of level and quality of environment so it was a perfect situation.”

With a young family too, responsibilities naturally change. But this was Anderlecht – and without that drive and willingness to be successful that underpinned his coaching career, he may not have the opportunity in the Premier League now.  

“It wasn’t easy. I agreed with Anderlecht only to sign for 18 months. I said to my wife that I’ll do this for that time and I could convince her that where I was living in Cambridge, it wasn’t too bad in terms of getting the Eurostar.

“I was getting back maybe once every couple of weeks so there was a big trade-off in terms of what I got out of it career-wise in football against missing the family.

“I think she saw that it was a tough period for me at Forest Green and now this was a chance to release – I didn’t have to be the main man in the spotlight and I could go back to what I loved doing and that was getting back on the grass and coach without the stress of that spotlight.”

Having signed for Anderlecht in March 2023, it took only six months for an English club to raise their interest.

That phone call came from Wolves boss Gary O’Neil, and despite not knowing each other personally, Burchnall was on his radar.

“Gary already had Tim Jenkins and Shaun Derry in with him but felt like something was missing in the staff group.

From left to right: Ian Burchnall, Gary O’Neil, Shaun Derry, Tim Jenkins – Credit: Wolves FC

“He picked the phone up and for me, it was a no-brainer. I’d followed what he’d done at Bournemouth and thought it was outstanding work.

“If the opportunity came up to come back to England and work alongside one of the most promising young managers in the game, I had to do it.

“It was difficult because when I went in at Anderlecht, it was a tricky time, they were mid-table, and had a lot of noise around.

“We’d done the first six games of the season and we were top of the league so I had to go in and speak to Bryan and the sporting director and say an opportunity has come up – Wolves are going to approach and ask if it’s possible if I can go there.

“They said immediately that I had to go – and they’re happy for me. ‘You’ve done a great job, we know your family situation, and we knew this wasn’t going to be long-term.’

“They knew maybe in January/February that things start to change in England and my contract was running out.

“Maybe it was a little early in the season for them considering we were top of the league but they were unbelievable in facilitating it. The clubs agreed and then I could get to work.”

With a crop of young, hungry, like-minded coaches, Wolves look well-placed. Having negotiated early-season doubters, they now sit in mid-table with half an eye on a European place.

They often say the journey is better than the outcome, but despite this being far from the endpoint for Burchnall, he’s more than satisfied now working in a top-elite environment.

Burchnall with Hwang Hee-Chan – Credit: Wolves FC

“We’ve had some good wins, we’ve done the double of Spurs and Chelsea, we’ve beaten Manchester City.

“Working with Gary and the team and with the club getting some top results, it’s been an amazing experience in the Premier League.

Picture: BBC Sport

“For me, having started working with U16s, clubs thought perhaps with my footballing background that I wouldn’t have the footballing abilities to go and work at first team level.

“I’m a good message to say that, if you work away, learn your craft, and do the right things then those opportunities will present themselves.”

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