Taking an opportunity on an island off Iceland, Gregg Ryder found himself in Serbia at the age of 24, leading a team in the Europa League against Red Star Belgrade...
Name, age, where you are based?
Gregg Ryder, 32 years old, Reykjavik, Iceland.
I have just finished my 6th year as a Head Coach in Iceland with Þor Akureyri. I have worked with two clubs as a Head Coach, Þrottur Reykjavik for four and half years and Þor Akureyri for one year.
Prior to that, I worked as an Assistant to IBV first team as well as holding roles such as Head of Coaching, (Þrottur) and U19 and U16 Boys lead coach (IBV). Most recently I have been helping the Icelandic FA as a UEFA B tutor for coaches.
I have my UEFA A and I am trying to get onto my UEFA Pro licence. I also have a bachelor degree in Business Management.
How did you get into coaching and what has your path been like?
Different! I went to the USA on a soccer scholarship and it was while I was there, that I really started to get into my coaching. My first ever coaching role was with a high school girls team which I coached in the spring, and a U15 boys team which I worked with in the summer.
After finishing my scholarship I returned to the UK and a connection I had made through coaching in the USA, put me in touch with someone at my local club, Newcastle United. I did three or four development center sessions before they asked me if I would be interested in going out to Iceland to work as an U16 and U19 coach.
Ironically, I wasn’t offered the position because I had done anything particular outstanding coaching wise (in those four development sessions), instead it was more because I had lived away from home for five years, I was single and therefore a “safe bet”. They had sent over two or three coaches prior to myself and they hadn’t been able to stay longer than a month or two.
I was soon to discover there was a reason for this…. the job was located on an island off the south coast of Iceland, with a population of 4,500. In the winter, the only way to get to and from the island was a three hour ferry or by plane, which rarely flew due to the horrendous wind conditions. It became evident quite quickly why so many had come and gone before me.
However, on the island, they had a premier league football team, both men and women. They had their own, half 3G indoor pitch and the people on the island lived and breathed football. I knew if I could stick this out, it would be worth my while - which it was. I stayed for two and half years. In my last year when Hermann Hreiðarsson was appointed manager of his home town club, I was promoted to Assistant Manager. Hermann brought his best mate, none other than David James, with him as Goalkeeper player/coach. What an experience that turned out to be!
Following IBV, I was offered a Head Coaching role at Þrottur Reykjavik, at the age of 25. When I arrived at the club, they had just finished one place above the relegation zone on goal difference and there was only five players contracted. The club was in a mess. However, I had an excellent chairman and we were able to bring in some fantastic young players, great staff and promote several players form within their academy.
In my first season we finished 3rd (one place below automatic promotion) and then went one better the following season and got promoted to the premier league, for the first time in 9 years. Unfortunately, our stay was a short one as we came back down the following season.
Nevertheless, invaluable experience was gained from my first promotion and relegation; so many issues, hurdles, barriers and ultimately learning experiences that have helped me to become a better coach.
Any Major achievements? Any funny stories? Big name players coached? Big name coaches faced?
Biggest achievements - a few stand out; the first one and maybe most memorable was when I was put in charge for my first game at IBV. Hermann was a player/manager and had been coming off the bench here and there in games previous. However, this particular game was his first start and therefore my first game as head coach...
Location of the game: Marakana, Serbia. Opposition: Red Star Belgrade in the 2nd Europa league Qualifying stage. This was Red Star’s first game in Europe for a record 6 years and so there was a 35,000 plus crowd. I am a Newcastle fan, so I have been in St. James´ Park on a few occasions when the atmosphere has been electric, but nothing like this. We lost the game 2 – 0 on aggregate, after drawing the return leg 0 – 0.
Once you experience an event like this as a coach and everything that goes with it, it becomes a drug - instant addiction. I have been chasing that high ever since. As far as I am aware, at the age of 24, I am the youngest coach to manage a Europa League game, but please correct me if I’m wrong!!!
Another more long term achievement, has been the success of developing players. Iceland is unique in that respect, it has the highest export of players, per capita in Europe. In other words, it’s a hotbed of football. The vast majority of clubs have the same philosophy; develop players to get into the first team, to then sell them on.
Selling players to Europe is how the clubs are sustainable, it’s therefore an ideal environment for a coach to work. Results are obviously important and as a head coach you live and die by them, however, the ability to develop and produce players for the club to sell on, can go a long way. How many managers in England would be relegated with a club and then offered a new a contract at the end of the season?!
My guess would be not many, even if they made it to the end of the season. The work I had put into individual player development at Þrottur and my drive to help the club produce young players basically kept me my job. Therefore, the numerous players which are now playing professionally abroad, or playing with the Icelandic youth or senior national team is definitely something I consider my biggest achievement.
From Newcastle you went into top tier Senior football in Iceland. What skills did you have to develop and adapt with a move from academy football to the Senior game?
At academy level, the aim is all about developing the player. At first team level, ultimately you are judged about getting results. However, I tried to keep my philosophy the same. Even as first team manager, I believe if you can develop your players and ultimately improve them, then results will come.
Senior football forces you to do things a bit quicker, for example, if you haven’t got the budget to sign a left back and you don’t have one in the squad, what do you do? You coach a player you already have to play left back. At an academy level, this might take place over months or years, at first team level, you have days or weeks.
Another difference is the opposition analysis and how that impacts on what you do in the week building up to the game. At academies I have worked in, in the week building up to the game, you pay little to no attention to how the opposition will play and focus entirely on your own game. At first team level, you need to know certain aspects of how the opposition will play to maximize your chances of winning.
Getting that balance between concentrating on your own game and tweaking your approach due to the opposition is something which I am intrigued by. Every coach has a different approach and it is definitely something which I have experimented with over the years and still feel I am yet to find the perfect balance. One thing I have learnt, is it differs from team to team, dependent upon the players you have in that team.
What was your clubs setups like in Iceland and what was an overview of a typical week with the squad?
The facilities in Iceland are excellent. Due to the weather, most clubs have access to an indoor 4G pitch. Without doubt one of the major positives of Icelandic football is the facilities that they have available to players and coaches.
Everything is government owned and therefore all clubs have access to top facilities. Due to most of the players having a job (only a few players in each team are fully professional), everything is done after work. So a weekly schedule for the players would look like this:
Sunday: Recovery session (we varied what we did, light football, weights, yoga).
Those that didn’t play would be given a tougher session
Monday: Day off
Tuesday: Post game analysis meeting, followed by training
Wednesday: Training and gym
Thursday: Opposition analysis meeting and training
Friday: Set-piece meeting and training
Individual player meetings would also be held during the week, as well as pre-activation sessions of 15-20 minutes being held before every session. Players would also have access to hot tubs, ice baths after training too and they would be expected to attend the gym at least once more on top of the team gym session.
In your roles, what did you find best for your development?
From a coaching point, my time at IBV laid the foundation for me as a coach. Living on an island with a population of 4,500 people, meant the only thing to do was to eat, sleep and drink football.
Out on the grass every day for 4-5 hours, with different age groups, different genders and different skill/ability level gave me a fantastic base to determine how I wanted to coach and what I wanted to coach. It gave me the platform to experiment, to find out what worked and what didn’t. Being able to then apply that knowledge to first team players as an assistant was fantastic.
Watching other coaches around me, particularly Heimir Hallgrimmson was also invaluable. He worked as first team manager of IBV while I was there in the academy. I tried to watch every session. Heimir, of course, went on to become the manager of Iceland and lead them to both their first European Championships and World Cup.
What things have been challenging in your current or past roles and is there anything you would do differently next time?
Two pieces of advice, I wish someone had given me before moving abroad...
Number 1: Network! When you leave the UK, you instantly become invisible. No matter what you achieve, you didn’t do it in England. The only way you will become visible to the football world or media in England is by beating an English club. Graham Potter is the best example; he had done an absolutely sensational job with Ostersunds. However, it wasn’t until that game against Arsenal, did he appear on the UK radar.
Therefore, when you are abroad, you have to make a monumental effort to make connections in the UK, go to visit clubs, when you have time off etc. This is where I made my first mistake. Over the past 9 years in Iceland, I became so focused to the point of obsession, about being successful in Iceland that I forgot about the rest of the world.
So I find myself at a point now, where I have managed in the Europa League, been promoted and managed in the Icelandic premier league and I want to move on and progress my career at a higher level, but I haven’t made the connections to do so.
The 2nd piece of advice and I think this applies to all coaches, is to be patient. I am extremely ambitious and as result there have been decisions which I have made or even thoughts and ideas which I have entertained which have affected my career.
Enjoy the moment. Being paid to work in football is the greatest privilege you can have. Doing what you love, every day is the pinnacle. Be happy where you are at, in that moment. It is fine to have aspirations to work at the highest level you can, but be patient. Work harder than everyone else, every day, be humble, make mistakes, own up to your mistakes and learn from them and what is meant to be, will be.
On the other hand, if you get the chance to go abroad, do it. Absolutely, no questions asked. Don’t make excuses about poor salary, difficult living conditions etc, just do it. You will add so much to your armoury that you probably hadn’t even considered.
Any advice for coaches looking to make the jump into managing or coaching at senior level, and in your opinion, what would be an effective way to make that jump?
I wouldn’t change anything about my journey, however, I definitely could have done things differently. I made a very quick leap from U19 football to Assistant to Head Coach in the space of 1 year. During this time as Head Coach of Þrottur Reykjavik I experienced the best 2 year spell of my career to date, however, I am now at a point where I feel I need to go back and learn more at the u19 and assistant area.
There is definitely an argument to say that I should have spent another 3 or 4 years as an assistant (or U19 age group) to gain more experience. There are no shortcuts in football, so my advice would be to soak up as much information and experience in support and development roles as possible.
You only get one crack at first team management. I have been lucky and had relative success. Looking back, had I failed in my first job, that could have been it. So it goes back to what I said earlier, be patient.
Has anything developed you more than if you were working in UK?
Working as a first team manager, particularly at a young age, you are learning on the job. Being given that opportunity at such a young age would simply not have happened in the UK. Even now at the age of 32, with seven years first team experience behind me, working in the UK, particularly as a manager is almost impossible.
So without question, the opportunity to experience first team management is something that being abroad has given me. Being in a position to make mistakes is key to learning and growing as coach. It requires you to be quite thick skinned as people are going to call you out on it, whether it´s in the media, walking down the street, or in the board room.
Football can be very unforgiving; you can lose a few games and you can lose your job, there is no other industry in the world like that. So you have to be mentally strong, and through these experiences, if handled correctly, they can make you better as a person and as a coach. There is no substitute for experience.
Where do you get your inspiration from/Any inspiring words for others?
Being a coach that hasn’t played professional football, I have always drawn inspiration from managers who have “made it” without playing, such as Jose and Roy Hodgson. Without being a former pro it´s such a difficult industry to break into, so those that manage it are hugely inspirational to me.
What’s your current status, what’s next for you?
I am currently unemployed. I am looking for that next project, hopefully to share my expertise and help develop more footballers. Having worked on both sides of the spectrum as a first team manager and as a development coach, I feel I have a unique perspective which will allows me to help players.
When you are in the position of head coach, there is no hiding - it exposes all your strengths and weaknesses in every aspect. My 6 years in that role have definitely highlighted some key areas which I would like to work on, as well some things that I am better at than I thought. I am therefore looking to take a step back from being a head coach and trying to get into u23 or u18 development. My reason is two-fold; firstly I believe working in Iceland, a country reliant upon development (which I explained before) has really aided and improved my ability to help develop footballers.
At this point in my career I believe that developing football players is currently my greatest asset and niche. Secondly, I feel I still have so much to learn and I think being in a development environment, or even as an assistant to a first team, would allow me to do that. Being able to watch an experienced head coach at work every day and have the opportunity to learn more form others would be something I would like to do. That’s not to say I don’t ever want to be a head coach again. It´s all about making you the best you can be.
One last thing I would like to leave you with is, if anyone would like a chat about football, life as a coach or anything along those lines, just leave a comment below with some contact details. I will try my best to get in touch with you. Networking is key, as is support, so if I can help anyone based on what I’ve learned through my experiences (successes and failures), then it would be my pleasure.