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Article from Athletic on Gretar Steinsson

carmeldevil

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May 15, 2018
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Gretar Steinsson’s new Tottenham Hotspur colleagues currently preparing to meet their incoming performance director had better be ready.

Not just for a straight-talking, no-nonsense operator but also physically prepared for a man with what is described as an “iron handshake”. At his former club Everton, the players used to laugh about how strong Steinsson’s grip was, and expressed their relief when COVID-19 protocols meant it was replaced by a blissfully painless fist-bump.

Steinsson will begin the newly-created role, which sees him reporting into managing director of football Fabio Paratici, a week today, July 1, and arrives at Spurs with a very good reputation.

He is known for his honesty, his straightforwardness, his utter contempt for bullshit. Be that with agents, who generally appreciate his direct approach, or colleagues he does not feel are up to scratch. His great friend and former colleague Marcel Brands, who hired Steinsson as his de facto deputy while Everton’s director of football, has said of him: “He’s like a pit bull — if he sees something and wants something, he goes for it.”

“He would walk out and say to the groundsman, ‘Why is your pitch shit?’”, remembers one observer who saw Steinsson’s work up close while he was technical director at Fleetwood Town, in League One, for almost four years from early 2015. “People would be saying, ‘Gretar, why are you saying that?’ And his reaction would be, ‘But the pitch is shit’.”

Steinsson, a former Bolton Wanderers and Iceland right-back, will have a similarly wide remit at Spurs to the one he enjoyed at Fleetwood. He will be involved in such areas as scouting, recruitment and sports science with the first team and academy.

Brands believes his former protege is well suited to the position. “At Everton, Gretar was involved in the whole structure of the club, not just the first team,” says Brands, one of many former colleagues The Athletic has spoken to for this article. “He was very involved in scouting but also in the first team and under-23s — he was at the games, he was at the youth academy.

“That’s a good sign because a lot of people only want to be involved with the first team. But he knew everything was important.

“He’s a guy that you can absolutely trust and rely on, who wants to work day and night.”

Though he’ll be Paratici’s No 2, Steinsson’s responsibilities will mean his role is similar to the one held at Everton by Brands, whom the Icelander reported into at Goodison Park.

This may seem a little counter-intuitive given Everton’s dysfunctionality, but while Steinsson is not seen as being faultless in that club’s recent struggles, he is generally very respected in the game and seen as someone who had to navigate an extremely difficult political situation at Goodison Park (more on that later).

After leaving Everton last December, The Athletic has learned Steinsson started working in an advisory capacity for the Iceland FA the following month. His colleagues there say he was extremely helpful, especially in their attempts to modernise their data operation.

Steinsson is similarly well thought of at Tottenham, who moved quickly to secure his appointment amid interest from other Premier League clubs. The 40-year-old will have the ear of the most influential figures at Spurs, who were impressed with his innovative use of elements of recruitment including data analytics while at Everton.

He also shares several beliefs with Paratici and head coach Antonio Conte, such as the importance of signing Premier League-ready players. There are even similarities in views of individual players, with Yves Bissouma and Djed Spence among those Steinsson has been interested in previously.

Steinsson’s single-mindedness should also see him fit in well with his new colleagues, who appear determined to nail this transfer window and give Spurs the best possible chance of success next season.

That includes a shake-up of the backroom operation that will see Andy Scoulding join from Scottish giants Rangers following former technical performance director Steve Hitchen’s departure in February. On the academy side, Simon Davies (no, not the former Spurs winger) is joining as head of coaching methodology.

So, what exactly will the north Londoners be getting in Steinsson?

Steinsson’s playing career is largely remembered for his four years at Bolton, for whom he scored against Tottenham in a 4-2 win in November 2010. Bolton bought him in January 2008 from AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, where he was signed from Swiss side Young Boys by his future mentor and friend Brands (then Alkmaar’s director of football). He also won 46 caps for Iceland.

“He was a good pro. He was keen on sports science, looked after himself and always did the right preparation,” says former Bolton team-mate Fabrice Muamba, who has spoken to Steinsson about his new role.

“He was one of those guys who thinks a lot before making a decision. But he’s no-nonsense, straight-talking, and his decision is final. He didn’t speak much, but he observed a lot and when he gave an answer, you’d often think, ‘Oh I hadn’t thought of that’.”

Even when coming through the ranks with the Iceland youth teams, Steinsson’s natural authority shone through.

“He was absolutely a leader,” says Omar Smarason, of the Icelandic FA. “We could see he had all the characteristics to go far — that mental strength primarily and the willingness to give everything.”

After having to retire aged 31 in 2013 because of injury, Steinsson completed a postgraduate degree in football management at the Johan Cruyff Institute in the Netherlands. He has a background in sports psychology, and while studying visited numerous clubs (including another meeting with Brands at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven), built his network of contacts and immersed himself in elements of football such as data analytics. Even as a player, he took an interest in these aspects of the game.

Two years after his playing career ended, he became third-tier Fleetwood’s sporting director before being hired by Brands to join north west neighbours Everton in December 2018.

Steinsson had just turned 33 when he took on that very senior role at Fleetwood, and while he rubbed some people up the wrong way with the straight-talking mentioned earlier, generally there is a lot of respect there for the work he did.

Steinsson had continued to live in the area since his Bolton days and got in touch with Fleetwood chairman Andy Pilley one day out of the blue and asked to pitch to him. It was essentially a presentation about what he could offer a club then in just their third ever EFL season as a director of football.

Pilley clearly liked what he saw as soon, to all intents and purposes, Steinsson was running the club for him. He had full autonomy within a budget to line up signings and then secure them. He worked closely with the head coaches (Uwe Rosler among them) but his authority at the Lancashire side was strong.

He is described as very smart by those who saw his work at Fleetwood and “always immaculately dressed” in shirts and chinos. The view of many was that he wasn’t like the average footballer and his personality was very serious and clinical. He wasn’t afraid of difficult conversations and would be very forthright and blunt. Whether that was the groundsman or agents who he thought were asking for too much.

If he didn’t like what they were saying or where a conversation was going, he would simply say, “No, I’m not giving you that”. He would not let the club be bullied by anyone, and this was very much appreciated by his colleagues.

Despite this, Steinsson is popular with several agents who appreciate his honesty and straightforwardness. He’s seen as knowing his mind and rather than being rude, his directness as more a reflection of cultural differences — both as an Icelander but also more in keeping with the Dutch mentality of generally telling it like it is. There may be some deals and agents that would benefit more from a softly-softly approach, but that isn’t Steinsson’s way.

At Fleetwood, Steinsson’s transfer successes meant he was largely given free rein.

In his second season, Fleetwood finished fourth in League One despite having one of the smallest budgets. They signed players of a calibre that had seemed unimaginable before his arrival. Players came in from Manchester City, Liverpool and Everton, while Lewie Coyle was highly rated at Leeds United when he was signed on loan in 2017.

Steinsson’s connections saw Fleetwood tour the Netherlands in the pre-season of 2016 — a trip including a game against Alkmaar, one of his former teams.

He was determined to lift standards at a club who had only ever been a non-League outfit as recently as 2012, and was viewed by some at Fleetwood as a “silent assassin”. He was ruthless and when it came to staff or areas of the club not meeting those standards, he was never shy of making recommendations for change.

He also took an interest in data analysis at a time when it was a lot less prevalent than today — especially in the third tier.

It was the arrival of Joey Barton as manager in the summer of 2018 that signalled the beginning of the end for Steinsson. Barton wanted a greater say on recruitment, which meant a diminished role for him. He left a few months later to join Brands at Everton, initially as chief European scout.

It’s his record at Everton that has led many Spurs fans to have already made their minds up about Steinsson.

Everton have just survived a dreadful season that almost brought relegation for the first time since the 1950s and their recruitment has been hit and miss over the past few years.

Those close to the situation and many within the game though feel that Brands and Steinsson, who both left the Merseyside club in December, were in large part hamstrung by a power struggle going on around them.

The extortionate cost of signing Alex Iwobi from arch-rivals Arsenal in 2019 (£28 million, plus add-ons) was a stick some Tottenham fans used to beat Steinsson with when his appointment was revealed. But it’s understood that while Steinsson liked the player, the cost of the deal was not his doing.

The decision to appoint Rafa Benitez as manager last summer after Carlo Ancelotti returned to Real Madrid saw Steinsson and Brands marginalised.

Generally, Brands and Steinsson would perform due diligence on Everton’s managerial targets, but it was Moshiri who had the final say on who got the gig. Graham Potter (more than once), Christophe Galtier, Roberto Martinez and Roger Schmidt were among those Brands and Steinsson had been interested in. Benitez, a former Liverpool manager, was an entirely different profile.

He proved to be a disastrous hire and led to a power struggle that ultimately saw Brands and Steinsson leave the club before he himself was sacked in January.

Steinsson had known the step up to top-flight Everton from League One would be big (some at the club felt he would struggle to cope with it), and he resolved to bring himself up to speed as quickly as possible.

One gap he had to fill was that his network had largely been based in the UK while at Fleetwood, and it now had to be more international. Steinsson travelled to various countries to meet scouts and gather contacts, and before long was helping Brands with more strategic, structural elements of Everton’s recruitment.

They collaborated for instance on a document they would use to profile prospective signings. “It had all the background stuff, with all the data, everything we needed to know,” Brands says. “We created a format and he was part of that, along with a few more people in the club.”

As his network grew, Steinsson led the recruitment of such players as Fabian Delph, Moise Kean, Ben Godfrey, Jean-Philippe Gbamin, Jarrad Branthwaite and Lucas Digne, while pushing internally on the merits of academy product Anthony Gordon. Along with Brands, he also worked hard to promote and prioritise Dominic Calvert-Lewin at a time when others at the club wanted to sign 30-something Mario Mandzukic from Juventus.

Some of those players have performed better for Everton than others, of course, and the failures were held against Brands, Steinsson and some of their colleagues.

Brands especially appreciated how he and Steinsson developed a synergy where if one was lacking energy and positivity, the other would provide it. Paratici will hope for a similar connection.

And when able to focus more on development than firefighting, Steinsson also attempted to modernise Everton.

He appointed data analysts, who reported directly to him. The Athletic explained in 2020 how Everton used a variety of different sources to gather data, including StatsBomb and 21st Club (it’s now just StatsBomb). It was a burgeoning department that was seen as comparing favourably to most of Everton’s Premier League peers in terms of numbers and reputation; one that helped the club make clear strides in their processes.

Steinsson took an interest in all areas of the club, and made sure they were aligned. With the medical department, he would speak to staff about current and potential players. Danny Donachie was the club’s director of medical services until leaving himself in November and speaks well of Steinsson.

“He was no-nonsense, he would tell it like it is,” Donachie recalls, laughing fondly. “Very honest and upfront, which is slightly different to how many operate and communicate in football. I respond well to that and appreciate that; for some, it might be less comfortable.”

Some at Goodison felt there was a bit of a culture clash between the straight-talking Brands/Steinsson duo and others. But while Steinsson was not universally popular, he had many advocates.

“I found him really open-hearted and easy to communicate with, as well as being very efficient,” Donachie says. “When it came to new signings, he would speak to me a long time before the deals happened, so I could do my homework.

“He was very much training-ground focused and close to the players. He had good relationships with them despite not doing loads of day-to-day work with them; because of his background as a player and the fact he was very approachable.”

This tallies with something Brands said soon after hiring Steinsson: “Gretar is a people’s man, a team player and doesn’t have an ego and wants to work with other people.”

Donachie also remembers Steinsson’s cool exterior never slipping, even in fraught situations: “A few years ago, we had a quite chaotic transfer deadline day, doing last-minute deals, and he remained very calm and collected. A good person to have around.”

Transfer deadline days are often where a club’s recruitment staff get judged, but the reality is that for people such as Steinsson, trying to sort ingoings and outgoings is a never-ending job. And they will do whatever they can to get an edge. While at Everton, Steinsson was known to use The Transfer Room — an online forum allowing clubs to converse seamlessly without agents — to try to drum up interest in their under-23 players.

His overarching vision was to develop a high-intensity side who played with fast transitions and would be up in the faces of the opposition. He and Brands ultimately felt Everton should adopt an approach similar to the teams in the Red Bull stable or, failing that, they should play and recruit as Southampton or Leeds do — new signings should predominantly be aged 24 and below, with exceptions occasionally made for players such as Delph if it was felt more experience was needed.

Like Spurs’ Conte, signing Premier League-ready players is important to Steinsson, and Everton were close to signing Luis Diaz from Porto last summer. In the end, Everton couldn’t get the deal over the line, largely because they were hamstrung by their own high wage bill, with Porto unable to afford to sign James Rodriguez as part of the deal. Diaz ultimately joined Liverpool in January and has looked perfect for English football from pretty much the moment he arrived.

Diaz was a player Tottenham also pursued — like Everton, they got close before being pipped by Liverpool. Steinsson will arrive in north London as determined as Paratici, Conte and co to ensure they do get players of Diaz’s calibre through the door.

But it’s his wide-ranging knowledge of football, and interest in other issues within the sport that make him stand out.

“He knows everything about the game,” Donachie says. “Mention a player in America, Nigeria or anywhere, and he’ll know them straight away.

“But we also had a lot of good conversations about other aspects of football. He did a course with the Premier League around leadership and went into several organisations, like BMW. I’m interested in culture, so we had a lot of chats about that sort of thing as well.

“I think he’ll be great at Spurs. His knowledge is really good, he’ll get on well with people. He’ll be very direct and straightforward, which is quite rare in football but it’s a great quality.”

Clearly, Steinsson left a mark on many of his Everton colleagues, but does Brands feel his former deputy’s time there has damaged his reputation?

“I think people in football and closer to things, and (who) know Gretar as a person, know that the club, although it has great potential, is sometimes difficult,” Brands says.

Certainly, the Iceland FA weren’t put off Steinsson by his time at Everton, and Smarason speaks highly of the work he did with them: “He was really helpful. Data is a big thing he pushed. We’ve taken strides in that area and he was really good with that. He gave us some very valuable insights — what kind of data, which software to use et cetera.”

The focus now turns to how Steinsson will cope with the pressures of a club the size of Spurs, one with a demanding chairman — and fanbase. “I think Gretar is used to that,” Brands says. “In England, there is always a big pressure from owners, fans, managers. But that’s the challenge you want to work in. He’s prepared and not afraid of that.”

Brands also feels that, with his experience, diverse background and temperament, Steinsson has the making of a director of football or sporting director.

Either way, he is confident his friend will be a success at Tottenham.

“Spurs will be very happy with him; they have someone who will work his arse off,” Brands says. “Someone you can rely on, who will work day and night for the club. He will do the best things he can for the club. You have a very committed person who will make every effort in every part of the club — academy, first team, under-23s, you name it.

“Working three years with him, he never disappointed me.”

From that “iron handshake” to the dedication and up-front conversations, Tottenham will feel Steinsson’s presence from the moment he walks through the door.
 

Snarfalicious

Well-Known Member
Jul 15, 2012
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Really interesting article. I am really interested in seeing how the new additions will approach our academy. I think it's been relatively decent, but honestly feel it should be much, much better.
 

Delboy75

Well-Known Member
Jul 11, 2021
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All I need to know is he worked at Everton in their worst period for donkeys years. I find it a very odd appointment. But if Paratici ok with it.
 

beats1

Well-Known Member
Feb 22, 2010
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Is this the guy who didn’t turn up to work at the training ground a few days ago
 

Jody

SC Supporter
Sep 11, 2004
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It’s good to know that he was part of creating the format for a document. I wonder if there were page breaks and columns? Never got the hang of them myself.
 
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