To use a cliche, it has been one incredible football journey for West Ham Women manager Olli Harder. He has worked in his native New Zealand, the USA, China and Norway before returning to the UK – where he has also coached previously – to take over the managerial reigns in East London.
“I’m a Kiwi so I just got with the flow,” Harder explained in an exclusive chat ahead of Saturday’s game against Aston Villa Women, live on Sky Sports.
“They’re just things that happened, I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to finish one chapter and open another chapter. Some of these things are a little bit planned out but also things can happen quite quickly, you know how football is, it’s certainly not a sport you want to plan in too much because things change very quickly.
“I think because I’ve got such an open mindset about these things, it’s just allowed me to say ‘OK this chapter is closed or I’ve decided to close this chapter’ and then I’d like to go somewhere else and not really having any fear to do that.
“There’s no consideration like ‘oh well I don’t speak this language or what’s the culture like’, but just ‘this sounds cool so let’s go and do it’. My worst-case scenario is to go back to New Zealand, but that’s not terrible, it could be lot worse.”
They are experiences that have shaped his coaching style too, with Harder adding: “I think patience is definitely something, like when you’re coaching in countries where it’s not your first language, for example.
“I coached in China and Norway and they’re two examples where English isn’t the first language, so having a little bit of patience in regards to that.
“That helped me with a bit of empathy in regards to international players and working with players from different backgrounds and understanding the challenges they face, having faced them myself. A good example here is we have Yui [Hasegawa] who is Japanese and I can empathise with her.
“I understand how she feels coming into a culture that’s not her first language and feeling a little bit less than yourself so I think those experiences helped me from that sort of empathetic perspective greatly. It’s allowed me to look at the world through different lenses and not just have a singular thought process about every player.”
It is not an underestimation to say Harder’s appointment at West Ham came from left-field. An almost unknown entity coaching in Norway, he had previously led the Klepp IL women’s team from relegation candidates to successive top-four finishers in just two years.
He followed well-known Women’s Super League coach Matt Beard into the role, and quickly went about securing West Ham’s status in England’s female top flight, aided by three clean sheets in their final four WSL games of the 2020/21 season.
“It was probably one of the most challenging moves for several reasons,” Harder recalled. “Geographically it wasn’t, culturally it wasn’t, because England and New Zealand similar culturally and obviously geographically it was only an hour and a half away from Norway, so it’s not like it was a massive move on that front.
“But coming in during a pandemic – which was really hot in January, not like it is now – and then coming into a team that had a lot of expectations, but sort of in all areas, failed to deliver and also coming in halfway through the season was extremely challenging, so it was just trying to make sure that we kept our status in the league.
“In terms of turning things around, I just default to working hard. It might not always be smart or right, but I just get my head down and try to work as hard as I can so that whatever happens, at the end of the day, I can look back and say ‘well I put in a shift’.
“I try to have that as a mirror for the players because if the players can go out and put in a shift and give 100 per cent all the time when they need to, then what more can we ask? And especially for West Ham, I think the supporters and the way that the club is historically, that’s really important.
“We want players who are going to get the head down and if I’m not going to do it, if I’m not putting in 60, 70, 80 hours a week – which I do regularly – then how can I ask my athletes to go and run for me?
“Defensively, it is sort of been something that’s been in my repertoire for a while now. When I was in Norway we took a team over that was in 10th or 11th place right before relegation and within two seasons, we had the best defensive record in the league and that’s without sitting back.
“There seems to be a negative connotation about defending and keeping clean sheets and it’s like we’re not trying to play football, we actually are.
“It took a little while [at West Ham], but come March, I think it started to click and started to get it. I think three out of four, we kept clean sheets and we ended up losing 1-0 to City and that was a bit of an error from us. But it was good, it was enough to make us survive, but it is a big part for me, having that defensive intensity to now allow teams to score goals.
“From my side, it’s also about having the opportunity to try to dictate the pace of the game on and off the ball. On the ball is always more complicated because there’s a certain amount of quality that’s required to dictate the pace when you have the ball.
“Off the ball, I think that is more of an attitude thing so, in terms of the high intensity, the pressing, the running and these are all things that now, in the modern game, are essential to create opportunities
“From that aspect, it is really important and then for me, it’s a case of playing with enjoyment. We give the players opportunities to express themselves, to make decisions and we don’t necessarily dictate that this has to happen and this has to happen, it’s more of a case of ‘here’s what we need to achieve’, whether that’s in possession or out of possession.
“How we manage to get there, well every road leads to Rome, so there is no one way to get there and we’re quite happy to allow the players to think about it and express themselves in that aspect.”
With his first full summer to mould a West Ham squad, it has been a busy one for Harder and his team. Eleven players have arrived, replacing the 10 who departed, and the manager is keen to instil his own recruitment process.
He said: “My job is to create a good room and then populate it with good people. Myself, my coaching staff, my general manager, the club, we’re trying to create a good room and a good environment, and good people means the right people for our football club.
“There are plenty of good people that don’t play for West Ham, but we talk about good people that fit what we need from the mentality standpoint. We actually almost went through a bit of an interview process when it came to recruiting, we really wanted to talk to the athletes, we wanted to make sure that these were people that were going to add value to us, represent West Ham in the best possible manner, then the obvious thing is they’ve also got to be talented football players.
There are a few bits that I quite like. Maybe this is not the best word, but I like the innocence. Women’s football is still in the stage where football is still about football… there’s still that ability to connect with the community, to talk to the fans and it just still feels like football. So that’s something that I quite enjoy because I like to connect with people and I sort of feel if I was sitting with the men’s team, it sometimes can be a little bit isolating.
“It’s nice to have good people, but if we’ve got 11 good people running around who can’t kick a ball, then you’re going to be in trouble right away. But those are obviously two things that were really important for us, I think we’re on the road doing that and the players that are coming in will add certain value across the board.”
With all of his squad finally together – “it will still take some time to get everyone to blend together because we really haven’t had a pre-season together”, Harder says – the coach now faces Aston Villa on Saturday, live on Sky Sports, and the West Ham fans will have their first real look at their manager in the first home game of the season.
There is more than just the fans to add on the pressure too. West Ham lost their opening game of the season 2-0 to Brighton last weekend after a first-half red card, and failed to register a home league win during the 2020/21 campaign.
“It’s massive for us [to have the home fans back], it’s massive for me and it’ll be nice to be engaged [with the fans], we got a taste of that last week at Brighton, we had some supporters down there and they were fantastic, really encouraged us through what was a difficult period for us,” Harder said.
“Hopefully we can enjoy and thrive together tomorrow because we know the game will be complicated. It will be difficult, it always is but it’s also important for us to try to get off on the right foot in terms of getting some points on the board.
“It’s no secret that last year’s home form wasn’t good enough across the board for the whole season and we need to try to rectify that tomorrow.”
There’s no backwards in coming forwards from the eloquent Harder and he certainly has the experience to cope with the new spotlight on the WSL. Now, West Ham need the results and performances to back it up.