Olli Harder will make his debut as the Hammers’ new boss on Sunday in a Women’s Super League fixture against London rivals Tottenham
When West Ham United announced their new manager in December, there was significant surprise – not least because the names widely linked with the job, Birmingham City’s Carla Ward and Wales head coach Jayne Ludlow, were not the subject of the eventual announcement.
Olli Harder’s name is one that isn’t particularly well-known in England, and probably not even in his native New Zealand, with the 34-year-old having spent most of his coaching career to date thousands of miles from home.
Harder has taken what he describes as “a unique journey” to the position he finds himself in now, which has taken in spells in the United States, China and Norway.
Such globetrotting has helped him develop what he considers his stand-out qualities: “Sympathy, empathy, understanding and some experience of how it is to be a foreigner.”
All of those attributes will come in handy as he prepares to manage a team that boasts no less than 13 different nationalities.
He has enjoyed plenty of successes on his travels, too, and none more impressive than the work he did in Scandinavia.
Four years ago, Harder took charge of Klepp in the Norwegian top flight. They had just finished 10th, one place above the relegation zone.
In his three seasons, they finished fourth, second and third.
“The work he put in was really remarkable,” Nick Loftus, Harder’s assistant during his time at Klepp and now the head coach himself, tells Goal.
“The biggest thing he changed was the culture and just shaking things up, taking out the players that either weren’t good enough or not fully committed to being there.
“He had good contacts from his time coaching abroad and was able to bring in some really good players who were also really good people off the field. That contributed to the values and the culture that he wanted to establish within the team.”
The Hammers themselves sit 10th in the Women’s Super League ahead of Sunday’s game against London rivals Tottenham, which will be Harder’s first in charge.
However, they have much bigger expectations than any team he has worked with before.
It’s something he knows plenty about, having followed the club for a number of years because of Winston Reid, the New Zealand international who joined in 2010.
Harder also namechecks Ryan Nelsen, who played 172 Premier League games for Blackburn Rovers, and Chris Wood, currently at Burnley, as fellow Kiwis whose careers he has followed from afar, with his German heritage having made football his passion rather than rugby, the number one sport in New Zealand.
“If it wasn’t for my father being German, I would probably be a rugby coach or something!” he jokes while speaking to the press for the first time since his appointment.
That light-heartedness complements the dedicated approach to his work, with Loftus, who first met Harder when the pair were both coaching in China, quipping: “He can be a combination of very, very serious and then very stupid!”
The balance is something that translates into Harder’s approach to football. With Klepp, he developed an effective and attractive style of play, but was never too stubborn to be more pragmatic if required.
“He was like, ‘I want to dominate possession. I want to press so aggressively’, because not many teams in our league were doing that at the time,” Loftus explains.
“He always wanted us to dominate possession but not over the top. If there was the chance to go long and direct, we’d do it, but it’s about controlling the game.
“I would expect he’d be looking for something similar [at West Ham], but he’ll do what best fits his players and the resources he has there at this time.”
Harder hinted at as much during his first press conference, explaining: “First off, it’s about being a bit practical. We’re in a position in the table that is not comfortable for us, and we wish to be a lot higher up.
“We need to make sure that winning is a priority for us and we need to develop our own sense of who we are as West Ham.”
That adaptability will come in handy given West Ham are not one of the big guns in the WSL and won’t always get the possession they want.
It will also be key if Harder can achieve his goal of helping the Hammers compete with England’s elite.
“If we want to be a top club, we need to be beating Man City regardless of whether they’re playing with their full-strength squad or not,” he said, with his first game supposed to have been a trip to Manchester until a number of City players tested positive for Covid-19.
“It’s important for every club to set their sights high, because it’s important to push the game forward.
“If we set ourselves a low standard or a low bar, that’s doing a disservice to the women’s game.”
If he can translate that ambition into the eye-catching results he talks about, he’ll certainly make a name for himself.