Henning Berg's return to Blackburn after nine years
In an extract from his biography of Henning Berg, published in WSC 246, August 2007, Joachim Førsund visits Blackburn in 2004 with the defender
Henning Berg left Blackburn against his own wishes in the summer of 2003. He wanted to stay for another year, the fans wanted him there, the board and the players, too. The day before the last home game of the season, manager Graeme Souness told the local press that he was having a meeting with Berg in a few days to discuss a new contract.
The following Wednesday Henning went to his office. The meeting was over in two minutes. Souness told Henning that he was no longer wanted.
Henning walks around Blackburn Rovers' training complex in a cheerful mood. Things are smaller here than at United. The changing rooms smell worse. The carpets are run-down. The dress code less formal. In the cafeteria, Henning compliments the jovial fat chef on his soup. "Bottom of the Premier League, top of the soup league!" he says. Henning thanks the man in the laundry room for still having the giant poster of him up on the wall. He jokes with the physio who is doing sit-ups in the gym. He tells the club secretary that Gamst Pedersen's name is Morten, not Morton. Henning speaks with a flawless Lancashire accent. He laughs, he smiles. He goes from room to room, pops his head in here and there, says hello, tells people that he hasn't trained for three months and that his house in Oslo is finished at last. Henning seems relaxed in here. I've never seen him this relaxed. He's among his own.
We sit down in the cafeteria. It has huge windows facing the training ground, where Gamst Pedersen is having his first training session at his new club. A man in a blue sweater points and yells. It's Souness. Blackburn manager since 2001. He is 51 now, but has aged strikingly well – not a wrinkle on his face. I ask Henning if he wants to go outside and take a closer look at Gamst Pedersen, hear what Souness is telling him. Henning shakes his head. He can see it from here, he says, but it's really about the Blackburn manager. Henning doesn't like him.
Henning watches the training session, as Souness and his assistants yell and wave their arms. He tells me about Phil Boersma. He used to be the assistant to the physio at Liverpool. When Souness managed Galatasaray, Boersma was put in charge of warm-ups. When Souness took charge of Blackburn, he made Boersma head coach.
"That's what Souness is like. He'll only associate himself with people who say ‘yes boss', coaches who wouldn't even be competent to coach Norwegian youth teams," Henning says.
Souness lets the club rot rather than lose face. In the last couple of years, David Dunn, Keith Gillespie, Andy Cole and Henning have all left Blackburn after falling out with him. The captain, Garry Flitcroft, isn't even on the bench and Henning's good friend Dwight Yorke, who came here from Manchester United in 2002, is also on his way out. Right now, Yorke is out there with his team-mates in training, but everyone knows it's just a matter of time.
It all began during training in March this year. Souness and Yorke ended up in an argument about an incident on the pitch. Souness threw off his tracksuit top and insisted on joining in and playing. He sometimes did, even though he was over 50. The players didn't have the courage to protest. They kicked off and the first thing Souness did was to chase after Yorke. The manager threw himself at his own player, studs first, kicked him at knee height with both feet and left Yorke lying on the grass. Yorke was carried off. Souness didn't comment on the tackle at all, he just insisted they played on.
Souness and Yorke haven't spoken to each other since. Yorke has hardly played. Souness left him out of the training camp this summer and told the press that Yorke, who in 1999 won the Treble with United and was considered one of the best forwards in Europe, would live to regret his unprofessional attitude when he got older. He's wasting his talent, Souness said.
According to Henning, everyone falls out with Souness at one time or another. Some just take longer than others. All it took for Henning was to raise four fingers, and then he was out in the cold. Four fingers in the air, with one single purpose: to win a home game against Sunderland. First it cost him the shirt, and then it cost him a contract.
It was Boxing Day, 2001. Henning was enjoying a good spell at Blackburn. He was vice captain and one of those who never got substituted. Souness had publicly praised him a few days earlier after a match against Charlton. Henning was looking forward to the game. Blackburn were having some trouble scoring, but they were solid defensively and Sunderland were in deeper trouble, so the three points were there for the taking.
Souness came into the dressing room. He had one message. "We're going with three at the back," he said. "It's 3-5-2, not 4-4-2." Henning Berg couldn't believe it. Souness had never been a tactician. He had never won games through tactical masterstrokes. He played 4-4-2 and told them to be aggressive in midfield, tough in the challenges, win in the air and try to get around on the flanks. That was the kind of thing Souness said. Not much more than that.
He had changed to three at the back on previous occasions, but it had never worked. The players in the dressing room weren't really sure what it implied. Did he want the central midfield to lie deeper, or did he want the wingers to play as full-backs when Sunderland attacked? Now he was standing there with three fingers in the air.
Blackburn were played off the pitch by Sunderland. They were all over the Blackburn defence and drove cross after cross towards the tall Niall Quinn and the short Kevin Phillips. Henning was in the middle shouting while trying to fend off the attacks, but after 17 minutes Quinn popped up at the far post and scored. Henning ran towards the bench with four fingers in the air. Four at the back! We have to revert to four at the back! He wanted to win this game.
Blackburn continued with three at the back. Sunderland continued to get around on the flanks. After 32 minutes Quinn headed his second goal of the game, and Henning ran towards the bench with the same four fingers in the air. Graeme Souness was sitting in the stands. He always did. He saw what everyone saw – that Henning Berg was unhappy with his defensive tactics, that he claimed to have a solution to Rovers' defensive problems. And that he was indirectly criticising his boss in the presence of the home crowd. Henning was substituted at half-time. He didn't protest, but he didn't try to hide his displeasure either. Blackburn lost 3-0 and, although Henning remained at Blackburn for another season and a half, his relationship with Souness was strained, to say the least. He played the odd game, but had lost his status as a certain starter in central defence.
One day the following summer, Henning was sitting on the bus at the training camp in Austria. A list of squad numbers for the coming season was circulating on the bus, and according to the list, the new signing from Charlton, Andy Todd, had been given the No 4 shirt and Henning No 25.
Henning Berg looked quizzically at Graeme Souness. "25?" he said. "What?" said Souness. "Why have I got No 25?" "Oh, have you? Which number did you have before then? Four, you say? And now you've got 25?" Souness shrugged, pretending to have nothing to do with it. "It's not that important, is it?" he said.
Translation by Pål Jørgen Bakke. Berg by Joachim Førsund was published in Norway by Kagge Forlag AS in 2004.
From WSC 246 August 2007
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