Olli Harder’s journey to West Ham has been unusually long, even discounting that he was born in New Zealand. After starting coaching aged 20, in 14 years Harder has manoeuvred his way to a managerial position in the Women’s Super League, a competition he believes will soon be the most prestigious in women’s football via stints coaching men, women and children in America, China and Norway, where he had success with Klepp, the women’s team he took to successive top-three finishes, while also working as assistant coach at the men’s second division side Sandnes Ulf.
It is only eight years since Harder was celebrating leading Wilton Blue Under-11s to the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association Southwest District B Division title, his appointment as replacement for Matt Beard at the third-bottom club in the WSL continuing a remarkable rise from genuine obscurity.
“It’s been a unique journey,” Harder says, “and this is something you’re starting to see more and more with managers coming into the game, which is this non-linear, not-traditional route. I’m not the only person who’s had a whirlwind, round-the-world management career and it shows that if you can get some success you can be presented with opportunities to work at a club like West Ham.
“Without any doubt having the experiences from being in other countries and for lack of a better term subjected to other cultures is very helpful, and I’m coming back to speaking English again, which is great.”
On making the appointment Jack Sullivan, managing director of West Ham Women, praised Harder for “his progressive coaching style and exceptional attention to detail”, a “track record of giving young players a chance”, and bringing “lots of new ideas that we are looking forward to implement”. The postponement of this weekend’s match against Manchester City, after four City players contracted Covid-19, has given the 34-year-old a bit more time to implement these ideas on the training ground. “There’s things I can talk about and things I’d prefer not to talk about,” Harder says of the promised novelties. “It’s more about the approach, in the sense that I have a holistic approach, player-driven, player-development focused.”
This will be Harder’s second spell in England, having first moved here eight years ago to “pursue a coaching career, relatively unsuccessfully” before cutting his losses and heading to China. “It’s all about experience,” he says. “I think I was 26 at the time. It was a fantastic experience and it planted the seed for me to be here today, to say I want to come back. Between that time and now I’ve been in China, I’ve been in the US, I’ve been in Norway, men, women, college.
“I think the amazing part of the journey is to see football through other people’s eyes. In England there’s an amazing football culture; everything revolves around the game. In the US it’s not like that. In China there’s a very interesting culture when it comes to football, and the Premier League is huge. New Zealand is interesting because rugby’s No 1.”
Harder credits his German parents with kindling his passion for a sport which remains a minority interest in New Zealand. “My father and I used to play in a social Sunday league, outside of my playing career,” he says. “A big, important piece of my childhood was playing football with my father. I didn’t watch a lot of English football – growing up there wasn’t too much on TV, and when there was it was at about four in the morning. I liked Blackburn because of Ryan Nelson, and more recently West Ham, because of Winston Reid. I’m a big Kiwi fan and a big fan of having Kiwis in the league. For me it’s good that I had a connection with West Ham before.”
His itinerant background may help him to connect with a diverse squad whose regular starters include an Australian, a Norwegian, a German, a Frenchwoman, a Swiss, a Czech and a Canadian. “I’ve got some experience of how it is to be a foreigner,” he says. “I understand how some of these players feel, I understand how it is to not have your own language spoken. The experience I’ve gained up to this point in my young career has led me to be empathetic in a lot of situations when it comes to elite football players.”