Meet the former City academy coach now a manager in Iceland aged 29

Chris Br

Former Norwich City academy coach Chris Brazell has been appointed as head coach of Icelandic second division side Grotta aged 29. - Credit: Chris Brazell/Grotta

Being an English coach abroad is still regarded as an unusual route to take despite an increasing amount of managers arriving back in the country having learned their trade overseas.

Whether it's Graham Potter at Brighton, Ian Burchill at Notts County or Liam Manning at MK Dons, learning abroad is becoming a more viable route into management for coaches, especially those without an illustrious playing career behind them. 

For Norfolk born Chris Brazell, his journey out of the UK has seen him become head coach of Icelandic second division side  Grótta aged just 29. 

Brazell's route has been unconventional. Coaching in Iceland wasn't something that was born from romanticism or a desire to replicate those who landed top jobs in England off the back of success abroad, but more through circumstance and good fortune. 

After coaching locally, with one of his students being this author, Brazell joined Norwich City's academy as a 22-year-old and began coaching the U10 and U11 age groups whilst he completed his Uefa A Licence qualification, following on from which he took on U13 and U14 teams.   

At Colney, he was eventually in charge of a talented age group that included the likes of Ruben Shakpoke, who joined Aston Villa this summer, Arlo Doherty, who joined Manchester City and Kristian Hlynsson, currently one of Europes hottest talents with AFC Ajax, along with a host of current Norwich City youth teamers. 

“I wasn’t ready professionally or personally for my time at Norwich. I was very lucky to have that opportunity at an early age. I got great support from staff who had coached or played for many years there. Mostly, I am incredibly grateful to have coached the group of boys I coached in those last two years. They taught me more than I taught them” 

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Brazell readily admits that he initially viewed both football and coaching from the naive perspective of climbing a career ladder, and will freely admit he had a plan from a young age.  

“Before, I approached it like a career. I had actually written that down, my dad has still got it on a piece of paper. (I wrote that) I would be a head coach by the age of 27. I failed that one.  

“In some ways naivety helps you. It probably gets your where you wouldn’t normally be. But then once you're there, it hinders you. Professional football requires more humility and experience than is suggested. 

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Chris Brazell was named as head coach of Grotta earlier this month. - Credit: Grotta Sport

“Now, I’m doing it because I really enjoy it. That is something I said to myself after my time at Norwich came to an end. I will only do this if I have fun."

Brazell left Norwich after four years as the new academy set-up was introduced. Instead of leaping back into football, he travelled across the world to work and live in places as far away as Japan, using his connections made through football to help him on his travels. 

Brazell's opportunity to work abroad came through one of these friendships, with highly-rated Icelandic coach Bjarki Már Ólafsson, who visited Colney in 2017 to observe how City ran their academy.  

Ólafsson is now assistant coach at Al Arabi in Qatar and nearly landed Brazell a coaching role in that country alongside ex-Iceland boss Heimir Hallgrímsson, who was in charge of their famous Euro 2016 victory over England.  

Through Ólafsson he had initially visited Grótta on his travels and that connection saw the club come calling a year later, offering him the opportunity to become head of youth and eventually first-team assistant to ex-Iceland international Agust Gylfason, someone he credits for his current opportunity and considers a mentor.

There were also trips to Norway to visit ex-City head of academy recruitment Gregg Broughton, who is currently working as academy director at Bodo Glimt.

Brazell studied international relations and Politics at the University of Lincoln but his primary passion was always football. At the age of 20, he decided he needed to hit the road and watch other coaches in action - a thought that many would not consider at such a young age.  

“My Dad was listening to the radio. It was the time Dortmund played Bayern in the Champions League final in 2013. They were interviewing people who were connected to both clubs.  

“A man named Gary Gordon came on on who was a coach in Dortmund’s academy and he was English. He had been there 20 years.'  

“He had worked with Gotze, Reus, all these guys. My dad said ‘you should call him’. He’d also been a coach and was always telling me I could do it.  

“I emailed Dortmund. Normally, you never get replies and now I’ve worked in football I think ‘what was I doing?’. A few days later I got an email from him. He just said ‘call me’.  

“I remember sitting in the car park terrified of calling. I’m good friends with him now but at the time I think I bluffed it. I thought he just wanted to chat with me but he told me to book a flight to Germany. When I got there, he had me in the training sessions all week and even let me take some training.

“I was 21 years old. I hadn’t even got a Uefa B license and I was coaching in Borussia Dortmund’s academy. From then on, I said to myself ‘I want to do that’.  

“I was coaching locally with my best friend, Ross Brooks (now at West Ham United). We were spending all day having a great time together but we were also a little competitive. That really pushed me. 

“I was then fortunate to have a fantastic tutor on my badges, Colin Reid. He accelerated my education but also gave me the belief that I could and should pursue this. 

“I started to travel and watch as many top coaches as possible. I got an opportunity through a friend from Japan to go and watch Pep Guardiola at Bayern. I was 10 metres from Pep. He must have thought ‘who on earth is this kid?’.  

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Chris Brazell, second from far right, during his time coaching at Norwich City's academy. - Credit: Chris Brazell

“Other times I was watching from fences. I was taking planes and trains everywhere, emailing anyone and everyone. Any top coach out there, they probably still have an email from me in their trash folder.”  

Brazell's Dortmund experience is one he replicated at FC Koln later on, a city he returned to before his move to Iceland, staying with Paul Standley of the Germany Canaries in order to perfect his German. 

At 29, Brazell is now in the hotseat of Grótta in Iceland and one of the youngest head coaches in European football.  

Grótta are based in the Reykjavík suburb of Seltjarnarnes and their role in that community is and sport in Iceland as a whole is seen through a different lense compared to the UK, as Brazell describes.  

“The appetite for sport is very high. In Iceland, there are no academies. Sport is akin to a ‘human-right’. Participation is very high, as is the quality of provision.  

“People’s support is more around the sports club that represents their community rather than a sport itself. The people who live around me may or may not support football, but if boys or girls from their community are playing they will be in the stands."

As for Grotta themselves, they have the lowest budget of any side in the top two divisions of Iceland and there is a necessity to bring young talent into their side in order to simply sustain their current level.  

Throughout the course of a conversation that lasts 90 minutes, Brazell references several instances on coaching courses where he used to sit in the corner as a 'nobody'.  

But when it comes to his coaching on the pitch, he believes he is at a place where he commands the respect of his players.  

“Am I demanding? Yes. Am I very analytical? Yes. I have a passion for coaching and football, but this is also born out of necessity. I’m not Darren Huckerby. I can’t walk in a dressing room at Norwich and everyone thinks wow, it’s Hucks.’ I walk in and they think, ‘who the hell is this small ginger guy?’.

"It’s easy to say I want a team to ‘press-high’ or ‘play out from the back’. Who doesn’t want that? These are universal parts of the game, not style. As a team, you’re just trying to become good in all parts of the game, whilst hiding any weaknesses you might have.  

"The underlying objective in football is to compete. So my team will be competitive, that’s a good start. After that, I simply propose a way of training and playing that is grounded in a belief that players are capable of more, and that the role of the coach is to offer solutions to help them get there."

Inevitably, questions around the future will follow Brazell given the success of Potter at Brighton and the influx of English coaches heading abroad to complete their education.  

Grotta stadium

An aerial shot of Grotta's home stadium, the Vivaldivöllurinn. - Credit: Chris Brazell/Grotta

From someone who once viewed football from a career perspective, Brazell is now just hoping to ensure the fun is always a factor in his work. That doesn't mean his ambitions to coach at a high level have vanished, though.  

"If you said to me, ‘would you want to coach Norwich one day?’ I would say ‘no, I set my standards higher’. That’s not because I think I’m brilliant, just as a coach you want to be challenged at the highest possible level and I think that would be a whole lot of fun. When I stop thinking like that, I should probably pack it in.

“I really enjoy my lifestyle here. I have great friends, I am part of a great community and I really enjoy my job. Life can change pretty quickly and I just want to enjoy what I’m currently doing. I have an opportunity now to support a fantastic group of guys and lead a special team. My focus is simply on doing that the best I can"

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