Elverum’s bet on young talent yields results
For five consecutive seasons, Elverum Handball failed to progress from the EHF Champions League Men group phase. But since the former Norwegian international Borge Lund took over the head coach position, Elverum have made the play-offs in consecutive seasons.
Last season, the Norwegian champions faced Barça in the play-offs, who brushed them aside en route to winning the competition without dropping a single game, while this season Elverum battle another powerhouse, Paris Saint-Germain Handball.
It gets even tougher, as no team from the 16 who started the European premium competition is younger than Elverum. At an average age of 24.1 years old this season, the Norwegian side is 2.1 years younger than the EHF Champions League Men average and a full 1.5 years younger than PSG.
However, the youth has its advantages. Despite boasting players with little to no experience in the competition, Elverum have found a lasting contribution from many young players, including Hungarian right back Dominik Mathe, who scored 55 goals this season before getting injured in February and will leave for PSG this summer.
“Our plan is to get better and better every season. We know that we are no world-beaters, but we like to make it tough for other teams to win against us. It is true, we have a very young team, but this is a team that is learning to get better and better each season.
“But it is also up to the players to have meaningful contributions to the game. We usually hold training sessions, in every aspect of the game. It does not matter if there is physical training, tactical training sessions or we focus on the players’ mentality. However, they have to improve by themselves,” says Borge Lund.
Youth to the fore
Placing such confidence in young players could backfire spectacularly but even against the toughest opposition in Europe, Elverum have fared well. Indeed, they have even been impressive at times, like in the 34:30 away win against Pick Szeged. In fact, five of their eight points were secured in away games, a surprising feature for such a young team.
More so, Elverum’s top scorers in the competition are among the youngest players in the team. Backs Mathe, Eric Johansson, Tobias Grøndahl and left wing Sindre Heldal combined for 252 goals this season, 60.4 per cent of Elverum’s 417 goals in the group phase.
None of them is older than 23 years old, a sign of two things. Elverum could either build a core which can get better and better in the years to come, or become a team that is renowned for creating young stalwarts to light up the competition.
“It is more or less something like school if you want to put it that way. In many countries, it is mandatory to have 12 years of school. The next years are the ones where you specialise in a field.”
“This is what we are trying to do here, at Elverum. We are helping the players learn the basics, forming a good core and it is also their job to specialise and improve. You cannot force-feed some bits into them, they need to buy in and become better and better,” adds Lund.
The untimely injury derailed Mathe’s season in the top flight, but Grøndahl, who is currently seventh in the top goal scorer standings, with 73 goals this season, tripled the number of goals scored last season, while Johansson thoroughly impressed in his first season at this level.
The best version of ourselves
Last season, Elverum stood little chance against Barça in the play-offs, taking a 76:44 aggregate loss on the chin, which fast-tracked their maturity.
This time around, another giant awaits and Lund hopes that the heavy loss taught a lesson or two about how to handle such difficult opposition. While the team’s style, a fast-paced, high octane attacking one, has not been altered, the chemistry looks better.
Elverum know that they will be heavy underdogs and PSG are favoured to progress to the quarter-finals, where former champions THW Kiel await. But Lund secretly hopes that his team will give the French champions a run for their money.
“I would not bet my house on us, I know that we are not favourites in this game. But we will try to make it as hard as we can on PSG. We are confident and we will try to be better.”
“Irrespective of the opponent, we will go out and try to be the best version of ourselves,” concludes the 43-year-old coach, who won the title in 2010 with THW Kiel and scored 390 goals in 216 games for Norway’s men’s national team.
However, this is merely a step in the evolution of some great talent, who has been nurtured by a team which prides itself on young players, giving them a chance to showcase their talents in the EHF Champions League.
Elverum face PSG in Match of the Week on Wednesday 30 March at 18:45 CEST with live English commentary on EHFTV.