Michael Jolley dropped out of football at 16 and ended up working for HSBC in New York, but now he’s back in football and, remarkably, managing in the Swedish top flight.
You may not have heard much about him, but Jolley is no ordinary football coach.
Born in Sheffield, he had dreams of becoming a footballer but was released by Barnsley when he was 16 and gave up the game, going on to study economics at Cambridge University.
He was working for HSBC in their London office within a year of his graduation, and before long he was transferred to New York, where he was less than a mile away from the 9/11 terror attacks, a day which saw him lose one of his closest friends in the US.
But football was always his real passion, and in 2004 he took his first coaching position with Crystal Palace’s Academy. He took up a similar position at Nottingham Forest three years later and worked in various roles in Scotland before taking on the Under-23 manager’s job at Burnley in 2014, working under Sean Dyche.
Then, in June of this year, Jolley was given the opportunity to go to Sweden and manage a team in his own right.
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It will be no easy task: newly-promoted AFC Eskilstuna were bottom of the Allsvenskan without a win when Jolley took over. They remain bottom today but claimed a surprise 3-1 victory over league leaders Malmo at the weekend to close the gap on Halmstad above them to just two points.
Eskilstuna are still expected to be relegated back to the second tier, but Jolley is looking to the long term in his efforts to improve the fortunes of a club that was only founded in 1991.
Named FC Café Opera by Italian restaurateur Alessandro Catenacci, the club started in the eighth tier but within a decade had made it to the second division, where they merged and became Vasby United.
They were renamed again in 2012, becoming AFC United and playing their games in Solna, a municipality of the country’s capital, before moving to Eskilstuna last December ahead of their first ever campaign in the Allsvenskan.
“From a football side of things, I’m trying to make changes, but I can’t change too much too quickly,” Jolley told us earlier this month. “I’ve joined a team that’s bottom of the league and in a relegation fight, so my eyes are open on that.
“I think we’ve made progress in certain areas structurally, but that hasn’t yet transferred into results on the pitch.”
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Despite the mammoth challenge facing him, Jolley certainly has no regrets about the decision to take on the job.
“I could have stayed at Burnley in a fantastic environment with a good manager, I really enjoyed what I did there,” he says.
“But the chance to be a manager in my own right and challenge myself in such difficult circumstances, the idea of coming abroad and experiencing a new football culture. If I didn’t do it I thought I’d regret it.
“I’ve had some really good examples of working with managers up close. The best example is of course Sean Dyche, he’s a fantastic manager and I’ve tried to learn a lot from what he does, but you have to find your own way as well.
“There’s a sporting director here who takes on a lot of the responsibilities, he’s working hard on the recruitment side, which helps me. But I’m enjoying being a No.1, I like to be the guy making the decisions and long may it continue.”
And despite the big change in both his job and where he resides, Jolley describes the transition into the job as “smooth”.
“It’s been good,” he says. “From a life perspective, the shift was quite gentle. Everyone has been very kind and everyone speaks English. It’s a very modern European country so it’s a nice place to live, plus I’ve got my family here.
“Eskilstuna is a nice place, Stockholm is about an hour away so we’ve got that too. It’s quiet, but it’s got lakes, natural countryside and a nice town centre. The culture difference is small and it’s a good, stable backdrop to work with.”
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So, what has Jolley identified as the key issues in his short time with the club? IK Sirius, the other team promoted last season with the exact same points tally as AFC, currently sit fourth in the top division, 22 points ahead of Jolley’s side.
“The reality of it is we don’t have players who have played at this level,” he says. “We have a few, but a high number of them have played at different levels, but not this level.
“It’s a new experience for both the club and the players. It’s a comparison I could draw to Burnley when they were first promoted.”
As a former academy manager, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of Jolley’s aims is to improve players enough that they can be sold to bigger clubs and help Eskilstuna on the financial side of things.
“It’s one thing to improve the team, it’s another to improve players,” he says. “We’re not a massive club, we have to sell players to help the club so we try to improve our individuals so much that teams might think they’re good enough for them. I’m working in quite a similar way to how I’ve worked as a coach, individual coaching and trying to help individuals improve.
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“In terms of this season, it’s a bit of a fire fighting mission. The league table doesn’t look good, but I’m still confident we can make a good fight of it.
“AFC have given me the opportunity to build something mid to long-term, it’s not about the next 10 games. I’ve come to create something that can last a long time. I’d like to get to a place where AFC are a well-respected club with good players. It might take five years but that’s what I’m working towards all the time.”
When asked if bringing players from England was something he’d look at, Jolley admits it’s an option, but his signings so far have been from outside his homeland.
Former AC Milan defender Taye Taiwo has arrived, whilst other signings have come from Brazil, Afghanistan and Tanzania, rather than the North West of England.
“What I’m finding is you can’t always get the players you want,” Jolley says. “Either the timing isn’t right or money might be wrong or players just don’t want to come to Sweden.
“It’s an ongoing challenge. I don’t feel like it’s my team 100% yet because it’s very much a work in progress. But my guys are giving absolutely everything.”
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