Lars Bohinen on his time in England: Collymore, Shearer, Jim Smith & more
Lars Bohinen was a mercurial midfielder well remembered on these shores for his spells with Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County – but he had to inflict pain on English football fans before he could provide joy.
In 1995, Norway were ranked as the second-best football nation in the world, trailing just behind Brazil. Despite the constraints of a small population and an undistinguished history, they had enjoyed an extraordinary rise to prominence led by an unorthodox manager and a special group of players.
In many ways, Lars Bohinen was an outlier in Egil Olsen’s squad. Under his leadership, Norway were defined by their defensive structure and long-ball tactics. They were a disciplined and well-drilled team, with a great work ethic and a fearless attitude, but free-flowing they were not.
“It’s probably a coincidence, but a great generation of players came together at the same time and we had a coach who found the right way of playing for us in that period,” says Bohinen.
“Everybody played at a high level in their clubs and everybody believed that we could win against teams like England and Italy and Holland.
“Personally, it wasn’t my kind of game because it was quite direct. I thought we should play more through the middle. In the best games we played, we played a lot more through the middle than maybe he (Olsen) liked, but he managed to make us very well-organised. Hard to break down. Hard to beat. Not many goals were scored against us, and he got us to believe that we could beat anybody.”
Among the many solid and reliable players they possessed, Bohinen was among those who provided Norway with a sprinkling of magic too.
A creative playmaker, comfortable on the ball and able to conjure moments of spontaneity and brilliance, he scored 10 goals in 49 appearances for the national team, including a clever finish to a well-crafted counter-attack that helped to humble Graham Taylor’s side in 1993.
On this day in 1993 England lose 2-0 in Oslo to Norway, to leave their World Cup qualifying hopes in real danger. Goals from future Premier League stars Øyvind Leonhardsen & @Lars_Bohinen #Keepit90s pic.twitter.com/Nr2o6eTvOV
— The 90s Football Podcast (@AK90s) June 2, 2018
Move to England
Bohinen didn’t realise the significance of that goal at the time. It put the England manager’s position under great scrutiny, as Norway proceeded to qualify for the World Cup ahead of them, and alerted other clubs to his ability. Within five months he had left Young Boys to sign for Nottingham Forest.
Many of that Norway squad were recruited by English clubs, including Stig Inge Bjornebye, Oyvind Leonhardsen, Henning Berg and Jan Age Fjortoft.
“I think it was because it was easy for us to adapt and we spoke the language,” Bohinen says. “We have been known to have a good training culture and most of the time there was no trouble with us.
“This was before the whole European market opened and we had a really good generation of players as well, so that’s got something to do with it. The first guys who came did well and that made it possible for others to come.”
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Forest were in the First Division but plotting an immediate return to the top flight. Bohinen adapted quickly as the Reds went up in second place and made an impressive start to life back in the Premier League. He provided plenty of craft and technical quality on the way to finishing third, ahead of Liverpool and Leeds United.
“It was a good mix of players with different skills and capabilities,” Bohinen says. “They all gelled together quite well, and Frank Clark knew how to manage that group. I don’t know whether they were lucky, or good, or a combination of both, but they managed to get the right kind of players together, so the football came together as well.”
Stan Collymore, who struck 25 goals in all competitions, was a revelation: “The goals he scored, and his speed and physicality. He was scoring goals from everywhere and it seemed like it was impossible to stop him.
“For me, he was one of the top strikers in the Premier League.”
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The sale of Collymore to Liverpool in the summer of 1995 cost Forest their upward momentum and they slipped back into mid-table. Bohinen was keen to challenge himself and compete at the very top level so he agreed to join Blackburn Rovers after they activated his £700,000 release clause.
“I thought I was taking a step up to join the champions,” he says. “My ambition was to play for as good a team as possible. Stan had already gone to Liverpool and Forest were in some financial trouble.
“I wanted to see if I could get to a different level as a player. Forest had difficulties replacing the players who left so I knew they were going to be struggling next season.”
A month after completing the move, Bohinen was vindicated in his decision as Rovers thrashed Forest 7-0 at Ewood Park, ending the visitors’ 25-match unbeaten run. The Norwegian midfielder scored twice on a memorable afternoon, turning smartly to fire in the first and grabbing his second with a half-volley from outside the box.
“It was the official opening of Ewood Park and obviously I was playing against all my old team-mates with all the trouble that came after I left. It was a special game, of course. Winning with that scoreline kind of proved to me that I’d made the right choice to join a team with that quality.”
Alan Shearer scored a hat-trick in that same match and was prolific even in an underwhelming campaign. Not helped by a change of manager, and some personality clashes exemplified by the infamous fight between Graeme Le Saux and David Batty during defeat to Spartak Moscow in the Champions League, Rovers finished seventh.
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At the end of the season, Shearer’s departure for a world record £15million fee signalled a curtailing of the club’s ambitions. He had been the focal point of Blackburn’s ascent – a formidable presence and a clinical goalscorer – and the team struggled without him. They were no longer contenders.
“I knew it was not going to be possible when Alan Shearer left, because he guaranteed you 25, 30 goals every season,” Bohinen says.
“When we did manage to replace him, we were sort of a mid-table team I felt. That was disappointing. I think the whole dressing room was disappointed when he announced that he was going to leave because everybody knew that now it’s going to be difficult.
“He was fantastic. The best finisher I’ve seen. He could score from any angle. He was not a dribbler, or anything like that, but he was just so good at being in the right place at the right time, and with fantastic finishing abilities. It’s incredible how many goals he scored.”
In June 1997, Roy Hodgson took over as Blackburn manager, hastening Bohinen’s exit as he was often left on the bench in favour of more defensive-minded midfielders. He chose to join Derby County in order to keep his World Cup dream alive but was devastated to miss the cut.
Having previously represented Forest with such distinction, Bohinen felt that the Rams’ supporters didn’t always have much patience with him if he wasn’t playing well. But aside from a couple of instances where he was booed during a bad performance, he took to the club and their boisterous manager Jim Smith.
“He was very much an old-school manager, but he had Steve McClaren there, a young and up-and-coming coach who did a lot of the daily work. Jim Smith often just managed the games.
“He was a real character. Very temperamental and demanding, but also very fair. I liked him as a guy and as a manager.”
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Life after England
Bohinen left Derby in January 2001 to return to Scandinavia, retiring four years later. He went on to work as sporting director of Stabaek before discovering his passion for coaching.
Starting in the lower leagues, he climbed his way up. Most recently in charge of Aalesund, he won promotion to the top division with a record points tally but was sacked in August after a poor start to the season.
“We lost some important players and we weren’t able to replace them with good enough players. Then the coronavirus situation came up and we had to furlough players.
“We weren’t able to train together for a while. Some teams could because they had the money to keep the players in. We only had one practice game before the season started and we started off badly.
“We lost the whole momentum we had from having won so much last year. It took too long before the season started – almost six months – so we lost the momentum of winning games and the confidence.
“There’s not just one reason, but the main one was that we weren’t able to get good enough players in to raise our level to where it needed to be.”
The prospect of managing in England appeals to Bohinen, but he recognises the challenges involved in realising that ambition. Having worked exclusively in Norway so far, he’s hoping to branch out and prove his credentials in another country.
The same is true of his son Emil, a talented Under-21 international currently playing for Stabaek.
— Sqenf Foot (@SqenfFoot) September 28, 2020
“He feels that he needs to get out of Norway to take a step up, so he can play in a better team with better players to develop himself,” Bohinen says of Emil.
“He’s hoping to get to play in one of the big five leagues in Europe and develop from there. He has a dream of playing in England, like many players, but it’s a lot more difficult now than it was before.”
On the international front, Norwegian football is enjoying a resurgence. After a long time in the wilderness, a promising group of young players, led by Martin Odegaard and Erling Braut Haaland, are bringing their country back into contention. Bohinen is intrigued to see what the current crop can achieve with a much more attack-minded approach.
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“The big difference now is that, in my time, our defensive structure and the way we worked on zonal defending was maybe our biggest advantage. Our biggest strength. At the moment, we’re better offensively than defensively.
“We have a lot of exciting young players coming up, playing at a really high level. What we need to do is sort out the defensive side of the game. That needs to be better for us to be able to get the best out of those kinds of talents that we have.”
In his prime, Bohinen would perhaps have been the ideal player to knit this Norway team together. His skill, ingenuity and sharp passing made him a vital component of Olsen’s side and a great addition to the Premier League during its unpredictable early years.
From an exquisite chip against Tottenham Hotspur to a sparkling solo goal at Old Trafford, he certainly left an impression.
By Sean Cole