Back in 2009, when the New York City FC manager was managing Stromsgodset in his home country of Norway, the club was in danger of relegation. He promised the fans that if they avoided the drop, he would strip off his clothes in front of them. When safety was achieved with a 2-1 win over Viking, he kept his word and stripped down to his underwear. During an exclusive interview with ESPN, Deila was asked if he might repeat such exploits should he win a trophy with NYCFC.
"My body isn't too much to look at now," he told ESPN, "but I can promise if we win the playoffs, I will do it."
That kind of passion -- and self-deprecation -- is what has endeared Deila to fans throughout his career. Players have connected as well, with Deila employing his own interpretation of the Socratic method in a bid to bring the best out of them.
"You have to give them experiences, and then you have to follow up with good questions to get them to reflect on what they're doing," he said. "I can tell the players what they can do, but they have to understand what they can do, how they do it and why they do it. To do that, you need to ask them questions. I think you learn through experience and through reflection. Then you're starting the process. So, for me, that's a culture thing, when you get the culture to be interested to learn and to develop, then the results come as a consequence of a good process."
It's an approach that speaks of his education to be a teacher, one that his mother, Tove, insisted he undertake given that she never thought her son would make a living in soccer. Deila carved out a playing career that lasted 19 years and yet, the coaching bug bit him early. He coached youth teams starting when he was 19 and acquired his coaching licenses while he was still playing. It wasn't something he did because he couldn't think of anything else, either. He found that he loved coaching, and that enthusiasm has guided his managerial career.
"The reason why I love coaching is because I love to create things; develop others, develop myself, develop teams," he said. "It was like giving me a lot of energy to make somebody else better."
To look at Deila's career over the past decade is like casting your eye on an optical illusion. Viewed one way, you see a swashbuckling prince, but looked at another way, you see an aging man. It's all a matter of perspective.
Deila won two league titles at Celtic, even though his time with the club is viewed in some quarters as a period of underachievement. The Scottish Premiership at the time, with rivals Rangers still in the second tier, was a one-horse race. His most recent stint at Norwegian side Valerenga saw the Bohemians drop from fourth place during the first half of the 2019 season all the way to 10th, winning just once in their last 16 games. Yet Deila is forthright about his experiences. He admits that the move from Stromsgodset -- where he won a league title in 2013 -- to Celtic came a bit early for him. His demeanor and tactics drew comparisons to Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp, but while such comments were flattering, they did little to ease the pressure as he took over a much bigger club.
"When you go to Celtic, it was like jumping from first grade to 10th grade," he said. "You know there is something between there that should maybe happen, a middle club or something, but I get a chance and I jump into it."
Everything at Celtic was orders of magnitude more intense, from the demands of the fans and the media attention to managing star players like Virgil van Dijk, as well as dealing with a new culture. A domestic double in his first season was followed by another league title the next season. While he felt he did well to build a young side, it wasn't good enough in the eyes of fans. Deila himself felt he had hit a wall.
"I didn't think that I brought the team any further," he said about his second season with Celtic. "So I felt in the end that enough is enough and that somebody else has to come in."
Deila's return to Norway with Valerenga started out with a steady progression -- eighth in 2017, sixth in 2018 -- before the bottom fell out. Deila cited some key injuries, as well as the sale of Chidera Ejuke to Heerenveen, as contributing factors. "There are of course things that I can do as well, but the autumn was terrible; very, very disappointing," he said.
And yet Deila signed a new contract with the club in early December, eager to continue with a team he viewed as having some young talent coming through. But NYCFC reached out to his representatives just before Christmas and Deila interrupted a vacation in Colombia to make contact on Dec. 28. Things progressed quickly from there.
"When the opportunity to come to New York was there, there was no chance to say no to that," he said.
Deila faces a challenge similar in some respects to that faced by Frank de Boer with Atlanta United last season, and he'll draw on all of his past experiences to meet it. While NYCFC aren't entering the campaign as league champions like Atlanta did, New York did finish top of the Eastern Conference in 2019 and many of the pieces that propelled NYCFC to the summit -- including midfielder Maxi Moralez and forward Heber -- are back. That leaves a tricky balancing act, fusing what is already in place with Deila's own ideas.
"You have to take it slowly, but what's good is that it's something to build on that is quite close to what you want to achieve yourself," he said. "So you don't need to start from the beginning and that's positive."
One difference is the postage-stamp-size playing surface at Yankee Stadium, where the majority of NYCFC's games will be played. Given Deila's affinity for his own version of "heavy-metal football," it's a style that could work even in such tight confines.
"When I see the games at Yankee Stadium, there's a lot of transition in the games, so of course then for me, it's about first of all the intensity and the pressure," he said. "There's two opportunities to create chances, one to win the ball in a good situation, and take them off balance in the counterattacks. And then of course when you have the ball and lose it, be good in transition. So when you lose it, try to win straight back again. So you need to have good reactions in the team."
Deila's focus at present is about creating a culture. That term can be vague and hard to quantify, but in Deila's world it means creating an environment where there is a free-flowing exchange of ideas, all while taking chances.
"I've never been scared of failure," he said. "Just go for it."
The hope is that approach will lead NYCFC to their first trophy -- and another Deila striptease.
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