Morten Henriksen – the opposite of Wilbek

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Morten Henriksen – the opposite of Wilbek

January 5, 2017

COLUMN – By choosing Morten Henriksen as new sports director, Denmark’s Handball Federation has selected an individual so unlike his predecessor – Ulrik Wilbek – as one can imagine.

However, the true question is how this rather unknown 37-year-old will do when leading coaches that are more experienced than him.

By Peter Bruun

It took the Danish Handball Federation, DHF, more than four months to find a new sports director after Ulrik Wilbek resigned under pressure, in August 2016, in the aftermath of the Rio Olympics.

And who did the DHF come up with after all this time of thorough research in order to find the right man (by the way, no women were brought up as a potential candidate)?

Morten Henriksen, 37 years old, head coach of the men´s league team SønderjyskE since 2007 and coach of Denmark´s men U21 team.

Henriksen was favored over former national team goalkeeper and current KIF Kolding København shot-stopper Kasper Hvidt, for example.

Henriksen´s nomination was a real surprise among experts and national team players alike – several of whom admitted to not even know Morten Henriksen.  Henriksen himself took it easy.

“I was expecting these reactions.  Actually, I would have been more surprised if people would not have reacted this way!  I realize that my name was never among the candidates who were discussed in public!” he says.

But who is this rather unknown character who is now going to be the supervisor of Denmark´s national team coaches on the senior- as well on the youth and junior level?  Several facts speak in his favor.

He has passed the EHF Master Coach exam; the highest coaching education you can get.  Furthermore, he has taken SønderjyskE from Denmark’s fourth division to the top flight within 10 years, and he also achieved several fine results with Denmark´s U 21 team.

Is this enough?

Is this enough to become a successful sports director?

Part of his success at SønderjyskE, is the support he gets from the home crowd at Skansen in Sønderborg, where the atmosphere often reminds you of Flensburg’s Flens Arena.

There is no doubt, that Morten Henriksen is good at instilling self confidence in his players, but that’s not exactly a quality that’s needed as a sports director.

Given his tremendous experience in nursing and developing talents, he will be a great asset for the youth national teams and for the ongoing development of Danish handball talents.

These are obviously critical qualities, but will Henriksen also be the right person for Danish handball´s two flagship squads – the men´s and women´s national teams?

The future coach of Denmark´s male team, Nikolaj Jacobsen, as well as the current women´s coach, Klavs Bruun Jørgensen, are both older than Henriksen and have more experience at the international level.

This is a hurdle that Morten Henriksen will have to overcome in order to thrive as Denmark´s sports director.

As unknown as he is, it may be an advantage in the sense that he is not as controversial, as some of the more well-known candidates might have been.  But it also means that he will probably have to work rather hard to gain respect from his subordinates.

“I don´t like the word boss,” he told me.  “I prefer to talk about cooperation, and I look forward to working with the coaches,” he adds.  A healthy attitude – no doubt.

The opposite of Wilbek

However, there are certainly other points that speak in favor of Morten Henriksen.  I already mentioned some of his qualities above but his greatest asset may be the fact that he is the complete opposite of his predecessor.

Before stepping down as Denmark’s national coach, Ulrik Wilbek became the Danish federation´s first sports director ever.  He more or less crafted the new job himself.

Wilbek´s public persona and big ego often clashed with his primary function.  Indications of possibly firing Denmark’s men´s coach, Gudmundur Gudmundsson, in two TV interviews during and after the Rio Olympics, serve as a “good” example.   Keep in mind – Gudmundsson led Denmark to their first ever handball gold medal.

People who know Morten Henriksen well, know that he would never make such statements.  He is much calmer and a more thoughtful character than Wilbek was.  And there is every reason to believe that the new sports director will not breathe down the necks of Jacobsen and Bruun Jørgensen as Wilbek did so often.

Footprints are not so big

 “I can never fill Wilbek´s shoes, and I do not even intend to try,” says Morten Henriksen.

One might think that following in Wilbek´s footsteps would be a real challenge, but as a matter of fact, Wilbek never had the success as sports director that he enjoyed as coach.

He was severely criticized when he picked the two current national coaches, as neither Gudmundur Gudmundsson nor Klavs Bruun Jørgensen were a success in the beginning.

Gudmundsson booked his first and (so far) only success in Rio, two and a half years after starting the job, and Bruun Jørgensen only gained support at EURO 2016 back in December, four months after Wilbek’s resignation.

The circumstances surrounding Wilbek’s departure after the Olympics certainly undermined his legacy further.

As a sports director, Ulrik Wilbek may have flourished with Denmark’s youth teams, but he could not repeat it on the senior level.

Therefore the pressure on Morten Henriksen is not as big as some suggest, but will Denmark´s second sports director become a success?  Only time will tell.

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