Inside Vipers’ tremendous treble
In only six seasons since their EHF Champions League debut in 2017/18, Vipers Kristiansand have become the team to beat in women’s club handball, winning three titles in a row at the EHF FINAL4. What is the story behind the success?
Six years ago, Vipers Kristiansand were only making their debut in the EHF Champions League Women, failing to get out of the group phase. Fast forward to June 2023 and the Norwegian side have become a true powerhouse in the European premium competition, being one of only five sides to have won at least three titles.
It was a triumph based on planning, identifying talent, creating an identity and staying true to it. Vipers are now one of the two teams in history to secure three titles on the trot – after Györi Audi ETO KC (2017-19) – and, subsequently, have created a dynasty which will be difficult to replicate.
“It is difficult to describe how this success has been created. It has been quite challenging each year, with new players coming in and a new team being created each time, but it is also very exciting to have something to work with and stay at the top for so long,” says Ole Gustav Gjekstad, the Vipers coach who leaves the club this summer.
“I think we managed to bring the best out of both the team and the players we have at our disposal and it has been very interesting, because we have made a lot of changes over the years. I can’t put it in a few words what happened. I will think about that in the next days.”
Indeed, from the team that won the first title in the EHF Champions League for Vipers two years ago, only three players took the court in the MVM Dome in Budapest last Sunday for the 28:24 win over FTC-Rail Cargo Hungaria, which sealed the three-peat for the Norwegian powerhouse.
Losing stalwarts like Henny Reistad, Nora Mørk or Heidi Løke would mean the end of any challenge for the EHF Champions League trophy for a team, but not for Vipers, which have morphed into a true attacking juggernaut, which was impossible to stop at times.
The current iteration of the team, which has a dynamic back line of Anna Vyakhireva, Markéta Jeřábková and Jamina Roberts combining for 32 of Vipers’ 75 goals in the EHF FINAL4 this season, looks the strongest, totally dominating their opponents.
Vipers have scored 32.8 goals per game this season and registered their most successful season so far, with 16 wins out of 18 games, dropping only two matches on their way to the trophy: away games against CSM Bucuresti and SG BBM Bietigheim.
It has been quite challenging each year, with new players coming in and a new team being created each time, but it is also very exciting to have something to work with and stay at the top for so long. I think we managed to bring the best out of both the team and the players we have at our disposal and it has been very interesting, because we have made a lot of changes over the years.
The changes around the team made it even harder for Gjekstad, but it also brought him an interesting challenge. While the core of the team in the first win in the European premium competition was based on Norwegian players, there are now players from eight different countries, from Spain to the Czech Republic and from France to Russia.
In fact, Vipers’ first win in the EHF Champions League in 2020/21 saw only two foreign players in the squad: Swedish goalkeeper Evelina Eriksson and Czech right wing Jana Knedlíková.
“For me that is very interesting, I find it very rich. It gives me a rich life as a coach to have players from all around Europe in the team. This is an amazing experience. I must say that it has been great to have all these players from different countries, because myself and the team, we really have learnt a lot this season,” adds Gjekstad.
While the feel-good attitude and camaraderie surely helped in building a winning team, so did the experience that Vipers brought to the table throughout the whole season. Most of the players were battle-tested and plenty of them had previously won the competition. Others, like the MVP of the EHF FINAL4, Anna Vyakhireva, were already household names in handball, despite not having won the European premium competition before.
Goalkeeper Katrine Lunde became the first female player to secure the title seven times, with three of those coming with Vipers, the team where she started playing handball and where she came back in 2017, aiming to end her career on a high.
Right wing Jana Knedlíková became the fifth player in history to win the trophy six times and the first one to win the EHF Champions League Women six times in a row – since she joined Vipers from Györ in 2020.
“I just choose good teams to play for,” joked Knedlikova after the win against FTC. “When I came to Vipers, I believed in the same goals as we had before with Györ. Of course, now it is hard to meet them after those nice years there. But now I am wearing this pink jersey and I won the EHF FINAL4 with Vipers. I am very proud.”
Yet the next season looks to be even harder for the Norwegian powerhouse. It is not only about winning the fourth title in a row, an unprecedented feature, it is also about a coaching change, with Ole Gustav Gjekstad leaving for Odense Håndbold, while his assistant, Tomas Hlavaty, replaces him at Vipers.
“This is a fantastic ending for me, I am a little bit lost for words now. Winning the trophy feels amazing for the third time and it is something excellent, some feelings that cannot be put into words. It is amazing, it is fantastic,” says Gjekstad.
Pressed to choose his toughest win in the EHF Champions League, Gjekstad, who really built a dream team that entered the history books, finds it quite difficult to answer.
“It is not necessarily fair to compare the three wins, but I think the toughest challenge was the first one. The reason for this is because it was unexpected, we were underdogs back then. The others are very close, though,” concludes Gjekstad.
Indeed, it was not an easy journey for Vipers, but one that ended on a high for the Norwegian team, who grew under everybody’s eyes, before it became a true juggernaut, a team impossible to stop.
They are now on a seven-game winning streak in the EHF FINAL4, one that is only matched by Györ. Right now, all the things fell into the right place for the old and new champions.
photos © Jure Erzen, Jozo Cabraja, Uros Hocevar / kolektiff