Sweden’s goliaths used to relish their infrequent trips to the ancient island of Hisingen. Personally, they’d enjoy views of the picturesque coastline as they travelled across one of the several bridges separating it from mainland Gothenburg; professionally, it invariably meant more support than their hosts at the 7,000-capacity Ramsbergvallen and an easy three points.
BK Hacken had, after all, spent just eight seasons in the top flight since their 1940 inception, and those were often plagued by heavy defeats and eventual relegation. Times have nevertheless changed. And Peter Gerhardsson has been the man turning those hands of time.
The 53-year-old, who spent ten seasons as a tricky forward for Hammarby during his playing career, was installed into the Hacken hot-seat ahead of the 2009 campaign. Gerhardsson immediately guided the islanders back into the Swedish top flight, before masterminding eighth- and sixth-place finishes in the 16-team division. It ensured that earlier this year, for the first time in history, Hacken began their third successive season in the Allsvenskan.
Yet Getingarna (The Wasps) are threatening to create a far bigger slice of history. For, following a mixed start to the season, they have taken 22 points from a possible 24 to rocket into second, two points behind Elfsborg and above Malmo and AIK on goal difference in what is an enrapturing title race.
“We’ve been on a fantastic run and we’re enjoying every second of it,” Gerhardsson told FIFA.com. “But I want the players to continue enjoying themselves. If they get too caught up thinking about the title, it will be more difficult for them to do this. I’m sure one or two of them can’t help thinking about it, but I’m doing my best to focus them on enjoying themselves.”
Gerhardsson’s pupils are not the only ones having fun. So, too, are Hacken’s swelling set of supporters, having witnessed their team score 50 goals in 22 games this season – 13 more than Elfsborg and Malmo, and 20 more than AIK.
The bulk of those have come from 20-year-old Ghana striker Majeed Waris, the Allsvenskan’s 18-goal leading marksman, while compatriot Nasiru Mohammed, 18, has made a stunning impact since joining the club, netting four times in three appearances – two of those as a substitute. With the likes of Rene Makondele, Kari Arkivuo and the cerebral Martin Ericsson contributing heavily to Hacken’s exhilarating style, they have become something of a second team to many neutrals.
“I’m a great believer in playing attractive football,” Gerhardsson said. “Sure, it’s always nice to win, but I believe entertaining the fans is also very important. Arsenal are my favourite team to watch, and Barcelona have achieved so much playing fantastic football. But I also study the smaller teams too. Look at Swansea [City] last season. Everybody had them down for relegation but they did really well by playing passing football. Passing is the key for me. It’s what we work hardest on in training.
“When I arrived here my aims were to establish Hacken as a top-division side and to get more people watching us. The people here in Hisingen usually support IFK or one of the other bigger clubs, so the attendances were very low. But by playing well we’re attracting more and more fans. Against Elfsborg the stadium was full and I hope it’s that way again when Helsingborgs come for our next home game. There’s a real buzz around the place.”
I’m a great believer in playing attractive football. Sure, it’s always nice to win, but I believe entertaining the fans is also very important.
So, will that buzz be taken to new levels at the season’s end? “Nobody expected us to be challenging at the start of the season, and this is a new situation for all of us,” Gerhardsson explained. “The other three teams have been in this position many times before. But nothing is impossible in football. Before the season I knew we could get relegated and I also knew we could win the title.
“I’d prefer to be in Elfsborg’s position because every point is crucial, and AIK have been in great shape (they have won their past four matches). But we’re on a great run, we’ve got very few injuries and no [outstanding] suspensions.
“Our goal difference is also significantly superior to the others three teams’. This is like an extra half-point. I’m well aware of the importance of this, because when I was playing for Vasalunds in the second division, we finished level with Hammarby on goal difference but they pipped us to promotion because they scored more goals. It was hard to accept, and it’s always stuck in my mind. Even when we’ve been leading comfortably, I’ve been urging the players to push on and try and improve our goal difference.
“Only time will tell. Swedish football is very unpredictable.”
That it most certainly is, with eight different clubs having won the last eight editions of the Allsvenskan. Nonetheless, if BK Hacken augment that statistic to nine in nine, it would be the mother of all unforeseen triumphs.
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Another unlikely success Gerhardsson would like to witness is Sweden rekindling memories of the team that reached the UEFA EURO 1992 semi-finals and thrashed a formidable Bulgaria outfit 4-0 in the match for third place at the 1994 FIFA World Cup USA™.
“That was a fantastic era for Swedish football,” he recalled. “We had a lot of very good technical players, especially Tomas Brolin, and we played really entertaining football. The victories against Romania (Sweden won that USA 1994 quarter-final 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw) and Bulgaria are ones we’ll always remember fondly.”
Thereafter, though, Sweden have never gone past the Round of 16 at a FIFA World Cup and even failed to qualify for South Africa 2010, while they recently finished bottom of their group at EURO 2012.
“We have one of the top ten players in the world in Zlatan [Ibrahimovic], but I don’t think we have as many quality players as we had back in ’94,” Gerhardsson opined. “But for me the biggest problem we’ve had since then is that we’ve played too defensively, put emphasis on not losing matches rather than winning them. This can work in qualifying, over a longer campaign, but at big tournaments you need to win matches rather than draw them.
“I think Denmark have a better philosophy. They play more attacking football and although it doesn’t always get them through to tournaments, when the Danes qualify they have a better chance of success.”
The task of reaching a major finals is, presently, harder than usual for the Sweden. In the European Zone preliminaries for Brazil 2014, Erik Hamren’s men don’t just have the company of the mighty Germany to content with, but also Republic of Ireland and Austria.
“It’s a very difficult group,” underlined Gerhardsson. “Beating Germany to top spot will be very tough. However, if we go into every match, home and away, looking to attack and get all three points rather than one, I think we’re in with a chance. That’s the way Sweden played [at EURO 1992 and USA 1994] and it served us well.”