Former Sweden international Niclas Alexandersson had the honour of representing his country on 109 occasions and in two World Cups and two European Championships, however his first glimpse at life and football in England with Sheffield Wednesday remains in his affections.
The one-time Everton winger finally called time on his playing career in 2009 at 37 after title success with IFK Göteborg, playing in the Champions League and English Premier League, and gracing the biggest stage of all in his nation’s colours. In his club career and during 15 years in the Swedish national team, who he would pull on the captain’s armband for, the Halmstad-born right-sider shared the pitch with some outstanding talents. He is a name that Swedish football observers cannot fail to remember but back in 1997 he was to leave his homeland for a shot at the English game’s top table.
Having established himself with Halmstads BK, where he played alongside a teenage Fredrik Ljungberg, Niclas won the Allsvenskan title with IFK Göteborg in 1996. His ability had long since been recognised by now and Sheffield Wednesday paid the two-time UEFA Cup winners £750,000 for the 25-year-old. Ron Atkinson had led Wednesday back to the top flight and League Cup glory in 1991 before a departure to Aston Villa that left more than a bitter taste for Owls supporters. In the 1997/98 season he was back with the club to ultimately ward off relegation and the ex-Manchester United and Atlético Madrid boss was certainly one of the contributory factors in Niclas’ choice to move to Sheffield.
“I knew about the manager, Big Ron, and I knew some of the players that had played for the club, of course Roland Nilsson and Klas Ingesson. I had also heard it was a club with a good friendly atmosphere.
“I wanted to join because I thought it was the right size of club for me at the time and also I was excited to play in the Premier League.”
When true Sheffield Wednesday legends are discussed, right-back Roland Nilsson is guaranteed to be in the conversation, and his impact at Hillsborough was such that he is immortalised in an Owls chant by being named as number 1 to 11 in the team (with number 9 saved for David Hirst). The 1994 World Cup had seen Sweden finish in 3rd place with only winners Brazil defeating them thanks to a late Romário goal in the Pasadena semi-final.
There were players in the Swedish squad already well-versed in English football such as defender Patrik Andersson (Blackburn Rovers) and midfielder Anders Limpar (Arsenal and Everton), as well as those who went on to arrive in the future like defender Pontus Kåmark (Leicester City), striker Martin Dahlin (Blackburn Rovers), midfielder Stefan Schwarz (Arsenal and Sunderland), the talented but infamously underwhelming Leeds signing Tomas Brolin, and others. As Niclas alluded to, midfielder Klas Ingesson joined Sheffield Wednesday after the tournament from PSV Eindhoven and although he was not a resounding success in his two years it was another reason for Swedes to track the progress of the South Yorkshire giants.
Ron Atkinson’s return to Wednesday in 1997 was highly significant, not least for the fact the club were embroiled in a relegation fight in the Premier League but also after he had left for Aston Villa in 1991 despite pledging his future to The Owls just days before. On his return, some were naturally still hurt at the way he departed previously but he had steered the ship to safety by the end of the season, playing some entertaining football along the way. Despite this achievement and the plans he had for the future with the club he was let go by chairman Dave Richards after allegedly being offered a deal in principle.
For Niclas at the very start of his journey in English football he had the invaluable benefit of a manager in ‘Big Ron’ who had that knack of inspiring those he worked with. All these years on, there are plenty of Wednesdayites who wonder what the club could have achieved had he remained as manager in the early 90s and if he hadn’t been discarded in 1998. The little things can make a world of difference when you are in a challenging situation and Niclas recalls the support afforded him by Atkinson when he came to Sheffield.
“He was really a character and he had a lot of faith in me straight away, which helped a lot. Unfortunately I got my knee injury after just eight games so I didn’t get the chance to play for him very long.
“I remember that in one of my first away trips with the team he asked me to come and sit next to him on the coach. There he spoke a lot about different Swedish footballers that were not that famous, so I was surprised about his knowledge.”
After ending 97/98 in 16th, four points clear of relegation, Wednesday opted to bring in former midfielder Danny Wilson as manager from South Yorkshire neighbours Barnsley who had lost their Premier League status after a solitary season. The rumours that summer had seen outgoing Glasgow Rangers boss Walter Smith strongly linked to the post before joining Everton and eccentric Frenchman Philippe Troussier, who coached South Africa in the World Cup that year, was even quoted in a national newspaper as being ‘very happy’ to be taking over at Wednesday.
Wilson it was however, and although his tenure would not go to plan he did manage a 12th-place finish in the 1998/99 season. During the campaign, there was the unforgettable incident in the win over reigning league champions Arsenal when Wednesday forward Paolo Di Canio, who Niclas will mention more than once later on, pushed referee Paul Alcock, resulting in an 11-game ban and his exit from the club. Two months later, came arguably the team’s standout result of the season, which I will let Niclas introduce as his favourite on-pitch moment from his time at Hillsborough.
“The best memory from the field is the game against Man U where I scored twice in the 3-1 win.”
On November 21st 1998, a crowd of 39,475 were at Hillsborough for the visit of a Manchester United side who won a glorious treble at the end of the season. Sir Alex Ferguson (minus the knighthood at the time) was set to lead the team at Barcelona’s Camp Nou a few days later for a vital Champions League clash. While they would secure an important 3-3 draw with Barcelona they were less successful against the Wednesday!
As Owls fans fondly remember, United struggled to pick up results in that era when they came to Hillsborough and the 2-0 win the season before included Peter Atherton’s opener, and Di Canio’s hooked overhead finish in front of the Kop. This time, Niclas, who had recovered from his knee ligament injury of the previous campaign, got the first goal as his left-footed effort was fumbled in by Peter Schmeichel. Andy Cole levelled for United at the Leppings Lane End before Paul Scholes tried unsuccessfully to get away with scoring with his hand!
In the second half, Niclas played his part in the Wednesday second as it eventually fell for Dutch midfielder Wim Jonk to bury it low. The seal was put on it when David Beckham and the world’s most expensive defender at the time Jaap Stam got in a mix-up, leaving Niclas to steal in and round Schmeichel to score.
Often in the midfield with Niclas would be the aforementioned Wim Jonk and also a Norwegian international who was significant in allowing him to feel comfortable in his surroundings, as was a figure behind the scenes. The ex-Wednesday director in question passed away in 2011 at the age of 74 but Niclas remembers the time he took to make matters easier for him.
“My best friend was Petter Rudi and I also spent time with Juan Cobian, Emerson Thome and Wim Jonk. It was quite easy to adapt, I had Petter Rudi and a man called Graham Thorpe from the board who helped me a lot to settle.”
The club suffered relegation in 2000 and finished five points from safety in 19th and to date they have not returned to the Premier League. It was to be Niclas’ last year with Wednesday but his form was one of the biggest reasons for encouragement at the time as his endeavour and goals against the likes of Liverpool at Anfield, Bradford City, West Ham United, and in a surprise 1-0 victory against Tottenham at White Hart Lane won much praise.
Niclas won the club’s Player of the Year award and stated in summer 2000 that despite interest from Aston Villa and Coventry City he would be prepared to give his all for Wednesday in the First Division should he stay. As it transpired, Everton’s offer of £2-2.5million (depending on which figure you believe) was too much to resist after relegation and with his contract in its last year so he joined up with Walter Smith, who had been impressed by him in Göteborg’s visit to Ibrox to face his Rangers team some years before.
He spent three years at Everton but with injuries halting his progress he never found the same form as he had at Hillsborough. Niclas’ time in England was special for other reasons besides football as his daughter Tilda was born in 1999 and his son Noah in 2001. He and his wife Frida had a shared liking for Sheffield and the distinctive local dialect was mild compared to what they encountered in their next destination!
“We liked the nice countryside and my wife enjoyed Meadowhall! The accent was quite difficult to start with but after a while it wasn’t a problem.
“It was a lot more difficult in Liverpool!”
To this day, Niclas is often mentioned favourably by Owls fans and named amongst the best ever foreign players the club have had. He left with good wishes, scoring in his farewell appearance in Wednesday colours in the 4-0 win against Leicester, and he was touched by being voted the best player in his final season.
“It made me very proud, to get an award decided by the fans is the best award you can get.”
With the esteem he is held in by the supporters it would surely be ideal for him to visit in the near future and be presented to the Hillsborough crowd at half-time. The question remains: how does Niclas feel about this?
“It was some years ago since I last saw a Wednesday game so if I’m in England in the future it would be fun!”
Internationally, Niclas had experience of tournament football in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona but he would earn the right to play in four of the biggest competitions for Sweden. He started twice in Euro 2000 in group games with Belgium and Turkey, also appearing as a substitute in the defeat to Italy in which Henrik Larsson performed a terrific stepover before beating Azzurri keeper Francesco Toldo. The Swedes were eliminated at the first hurdle but two years later they reached the knockout phase of the World Cup.
In the group match with England, Niclas equalised for Sweden after Sol Campbell’s opener, scoring past Arsenal keeper David Seaman. He ranks it as the standout personal moment for him from his international career but a last 16 loss to Senegal came after Henri Camara’s extra-time winner.
Niclas found himself one of the squad’s elder statesmen in the 2006 World Cup and he played at right-back with Christian Wilhelmsson and Mattias Jonsson in front of him on the wing. It was another second round defeat, this time to a Lukas Podolski-inspired Germany that ended Swedish participation and Niclas played one more tournament match, against Greece in Euro 2008. He wrapped up his international career with a fantastic 109 caps, as well as 7 goals.
With a brief loan spent with West Ham United in 2003/04, he returned to Göteborg where he lifted the Allsvenskan once more (in 2007) before retirement in 2009. Of course, as anyone who has read the interviews on here will be aware, there is a music angle to get into with the players. Thinking back to the first record he ever bought it is little surprise which group Niclas thinks it is likely to have been!
“Can’t remember for sure, but being a Swede it might have been ABBA!”
Music can be a big part of football in a multitude of ways, whether through helping the team to get motivated or presenting a new signing with the challenge of singing for everyone for example. Niclas casts his eye over these aspects from his own experience and a supremely gifted teammate from his Wednesday days comes into his thoughts!
“At Gothenburg where I finished my career it was always the youngest that chose the music. Mainly hip-hop and rap I would say.
“I remember that players from the Balkan countries liked to play music from home which was, let’s say different! Often I listen to the new bands and artists on the charts, one band I’ve liked for quite a while is U2.
“Paolo Di Canio often used to sing and as far as I remember he was OK! I’ve been forced to sing a few times in front of teammates, sponsors and staff at Gothenburg.”
With a love of tennis too, Niclas was a big fan of the former world number one Mats Wilander growing up, so his sporting career could have been quite different. The personalities he got to mix with in football though have been diverse and also notable. After playing Rangers in the Champions League in 1997, Niclas got Paul Gascoigne’s shirt, not knowing at the time he would be a teammate of his at Everton in the future.
Besides ‘Gazza’ and the mercurial Paolo Di Canio, he has worked on many occasions with Paris Saint-Germain’s intriguing character and one of European football’s most recognisable strikers for many years, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The ex-Barcelona, Inter and AC Milan man has garnered a lot of attention for his goals, breathtaking moments of skill and also his behaviour at times. The 31-year-old is currently on 44 goals for Sweden and he is chasing Sven Rydell’s record of 49. Niclas offers this insight into the former Juventus and Ajax star.
“Zlatan has matured a lot lately both as a person and as a player. Soon he will be the best goalscorer ever in the Swedish national team.
“He is often quite funny in the press conferences as he is very spontaneous.”
You may no longer be able to find Niclas down that right flank on matchdays but for someone who spent over 20 years in the game as a player he was never likely to leave it all behind. He has been involved in educating youngsters through Änglagårdsskolan and his son Noah, born while he was at Everton, is growing up quickly!
“I work at a football school in Gothenburg teaching 12-16 year-olds playing football. That’s something I really enjoy.
“I also manage my son’s 12-year-old team so I’m involved in football a lot.”
After this trip through the memory banks all that remains is for Niclas to take on the regular concluding question on here. I ask each player to put themselves in a 5-a-side team alongside four of their best career teammates. Niclas worked with some exceptional players but as a Sheffield Wednesday fan it is heartening to see that he chose one of his old Owls colleagues up front despite some incredible competition.
When I made my first trip to Hillsborough at nine years old Niclas was in the starting line-up. How great is it to know that of all the distinguished forwards he played with it was one he wore the blue and white and the Wednesday badge with that gets the nod? A reminder of the level of talent we once had and hopefully will be blessed with again one day. Here is Niclas to introduce his team and if he needs to make a triple substitution to get a late goal the three he names at the end might just come up with something!
“Very difficult but I’ll try. Thomas Ravelli – Swedish goalie with 143 caps and a lot of experience.
“Roland Nilsson – played behind me when I first got into the national team. Very solid, good professional.
“Fredrik Ljungberg – scored goals from midfield, pace, good-timed runs. Paolo Di Canio – he could do most things with the ball.
“Also have to mention Henrik Larsson, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic!”