Football: Charlton relive heydays of hired Hans

From Hans Jeppson to Martin Pringle, the Valley has a history of dipping into the reservoir of Swedish talent
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The Independent Online
TOMORROW morning, a grey-haired old man with a distinguished bearing will walk down the Via Giuseppe Vollo in Rome to buy the Corriere della Sera, the Italian daily. He will turn the pages slowly searching for the scores from the English Premier League and then, his step lighter if Charlton have won, heart heavier if they have lost, meander home.

For a man who played just 11 League matches over a mere three months in the middle of the 1950-51 season, Hans Jeppson has retained an extraordinary hold on the affections of the south London club and his own passion for the club has barely diminished with the passage of time. "There were many other great players there that night," recalled the club's historian, Colin Cameron, of a recent reunion of former players. "But Hans was besieged. He was the hero."

Memories of a brief and glorious English career have been triggered by the arrival of another Swede at the Valley. Jeppson was the first Swede to play for Charlton. Valley legend has it that Bjorn Borg has a sneaking affection for the club because of Jeppson's exploits.

Forty-eight years on, Martin Pringle, who seems certain to lead the attack against Manchester United this afternoon, has become the second. If he enjoys similar success, the newcomer from Benfica will be assured of his own place at the high table and Charlton can wave goodbye to their relegation fears.

The circumstances are strikingly propitious. Then, as now, Charlton were in desperate danger of relegation, fourth from bottom of the First Division and short of confidence. Then, as now, the Swede did not take long to make his mark. A last-minute equaliser against Newcastle capped Pringle's home debut; Jeppson celebrated his first match with an 89th-minute winner against their fellow strugglers Sheffield Wednesday, a goal which precipitated a remarkable renaissance.

By the time Jeppson departed the Valley at the end of March, in a launch hired for 30 guineas which transported him from his final match at the Valley down the Thames to a waiting ship at Tilbury, Charlton were handily placed in mid-table and the Swede had scored nine goals in 11 matches, including a hat-trick at Highbury. Back in his summer home in Gothenburg, Jeppson still has the white ball inscribed, "To Hans, congratulations on a great game", and signed by Tom Whitaker, the manager of Arsenal, and Jimmy Seed, his opposite number at Charlton.

Also in his luggage was a full dinner set, a present from the club, a cup given to him by the Charlton Supporters' Club and a set of golf clubs from the players. At the age of 74, Jeppson still plays the game he first discovered in the company of his Charlton team-mates.

Peter Croker, who was in the final stages of a distinguished career with Charlton, recalls Jeppson's arrival. "He said to us: `I can't play football, but I can score goals.' And he was right, he could score goals with head or feet, but he could play a bit too." Leslie Compton, a commanding figure at the heart of the Arsenal defence and England centre-half at the time, would testify to the Swede's eye for goal. "Poor Les," Croker says. "He didn't know what day of the week it was by the end of that game. Hans was very intelligent; like all good strikers he could see things a split second before anyone else."

The scoreline of Arsenal 2 Charlton 5 still holds pride of place in the Valley annals. Arsenal had not conceded five at home since 1928 nor had any visiting player scored a hat-trick at Highbury in a London League derby. That Jeppson was an amateur in the most professional league in the world only added to the sense of what the Daily Star called a "football fairytale". Though a member of the Swedish team which had shocked Italy with a 3-2 victory in the opening group game of the 1950 World Cup in Brazil and a player of considerable stature, Jeppson had only been sent to London by his company to improve his English.

"When I arrived I went to Charlton to watch them play Blackpool because I wanted to see Stanley Matthews play," Jeppson recalled from his home in Rome last week. "But one of the directors, I think it was, knew that I was coming over and Jimmy Seed persuaded me to play for Charlton." Because of his amateur status, Jeppson was able to come and go as he pleased. "There was some doubt whether the Football Association would let me play as an amateur, but it was important that they did."

Only later in the 1951 season did he turn professional on moving to the Italian club Atalanta, forsaking a promising career as a tennis player. He was ranked in Sweden's top 10 at the time and was the national student champion. "When I came to Charlton, there were plenty of good players, men like Sam Bartram, the goalkeeper, and Benny Fenton but they seemed to play well for a time and then fall away. Maybe I added some fighting spirit to the team."

Equally significantly, his goals put a pounds 2 win bonus on to the standard pounds 10 weekly wage for the professionals. The winner against Liverpool, two more in a 3-2 win at Wolves, three at Highbury and one apiece in victories over Stoke and Chelsea, four more in a friendly against West Ham, his goals provoked a eulogy from the Daily Star. "Tall, handsome and a brilliant player, he captured the imagination of the public." Yet not all clubs would have accepted this strange exotic amateur into their midst with the warmth and alacrity of Charlton Athletic. "He would have been ostracised at some clubs," said Croker. "But he fitted straight into our club. We've always been a friendly, cosy, place. Everyone mucked in."

In the spring of 1951 Jeppson returned to his old club, Djurgaardens, in Stockholm with his reputation and his grasp of the English vernacular considerably enhanced. Shortly after, he went to Atalanta, scoring 22 goals in his only season, before being transferred to Napoli for a world record fee of 105m lire (pounds 60,375) where his goals bolstered a moderate side for four years. There was one final move to Torino, then retirement to an equally successful career as a businessman. Now a spritely 74, he plays golf almost every day, winters in Rome and, on 15 July each year, migrates north to his home town of Gothenburg. He watches football on the television, admires the intensity of the English game and the cerebral skills of the Italians. And he fears for Charlton today.

"Manchester are playing rather good, I think," he says in an accent part Italian flourish, part Swedish lilt. It is probably to his advantage that Martin Pringle does not understand his inheritance nor know the one uncomfortable portent for this afternoon's encounter. In Jeppson's second game, Charlton lost 2-1 at home to Manchester United.