Nilsson shows Sven's cool is catching on

He is the antithesis of the manic scribbler who preceded him. So what is it about being Swedish and successful?
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The Independent Online

It's a bit like cars, really. British, Italian and French models may still be in vogue, but for real managerial chic Swedes have suddenly become top of the range. Steady, reliable, able to take an impact. Sven Goran Eriksson has seen to that.

Which makes your first question to Roland Nilsson, the most recent of the England coach's compatriots to be offered a managerial position, inevitable if somewhat unkind. "So, Roland, have you got the job on the back of Sven?" Because you can be sure that one or two cynics will be suggesting outside the environs of Coventry: "What do you do when you want a new manager?"

"Oh, just drag the nearest fair-haired, phlegmatic Swede off the training ground and call him 'boss'." Well, Nilsson is fair-haired and Swedish, but fortunately because he is also impassive he accepts the query in good part. Had Eriksson's achievements helped him? "Not really, no," said the former Sweden right-back, who retired from international football in November last year after having won 112 caps. "I don't think the people round here think that. I've played here for two years and they know me as a person. Hopefully, it's because they believe in my potential. Anyway, there's a lot of difference between club and international football."

Nilsson succeeded Gordon Strachan on a caretaker basis when the Scot resigned last month. Many supporters awaited a big-name replacement. But since then, his team have won four and drawn one in the Nationwide League, prompting the chairman Bryan Richardson to offer him the post full-time, although last night, as Coventry prepared to play Walsall this evening, that had still to be confirmed. City's first defeat under Nilsson came at home to Chelsea in Tuesday's Worthington Cup tie.

It was Strachan who brought Nilsson to the club, asked him to assist with coaching the back four towards the end of last season and, typical of the man, was one of the first to ring him with his congratulations. While the Swede is in Strachan's debt, what is certain is that he will not be, in any way, in his image. Indeed, Nilsson is the antithesis of the manic scribbler of notes during matches and oblique responder to questions after them, the character who wore his angst on every part of his diminutive frame.

"I'm a very calm person," he agrees as we sit in the same office where Strachan used to have a stereo system playing his beloved Elvis, and, who like "The King", has left the building. "I suppose if you think about it, many Swedes are like that," Nilsson explained. "The only thing that gets me going is players who can do it if they want to, but they're not trying."

He added: "When you take over as manager you always want to see in the first couple of training sessions how the players will react. But they responded very well. If you don't get that response there's no hope of you doing well. They treat me a bit different now, of course. Instead of calling me by my name, they call me 'gaffer' which was strange in the beginning. But I think I'll get used to it."

The celebrated sang froid is illustrated by the way in which he has been in no rush to conclude a deal with his chairman. Other matters have apparently taken priority. "The goalkeeping situation came up [Nilsson had to give City's young fourth-choice goalkeeper Gary Montgomery his debut on Tuesday when his number one, countryman Magnus Hedman, was injured in the warm-up] and that was more important than talking about contracts," he said, in tones which blend southern Swedish with just a faint hint of west Midlands. "Then the chairman had to go away. But I'm not concerned. The club comes first."

He said of his promotion: "Of course, I'm surprised. It's a big step. One minute I'm a player and doing some coaching, but mostly being a player, and suddenly I'm sitting here. When I was playing I never really thought about it. But when I started coaching at the end of last season I enjoyed it. As for playing, I will carry on if I feel I've got something to contribute. But I'll pick my players first and see how they can do."

For the moment quite nicely, it seems; yet, with reported debts of £30m, a promised "dream" stadium that remains just that, a club with a reputation of selling their best players, and heavy anticipation from the fans, it would not be every novice manager's preferred setting. He is also aware that money for signings will be very limited.

However, Nilsson, 37, who has thrice had stints with his home-town club Helsingborgs, has also played for IFK Gothenburg and Sheffield Wednesday, and is now in his second spell at Coventry, believes that promotion back to the Premiership where the club departed after 34 years among the elite, is attainable at the first time of trying.

Like Strachan, he prefers to deploy a 4-4-2 system and shares many of the Scot's ideas, but Nilsson has slightly altered some players' roles going forward. Also, as a defender, he is a firm advocate of a solid rearguard on which to launch forward play. "I haven't changed the team that much," he reflects. "I knew that we had a good side when Gordon was here but we didn't seem to score any goals. There was a lot of frustration among the players and the atmosphere was very down.

"Fortunately, when I took over, I managed to get them going straight away. We got our first win against Peterborough away in the Worthington Cup, and followed that with a win in the League. It's all about belief and self-confidence, knowing what you are capable of, and going out and doing it." His "education" has been provided by many of the coaches he has played under. They include Ron Atkinson, who brought him to Sheffield Wednesday, and Trevor Francis.

"Ron was excellent at motivation," he recalled. "He was very good at getting the best out of players – knowing what buttons to press to get the players to give that little bit extra for him."

Though nobody would make comparisons between Big Ron and Suave Sven, they seemingly have that ability in common. The feat of Eriksson in accomplishing World Cup qualification with England has, by Nilsson's account, been accorded even greater distinction back home than the national team's achievement in winning their group.

"It's great what he's done with the England side, and it's good for Swedish football," Nilsson said. "I haven't had much to do with Sven because he's been abroad for such a long time. I've spoken to him a couple of times and that's it. But I do know that, at home, the focus on the England team is greater than on the Swedish side. Sweden played Azerbaijan in their last qualifier on Saturday, but most people were more interested in the England-Greece game."

An all-round sportsman, who also excelled at basketball and ice hockey, he decided at 16 that football was his future. As a boy, he followed Manchester United. After eight months national service he also worked briefly part-time in the vegetable distribution trade, before going full-time. "National service was, shall we say, different," he recalled. "But you learn to be part of a team, get on with your colleagues and obviously that is important in football."

Back in Helsingborg, the port with a population of 110,000, his progress is being watched with avid interest. "It is big news over there," he said, with slight embarrassment crossing his face. "There haven't been that many Swedes make it here to this level. The only other one, apart from Sven, was Benny Lennartsson at Bristol City, so they want to see me do well."

Given the fortune enjoyed by his celebrated fellow Swede, that should surely present few problems?

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