The man from Degerfors who became a leading force

Andrew Longmore travels to the first stop on the successful career route of the new England coach
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The Independent Online

The players have gathered quietly in the low-slung clubhouse with the discreet sign which announces to the world - or, at least, the part of it that is prepared to travel 200km west from Stockholm into the heart of the Vermland - that this is the home of Degerfors IF. There are five of them still living and working in the area: Leif Elfving, the little quick-witted midfielder who now sells mobile phones; Kenneth Sundqvist, the tall, elegant centre-back, a policeman in neighbouring Karlskoga for the past 26 years; Ove Nilsson, who went to Bayern Munich; Christer Johansson; and Bertil Claesson, all members of the class of '78 who were promoted in two successive years under the guidance of the studious-looking man with a receding hairline and a faintly detached air standing at the back of the team photo.

The players have gathered quietly in the low-slung clubhouse with the discreet sign which announces to the world - or, at least, the part of it that is prepared to travel 200km west from Stockholm into the heart of the Vermland - that this is the home of Degerfors IF. There are five of them still living and working in the area: Leif Elfving, the little quick-witted midfielder who now sells mobile phones; Kenneth Sundqvist, the tall, elegant centre-back, a policeman in neighbouring Karlskoga for the past 26 years; Ove Nilsson, who went to Bayern Munich; Christer Johansson; and Bertil Claesson, all members of the class of '78 who were promoted in two successive years under the guidance of the studious-looking man with a receding hairline and a faintly detached air standing at the back of the team photo.

Degerfors, now languishing in the second division of the Swedish league, is where Sven Goran Eriksson and Tord Grip learnt their football. Eriksson was born in Torsby, a small town to the north of the region, but played right full-back for Karlskoga, hated local rivals; Grip still lives about a kilometre from the Store Valla (deep valley) ground on the edge of the town, revered as a legend in a club who have produced or fostered 23 internationals in their 93-year history, including Gunnar Nordahl, the most celebrated of all Swedish players. Nordahl played for Degerfors during the Second World War before moving to Milan. But he returned to coach Degerfors again, working as a petrol pump attendant in the local garage to supplement his meagre income.

On a per capita basis, Degerfors (pop: 10,000) could match its tradition against any of the footballing hotbeds of the world. The only footballing museum in Sweden is housed in Degerfors, a shrine to the past and an emotional buffer against the uncertainties of the present lovingly tended by Goran Berger, who played for Degerfors against Eriksson and whose son, Henrik, scored the only goal when the team lost narrowly to Parma in the Cup- Winners' Cup seven years ago.

"There are only two things in this town, the football club and the steelworks," says Liam Bates, resident Englishman and marketing manager for Avesta Sheffield AB. "When I first came here, I just thought it was a little Swedish town in the middle of nowhere. But it has this extraordinary culture of football. I'd like to know how much the productivity figures at the mills rise or fall on a Monday, depending on whether Degerfors win or lose." It is certainly no coincidence that the fortunes of the team and the mills have declined in tandem over recent years, but Degerfors still has 1,500 members of its supporters' club and each year a renewal note arrives from an Italian address, a cheque for 200Kr enclosed, a touching indication that Eriksson, Svennis as they call him here, has stayed true to the club motto - "The team is in our hearts" - through his travels.

His contemporaries admit that Eriksson was not much of a player. "Tord was five times better," recalls Leif Akesson, a club stalwart. But his reputation as a shrewd and progressive coach was quickly established, initially - and ironically - as the No 2 to Grip in 1976 and then, when Grip moved from Degerfors to a bigger club, as the chief coach. At the time, Eriksson was also working as a PE teacher at a school in Karlskoga.

"Before he took over from Tord, Svennis asked every member of the team whether they wanted him to do the job and we all told him, 'Yes'," Elfving says. "He always respected the players, that's one of the things I remember about him from the start. It didn't matter whether you were a big star or just another player, you felt you would be treated just the same. He was the coach to everyone in the squad, not just one or two. I think that's why he did so well at Lazio with all those starplayers."

When Elfving was recovering from an operation on his knee, the first visitor to his hospital bedside was Eriksson. "He was very good like that, very thoughtful and kind. You must be tough and you must have luck to get to where he is, but I don't think he has changed that much from when he coached us here."

Eriksson inherited a young team at Degerfors, impressionable, enthusiastic and eager to learn. He brought in a psychologist who had worked with the Norwegian ski team to encourage the players to think positively, and his style of play - compact, quick and aggressive, pressing opponents high up the field - married both the English style developed by Bob Houghton in Malmö and the long-standingContinental influences in Swedish football.

Elfving credits Eriksson with introducing the overlapping full-back into the Swedish game. "Defenders were supposed to defend," he recalls. "But I played right midfield and Mats Carlsson was the full-back and I knew he would always be there on my right, quite often ahead of me. We had a good understanding. I'd never seen that before."

Under Eriksson, Degerfors progressed from the third division to the first in successive years before their young coach attracted the attention of Gothenburg and, though just 30 years old, moved on.

"Perhaps we were the rabbits," laughs Sundqvist, who would call Eriksson regularly until the pair lost touch six years ago. "We had never heard about mental training or anything like that, we'd just gone out and played. But Svennis was a good thinker, very calm and very welleducated. If a player was angry, he wouldn't speak to him then. He would wait a couple of days and then talk to him face to face. He was not a great one for giving big team talks, he preferred to have a word with each player one at a time, just reminding them quietly what he wanted. I never saw him lose his temper and on the sideline he was never shouting, but you could feel his eyes, you knew he waswatching you."

At Degerfors, they are still trying to digest the implications of Eriksson's historic move to England. Swedish television gently ridiculed the inability of English presenters to pronounce the christian name correctly (it is Sven Yuran), while his former players remained confident, if a little nervous, that their favourite son will cope quite comfortably with the passion, the press and the misguided patriotism of a country which has long since forfeited the right to call itself football's motherland. Like their cars, they are built to last in this part of the world.

"Swedes are neutrals, so him being coach of England is not a problem for us," says Sundqvist. "We are also patient. Many times, the score would be 0-0 and Svennis would say, 'Just wait, the goal will come'. And he was often right. But he was stubborn too." The elevation of Eriksson, a truck-driver's son, has magnified their own small-time careers, revived precious but distant memories. "Everyone in Sweden is surprised at the selection, but here we're even more surprised," adds Sundqvist. "Two guys from little Degerfors in charge of the English national team. It's unbelievable. It's a great honour for the club where they started their coaching careers and a great honour for me that I was once a player under them."

The club have fallen on hard times since dropping out of Sweden's Premier League three years ago, kept alive by a small band of volunteers and by this group of ex-players who have started a "plant scheme" for local companies to sponsor young players. They still run 10 junior teams and a women's side. And every Saturday, when Degerfors are at home, they and 1500 others will troop down to the old stadium to watch, out of reflex more than choice. But this is a town with a rich heritage and no cash.

At the museum, Goran Berger has already anticipated his next display. A Lazio shirt signed by Eriksson hangs in one corner and the headline from the previous day's Aftonbladet has already been framed. The headline reads: "Welcome, Mr Eriksson." In Degerfors, they think he will come back one day. After all, they laugh, we taught him everything he knows.

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