There are lots of reasons why a football game can be postponed. Maybe it’s been raining all week and the pitch is waterlogged. Perhaps the other team hasn’t got enough players. Maybe a storm has ripped the roof off one of the stands or the stewards find a fake pipe-bomb in the toilets. Postponing a game because one of your midfielders is in the middle of a reality TV show, however, remains one of the most bizarre.
The name Kevin Walker stands out among the Scandinavian surnames of the Allsvenskan, and not because it sounds Anglo. The 29-year-old Swedish midfielder is known more for his singing talents than his footballing ones.
Born in Orebro in the south of Sweden, Kevin is the son of former Irish footballer and manager Pat Walker. Pat, from Carlow in south-east Ireland, represented his country twice at under-21 level. He spent his career both at home and abroad, taking in Finland and Sweden before hanging up his boots in 1991, when Kevin was two years old.
Pat went on to manage four Swedish clubs and, wherever he went, Kevin followed. By the time Kevin was 16, he’d played for three different outfits at youth level and was made to move to a fourth when his father took over at Orebro in 2005. A year later, Pat had the honour of giving his son his first appearances in senior football as Orebro were promoted to the Allsvenskan, Sweden’s top flight. While they were relegated after just one season, and Pat was sacked as manager, Kevin continued in the Allsvenskan, signing for AIK.
Walker couldn’t nail down a place in the first-team in Stockholm, spending three of the four years out on loan. His final loan spell, at GIF Sundsvall back in the second tier, was the most successful, and the 23-year-old joined permanently in 2012. It was a chance to get his nomadic football career back on track.
But it was his career, hidden inside a rarely-seen alter-ego, as a pop star that really took shape in Sweden’s Superettan. After singing at a Sundsvall function, the footage went viral in his home country and rumours quickly surfaced that he’d appear on Idol Sverige, Sweden’s equivalent of the X-Factor.
The show is still popular with viewers and has now been running for 14 seasons. After a successful audition in 2013, Walker took part in the show’s ninth series during his eighth season as a professional footballer. It just so happened that TV4, the broadcasters of Idol, also held the rights to domestic football in Sweden.
As he made it through the rounds, performing renditions of songs like Use Somebody by Kings of Leon and Poker Face by Lady Gaga, his appearances on the show began to coincide with Sundsvall’s matches. It certainly wasn’t ideal for the midfielder’s team, who missed one of their most influential players.
And so, thanks to their broadcasting rights, TV4 decided to move the kick-off times and dates for Sundsvall so that Walker could play and sing. In a truly unique situation for a footballer, Walker’s fame escalated for his talents with a microphone rather than a ball. Thanks to a mixture of public voting and judges’ choices, Walker made it to week eight, one round away from the final four. His performances of Don’t Look Back In Anger and Hall of Fame saw him progress into the business end of the competition.
Meanwhile, on the pitch, Sundsvall were finishing the 2013 Superettan season strongly. An impressive run of results propelled them to within touching distance of automatic promotion to the Allsvenskan. An eventual third-place finish set up a promotion-relegation playoff with Halmstads, who had ended up in 14th in the top-flight. Walker started the first leg in Sundsvall, with the hosts taking the lead after Daniel Sliper’s early goal. Icelandic striker Gudjon Baldvinsson’s second-half equaliser levelled things going into the return fixture four days later.
Gambian forward Pa Dibba had started the first game on the bench but made an impact from the start with a goal in the 12th minute to give Sundsvall the advantage. Two goals in four second-half minutes from Halmstads’ Mikael Boman denied Walker and his team a place in the Allsvenskan and sentenced them to another campaign in the Superetten. His club may have ended 2013 with disappointment, but Walker’s year wasn’t over yet. Viewers just kept on voting for him until he reached the final of Idol in December.
The star-studded live event arrived three weeks after the playoff heartache with Sundsvall, lining up against Elin Bergman to compete for the prize. Walker sang two songs, one picked by himself – Where the Streets Have No Name – and one picked by those watching on TV – Say – before being crowned the winner by public vote. Before the end of the show, both Walker and Bergman joined Robbie Williams on stage to perform the Brit’s single Shine My Shoes. His sensational vocal displays earned him a contract with Universal Music.
It was with the American corporation’s Swedish branch that Walker released his own single, Belong, which made it to eighth in the Swedish charts. His debut album of the same name soared as high as second in the album charts. Despite his musical talent, chart-topping potential and new-found fame, Walker continued to pursue his footballing career and was named captain of Sundsvall for the 2014 season. Also in the second tier of Swedish football that year were Graham Potter’s Ostersunds, who finished in a credible fifth..
Consistency was key for Sundsvall as they kept faith with the managerial duo of Joel Cedergren and Roger Franzen. Under their leadership, and with Walker holding the armband, the club managed to secure automatic promotion back to the Allsvenskan at the second attempt. With Walker’s key midfield role attracting plenty of plaudits, a move to Allsvenskan regulars Djurgarden went through in the off-season. The Stockholm-based club, managed by Per Olsson, were one of the most decorated in Sweden with 11 league titles and four Swedish Cups.
However, since their most recent league triumph in 2005, mediocrity had taken hold of the stagnating club as Malmö dominated domestic proceedings for the majority of the following decade. The additional vision and strength that Walker brought to the midfield helped Djurgarden to an improved league position during the 2015 season, jumping one place to sixth from the previous year.
A further campaign of inconsistency made it yet another step back in the desperate search of success in 2016 as efforts at cup progression also proved fruitless. Their run to the 2012 and 2013 finals had been followed by four straight group stage exits. That was until the 2017/18 edition.
Unlike the Swedish league system, from March/April to November, the Swedish Cup runs on a different calendar – August to May – in order to make the transition into European competition more fluid. Djurgarden managed to reach the group stage after a 4-1 win over fourth-tier side Gamia Upsala in round two in August. By then, Walker the pop star had released his sixth single, with the most recent coming in February earlier that year. His single The Wind has got over two million plays on Spotify, his most successful song to this date.
Djurgarden had to wait until the following February to renew their cup campaign. They were placed alongside three clubs from the Superettan in group three. Walker got the only goal of the game in the final fixture against Jonkopings Sodra to give Djurgarden a 100 percent record, top spot in the group, and a place in the quarter-finals. It was there that they’d face Hacken and, in front of a crowd of just 6,700 at Djurgarden’s 30,000-capacity Tele2 Arena, they ran out 1-0 winners.
Walker and his team wouldn’t have to travel far for their semi-final showdown with AIK. Both clubs called Stockholm home, while AIK had the privilege of playing at the newly-built Friends Arena in the north of the city. By the time Walker entered the field as a 73rd-minute substitute, Kadewere and Kerim Mrabti had given the visitors a commanding 2-0 lead. Walker the pop star had experienced semi-final success before; now Walker the footballer would get to enjoy it as Djurgarden made it to their first cup final for five years.
The signing of former West Brom defender Jonas Olsson earlier in the year had been invaluable. On 10 May, Olsson led his team out at the Tele2 Arena against superpower Malmö. Trouble in the Malmö half of the stadium saw the first few minutes played under a carpet of flare smoke. That layer of grey was lifted by the euphoria of those in blue shirts as Jacob Une Larsson bundled a corner home to give Djurgarden the lead. Heroics from former Manchester City goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson kept Malmö at bay, but the flares returned after half-time.
You could just about make out the figure of Mrabti as he converted a cross to double Djurgarden’s advantage just after the break. As the 78th-minute ticked over, the fourth official’s substitution board lit up the number eight in green and Walker walked onto Swedish football’s biggest stage.
Just a couple of minutes later, he watched from the edge of the penalty area as his teammate Jonathan Ring slotted in Djurgarden’s third past Johan Dahlin in the Malmö goal. Olsson lifted the trophy into the air, confirming Walker’s 100 percent record in finals as both a footballer and a singer – a line I thought I’d never write.
By Billy Munday @billymunday08