League titles aren’t exactly the kind of silverware that can be won fortuitously. Certainly, luck can and will play its part – in fact, rarely is any trophy won without at least a small helping of it – but triumphs crafted over the course of 20, 30, 40 games aren’t the kind to be lavished upon the undeserving. They are to be earned.
In the pursuit of domestic glory, some champions overwhelm their lesser contemporaries with superior firepower, amassing an insurmountable points total by way of consistently outscoring their rivals, while others rely on an impenetrable defence to see them come out on top, suffocating and stifling their opponents with a backline that oftentimes seems unbreachable.
Though, for sheer entertainment’s sake, the discerning neutral would prefer their title-winning teams to be of the high-scoring kind, there is no objective superiority gained by winning a title one way or the other. After all, it was Sir Alex Ferguson who said “attack wins you games, defence wins you titles” – and the Scot knew a thing or two about winning titles.
There is, however, something truly remarkable about a team that manages to welcome the season’s climax sat atop the pile, having won more points than any other team in their league, despite having not only failed to score the most goals throughout the league season but, somehow, contriving to score the least. This is the story of the 1998 Allsvenskan champions.
AIK Fotboll was originally founded in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in February 1891, as a multi-purpose sports club that was open to all. Proudly preceding the establishment of their fiercest local rivals, Djurgårdens IF, by as little as three weeks, AIK officially added its football department five years after its foundation and thus began the club’s legacy within the beautiful game.
With 12 top tier titles to their name – inclusive of their earliest, in 1900, and their most recent, in 2018 – the club are the fourth most successful Swedish team in number of national triumphs, and though the likes of Malmö may be able to point to trophy cabinets containing a few more trophies than theirs, what no rival of AIK’s has ever done is win a title quite like they did in 1998.
Having finished the 1997 Allsvenskan in eighth of 14 teams, AIK sporting director Stefan Söderberg decided desperate times called for desperate measures, and he booked a plane ticket to Japan in search of the man who he believed could lead his club back to the top of the Swedish game.
“I was working in Japan, managing Vissel Kobe, and the AIK sporting director Stefan Söderberg came to me, he knocked on my door, and he said, ‘Look, we want you to come back to AIK,’” Stuart Baxter, AIK manager between 1998 and 2000 told These Football Times. Baxter knew Sweden well, having represented Landskrona, Helsingborgs and Örebro during his playing career, as well as having managed in Sweden.
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The offer from AIK just so happened to come at an ideal time for Baxter. “I said, well, I’d been in Japan for five years and I was planning on leaving – all sorts of things happen after five years in Japan, in terms of your tax and your residencies – so we spoke and he wouldn’t leave until I’d signed a pre-contract with them. I just couldn’t get the bloody bloke out the house.
“He left a load of videos of Swedish football, so I knew what I was coming into, and he went back to Sweden and I took the job. AIK was a big club but they’d finished eighth, had won nothing for I don’t know how many years. I looked at the squad and I thought it was a good squad of players, you know,” Baxter said. “We’ve got a chance.”
The perspective of the fans wasn’t dissimilar, as explained to These Football Times by Sebastian – or ‘Smurf’ as he was known by the AIK crowd – a lifelong fan of AIK and co-founder of the club’s famous tifo group, who remembers the 1998 season in sparkling detail. “Any AIK supporter would say we always aim for gold, it’s just expected. At the time, though, we had just one title in the last 50 years, and IFK Göteborg were still in a league of their own, winning the league six times in the 90s – even though AIK won two Svenska Cupen, both somewhat miraculously – so I didn’t think too much of our chances at the start of the season.
“Our best players, well, we had lost our best players the year before, when we reached the Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-finals and played Barcelona. Magnus Hedman had already left for Coventry, Gary Sundgren had been sold to Zaragoza, Pascal Simpson, who scored both our goals against Barcelona, left for Vålerenga, and our other class forward, Dick Lidman, retired. But AIK was never about any single player, we are and have always been about the team.
“We still had the best player in Sweden, though: Johan Mjällby. Not much elegance there, just sheer dedication to and respect for the game. It’s a cliche but he always gave 120 percent and truly signifies a large part of what AIK was about. He was called a ‘nuclear power plant’ by the national team coach, Tommy Söderberg. Plus, we had acquired the most coveted upcoming defender in Olof Mellberg and Patrick Englund was bought a few years earlier from Lugano. He was always elegant.
“We had Nebojša Novaković, who had been acquired from our arch-rivals Djurgården in 1997. Whatever Maradona did with an orange, he could do with a pack of cigarettes – and he had no issues smoking at half-time. We had Krister Nordin, a real working-class hero with a brutish style inherent in those players you love to have on your team and hate to face in the opposition. He was a tier higher than most of that kind of player, though. I remember he was always the last to leave the warm-up, calibrating his impressive volleys, with which he scored a bunch of amazing goals. And, when in the right mood, he could rival Nebojša’s dribbling.
“And we had Anders Limpar. Finally. Limpar was born AIK but hadn’t played for us, and there was always a feeling of ‘what if’ when we saw him with Arsenal. We did have his brother as our groundskeeper, but that had always been a poor consolation. Anyway, suddenly he was here and that really got our blood flowing.
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“So, maybe we all felt like we could be the outside chance. The squad was pretty well balanced on paper, if small, as was normal back then. We knew we would play the season like we usually did: defence first, disciplined, worthy of glory but lacking in the scoring department. Then again, anyone who doesn’t love a 1-0 I don’t take seriously.”
The side’s new manager, Baxter, wasn’t opposed to the odd 1-0 either, and he’d come to know them particularly well throughout the season in question – though of course narrow victories weren’t his sole ambition. He simply wanted to play a different way to everybody else. His way.
“I just decided that I wasn’t gonna do what everyone else was doing because I knew, from when I was in Sweden before, that 4-4-2 was the stock and they’ll get the ball to the full-back and he’ll clip it down the line to the strikers making the movements. They all did it. That was the strength of the national team, because it was like a one-club team; everybody did the same thing. They were really, really well drilled. And I just thought that if I go back and do that then whoever gets lucky or whoever has the slightly better players will win the league. So I’m going to do everything they don’t want us to do and see how that works.
“The players got on board straight away. They loved how we were gonna play, and we started off in a couple of pre-season tournaments absolutely hammering people. We won a tournament down in Marbella, I think we beat København in the final, we beat Brann from Norway 3-0 and we beat Brøndby 3-1. So we were flying!
“Then we started the season and I remember we played Trelleborg at home. It was going to be the big demonstration of power. We scored, 1-0 up, I think we had 23 strikes on goal, scored one, and then they equalised from a counter-attack with five minutes left; they had three strikes at goal, one on target, which they scored from. So it was a nightmare start really, and it continued like that for three or four games.”
AIK opened their season with a customary 1-0 victory away to Orgryte but, as Baxter recalls, they found winning the more meaningful fixtures far harder than they’d expected. From their opening ten league outings, AIK registered two wins, six draws and two defeats – not exactly title-winning form.
“I chose a bit of a special club, you know. The supporters – the Black Army – they’re pretty famous. And they’re pretty aggressive. And you’ve got to be of a certain ilk if you’re going to succeed at AIK. Now, the squad: they were all warriors. They were big characters, the lot of them. But they’d played at the club a long time and not won anything,” Baxter recalls.
“So I’m stood there, I remember, we were playing Göteborg away and I stood in front of the players at the pre-match meeting. I’ve introduced all these new things, and they’ve loved it but we’ve not got the results we wanted, so I’ve stood in front of them and I’ve said: ‘Listen, you lot. No fucking compromise. We either do what we do, or I fucking go.’ And they said: ‘Don’t worry about us. We’re into this.’ So that was it. We beat Göteborg 1-0. We had a man sent off but we beat them 1-0, and then we went on a massive run.”
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That tide-changing Göteborg scalp followed a victory against Malmö, defeated by the same scoreline, and thus began the run that would carry AIK to the title. Far more draws than they’d have liked littered their fixtures, and AIK’s wins often came at the mercy of single-goal advantages, but Baxter’s team refused to be bested again after their two early-season losses, and they stretched their unbeaten run to the very end of the campaign.
“The games we won 1-0, if you look at the statistics, we’d be having 17 shots to two. That’s what it was like,” Baxter remembers. “We dominated every game we played, basically. So the players were confident. They were sure. We knew it’d be us or Helsingborg and we knew that if it came down to the wire then we’d win our last game. The squad were convinced, there were no nerves going into the last game.”
“We woke up and went to the game, the last game of the season, and there’d been a power failure so the undersoil heating hadn’t worked, and there’d been a terrible frost. The pitch was rock hard. It was icy. It was terrible to play on. So I’m walking around the dressing room like a cat on hot bricks, thinking ‘fuck, this’ll be a great leveller won’t it? They’ll be chucking all kinds of balls in, with our nerves, the importance of this game, I’ve got to calm everything down.’
“In the team meeting I pull the captain to one side and I say, ‘Listen, here’s what we’re going to do…’ and he just says ‘Gaffer, don’t worry. We’ll sort this.’ They were dead certain. The only nerves I saw were after we scored, and after we heard that Häcken had taken the lead. Only then, when it was so real, in the last seven or eight minutes of the game. Apart from that, they were certain.”
Going into the last weekend of the season, a missed opportunity in the penultimate game of the campaign had seen AIK relinquish the top spot, drawing 0-0 away to Trelleborg and allowing Helsingborg to sneak ahead of them with a 2-0 triumph over Elfsborg. Both title hopefuls faced similar tasks on the final day, playing teams in the bottom three as AIK hosted 12th-placed Orgryte while Helsingborg travelled to already-relegated 13th-placed Häcken.
Baxter’s men had 43 points while Helsingborg boasted 44, so only bettering their rivals’ result would do. For one day only, all AIK supporters became Häcken supporters. “I remember the last game very clear,” AIK fan Christoffer Svanemar told These Football Times. “We had to win but, even if we did, we had to hope for Häcken, who was already relegated, to win against Helsingborg, who was top of the table. Last-minute of the game, no-one even watched, everyone was just listening to the radio from Häcken-Helsingborg.”
The news filtering through the static was like music to the AIK fans’ ears. As AIK did their job, beating Orgryte by a single goal to nil, the radio commentators told of how Häcken had achieved the unthinkable: they’d beaten Helsingborg by two goals to one. “They did it, 2-1!” Svanemar continued, “and AIK invited the guy who scored the two goals, Larsson, to the title party – and he came!”
Häcken forward Mathias Larsson had made himself an unintentional AIK hero by scoring the brace that put the nail in the coffin of Helsingborg’s title charge, allowing AIK to swoop in and claim the silverware. So enamoured by his work were the fans, they invited him to party with them, a story that Baxter was all too pleased to corroborate.
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“That is so typical of the AIK fans! Yeah, the supporters and the players, they called him, and they paid for his flight from Gothenburg to Stockholm to fly him in, just so that when there were a few toasts and a few speeches, they could get him up on stage. It was surreal. But he’s a legend. He could come to an AIK game even now and the fans would go to him and say ‘Mathias Larsson, legend!’ They love him.”
As it would happen, Larsson wasn’t the only unlikely goalscoring hero in the tale of AIK’s extraordinary title win of 1998. “A nice little subplot to all this,” Baxter said, “when I first came to the club, there was a lad that was sitting outside of the manager’s office when I arrived on the first day. I asked the sporting director who he was and he said he’s an ex-player. ‘He’s a young boy, massive talent, but he’s had a lot of problems we couldn’t handle so we’ve let him go.’
“The lad was there to ask me if he could train with the club because he was trying to keep himself fit; he was going to Portugal or somewhere on trial. I said ‘of course you can’. So he came and he trained, and he wasn’t bad. He was a striker and I was saying to the sporting director, ‘We haven’t got many strikers, we’ve got a young left-back playing striker. Let him stay for a month, offer him a contract.’ So he stayed and he did really well.
“He didn’t score. The fans got on his back and the journalists were hammering me because he kept playing and didn’t score, but, to be fair, no-one scored. We had a young kid, a left-back playing striker, and a Yugoslav lad who played as a bit of a shadow striker who drove everybody crackers because all he did was complain that nobody scored. ‘I fucking make these runs and make these wonder passes and nobody scores – you’re all useless!’ he’d say.
“So this young lad had played the whole season and we get to the last game and we know we’ve got to win. And I know we’d got to score goals, obviously. I picked him. He’d not scored a goal all season, but I picked him and I said: ‘Listen, mate, come here. You’ve got an opportunity here today to stick a finger up at a lot of people. So I’m picking you, because I really believe in you. You’ve got this opportunity today, just go out there and enjoy it. And if this is mine and your last game here, at this club, at least we’ve given it what we’ve got. So he went out there, we won 1-0, and he scored the winning goal. Now his boot is coated in gold and it’s up outside the stadium!”
That young lad was Jan Alexander Östlund, who’d later find himself at Feyenoord and Southampton, whom he’d represent after first transferring from AIK to Norrköping. It was while with AIK’s domestic rivals that the scarcity of goals would finally prove too much, as the white and blues saw fit to convert him to right-back, and it was from that position Östlund would see out the remainder of his career.
As a right-back, Östlund’s playing days lacked the glory and the glamour more typical of a striker, yet the fact remains, he has to his name more title-winning goals than many of even the game’s greatest strikers and, no less, a pivotal place in this extraordinary tale.
And so, thanks to a season of hard graft, a little fortune, Larsson the Häcken hero helping to halt Helsingborg and, of course, Östlund choosing the ideal time to score his first goal of the campaign, AIK emerged victorious. After 26 games, in spite of scoring just 25 goals, the club were crowned champions of Sweden.
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“People couldn’t play against us. They couldn’t score against us,” Baxter proudly recalls – and he wasn’t wrong. In his two seasons as AIK manager, his team conceded just 29 goals in 52 league games. “Not because we played defensively but because we played in a completely different way to the way everybody else played. We forced their centre-backs to play out from the back and we counter-pressed, really aggressively. And you just didn’t do that in Sweden; you got back into shape and you waited on the half-way line. Across the season we created loads of chances, so many chances, we just couldn’t score.”
“[Prioritising defence] wasn’t really my style but the Black Army are very aggressive, very proud, a little in your face, a little cocky, and the players that had played for AIK for a long time also became a bit like that, you know, they became big personalities. And you had to deal with them, so I wasn’t going to go in there and pussyfoot around.
“I went in there and said this is how I want to do it. I didn’t ask any questions, I said we’re playing this way and we’re doing it because nobody will want us to play that way. They’re going to hate playing against us. And basically what I said happened and that’s how you get people on board. The players became very proud of the way they played and they became very good at it. They became bloody good at it.”
So good, in fact, that AIK’s successes weren’t merely restricted to their domestic endeavours; their uncompromising style brought rewards on the continent, too. “The following year, in the Champions League, we drew 0-0 against Fiorentina, we were beating Barcelona 1-0 at home with five minutes left, and we were drawing 1-1 with Arsenal at Wembley with five minutes to play. We could defend against the best. We beat BATE 2-0 there and 2-0 at home. We beat AEK Athens 1-0 at home and drew 0-0 away.
“In all the qualification matches, no-one could score against us. It was partly the way I worked out how I wanted us to play, from when I was in Japan, but also it suited the mentality of the place. It was aggressive, defensive football. We worked very hard at organisation and, off the back of that, we had a really aggressive attacking game. We didn’t just sit there and try to hit counter-attacks. It suited the players, it suited the club, and it became a bit of a fairy-tale.”
AIK were denied the honour of retaining their Allsvenskan title, as the following season – despite scoring almost twice as many goals and even conceding one less than the previous campaign’s already miserly total – they finished a solitary point behind Helsingborg – and it was at the end of that season AIK and Stuart Baxter’s brief but beguiling journey came to an end.
Having added the Allsvenskan title to his trophy cabinet, one which already held within it Japan’s J1 League trophy, Baxter continued his peripatetic managerial career, going on to manage clubs and even national teams in Norway, Finland, Japan once more, Turkey and, on multiple occasions, South Africa, adding his fair share of trophies along the way.
For AIK, meanwhile, more trophies awaited them also, not least the Allsvenskan titles of 2009 and 2018. Sadly, for the sake of lovers of niche football facts everywhere, neither of those subsequent titles were won with a goals-per-game average of less than one. In Sweden and beyond, you’ll not be surprised to learn that their obscure achievement remains untouched to this day.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp