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With the football season over prematurely due to the Coronavirus Pandemic I’m in the unusual position of actually having this blog up to date! So to keep the content coming, and for something to do, I’ll do some old grounds and games where there’s a story to tell.

Friday 15th June 2007 ko 19.30

Division 2 Östra Svealand

NYKÖPINGS B.I.S. 5 (Holmström 39 53 Stensson 64 M Funes 71 Lundgren 85)

AKROPOLIS I.F. 3 (Allyn 64 88 Birras 90)

Att 226

These days there are no lack of “Foreign Hops” aimed primarily at UK-based groundhoppers. Off the top of my head, there’s been ones in Germany, Switzerland, Romania and the Covid-19 pandemic saw one scheduled in Denmark cancelled. The attraction is clear, see football in a new country but have the logistics organised by someone with local expertise.

Looking back the obvious person to do it was Joachim “Kim” Hedwall. The Stockholm resident was a fixture on the English groundhopping scene at the time, and just as relevantly was an expert on football in and around Stockholm. He was also a regular on organised hops in England and Wales, so he saw what happened and what did and didn’t work.

But none of those facts meant that convincing him to try was easy, it took around 3 years I reckon. So when he tentatively started to talk about putting a weekend together I made my own preparations to go, but I did have plenty of ulterior motives.

For one Kim was clearly relying on attracting his friends as the core of the party heading over to see him. He’d even set the cost of the hop at £120 (all airport transfers, match admissions, bed & breakfast, coach, and programmes) which even at the time I thought was unbelievably cheap- Sweden can be an expensive place. It took me years, and several more helping him to organise it, to find out how he managed to keep the cost that low. It turned out that he got a huge win on the horses and being the kind of bloke he is, he decided to treat us by subsidizing the cost of us visiting him. In hindsight, it did give us an problem in subsequent years, we knew we’d never ever be able to do it for £120 again!

I didn’t want to let him down, and believe me a few of his “friends” did. But the other reason was straightforward- I knew nothing! These days I think nothing of booking a flight and hotel, then using whatever public transport is on offer to get around.

Its fair to say for the first few years of the Swedish Hop he stuck closely to the blueprint used by the likes of Chris Berezai and Rob Hornby, but as the years passed the event has become more and more Hedwall but the basics of a coach, hotel, programme packs and staggered kick-offs known in advance have remained the same.

So, if this was the birth of the organised groundhop abroad, then it was also the birth of my interest in football other than in the UK. Gradually I picked up more and more skills the more I travelled. But here I was at zero knowledge, the only football I’d seen live prior to this was in England, Scotland and Wales. Frankly an escorted tour was perfect for my needs at the time, and there will always be people in the position I was in then.  I navigated Ryanair’s website intellectually blind to the extent I checked in at the airport, and had paid for hold baggage for a 2 night weekend away!

One element started on this hop that I don’t think has ever altered on any foreign hop is that everyone booked their own flights. It enabled a few to fly to Skavsta from Manchester while the vast majority flew from Stansted. Now with the benefit of hindsight I can tell you Skavsta is a typical Ryanair airport, with 5 gates and is situated a good 90 minutes south of Stockholm. But as the plane made its final approach to the southernmost part of Svealand, I saw the trees, and the red wooden barns, and suddenly the fact that I’d been up since 2am didn’t matter.

The advantage of small airports is that you tend to get through them quite quickly but there was a queue for passport control. There was only 2 booths open, one manned by a rather stern looking man, the other by an extremely attractive young lady. The queue of course was caused by a flight with quite a few middle-aged male football fans giving the male guard very little to do.

It was good, if not a relief to see Kim, resplendent in a Union Jack tie, and since we spending the next 24 hours in Nyköping he’d eschewed the expense of booking a coach- 3 minibuses drove us the the mere 7km to our hotel, but due to that typically cheap but typically early Ryanair flight we arrived at the Park Inn 4 hours before our rooms were ready.

But with our bags stowed we headed off for a stroll round the pretty town of Nyköping but hoppers being what we are, you know what the first place we discovered was – the iconic Folkungavallen, the second of Nyköping’s 3 football grounds, it only took us another 5 years to take the hop there.

We strolled into town, bought an ice cream apiece and found a stall set up by the evening’s hosts. They were organising a lotto to win a year’s supply of eco-petrol, we bought tickets wondering how on earth we’d claim the prize if any of us actually won. But the surprise was that those reps knew exactly who we were, to the extent that they asked us what sort of stuff did we like to collect. Metal badges we replied.. little did we know!

Eventually we we able to access out hotel rooms, and after an attempt to claw back some of the sleep deficit, we regrouped at reception and the the three minibuses set off for Torvalla Idrottsplats. Except I couldn’t work out why were heading there a clear 2 hours before kick-off?

We arrived 5 minutes later to a seemingly deserted ground, even the gates to the stadium were closed. Cue Kim on his mobile phone, and a few seconds later the gates parted like curtains. We drove through and what happened thereafter was surreal.

In the distance we a line of club officials to welcome us and shook each and everyone by the hand as we left the minibuses. Then there was the local press, both TV and print were present and I know I wasn’t the only one who wondered what on earth was going on?

We were shepherded into the clubhouse and the officials handed out Nyköping BIS goodie bags. There was a replica shirt, sticker, teamsheet, programme, and there was someone quickly dropping a pin badge into each of the bags! Then there was the free buffet, free soft drinks and subsidised beer. It was clear we were be treated as V.I.P.’s as the officials made speeches welcoming us to both Sweden and their club. One fact does stick in my mind, and that’s Nyköping is Swedish for Newmarket and there are connections between the two clubs.

Even after all these years I have no idea what Kim said to the club, at the time we wondered whether they thought we were some kind of FIFA delegation? I think the truth of it is that Swedes love English football and so find the idea that anyone from the UK would be interested in Swedish football charming but odd. That, and every local Swedish club I’ve turned up at has been the same, all incredibly welcoming.

But as lovely as the attention was the point of the exercise was to watch a game, and the only time I’ve felt anticipation like it was just before my first game in Japan. I remember taking the first picture of the stand, then standing back to take in the moment. I am bound to say the warm sunny evening here was in massive contrast to the heavy rain of Osaka 4 years later!

It’s worth explaining the game was at the 4th level of Swedish football. The top two (and only completely national) divisions are the Allsvenskan, then the Superettan. The third tier is the two Divisions 1 Norra (North) and Södra (South), and below that is regional football.

The game more than lived up to the anticipation and the welcome. These days I know what any organiser thinks on the first game. You always want a good game to start of the hop and that goes double for a new hop. I’ll leave you to work out what it means for a new organiser on a new hop in a new country!

I found myself looking at the differences between what I was seeing in the UK, the stands for spare footballs and on the pitch the emphasis on passing and moving. It was a wonderful introduction to  Swedish football. It was with no little regret that the game had to end, and we had to take our leave of Nyköping B.I.S. They were superb hosts.

As a footnote the subsequent years have been kind to both clubs. Nyköping BIS were promoted to Division One Norra in 2012 and now are the second most southerly club (the most southernly being Norrköping-based IF Sylvia) in that division. That means they’ll be facing the 1,000 km away trip to Boden each season.

I saw Akropolis at their home of the time Spånga IP in the northern suburbs in 2018. They’ve now moved to Grimsta IP better known as Brommapojkarna’s base mainly to attain the ground grading necessary to take their place in the Superettan. We were due to visit on the now postponed 14th edition of the Swedish Hop. We do like to take our time.

At the behest of the television we headed down to the waterfront, but didn’t stay long at the bars, just enough time I suspect for the cameraman to get his shots. With that 2am start weighing heavily on us, most of us had a quick beer before calling it a night.

It set the tone for the weekend, and the next day a large and luxurious coach turned up with Thomas at the wheel. That was the start of his relationship with the Swedish Hop for 6 years, but as he headed north for 3 games in Stockholm that day I already knew that how I watch football had completely changed.