HUGH WRAGG looks back at the transfer that brought a Swedish full back to Hillsborough. He became an Owls legend.
Looking back at the early 1990s with fondness is very much in vogue. Everyone loves a Shane Meadows drama, New Order are releasing new material and Italia ’90 is undergoing a new blogosphere revisionism. The suggestion that the early 1990s were ‘better’ might not always hold true, but it certainly does for fans of Sheffield Wednesday.
On the pitch, this Wednesday era was defined by two distinct qualities. The first was an elegance on the ball that was shown by all members of the team. With Sheridan, Waddle, Harkes and Hirst, Wednesday played some of the English game’s most attractive football. The second defining feature was determined hard work. Nigel Pearson bullied centre forwards. Carlton Palmer, despite his naysayers, was an effective and influential central midfielder.
At right full-back was a player who embodied both the graceful sophistication and body-shattering hard work. He is commonly referred to as the best foreign player to play for the club. In my humble opinion, the club’s greatest ever transfer was the purchase of Roland Nilsson from IFK Göteborg in 1989, for the paltry sum of £375,000.
Nilsson was already in his prime when he joined Wednesday. He left Göteborg as a 26 year old who had reached the semi-finals of the European Cup in 1986, won the UEFA Cup a year later, and gained 40 Sweden caps. He was a classy, if somewhat quiet personality in both the dressing room and on the pitch, and made twenty league appearances in his first half season as Wednesday were relegated to Division Two.
Wednesday almost accidentally fell out of the top flight in 1990, but from this short term crisis rose – for a brief period at least – a force of English football. The Owls were immediately promoted and claimed silverware in the form of a shock League Cup victory over Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. Nilsson played a key role in the Wembley victory, marshalling the flourishing talent of Lee Sharpe on United’s left side.
Propelled by the momentum of promotion and winning the Wembley silver, Nilsson went on to enjoy some of his best form at Hillsborough in the 1991/92 season. Ron Atkinson left for Aston Villa in the summer of 1991 but remarked at how the Swede was “the best professional he had ever worked with.”
Wednesday finished third and secured European football in 1992, running both eventual winners Leeds United and Manchester United close for the title. With his supreme level of fitness, driving runs, defensive and positioning abilities, Roland Nilsson became the best full back in the country under the management of Trevor Francis. Wednesday fans loved him for his nonchalant class on the ball and the grit which continues to make hard defenders heroes in the Steel City to this day.
The 1992/93 season was an incredible journey for Wednesday fans. Despite their characteristic poor league start, seven consecutive wins propelled the club into the title race for a brief period in February and March. Knocked out of European competition by Kaiserslautern of Germany, the club could focus on domestic competitions and reached the final of both cups. Nilsson was a regular and was defining the right-back position in the inaugural Premier League.
After 63 games, Wednesday and Nilsson finished trophy-less having lost to Arsenal at Wembley. The Swede finished the season by defying convention. Despite playing the majority of Wednesday’s sixty game season, Nilsson stood up to what Trevor Francis described as ‘inhuman’ demands of players by playing for Sweden and Wednesday on consecutive days, in a World Cup Qualifier and in the FA Cup final replay.
His second game in twenty-four hours saw Andy Linighan score a 120th minute winner to settle the Cup Final. Nilsson approached this situation with the upmost professionalism, publically revealing his happiness at playing twice and his desire to represent Sweden without compromise.
Nilsson enjoyed another superb season in 1993/94; his last at Hillsborough. Wednesday reached the semi-finals of the League Cup and finished seventh in the Premier League for the second time. He was carried off the field to a standing ovation after his final game, a 1-1 draw with Manchester City. Nilsson suffered from homesickness and returned to Helsingborg, the club and town in which he grew up.
His world-class defensive abilities were paraded for everyone to see at the 1994 World Cup as Sweden finished third. Two years earlier, Nilsson helped guide his country to a third placed finish in the low-key European Championships that they hosted. For a six month period, Sweden were ranked as the world’s second best side in 1994. Nilsson was ever-present.
Nilsson left Sheffield Wednesday with the fans’ blessing after being a constant first choice in the best period in the club’s recent history. Promotion and Cup success gave way to title challenges, European football and further cup runs. He helped facilitate this fine era after arriving for £375,000, a snip even in 1989 considering his superiority over his peers.
Wednesday fans cherish the gentleman he was and the performances he gave, and still sing his praises on the Hillsborough Kop to this day.
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