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Long interview with Niklas Gudmundsson

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I stumbled on this interview with Niklas Gudmundsson about his time at Rovers in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet (https://www.aftonbladet.se/sportbladet/a/bn8og3/ska-inte-jamfora-mig-med-ljungberg-men), who are doing a series on Swedish players with obscure international careers. It contained some interesting behind the scenes stuff about Rovers, Shearer, transfer dealings and 90's Premier League in general, so I thought it would be interesting to share here as well. I've translated the interview, but it's him rather than me who keeps using "Blackburn" when referring to our club...

"During the 90’s I regularly played for the Swedish youth- and under 21 national teams, and several international clubs were interested in me. I had trials at Stuttgart and Nantes and visited Norwich, Crystal Palace, and Liverpool. Liverpool was easily the best experience, since I had supported them since 1977. Stuart Baxter arranged for me and Niclas Alexandersson to go there when I was 18 or 19. We got changed at Anfield and then went on a bus to train at Melwood. There was one designated bus for the senior players and one for us youths, but I got to ride with the first team players; John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Glenn Hysén... It was great! That was the moment when the dream of playing in England really took hold of me. In the summer of 1995 I played with the Swedish national team in the official pre-tournament for Euro 96. We drew with England 3-3, and that made English clubs take notice of me. Later that autumn we played Parma in the Cup Winner’s Cup with Halmstad, and won the first game 3-0. I scored a brace, and felt that it was time to take the next step in my career.

After the end of the Swedish season Halmstad played some kind of exhibition tournament in Thailand. We went to Chiang Mai, there were elephant rides and everything, and I was planning on vacationing in Thailand for a while afterwards with my girlfriend. But then one day Stig Nilsson (chairman of Halmstad) came up to me, and his eyes glittered in a way they only did when an English club had come calling. He was never that bothered when Benfica or Sporting Lisbon tried to buy one of his players, but this was Blackburn, with a Premier League budget, and he was over the moon. This was November of 1995, just a few weeks before the Bosman ruling was going to take effect. To make sure Halmstad would get paid, me and Nilsson agreed that I would extend my existing contract and then fly home to negotiate with Blackburn.
The deal I made with Blackburn meant that they first loaned me for three months, and then hopefully would buy me after that. Tottenham and Crystal Palace were also interested, but if I’m being honest the deciding factor was that Blackburn were Kenny Dalgish’s club, and Kenny was my hero after having grown up a Liverpool fan. Everything felt just right. Blackburn came from a small town, played in blue and white just like Halmstad, and they were the reigning Premier League Champions.
In many ways it was just as I imagined. Despite Blackburn having become a power player in the Premier League it still felt like a family club, there were incredibly friendly people in and around the team. When Jack Walker took over the club and built the new Ewood Park it meant houses needed to be demolished and people had to move out, but he made sure they were compensated with even better homes somewhere else. He was a good man, very popular. At the same time it was a tricky season for Blackburn. Kenny Dalglish had stepped aside as manager and become some kind of sporting director for the club instead, with Ray Harford taking over his former position. Results were mixed.
When I arrived, Blackburn had just played a Champions League game away at Spartak Moscow, and there had been a fight on the pitch between Graeme Le Saux and David Batty. Le Saux came back in a plaster, and there was a lot of media attention. However, the dressing room spirit was still very good. I had expected things to be more formal, but the English are fairly easygoing. Some of them were plain nuts. There was a lot of underwear thrown into the showers, jeans getting cut apart, fruits and vegetables thrown in corridors before games... Just a few weeks after I arrived there was the traditional Christmas party. I didn’t go, but somehow a bar had been smashed up. Monday morning, a lady from accounting came and gave our coach the bill. ”Well now, how do we solve this one then, lads?” A few of them smirked ”Don’t worry, it’s on us.”
I mostly spent time with the Norwegians, Henning Berg and Lars Bohinen. They helped me get into the group. The biggest change football-wise was the tempo, an enormous difference from Sweden. Fuckin’ hell, it was fast. Distinct, rock hard passes with precision, always using your first touch to put yourself in a better position... And Blackburn’s way of playing wasn’t ideally suited to me. Every position came with rigid instructions, as a winger you were only supposed to run the line and put crosses into the box, and I don’t think they really knew how to use me. I wasn’t a winger like Stuart Ripley or a striker like Alan Shearer, and not a number 10 either. I was something in between all those parts. Still, I’ve always been a humble player, and accepted that it would take a few weeks for me to adapt to the tempo and the team. Mid-January 1996 it was time for my debut. I came on for the last 10 minutes against Sheffield Wednesday at home, and started the attack that led to our final goal in a 3-0 win. Everything felt like it was going in the right direction.
Alan Shearer scored the first goal of that game, and was well on his way to becoming the Premier League’s top scorer again. The club revolved around him. He wasn’t just one of the guys, you could tell he was the best and most respected player in England at the time. He had high status, and got everything he pointed at. Blackburn had won the league with Shearer and Sutton as strikers, but somehow Shearer felt Sutton was in direct competition with him, so he decided that his mate Mike Newell should play with him instead. And he did! Still, I don’t have anything bad to say about Shearer. He was a calm, friendly man, even if he didn’t spend much time with the rest of the group. Those of us who lived around Blackburn used to meet up in the pub, but he was rarely there. He used to go home together with Newell instead, both of them lived somewhere close to a golf course in Southport.
The next game was against Manchester United at Old Trafford, and this time I came on a bit earlier. Man United were up 1-0, but I actually came close to evening the score. I had a shot that grazed the crossbar behind Schemichel. In hindsight it feels big to have played against that team at that ground, but back then it was just part of a new everyday routine. Still, the next game was special, as it was against Liverpool. I was going to play against my childhood team in a game that was going to be televised in Sweden, on the same day my mother turned 50; 24 February 1996. The goals from that game are still shown on British TV sometimes. The first goal in particular, where Stan Collymore mishit a shot that then bounced on a tuft of grass, over Tim Flowers and over the goal line. ”Where have all the flowers gone...” and all that. When I came on we were down 1-3, but I headed the ball to Tim Sherwood who made it 2-3, and then I had a damn good opportunity.... I came in from the flank, nutmegged Mark Wright, and got off a shot that sailed nicely against the top corner, but was blocked. I had a couple of mates who attended the game, and afterwards they were in the Player’s Lounge. It didn’t take many minutes after the final whistle before Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman came in and drank a number of lagers in a very short time. My mates still tell that story to this day!
There was definitely a lot of drinking going on among Premier League players at the time. When we went out of the FA cup it meant that we had a weekend off, and we were told we were flying to Ireland. I thought we were going there to train, but none of the other players brought their football boots, and it wasn’t exactly training equipment that was loaded onto the plane. Shearer and Newell brought their golf bags, they were going to play with the club management, but everyone else barely had any luggage at all. We checked into a hotel in central Dublin, but the rest of the weekend we were just drinking Guinness. I mean, one night would have been alright, but after a whole weekend I started to feel it in my wallet. Still, it wasn’t exactly the time to hang back in your hotel room with a game of solitaire and a Coke, to be respected you had to hang in there. I joined in with Colin Hendry and Kevin Gallacher and felt like part of the gang, but when we got back on Sunday night I remember thinking ”What the hell was that?!”.
At that time I still felt things were going my way. I got more and more playing time under my belt, I played well, and finally got to start a game, away against Aston Villa. I played as a striker alongside Shearer, but I didn’t exactly have my best day. I was up against Gareth Southgate and Ugo Ehiogu, and I was subbed after a while in the second half. It also irked me that my future was so uncertain during this time. I wasn’t sure if Blackburn were going to make my transfer permanent, and we were coming up on the deadline. No one told me anything, which was extra troublesome since I couldn’t get a hold of my agents and advisors. Back then I was with a French agency called ICM. They started out very generous, even took me and my girlfriend to big galas in Paris and Lisbon, but now they had simply disappeared. I had heard that Parma had been interested in me and wanted to know more about that, and I wanted to know if I could go back to Halmstad and manager Tom Prahl if the deal with Blackburn fell through. I had absolutely no guidance. It was a tricky time. Finally a couple of guys came up from London to finish the deal, but I never even met them. We just spoke on the phone, and in hindsight they probably fleeced me pretty good. Comparing the sums that were mentioned when I first moved to Blackburn with the ones being discussed now was ridiculous, completely different. Now suddenly your SECOND Premier League contract was the one where you made real money. Still, my dream of playing in the Premier League was too strong to turn the contract down.
Despite all this I had confidence in Ray Harford, and after I signed my contract I was supposed to start against Southampton away, but the day before the game I pulled my hip in training. It was actually a light injury, if I had just gotten it treated correctly I would have been back in good shape quickly. I spoke to my old physio in Halmstad who told me I needed to rebuild the muscles around the injury, but the physio we had at Blackburn back then wasn’t exactly the best one around. He treated me with ultrasound and running exercises instead. I was a newcomer from Sweden who was more or less stuck in this guy’s claws, and his methods just kept making me pull that damn hip over and over again. Despite it not being a serious injury, it spoiled the whole season for me. Just because of a rubbish physio who couldn’t do his job, I missed out on the last six or seven weeks of the season. I still feel upset and sad about it sometimes.
When I finally came back into shape the situation at the club was completely different. Alan Shearer had been sold to Newcastle that summer, and we started the season terribly. I made a few appearances as a sub – I remember thinking Patrick Vieira was as big as a damn house when we played Arsenal – but after 11 games we were bottom of the table with zero wins. They sacked Ray Harford after that, and his assistants Tony Parkes and Derek Fazackerley took over. They went with tradition, using the players who had been at the club the longest, and I wasn’t part of their plans. I never connected with any of them, they just felt... Slippery.
That spring I was loaned out to Ipswich, and it actually went really well. They were a more creative team than Blackburn, and I settled in well. I scored a few goals, and when we were in the playoffs I thought I had scored the goal that would take us to Wembley. There were barely 10 minutes left of the game when I put us ahead 2-1 against Sheffield United at Portman Road, but they equalized and went through on away goals. I wanted to stay at Ipswich, but when they didn’t go up they couldn’t afford to sign me. Instead I went back to Sweden.
I still think about the spring of 1995 sometimes, how things could have been different. ”If it weren’t for that injury... If I had just scored that goal...” People in Blackburn kept telling me, ”If you had scored that goal against United you would have been in the starting 11 for the rest of the season.” Every footballing career has its defining moments. I don’t want to compare myself to Fredrik Ljungberg, but our situations weren’t that different when we moved to England from Halmstad. But my shot against Schmeichel went over the bar, and his lob went in when he made his first appearance. During my time i England I definitely felt I had the capacity to play in the Premier League. If I had just gotten a good run I definitely would have coped. A whole playing career doesn’t hinge on a single moment, but I still feel like a lot of things were settled for me during that spring. If I had just been a bit more lucky I would have come into the Premier League, England and Europe with a wholly different energy. There would have been even more options, different possibilities.

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