With a population of just over 500 people, at least an hour’s drive away from the nearest town, Ytterhogdal is far off the beaten track. The remote Swedish village boasts a unique football team, composed largely of young players from England. Released by academies back home, they gambled on rediscovering their passion and sense of purpose in one of the game’s more obscure outposts. 

So far it seems to be working as Ytterhogdals IK continue to surpass all expectations. At the end of last season they finished second in Division Two, the country’s regionalised fourth tier, entering into a play-off for promotion. If they’d gone up it would have been an unprecedented achievement for the club. Founded in 1921, this is the highest they’ve ever been in their history.

Leading Ytterhogdal’s charge for the last two years has been Adie Costello. A former policeman and member of the armed forces from Yorkshire, he started his coaching career by accident when nobody else was available to run his daughter’s under-10s team. Out of necessity he earned his badges and later moved into youth development, taking on roles at a number of professional clubs, including Lincoln City, Scunthorpe United and York City.

“Having been involved in academy football, a lot of it is very sterile,” says Costello. “It’s competitive but we keep saying it’s about learning and player development. It’s not about winning. Forget about that, it’s all about winning here. At the end of the day it’s a league system and it’s about winning. Players need to develop and we want players to develop but it’s about the club, the team and the individual. It’s not like an academy. It’s very competitive and very physical football.”

Costello’s only previous managerial experience at senior level had come at Garforth Town in the Northern Counties East League Premier Division, but he was invited to take charge of some sessions at Ytterhogdal and they asked him back to see if he wanted the job on a permanent basis once their former manager, Brian Wake, moved on at the end of 2017. 

Despite the cold weather, isolated location and having to live away from his family for much of the year, it was an exciting opportunity that Costello couldn’t turn down. “The appeal was working-full time in football. It’s a good level and the team is predominately made up of young English ex-academy players who’d initially come out on the LFE [League Football Education] scheme. You know what technical standard most of them are going to be having come through the system in the UK. That was the attraction and it was just about seeing how we got on. 

“They’d just been promoted out of Division Three and my first season out here as manager coincided with the highest position they’ve ever been in Swedish football. There was a massive expectation from the media that we were going to get relegated. That it itself was quite an attraction because if everyone thinks we’re going to get relegated then anything above that is a success.

 “The major reservation is leaving your family behind. My eldest daughter’s a school teacher, my wife works in a school and my youngest daughter was just finishing university at the time. Leaving your family behind for large periods of time while you’re over here, unaccompanied, focusing on football, was a reservation. 

“But I’m on a police pension so I’m financially sound. It wasn’t so much of a risk for me. If it wasn’t right I could come out of it. I don’t have a mortgage to pay. It didn’t really matter. I could come out here, have a go at it, and if I failed it wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

Fortunately, it worked, and Costello was able to build on what had gone before. In recent years, Ytterhogdal have become a key part of a quiet revolution in player development that has also helped to transform the club’s fortunes. Without a sufficient pool of talent to call on in the local area, they had to think outside the box when it came to recruitment and settled on a novel solution. With the help of Erasmus+ and the LFE’s Player Placement programme they were able to bridge the gap and find a different way to compete. 

Their success has been predicated on the incredible attrition rate for young footballers in England. At the end of their two-year apprenticeships, the vast majority are released without receiving the offer of a professional contract. The standard required is so high, and the competition so fierce, that few are considered worth the risk by managers who can’t afford to plan too far ahead.

For those who fail to make the cut, exit trials are arranged and alternative plans made. The scramble to be picked up by another club spares some, but others are left with increasingly limited options. Many drop out of the game entirely, with around three-quarters of those signed to professional clubs at 16 no longer involved in football by the age of 21. To assist players who still want to explore options elsewhere, LFE organise placements with various European sides, mostly in Scandinavia.

Ytterhogdal are one of the clubs to take advantage of the scheme, bringing several players over each year for extended trials. They provide accommodation for the players, while European funding covers any other costs. At the end of 12 weeks, a decision is made over whether or not to prolong their stay. 

“Any scholar who gets released at the end of his two years can apply to go onto the scheme and we select which ones we want to come out from a list of people,” said Costello. “There’s a big list of players who want to come out. We get to see clips of them from the exit trials and clips that the player provides. It’s like a blind taste test really. A lot of the time you are taking players blind unless you know someone at that academy who you can ring and talk to, to get a feel for the player.”

With a dizzying array of options presented to the club, Costello tried to keep the process simple. “First we look at the positions that we need to be filled, or where cover needs to be brought in. There might be 25 strikers on the list who are absolutely superb, but if we don’t need one, we won’t bring one over. We’ll only bring over the players that we need. 

“We then look for people who can play football how I want to play football. I need people who are confident and competent on the ball, and who are able to play. We go from there. Unless it’s a goalkeeper or a centre half, I don’t look at height. I’m not interested in it. Most of the football here is played on the floor.”

Released by a diverse range of clubs, these players share a common goal of rebuilding a career in football. Although the domestic game might have rejected them for various reasons – considered too short, not strong or skilful enough – they’re determined to prove its judgment misplaced. Sweden, and more specifically Ytterhogdal, offers a shot at redemption that so many have embraced.

One such player is Xander McBurnie. Cut loose by Bradford City in the summer of 2016 as they felt he wasn’t ready for first-team football, and didn’t have a development side to ease him in, he went training with non-League Ossett Town to keep up his fitness. He played a few games but felt like he wasn’t improving and became disillusioned with the direct style of play. The prospect of going abroad had been mentioned before but McBurnie started taking the idea more seriously.

“Luckily for me, one of the boys who was in my age group at Bradford had already come out to Sweden – Sumaili Cissa. I mentioned it to him and he spoke to the manager who was there at the time, Brian Wake, and told him what sort of player I am. Brian seemed quite keen so there was no messing about. They got it sorted with the LFE and booked the flights. Next thing I knew I was on my way to Sweden,” he explained.

On the fringes when he first arrived in early 2017, a couple of injuries gave McBurnie a chance to impress and he seized it. He won the club’s young player of the year award, a keenly contested honour given the age profile of the squad, and kicked on again after being asked to stay by Costello. The central midfielder took on responsibility as one of the team’s key players and felt the benefits.

“In terms of general life I’ve matured a lot. I see things differently now,” said McBurnie. “As a player I got a lot of games and I got a lot stronger. I improved because we played a lot of really good sides and I feel like I play a lot better with better players around me. I’m not going to take players on. I like to link up play and I think I thrive when I’ve got like-minded players around me.”

Xander isn’t the only footballer in his family. His older brother is Oli McBurnie, who joined Sheffield United for £20million in August 2019. Born and raised in Leeds, their father’s side of the family is Scottish. Oli has been out to Sweden to visit Xander and is supportive of the route he’s taken. Both rejected by their hometown team, he admits there’s always going to be an element of wanting to prove them wrong.

“We were both at Leeds and got released. I suppose it is an added incentive to do well in your career,” said McBurnie. “It’s never nice to be rejected but as long as you believe in your ability, which I do, then you’ve got to keep going. Just because one person says you’re not right for that club doesn’t mean that you’re not right for any club.

“If I have any doubts or queries or anything then Oli puts me on the right track. He helps with anything I need and it’s always been good to have him there. The fact that he’s got to that level motivates me to do similar.”

That same determination is shared by the rest of the squad. In various ways each member has already been told that they’re surplus to requirements. They carry that experience with them. Judgement day for scholars can be particularly brutal. After surviving so many previous culls, they’ve fallen at the final hurdle, with a professional contract in sight. It can feel like the journey’s over before it’s properly begun.

Sam Alderson had previously been with Wycombe Wanderers and Luton Town before his scholarship at Leyton Orient. He was released in October 2017. “The club was in a bit of turmoil at the time,” the midfielder said. “They had some Italian owners and in a rough few years they went from the League One play-off final to the Conference when I left. They were trying to rebuild a side. When I went back for pre-season in the year I got released, we only had 10 or 11 players signed and we were all under the age of 21. They then signed 16 experienced, first team players so it was probably best to move on and look elsewhere.

“I was looking around and I wasn’t really getting opportunities. There was a new director of football, a new manager and new coaching staff throughout. The club were great with me. They let me stay on and train after they’d released me, while I was trying to sort out a new club. At the time I didn’t have an agent so I was kind of fending for myself and trying to speak to anyone I knew who was in management or had gone to different clubs.”

One of the coaches at Leyton Orient was friends with Craig Edwards, then the manager of Kingstonian, and he suggested that Alderson should get in touch. He played a few games for the club and then followed Edwards to Cheshunt, when the chance came to try his luck further afield. Gavin Willacy, one of the LFE’s regional officers, had previously spoken to Alderson about the Player Placement programme and now he decided to see what it had to offer.

“It was the opportunity to play in a different country. It was full-time football, training every day, and the facilities were back to a professional standard. It was back to that sort of environment that you never really want to leave. That was the main thing, as well the opportunity to test myself against a different way of playing. It was the test and the challenge that excited me most, and knowing that something could come from my time out in Sweden.”

Alderson headed out to Ytterhogdal for pre-season at the start of February 2018, together with a couple of other players from the LFE scheme. He’d spoken to Costello on the phone before but it was his first chance to meet his new manager and teammates in person. They soon got straight down to business.

“We arrived late on Monday night and then on the Tuesday we played Östersunds FK at the Jämtkraft Arena, which was a great way to get your first taste of football in Sweden. It was a good experience under the two feet of snow that came down and the temperatures of -15°C,” laughed Alderson, who is 22, like McBurnie.

“I was really impressed with the club. As soon as I got there everyone was welcoming. It’s a strange club in a sense because most of the players are English. In a tiny little village in the middle of Sweden you don’t expect your teammates to be 15 British lads who all speak the same language. So it was strange in a way, but I was really impressed with the facilities they had there – the grass pitches, the gym, the swimming pool and the accommodation.”

Despite these advantages, Costello is realistic about the delicate nature of what Ytterhogdal have built, a club forged on shifting sands and uncertain futures, including for the manager himself. After two years of living and working together in such close proximity, Alderson, McBurnie and Costello all decided that the 2019 season would be their last. Emboldened by their experiences, they are now exploring other opportunities back home. Appealing though it may be at first, for many the novelty of life in Ytterhogdal eventually wears off.

“After a couple of seasons a lot of people say they can’t come back again,” explained Costello. “You’re in the middle of nowhere and after two years most people have had enough. Of the team that I had last season, only three were saying that they’d definitely come back. They all want to get back to civilisation. A lot of them want to play in the UK and I can’t blame them for that. People come to Sweden to give themselves a second chance and if they’ve had a good season they want to push on and try to get back into a team in the UK.”

This was something that McBurnie struggled with last year. “I was playing every game, but, with it being my third season, I didn’t really feel like I was going anywhere. I liked going over there and experiencing a new culture but it wasn’t somewhere I could see myself spending much more time without getting bored of the lifestyle. After a bit of a break you’re always excited to go back but this time, after the mid-season break, it felt like a bit of a chore to go back. I’d never had that before. It was no one’s fault. It was just the way it had progressed naturally. I just felt like it was my time to come back home,” he said. 

The goal for most of the Ytterhogdal players is to prove themselves in Sweden and hopefully earn a move back to the UK. But while many see this as a shop window, a chance to train and live like professional footballers in a completely different environment before returning home in the hope of better offers, others are more wedded to their new home.

For those seeking inspiration, Ytterhogdal’s model has had several notable successes over the years. Perhaps the best-known is Curtis Edwards, a midfielder who dropped into the English non-League system after being released by his hometown club Middlesbrough. Eighteen months at Ytterhogdal revitalised his career and led to a contract offer from Östersund in 2016.

In his three years at the club, under the management of Graham Potter, Edwards won the Swedish Cup and reached the last 32 of the Europa League, narrowly losing out to Arsenal. He then joined Djurgårdens IF when his contract expired last summer. He’s shown what it’s possible to achieve with the right combination of attitude, application and ability, setting an example for others to follow.

Young British players are often accused of being too comfortable, cosseted by the academy system and afraid to test themselves in an unfamiliar part of the world. This generalisation might hold true to an extent but the number who have willingly embarked on the Ytterhogdal experiment shows another side to the story. Resilience, adaptability and self-reliance are needed to thrive in a small village far from home, family and friends, where boredom or restlessness could so easily set in.

“It’s a different world out there,” said McBurnie. “There are just a few hundred people in the village. Everyone knows each other and you see everyone pretty much every day. It’s quite quiet and peaceful. Some people would say it’s boring, and sometimes you do get a little bit bored, but in terms of furthering your career there are no distractions.

“You can’t get into any mischief, you can’t go out all the time, so you just focus on your football. Personally, I think it was helpful to make me realise what I want. You could say it was a bit of a sacrifice heading out there, but I really can’t complain if I’m honest.”

Alderson feels similarly. “It’s a beautiful place with the lakes and the hills and the forests. It was perfect for us boys. It was somewhere where we could go to just focus on football. There were no other distractions. There were no bright lights of the city or anything like that. Everyone was focused on football every day, which was good. It probably helped a lot with our success.”

Costello and his coaching team demanded a lot of the players too, which kept them busy. Ytterhogdal are a professional, full-time team, the only one in the division, and have regular training and gym sessions. A high-intensity style of football required supreme levels of fitness, stamina and motivation. A spirit of friendly competition was fostered amongst the squad and helped to boost performance.

Ytterhogdal are an outlier in several senses. They routinely have the youngest squad in the league by a considerable margin and are referred to as ‘the English club’ by opponents and the Swedish press. For his part, Costello found that there were advantages and disadvantages to working with such an inexperienced bunch of players, whose average age is just 21. His first full-time job in men’s football, it was a learning curve for him too.

“Full-time management is really full-time. Absolutely. You are working from the minute you get out of bed in the morning to the minute you go to bed at night. If anyone thinks it’s an easy life, it isn’t. It’s very difficult. You might only be out on the grass for two hours a day but you’re constantly working. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. You can’t say you’re going to have five minutes without doing anything because your phone will ring.”

Off the pitch, many of the Ytterhogdal players live together in purpose-built accommodation owned by the club. In one block there are separate bedrooms, shared kitchens, lounges and a laundry room. In another there are individual apartments. This set-up nurtures team spirit and understanding amongst a group who have followed a similar path. Although the details of their individual stories differ, the refrain of rejection and disappointment is a familiar one. The essence of what they’ve been through is the same, and helps to unite them.

“All the boys were in similar positions and they all came from similar backgrounds. Everyone was working towards the same thing. We were all like-minded and got on with each other. If you were down one day then you’d got lads to talk to. It was like a little community,” says McBurnie.

He, Alderson and the rest have been determined not to let previous setbacks define them. Outcasts of the English system, Sweden proved to be their saviour. They thrived with regular games, good training facilities and a more technical style of football that put their ability at the forefront and enabled them to mature at their own pace. Together they helped create history for Ytterhogdal, but Costello believes there are limits to what this system and club can achieve.

“They’ve started the process of preparing for promotion. Whenever it may be, they’re preparing for it. There’s expenditure being put into ground grading in anticipation of promotion but in all seriousness I think that will be their limit,” he said.

“Nothing stops you except finance and it’s a lot of money to spend to go further than that. We had crowds of 275 for home games. If they get to Division One they might have 350 fans, in Superettan (the second tier) it might be 1,000, but I think realistically the club is one further promotion away from where it can go to. With the structure and everything else, I think it’s as high as it wants to go.”

Despite falling just short of promotion in each of the last two seasons, Ytterhogdal’s unique approach has undoubtedly been successful. It’s shown what an unheralded manager, with no professional playing experience, and a squad of youngsters, most of whom have been rejected by English clubs, can do in the right circumstances. That can even be a tiny village hundreds of miles away from home providing everyone has the right attitude and commitment.

“You have to be dedicated to the cause,” said McBurnie. “If you want to come out here just for something to do then fair enough, but if there are lads that genuinely want to stay in the game and do as well as they can then they need to make sure they come with an open mind. Do it right and make sure you put everything you can in to get as much as you can out of it.

“A lot of people would say it’s just a good experience to go and live in another country but for me it was more than that. It was about staying in the game and giving everything I could. You could see that other people came over with a different mindset. They were there because maybe they couldn’t be bothered doing work at home or anything like that. It was just to pass a bit of time. Me and a few of the other boys really wanted to get better and play at a better level.

“Definitely do it if you want to stay in the game and believe in your ability. You’ll get game time as a young lad. They’re not bothered about how old you are. If you’re good enough you’re old enough. They showed it with us. Our team was very young but the majority of us were hungry to get better and try to make it in the game. So I would recommend it. Just go there with the right mindset, a positive mindset.”