Roy Hodgson — young, unknown and unproven — got his first experience of front-line coaching in November 1975 when he was appointed by the Swedish no-hopers Halmstads Bollklubb. A year later he could light a cigar and enjoy the sweet smell of success as Halmstad had won their first ever league championship. Hodgson was still only 29. He stayed on at Halmstad for five seasons, winning the league again in 1979. That period caused an ideological civil war within Swedish football, the repercussions of which are still felt today.

The story begins two years before Hodgson’s arrival. Åtvidabergs FF, a club residing in the smallest of towns, had broken the dominance of mighty Malmö FF and won the league in 1972 and 1973. They had achieved this by using sheer talent, combined with stamina and self-confidence, playing in a style not dissimilar to Ajax. With a solid defence and strikers like Ralf Edström and Roland Sandberg they were able to unsettle (almost) any opponent. Their players could run as well as think and made a habit of enjoying the game as well as winning. For a short period they were the dashing cavaliers of Swedish football.

They even made international headlines, until then a rarity for Swedish clubs. The first bomb went off in 1971, when they eliminated the reigning champions Chelsea from the Cup-Winners’ Cup. But just two years later they were already on the wane. The club depended heavily on the local (and international) company Facit for support. Facit, manufacturers of mechanical calculators, had made good business in the 1950s and 1960s, often selling more goods than they were able to produce. But their business collapsed when the Japanese company Sharp developed the electronic pocket calculator. 

The club had no choice but to sell its biggest stars to survive. Hanging on to them for a long time was never an option, as Allsvenskan was (at best) part-time, but for Åtvidaberg it became a matter of urgency to raise cash. Edström (PSV Eindhoven) and Sandberg (Kaiserslautern) both left in the summer of 1973. Still, the remaining players were good enough to keep the team ahead for the remainder of the year and secure yet another championship. But it was a triumph won under dark skies. Some of the players had already lost their jobs and were looking for new clubs. The club barely held together, but the team was definitely breaking up.

But there was to be one last hurrah before the goodbye, an episode still cherished. In contrast to their sponsors, the club usually had a sound approach against international opposition. The European Cup of 1973-74 was no exception, not even after being drawn against Bayern Munich in the first round. The odds were so overwhelmingly against the Swedes that the pressure was all on the Germans. Åtvidaberg enjoyed the situation immensely — and put up a hell of a fight.

Just before kick off in the Olympiastadion in Munich, Jan Olsson, the little weasel at right-back, asked for a direct long ball towards the corner flag. He got it and made a dash. But the libero Franz Beckenbauer saw the ball coming, rushed to the flank and toed it out of touch. Good start. Three minutes later Gerd Müller, surrounded by three defenders, scored. But no more goals fell for over an hour. Åtvidaberg defended heroically. Midway through the second half something odd happened. The midfielder Reine Almqvist broke into the penalty area from the right. His teammates expected the usual attempted thunderbolt, but then — as he drew close to Beckenbauer —perhaps recalled what Almqvist had said in the bus heading for the stadium. ”I had a dream last night,” he had said “about me nutmegging the Kaiser.” And then he did, before shooting. Bernd Dürnberger chased the ball into the net and was credited with an own goal. Shame. The Bavarians then got their act together and won 3–1.

As the scene shifted from the Olympiastadion to picturesque Kopparvallen the Swedes grew in confidence. They had coped reasonably well in Munich and wondered if maybe they would be able to surprise Bayern at home. They did. After 15 minutes Åtvidaberg led 2-0; Conny Torstensson had hit the first, via the crossbar, after a one-two with the veteran Veine Wallinder, who added the second heading a cross from the right. The aggregate score was 3–3, with an away goal giving Åtvidaberg the edge. Bayern Munich, ousted by Ajax in the quarter-finals the previous March, were once again heading for the exit. Again, nothing happened for almost an hour. Not before Torstensson came running from behind. Served by the right-winger Benno Magnusson he added a third with a crisp left-footed shot that went just inside the post. But one minute later Uli Hoeness scored the goal that took the game into a scoreless extra time. The outcome was decided on penalties. The central defender Kent Karlsson and the substitute Leif Franzén missed and Bayern won the shoot-out 5–3. Weeks later they came back for Torstensson, who starred in the final against Atlético Madrid next spring, while Magnusson joined Sandberg at Kaiserslautern. By then it was all over. The cavaliers were not so dashing anymore and the tune of Swedish football was about to change. Åtvidaberg was a poor club, but they had earned the love and admiration of the people. They still thrive on it.

Meanwhile Eric Persson, about to step down as the chairman of Malmö FF after serving on the board since 1929, was making plans. Malmö were the big guns at the time. The Spanish coach Antonio Durán had led them to four league wins in eight seasons between 1964 and 1971, the last two on the trot, before leaving. They replaced him with the inexperienced Kalle Hult, who tried to modify the tactical approach along West German lines, but that had only led to failure — 6th in 1972, 4th in 1973 — creating the power vacuum Åtvidaberg took advantage of. 

Persson, born in 1898, had always been a visionary. Whether on the board of the Swedish football federation (SvFF), acting as national team selector or just doing his job for Malmö FF, he untiringly tried to expand and make others aware of new possibilities. Since the early 1940s the youth department at MFF had been the best in the country (and it still is, by the way), every year lining up one or two youngsters ready for the first team. He had also seen many of his youngsters develop into players of international calibre. He never denied any of them the chance to leave amateur football in Sweden to secure their future with a professional contract abroad. 

Persson was acting on three fronts late in 1973. His plan was to replace his omnipotent self with three people — a chairman, an administrative boss and a team manager/coach, who in turn would become the first in the history of the club responsible for selecting the team. Persson found the chairman, a well-known banker and the office boss. But when it came to football matters he turned to Börje Lantz, an agent-cum-impresario, who knew lots of people. This little round man had a reputation for succeeding in doing impossible things. At one time during the Cold War era he held the commercial rights for Moscow airport. Finding a new coach for Malmö FF was, perhaps, an easier task.

Lantz turned to Allen Wade in England, who at the time knew all about young coaches on the way up. Wade, technical director of the FA between 1963 and 1983, was educating them. His general approach to the game had been presented in the book The FA Guide to Training and Coaching, published in 1967 and clearly taking a step further the achievements of Alf Ramsey and his wingless wonders the year before. Could Wade recommend someone? He could, and the name was Bob Houghton. 

Houghton had realised early on that he would never become a top-notch player. His active career had many stops: Stevenage Town, the reserve teams of Fulham and Brighton, a lengthy spell in the Southern League with Tonbridge, Crawley Town, Hastings United and as player-manager at Maidstone United. He also had worked as youth coach at Ipswich Town as well as enjoying summer football in South Africa with Berea Park and Arcadia Shepherds. He had all the coaching badges. Lantz made a thorough check and got recommendations from people like Bobby Robson and Gordon Jago, the latter about to offer Houghton the coaching job at QPR. Lantz located Houghton in South Africa and promised to pay the ticket back to England, provided he stopped by at Malmö.

Persson, aged 75, was the first to take to Houghton, aged 26. Others, notably the board members and coaches at the club, were horrified. The snag was his age, younger than the leading players at the club, and that suede coat. Houghton took a look at the set up. He also watched the team play. Afterwards he gave a full and impressive analysis about what could be done. Then he headed for London. A few weeks later the deal was done. He took charge immediately, giving each player a stern look as he shook their hand and greeted them by their full name. That flattered the players. When he went on to say that all training should be done on the football field they almost kissed him. Love at first sight, as they all had come to loathe thecustomary wintry running sessions in nearby Pildammsparken.

Malmö had lost their way when they changed from the strict disciplinarian Durán (No alcohol at any time! No sex before games!) to the more happy-go-lucky Kalle Hult. Durán had given the players an admirable stamina and then trusted them to solve the more practical problems by themselves. That was the general approach at the time in Sweden, with all teams more or less doing it the same way. Tactics as such had not been invented, apart from occasionally providing ”overcoats” for feared opponents. The outcome of games depended on individual strengths, such as ’is our right-winger capable of going past their left-back?’ Most Swedish teams were also uncomfortable in the air. The goalkeeper Ronnie Hellström knew next to nothing about cutting out crosses before he left Hammarby for Kaiserslautern. Swedish football was played mostly on the ground, along the same unreflective lines that had governed the outlook for decades. Åtvidaberg were clearly ‘old school’, even if they had picked up on what teams like Ajax were up to.

Houghton used pre-season in 1974 to teach his players new ways. He taught them how a team could grow and collectively add up to a sum greater than its parts. There were a lot of do’s and don’ts, such as “don’t mark your opponent, cover your space instead.” Zonal marking was hitherto unknown. They should also help each other while defending — “press and support” — instead of fighting individually. The stopper Krister Kristensson, the oldest in the team, was back to his favourite assignment. Physically impressive, and a former wrestler, Kristensson loved to ‘eat’ opposing strikers. Kalle Hult had tried to convert him into a Beckenbauer-esque sweeper, behind a man-marking line of four. Kristensson appreciated that as much as wearing a skirt. Now, at 32, he was looking forward to his best and most purposeful years as a player.

Kristensson, like all other team members, received specific orders. Every move suddenly had meaning. The line-up was a strict 4–4–2, with the offside trap a significant part of the defence. Even the attacks had their distinctive patterns. Either a long ball aimed at the striker Thomas Sjöberg (who mostly played with his back to the goal) or a search for set pieces. The right-back Roland Andersson and the right-sided midfielder Staffan Tapper both hit specially conceived crosses with a banana-curve by which the ball seemed to be headed for the goalkeeper, but turned away at the last second. One or two Malmö players would patiently be waiting at the far side of the penalty area, and with the keeper out of position it was usually a fairly easy job to score. The attackers were also told to start defending as soon as they had lost the ball. They started chasing opposing defenders, who were used to starting play in a calm way. These wolf-packs would later prove especially irritating for Italian teams. This whole package was alien to the old school. What angered experts the most was the offside trap, with its endless interruptions to the game.

”At first you got irritated by that trap,” said Thomas Nordahl, a striker with Örebro SK. “And then you gradually learned how to deal with it. I dropped back and instead fed a speedy winger with passes aimed behind the back four. The problem was that the Malmö defenders always looked for offsides and had an arm in the air for most of the time. That got to referees and linesmen, who were pressed to stop play and it was especially difficult at the Malmö Stadion.”

A debate arose. Everyone outside the province of Skåne was against Houghton’s approach, while Malmö FF (and their supporters among the scribes) were ready to duel after every verbal attack. Eventually it boiled down to, “If this is so simplified and so boring, then come and beat us.” Right. Malmö won the league in both 1974 and 1975 (Houghton had promised the first win and took the second in his stride). Houghton also introduced new tactics in dealing with journalists. He systematically praised the players who needed it most, the ones who had failed during the game. It took a while, but after a few months the journalists saw through this. Some even started to mock Houghton for it. Dear Bob wanted to win, all the time and at all costs, and there was an air of extreme tension around him. He couldn’t deal with that kind of opposition and once, after a game, he picked out one particular reporter: ”It’s not your writing I dislike, it’s YOU!”

“Two league wins in two seasons. This guy must be on to something.” Stig Nilsson, chairman of the hopeless on-the-edge survivors Halmstads Bollklubb, couldn’t ignore the success of Malmö. His own club had never won anything. Coming second behind Djurgården in 1955 was still the closest they had come to a trophy, and the 20 years that had passed since had sometimes been an awful ordeal, with numerous coaching changes and a drop down to the third tier.

Nilsson was a man of contradictions. One of his favourite sayings, and one he often returned to in football matters, was, “Oh, these Malmö people. They cannot be trusted.” That went for anybody, from the ball boys at the Malmö Stadion to the occasional referee or linesman. Nilsson knew what he was talking about, having been born and raised in the city. While growing up on the fringes of the circles around future film director Bo Widerberg and the one and only Anita Ekberg he was himself raised and nurtured through the Malmö FF youth system. Eric Persson gave him three outings on the wing when Malmö won the league in 1950-51. Later Nilsson moved to Halmstad, where he played 11 first division games in 1959, scoring six goals.

After establishing himself locally in the oil business, he came back to football as a board member at HBK, ”the ball club”, and after the umpteenth crisis in the late sixties he took on greater responsibilities. Nilsson had a strong will and developed into a mini version of Eric Persson, an omnipotent leader of men who preferred action to getting stuck in endless discussions.

Halmstad had made a short visit to Allsvenskan in 1972 and after relegation bounced back immediately, finishing 11th and 12th in the 14-team league in 1974 and 1975. Towards the end of 1975, the coach Sven-Agne Larsson (who had won the league with Åtvidaberg in 1972) was on his way out. “I have nothing more to give this lot,” he said. Nilsson looked for a replacement. Not being shy he simply called Bob Houghton and said, “We need a coach. Do you have any suggestions?”

“Yes, I do,” Houghton said. “His name is Roy Hodgson, an old friend of mine. We both grew up in Croydon, in south London, and we took our coaching badges at the same time. We also played and worked together, at Maidstone as well as in South Africa.” Nilsson thanked him and went to work. At the same time Houghton thought, “Beautiful, now I don’t have to fight this war alone.” 

After establishing contact with Hodgson it was agreed they should meet in Bristol. Halmstad were going there post-season to play Bristol City, a reward for the amateur players who had secured survival in Allsvenskan for one more year. The team didn’t impress Hodgson, losing 4-0. But he still jumped at the chance to coach a first team, in a top league with the opportunity to play in European competitions (even if that seemed a long shot at the time). At that point Hodgson’s career had taken him from Crystal Palace youths and reserves to Tonbridge, Gravesend & Northfleet, Maidstone United and Ashford Town via Berea Park to Carshalton Athletic. Instead of continuing to bounce between clubs in the Southern League, he was given the chance to start a whole new chapter. 

Stig Nilsson had a team in need of rescue. He would soon understand that he had found a saviour. And Roy Hodgson nowadays, accordingly, describes this first year with Halmstad as his “water into wine experience”. Roy tried to learn Swedish from the start, and by the end of that first season he had mastered the language well enough to be able to celebrate his success in the same tongue as his players. Just like Bob, he also found a rapport with his players. The veterans liked him most, the ones who had been around and knew how miserable things could be. Every training session brought something new and the squad accepted the whole package of innovations. Soon Halmstad were acting like a carbon copy of Malmö. And it worked. But Roy downplayed their chances, even after beating Hannover 96 4–0 in a pre-season bout: “Well, you know these Germans,” he said, “they always stop fighting after conceding a goal.” 

Early on he talked to Bob on the phone almost daily. But these conversations dried up when both understood what was happening. Halmstad topped the table for the first time after six rounds. It soon turned out it would be a three-horse race, with Malmö, Halmstad and Öster side-by-side. In the end the gold medals were secured in the 25th and penultimate round, when Halmstad won in Norrköping and Malmö drew 1-1 in Örebro, with Nordahl scoring for the home team.

Houghton and Hodgson had obviously studied the same material, the book by Allen Wade, and shared the same basic beliefs about the game. But where Houghton was (and still is) a 4–4–2-devotee, using his own map in all situations, Hodgson was always more balanced, more open to new ideas and more willing to develop his insights into the possibilities of the game. 

The squad at Halmstad was very different to the one Houghton had at Malmö, where the players were used to being on top. They were also used to playing international opponents (Houghton actually preferred this in friendlies, so as not to give away too much to domestic teams) and most of their players were either regulars or candidates to play for Sweden. 

Hodgson had none of this at Halmstad. His first task was to rebuild the defence. The solid keeper Lennart Ljung was still there but three of the four defenders who had made a mess of things in Bristol had left soon after. His solution was simply to use what was left from the previous year. Claes Carlsson, until then a fringe player without any claim to a specific position, was converted to right-back. The right-sided midfielder Jan Ryding covered the left flank. The left-back Bertil Andersson shared duties in the centre with the physically impressive stopper Alf Peterson, who was back after a year spoilt by injury. These four employed the offside trap, just like Malmö.

The attacking game of Halmstad was very different to what Malmö could offer. There were basic similarities, but at the same time a vast difference in character. The veteran Hans Selander, who had been ready to quit after the disappointing 1975 season, was re-ignited as anchor man in midfield. Selander had been a revelation as an overlapping right-back for Helsingborg in the 1960s. Since then he had been a striker for Sirius while he studied at Uppsala to become a farmer. Now he would soon gain a few more caps in his newly found position in midfield. 

On Selander’s right Hodgson used the only new addition to the side, Lennart ‘Lie’ Larsson — his nickname means ‘scythe’ in Swedish. That was a bit confusing, as the tall and elegant Larsson was an offensively very capable player, able to go past his man as well as shoot or deliver the odd decisive pass. Larsson would make the World Cup squad in 1978, as well as the Bundesliga with Schalke 04. On the left Bengt-Göran ‘Divan’ Svensson blocked the path for anyone trying to get past him. Again, the nickname — the Diva — was somewhat at odds with a player who did almost anything for the good of his team.

In front of these three Hodgson put the former striker Lars-Erik ‘Svängsta’ Larsson (named after his birthplace), as a somewhat withdrawn No. 10. Up front, the tall and lanky striker Rutger Backe, top scorer of the league with 21 goals, possessed an admirable work rate as well as positional sense and poise in the box. But the key figure in the attack was the winger Sigge Johansson. Not a regular in 1975 but still there when the two other regular wingers abandoned ship after that season, he had the advantage of being able to play on both flanks. Johansson got a few chances for Sweden, but was generally considered too slow and lacking in aggression. Still, he teamed up perfectly with Backe and was also very adept at taking corners and free-kicks. Apart from these 11 players, Ingvar Flink, a former international defender, held a key role as substitute and handyman. The four other players totalled 15 appearances between them.

This was clearly a motley crew, the unlikeliest of champions. And winning the league created problems for Hodgson. His training sessions became less efficient in 1977, when a few of the players were called up to play for Sweden, and in both 1977 and 1978 the team failed to win a single league game away from home. Consequently they fell back to eighth place in both years. Then, in 1979, Halmstad secured a gem in the midfielder Stefan Larsson. At the same time a few of the youngsters recruited earlier had grown into first-team players. Halmstad were ready for more success and that year they won the league, a point ahead of IFK Gothenburg.

At the same time, Malmö and Bob Houghton reached the European Cup final, facing Nottingham Forest. But the team was depleted by injuries and the only thing that really worked for them in that game was the by now mechanical offside trap, which caught Forest 21 times. Keir Radnedge’s report in World Soccer ran under the headline “Is the European Cup finished?”

A year later Houghton left Malmö for Ethnikos. But as soon as the job as manager of Bristol City became available, he deserted the Greeks after only four league games and immediately called Hodgson to join him as assistant.

By then the tune of Swedish football had been changed forever. The domestic debate would continue as Roy and Bob discovered the world. The Swedish national team manager from 1980 to 1985, Lars Arnesson, declared war on 4-4-2 and even persuaded the board of the SvFF to issue a declaration on “how football should be played” (ie the West German way). They gave up the fight in 1983, when IFK Gothenburg under Sven-Göran Eriksson achieved international success with a new concoction of 4–4–2. Eriksson didn’t rely as much on the offside trap as Houghton and Hodgson and had more individually gifted players. Arnesson used the formation for the first time against Holland in 1983 (3–0, away), and after that there was no way back for Swedish football. The copycat coaches soon took over, at all levels, and excluded any other view, creating ideological rifts within the domestic game. As Tomislav Ivić was quoted as saying in The Blizzard Issue 10, “It’s much easier to learn how to defend than how to attack. It also takes less time.” The result is a kind of football that seems institutionalised, stale in its limitations and forever unable to solve its real problem — what to do with the empty space in front of the twin stoppers.

Meanwhile Houghton and Hodgson have gone places. The ever adaptable Hodgson got the England job. Houghton, forever true to his principles, reached the end of the line in India.

And Åtvidaberg returned to Allsvenskan in 2010, after an absence of almost 30 years.