The Scandinavian Connection

Stu Forster

Sunderland's connection to Scandinavia has had its ups and downs. Here we take a look at the successes and failures of Nordic origin who have graced - and at times disgraced - the red and white stripes.

The North East has a natural, historical connection to Scandinavia stretching back the Viking invasion of Lindisfarne centuries ago. There is even a linguistic hangover to be found in Northern dialect, with words like bairn being very similar to the Danish for child, barn. More recently Sunderland's Scandinavian connection has been found on the football pitch, strengthened by the arrival of promising youngster David Moberg-Karlsson from Sweden. This link to the Nordic nations stretches back into the 1990s, which is where this rundown of players from Scandinavia to wear the red and white stripes begins.

Ironically, the earliest reference to a player from Scandinavia to be associated with the club appears to have never actually played for the Lads. Guðni Rúnar Helgason is credited with having made a loan move to Wearside in the 1994/95 season but there is no record of him playing a first team game.

In fact Sunderland would acquire more duds from the Northern reaches of Europe before striking Scandinavian gold. In the mid-late 90s Kim Heiselberg and Jan Eriksson arrived on Wearside and managed a single appearance in the first team between them. Eriksson arrived with more of a reputation, holding 35 Swedish international caps, but he failed to live up to his billing and made just one appearance in the first team before departing for America. Heiselberg seems to be most noted for being one of Swindon Town's worst ever signings.

Around this time, Sunderland also took Swedish player Gary Sundgren on trial. He was deemed not good enough and duly sent packing. These flops merely paved the way for the summer ahead, and more Scandinavian imports, including soon to be Sunderland hero Thomas Sørensen joined Peter Reid's Black Cats.

Sørensen remains a firm fans favourite on Wearside, racking up almost 200 appearances at the club. He was an excellent goalkeeper, often cited perhaps rather optimistically as the new "Schmeichel". Whilst not up to those levels he rarely put a foot wrong and of course confirmed his place in Sunderland folklore with that penalty save at St James' Park. Given that he arrived from Odense for a paltry sum of money, he goes down as one of Reid's best signings and one of the club's greatest bargains.

Having hit the jackpot with one Dane, Reid moved to sign Sørensen's countryman Carsten Fredgaard when Sunderland returned to the Premier League. If Sørensen defines the word bargain, Fredgaard emblemises the opposite. He was a complete waste of money and despite making an international appearance in the summer of his arrival he barely made an impression in red and white.

Mercifully, joining at the same time was a proper footballer and one of the most underrated midfielders to ply his trade at the Stadium of Light, Stefan Schwarz. Although not renowned for his goal scoring ability, the 69 time capped Swede scored one particularly delightful goal against Arsenal in a 1-1 draw. Post-match, Peter Reid focussed his attention on a tackle Gavin McCann made on Patrick Viera but it was Schwarz's effort that was the moment of genuine quality. Indeed, although a central midfielder, he played out wide on the left for Reid on numerous occasions to accommodate lesser, combative lights like McCann. Schwarz was a true pro with an excellent pedigree.

Reid followed Schwarz up with another Swedish international, Joachim Björklund. Although he played for the club during a difficult time, he was a popular figure on Wearside and admitted on this very site that he would like to have stayed after helping McCarthy's team back into the Premier League. The former Ireland manager had different ideas and the Swede moved on to Wolves. His 57 appearances in red and white were generally solid and consistent and although he was part of the nightmare 19 point season, he did not disgrace himself.

Bjorklund's classy displays in defence contrasted starkly with a player who would come to define Reid's downfall, Tore André Flo. As Niall Quinn's career came to an end, Reid tried and failed to replace him with Lilian Laslandes and subsequently Flo. At the time, the Norwegian became Sunderland's record signing and rather typically he turned out to be disastrously bad. Whether that was down to him being misused by Reid - he was never really the target man he sought - or a lack of fitness and quality is arguable. In truth, it was probably a mix of all three and a return of just four Premier League goals was appalling for a striker with plenty of experience at the top level.

Another Norwegian who arrived in 2002 would spend a happier, more fruitful time on Wearside, though it would take until the 2004/5 season for him to do so. Thomas Myhre was initially signed as backup to aforementioned Dane stopper Sørensen but after relegation in 2004, he moved on. This paved the way for Myhre to eventually establish himself as Sunderland's number one under Mick McCarthy as the Black Cats returned to the top flight, making 35 appearances.

It would take another relegation before the arrival of Sunderland's next Scandinavian, Tobias Hysén. Signed by Niall Quinn is his brief stint as chairman and manager, the Swedish winger never really settled on Wearside and returned to his homeland after just one season in the Championship. When Roy Keane took charge, Ross Wallace was often preferred to him, but Hysén still made an important contribution to the promotion charge, which of course ended in success.

Keane was renowned for making wholesale changes to his squad during each transfer window he oversaw at the club and he added two further Scandinavians to his squad in 2008. In January of that year he purchased Rade Prica from Danish side AaB, where he had been scoring goals for fun. Unfortunately, much like a disappointing spell he had with Hansa Rostock in the Bundesliga he failed to make much of an impact on Wearside and was swiftly moved on.

A common theme thus far has been the arrival of Scandinavians in pairs of a success and a failure. Joining Prica was Finnish international Teemu Tainio, who was brought in by Keane in the summer of 2008. Were it not for his glass leg he could well have become the midfield fulcrum of the side but a proneness to injury meant his impact on Wearside was minimal. There was undoubted quality there when he did play and it was clear that Spurs had not let him go for a lack of footballing ability. Sadly, an excellent footballer is only useful on the pitch and Tainio spent far too much time on the treatment table.

Another pair of Scandinavians would arrive under Steve Bruce's management in 2011 in the form of loanee Nicklas Bendtner and free transfer Sebastian Larsson. This time, arguably anyway, both players were - and one still is - hits at the Stadium of Light. Bendtner's career has been much maligned, but his time at Sunderland was a success generally speaking. A decent goals return - one of which was minutes away from winning a derby at St James' Park - and an ability to hold up the ball along with fantastic link up play meant he was an integral part of the side Martin O'Neill inherited from Bruce.

While Bendtner did not remain after his season long loan expired, free signing Larsson is still at the clubcurrently working under his third manager Paolo Di Canio. Although he has his critics, Larsson is a hard worker, at times a brilliant set piece taker and noticeably the player Di Canio speaks to during matches, issuing instructions to his players via him. It's clear to see that he is one of the few players likely to survive this summer's cull, though his first team spot is no doubt in jeopardy. It should not be forgotten that if it was not for his goal against Blackburn Rovers in O'Neill's first game in charge, Sunderland's season could have gone in the completely opposite direction and for that we should all be grateful.

Joining Larsson on Wearside this summer is fellow Swede David Moberg-Karlsson. Although it initially looked like he was signed as one for the future, his appearances in pre-season have suggested he will have a part to play immediately. It can be dangerous to read too much into friendlies but it is clear that he has talent and will be a deputy to Adam Johnson at the very least. Encouragingly, the early indication is that he will continue the tradition of the likes of Schwarz and Larsson rather than Prica and it is likely that the link to Scandinavia will only grow stronger with director of football De Fanti known to be invested in football on those shores.

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