Big Gary Sundgren. You remember him right? From 1996? The trialist? He played against West Brom at the Charlie Hurley? Viktor Leoneko played as a trialist too in the same game?
Okay, so maybe you don’t. But maybe we should.
Whilst at Sunderland
Before the days of Stefan Schwarz, Thomas Sorensen and Seb Larsson, Sunderland’s luck in the Nordic countries had been predominantly poor.
Anyone who can recall Swedish international centre-back Jan Eriksson will attest to his awful display at Villa Park. But there were also failures in the purchase of young Dane Kim Heiselberg, who proceeded to be high on the list of Swindon Town’s worst ever signings and - perhaps more interestingly - become a world famous pig farmer (which you can read about here).
Shortly afterwards, Eriksson’s Swedish team mate Gary Sundgren, 28-years-old at the time, was invited to strut his stuff at the Charlie Hurley Centre in November 1996.
Unlike most trialists, Sundgren was no youngster - he was a fully fledged Swedish international that had scored the winning goal to win the Allsvenskan championship title with AIK Stockholm in 1992.
He would be afforded a chance to impress in a couple of reserve games, with assistant manager Paul Bracewell commenting on the quality of the trialists by saying, “We have said it before, we are interested in bringing players in but they have to better than what we have got, so in most cases that means they will be internationals”, of which Gary Sundgren was.
Sadly for the Swede he failed to impress in his two second string appearances and was duly sent packing back to Stockholm as Reidy preferred to keep faith with right-backs Dariusz Kubicki and (shudder) Gareth Hall.
Despite reports to the contrary, Sundgren suggested in an interview in 2013 that the move to Wearside had nothing to do with him not impressing during trial. In fact, the right back claims he told AIK club officials that he would “probably move” and that the only reason the move to England didn’t come to fruition was due to the fact that Sir Bob Murray and co. did not agree with the valuation placed on the defender’s head.
In typical Sunderland fashion, though, Sundgren’s next move turned out to be a canny one. He would move to Real Zaragoza in La Liga six months later and it was in Spain were his career flourished.
In Spain, he was a regular fixture at full-back or centre-half in a successful period for Los Maños that saw them lift the Copa Del Dey in 2000/01 - celebrating with 150,000 fans in the centre of the Zaragoza - a time Sundgren admits he can “barely believe he was part of”. His form in Spain also meant he was chosen for Sweden’s Euro 2000 campaign.
His form was so impressive that he was chased by Real Madrid, but Zaragoza’s president’s determination to hang onto him meant the move never materialised. All of this a mere four years after his Wearside trial; to put it into context, we were in the process of signing Phil Babb at the time. Aye.
Rooming with former Aston Villa striker Savo Milosevic, Sundgren recalled he “ate chocolate, drank Coca-Cola and smoked two packs of Marlboro light a day.” and that he “had to sleep with oxygen in the room he smoked so much!”
However, despite his fun rooming with Yugoslavian Milosevic, Sundgren decided against remaining in Spain despite the offer of a new two year contract - preferring instead to return home to AIK with his young children about to start school.
His season with AIK turned sour quickly, with the team suffering one of its worst seasons in memory. He left the club in 2003, ending his career at modest lower-level Stockholm-based clubs Sollentuna and Djursholm.
His winning goal in 1992 to lift the Swedish title means he has cult like status at the Friends Arena though, as he discusses “even today, there will be AIKs who thank me for the gold. So some kind of imprint has been made”.
Where is he now?
Sundgren still lives with his wife in Sollentuna, Stockholm, where he works for the Prison and Probation Service.
His son Daniel Sundgren is currently playing alongside former Sunderland midfielder Seb Larsson at the Friends Arena for AIK Stockholm, whilst his 17-year-old son Robin Sundgren is part of AIK Stockholm’s youth development squad!
Following in his Father’s footsteps, Daniel was part of the first AIK Stockholm side to win the Allsvenskan since his Dad’s goal brought home the trophy in 1992, meaning the Sundgren family are pretty well liked in the Swedish capital!