BK Häcken: The Unlikely Title of Sweden’s Forgotten Son

The origins and heritage of Swedish football can be traced to the city of Gothenburg. While Stockholm is the capital and Scania home to the omnipotent presence of Malmö, neither can match the 34 titles won by clubs from Gothenburg – split between IFK Göteborg, Örgryte IS, Göteborgs Atlet-och Idrottssällskap (better known as GAIS), and Göteborgs IF.


It was in the city where a ball was first kicked in Sweden, too, as Örgryte ran out 1-0 winners over IS Lyckans Soldater in what we’re sure was a hotly contested affair. From there, the west coast city dominated the early years of the Swedish crown; claiming 17 of the 30 Svenska Mästerskapet titles, before the initial formation of the Allsvenskan in 1931.


By then, though, Örgryte were fading into the Superettan (second division) side we know today, and Göteborgs IF had already folded after a sole league title. GAIS toasted the inaugural Allsvenskan, but wouldn’t dine at the title table again until 1954. But Göteborg IF would continue to plod along and churn out a title or two most decades, and soon became the only threat to the revolutions of Stockholm and Malmö.


Between those two cities, they scooped 18 titles from 1931 until 1980 as Ailmanna Idrottsklubben (AIK), Djurgårdens IF and Malmö began to dominate. But Göteborg would eventually wrestle back the crown to embark on a glorious 80s and 90s heyday, and as they struck gold once more, the city of Gothenburg had a new member trying to force their way into the party.


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Bollklubben Häcken (or simply Häcken) were formed in 1940 and spent much of its early years marooned in the third and fourth tiers of Swedish football. The lull in Gothenburg’s success stretched right the way down to the bottom, as they tasted relegation to the 5th tier in the early 70s which very nearly saw the club fall out of existence entirely.


But legendary Swedish forward Agne Simonsson – who played for Real Madrid and scored in the 1958 World Cup Final – took over as manager in 1977 and soon wrote his name into Häcken folklore. The local lad led the club on a merry dance through the third and second divisions before finally a maiden promotion to the top flight following a victory over IFK Norrköping – one of the clubs that ended the mid-1900s Gothenburg dominance – in 1982.


They (and Simonsson) didn’t stick around for long, however, with the club suffering immediate relegation, while the most successful manager in the club’s history left for Örgryte. He had already brought the good times back to his hometown by taking Häcken to new heights, but his return to Örgryte (where he was already their all-time top scorer) brought a first league title in 72 years as they scooped the 1985 Allsvenskan, but things weren’t going quite as smoothly across the Göta Älv.


They spent the rest of the 80s in the second tier, before embarking on a turbulent 90s where they experienced pretty much everything Swedish football had to throw at them. Häcken were promoted three times, relegated twice, and blew a 5-2 first-leg victory in the 1990 play-off Final in the same year that they fell to defeat in the Swedish cup Final as a second-tier outfit.


It’s very rarely dull with Häcken as their long-suffering but ever-loyal fan base were finding out and the 2000s brought further yo-yoing and chaotic periods. Relegations, promotions, near misses and even a galavant into Europe in 2007 as a second-tier side through the UEFA Fair Play league. They swept aside Reykjavík and Dunfermline in qualifying but saw their hopes of a historic group stage ended by Spartak Moscow, but their upward ascendancy didn’t end there.


A year later, under the stewardship of Sonny Karlsson, they navigated the Superatten to return to the top flight and have stayed there ever since. But as they were laying the foundation for their own fairytale, another was unfolding right before their eyes.


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In the top league, Kalmar Fotbollförening (or Kalmar FF) sealed their maiden league title with a final day draw away to Halmstads BK – becoming the first new title winners in Sweden for seven years, and just the second since Halmstads themselves in 1976.


Perhaps it inspired Häcken who, for the first time in their history, were beginning to make tangible progress in the top flight under Peter Gerhardsson. They finished 5th, 8th and 6th in their first three seasons back, re-qualifying for the Europa League in 2010 through the Fair Play league where their hopes were once again dashed in the third qualifying round – but things were getting better.


A second-place finish followed in 2012, as Ghanaian hotshot Majeed Waris smashed home 23 league goals – a number only bettered once in the previous 32 years and a number not surpassed since – scooping the Golden Boot, helped by a five-goal haul against Norrköping along the way.


Waris moved on to Spartak Moscow for £2.6m and Häcken tumbled down the league to tenth, but returned 5th and 7th place finishes before Gerhardsson got what his longevity deserved. Häcken toppled Malmö to lift the Svenska Cupen in 2016, ensuring a first major trophy for the once-forgotten son of Gothenburg football.


It was to be his parting gift as he left for the Swedish Women’s National Team at the end of 2016. But Gerhardsson laid the foundations, and under Mikael Stahre, they finished 4th before Andreas Alm took the club to 5th, 6th and third, while bringing home a second Svenska Cupen after a 3-0 victory over Eskilstuna in 2019. But things quickly fell apart during the 2021 campaign.


Despite the club reaching another Svenska Cupen final in May 2021, their league form (which starts after the domestic cup does) was appalling as they won just one of their opening eight games. Alm was relieved of his duties and replaced by little-known Norwegian manager Per-Mathias Högmo who pulled the club away from the relegation zone. They finished 12th that term in what was their worst league finish since relegation in 2008, but Högmo set about resetting the playing squad, with more than £4m worth of talent leaving the club.


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In came defenders Kristoffer Lund, Even Hovland, and Tomas Totland with Samuel Gustafson and Mikkel Rygaard ahead of them, but the strength of Häcken hasn’t necessarily come from their rearguard. The Wasps conceded 37 goals during the 2022 season (a total bettered by seven other sides), but they scored 69 goals of their own – by far and away the most in Sweden.


Oscar Udennäs and Ibrahim Sadiq were joined by former West Ham forward Blair Turgott to offer support to what became the most potent attacking line in the league – in no small part to returning hero Alexander Jeremejeff. The 29-year-old forward joined for a third spell at Häcken in 2021 having already scored 57 goals for the club, but he exploded last season.


He and Häcken started quickly; notching a hat-trick in a 4-2 win over AIK, before a 2-1 win against Degerfors. Högmo’s boys would hit their first roadblock on match day three as they fell to a 2-0 home defeat in the derby against IFK Göteborg, but nobody could imagine the run they would go on from there.


Back-to-back 1-1 draws against Norrköping and Helsingborg paved the way for a five-match winning run, beating Malmö and Kalmar along the way with Jeremejeff notching six. He quickly became Häcken’s leading light, hitting four in his next four including a brace in a 5-1 hammering of GIF Sundsvall.


Högmo’s attacking 4-3-3 was getting the best out of the Swede and Häcken were outscoring teams; they notched three or more in five of their opening 14 games, but also conceded two or more twice before a second defeat of the campaign came at the midway point, a crushing 2-1 loss to Djurgården which saw the away side leapfrog Häcken into top spot.


A pulsating 4-4 draw with Elfsborg followed along with another Jeremejeff hat-trick, with a 5-0 away win over Helsingborg – their biggest of the season – taking them back to the top and had their ever-patient faithful dreaming of an elusive gold medal.


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But things are rarely simple at Häcken as their ‘90s rollercoaster showed – peaks and troughs were par for the course in any potential title scrap. It took a 77th-minute winner from Rygaard to see off Mjällby, before Jeremejeff popped up with a 90th-minute strike to see off Sirius. Their luck, however, would soon run out, with four consecutive draws stalling progress and knocking them off their perch with Djurgården steamrolling their way into the top spot.


Hogmo’s side began to rock as inexperience and naivety amongst the squad began to show, but The Blue Stripes of Djurgården had been in this situation before. They’ve been crowned champions of Sweden twelve times (most recently as 2019), and on match day 25 of 30, the pair faced off – deadlocked at the top on 48 points – in a bout that would surely dictate the direction of the title. 


It was tense and tight. The league’s top scorers travelling to the division’s meanest defence – the unstoppable force in uncharted territory, taking on the immovable object who have seen it all before. Ibrahim Sadiq did well down the right and squared the ball for Lars Olden Larsen – two of the club’s summer arrivals – with the latter tapping home to give Häcken an advantage they wouldn’t relinquish, both in the game and the season, as they ran out 1-0 winners.


The Gothenburg side ploughed past Sundsvall and AIK next before taking on Malmö, the almighty kings of Swedish football whose powers waned during the 2022 season, knowing that a win would put them on the brink of a maiden top-flight title. Di Blåe were met by a coliseum of noise at the Bravida Arena, as 6,500 fans packed themselves into a charming old ground that had seen so little success.


It took them all of forty seconds to suck the ball into the Malmö net. Larsen again was the man to slide the ball home, but that was merely the start of the drama. Jeremejeff, so often a source of inspiration for Häcken, saw the red mist descend as he hit out at Malmö’s Ola Toivonen, resulting in a red card with more than forty minutes still to play.


But Högmo’s boys defied the record books. A side that had been built on electric attacking play and outscoring opponents held out until the 73rd minute, when Sadiq broke from inside his own half before handing over the baton to Mikkel Rygaard. The Dane slid through Samuel Gustafson, and the skipper chose the perfect time to notch his first goal of the season, sliding the ball beyond Johan Dahlin to place the title in the palm of Häcken’s hands.


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With a six-point advantage over Djugårdens with two to play, Häcken knew just one more would secure a first Gold Medal in their 82-year history – but they had to travel to the home of IFK Göteborg to get it. The fairytale ending of clinching the title at the home of their arch-nemesis, or the perfect storm for an almighty bottle? Högmo’s boys became men, and let their football do the talking.


Just five minutes in, Turgott – who replaced Jeremejeff in the starting lineup – swivelled and hit home a stunner, before John Hammer and Rygaard added further goals to put Häcken three-nil up inside half an hour. They weren’t leaving anything up to chance, and they wiped the floor with their near-neighbors in the process.


Rygaard – one of the jewels in Häcken’s crown during the season – added a stunning fourth from the edge of the area late on, to put the cherry on the most satisfactory of cakes. Häcken had annihilated their fiercest rivals and confirmed the title on their patch – a stadium also shared by GAIS and Örgryte as well as Häcken themselves temporarily once upon a time. They had all shared success, and now Häcken had joined the party.


Jubilant full-time scenes followed, as players and staff ran amok on the Gamla Ullevi turf, donning golden hats fit for the gold medal winners. They’d paid their dues and done their sentence, but finally, this was their time. After umpteen promotions, countless relegations, cup success, near-miss heartache, deaths doors, and European tours, Häcken are finally Swedish Champions outright – and have a story to tell for a lifetime and more.


By: James Pendleton / @jpends_

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / DeFodi Images