Even though defending Allsvenskan champs AIK have yet to win in 2010, no one at the club is pushing the panic button.
By Chipp Reid
After opening the season with a scoreless draw against league newcomers Mjällby, no one really thought AIK was in any trouble.
The 2009 champions played well enough to win but simply didn’t have any luck in front of goal. A second-straight scoreless draw against lowly Brommapojkarna raised a few eyebrows, but again, there was no undue concern.
When the season-opening winless streak hit six April 15 with a 1-0 loss at home to Halmstad, the vultures began circling. Tabloids Aftonbladet and Expressen declared AIK was a “team in crisis.” The papers openly wondered how much longer head coach Mikael Stahre could remain in charge.
While somewhat overblown, the concerns are more than a little valid, said AIK assistant coach Lee Baxter. While solid defensively, the defending champions have managed to score just once in 540 minutes of football this year.
“It’s understandable that there are going to be people out there who think we’re in trouble after six matches, but it’s not us,” Baxter said. “It’s the beginning of the season and everybody is going to be chasing, from other teams to the media. We know if we slip people will be all over us.”
Teams usually earn the “crisis” label much later in the season than after just six games. For AIK, however, any slow start is a reason for concern. The club directors aren’t known for their patience, and the increasing parity in the Allsvenskan makes a fast start almost imperative.
“I think the board (of directors) realizes there is more happening on the field than what a lot of people see,” Baxter said. “One of the more challenging things to look at is how we’re developing the game. Our only real problem is we’re not scoring goals.”
From football to business As the Allsvenskan moved toward full professionalism, the boards that once ran the clubs have changed from old-time football people to business people. The bottom line for many clubs is the bottom line. Tom Prahl, manager of Trelleborg, said he knows full well the pressures on favorites.
“I think the culture of football has changed a great deal,” he said. “Clubs are very different now. There is a lot more emphasis on money, and that usually means clubs have less patience than they used to.”
Prahl won a pair of league championships with Halmstad before moving to Malmö FF. The southern Swedish club used the record-fee it received for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to buy up a number of players in expectation of rolling to a championship. The move never worked as the players failed to mesh as a team.
“There has to be culture for the club. That’s the only way to really win,” Prahl said. “I think now many players are out for themselves. They want the team to win but don’t have an investment in the club anymore.”
AIK learned that lesson all too well after it won the Allsvenskan back in 1998 and went on to impress critics across Europe with its play in the Champions League. Until it won the title last year, AIK experienced a roller-coaster of results, finishing as high as second twice while also suffering relegation to the Superettan. Since returning to the Allsvenskan, AIK has essentially fielded a home-grown team reinforced with South American talent.
“Our attitude is players come and go,” Baxter said. “We had some really good players last year and we lost four of them. It’s tough, but we can’t be sentimental about it and we can’t go around crying about it. It’s time for some players who didn’t get a lot of time last year to step up.”
AIK lost starting goalkeeper Daniel Örlund and goal scoring sensation Ivan Obolo to transfers over the winter. Despite those losses, Baxter said the club believed it had the talent within the team to replace them. A series of injuries has also left AIK reeling, although Baxter said the sense of doom some people see around the club is an illusion.
“When we won the title back in 1998 we had a stretch where we had 11 draws. This is just a hiccup,” he said. “The main thing is we stay positive and realize that we are playing well and that we can correct our problems.”
Baxter said the toughest thing about the 2010 season so far has been to ignore the doom-and-gloom reports in the media.
“If we start to believe everything we read in the papers, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. “The staff’s job is to promote what we’ve been doing right and build on it.”
Baxter also pointed out the fact the season is only 6 weeks old.
“There’s a lot of time left,” he said. “We have 24 games left to play and who’s to say we can’t win those 24 matches? Anything can happen.”
AIK players walk dejectedly off the pitch at Råsunda Stadium April 15 after losing 1-0 to Halmstad. Bildbyran photo