Three years might not seem like that long, but in the world of professional football, it can be an eternity.

Three years is what it took Roland Nilsson to transform Malmö from a joke into a championship team, and for Nilsson those three years must have seemed very, very long. Malmö built a new stadium—the Swedbank Arena—and there was pressure on Nilsson from every quarter to put a winning team on that new pitch.

The former Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry defender, however, ignored the demands of fans, sponsors and even the club’s board of directors. He never even thought about sending scouts to Brazil or South Africa to hunt for the type of talent that would land Malmö on the same player carousel as so many other Swedish clubs. Instead, he insisted on developing players from within the organization.
In his first season as manager, Malmö finished seventh and watched as Kalmar claimed its first-ever title. The chorus demanding wins grew loud.

Last year, Nilsson resisted the temptation to panic, staying with his young lineup. Malmö finished sixth and watched as AIK hoisted the Lennart Johansson trophy.

The chorus of boos grew even louder as did calls for a new manager. Nilsson didn’t budge. He brought in Pep Clotets—who coached youth and reserve teams at Espanyol in Spain—as his assistant this season to help boost the “Spanish” style of football Nilsson wanted his team to play. Critics claimed the passing-oriented style would never work in the physical Swedish league. Nilsson didn’t budge there, either.
At the start of this season, Nilsson did tinker with his lineup. He shifted 32-year-old team captain Daniel Andersson from midfield back to defense. The move solidified the Malmö back four and opened the door to 20-something midfielder Ivo Pekalski to step into a starting role. The son of Polish immigrants, Pekalski quickly quieted the critics as Malmö opened the season with four wins and two draws.

Pekalski wasn’t the only 20-something to whom Nilsson turned. He brought striker Agon Mehmeti along, first as a substitute then as a regular. Mehmeti teamed up with 23-year-old Daniel Larsson to form one of the best striking duos in the Allsvenskan. Larsson finished with 10 goals and 8 assists; Mehmeti with 11 goals and 6 assists.
Guillermo Molins, son of Uruguayan immigrants, also grew into a starting role, as did Jiloan Hamad, who was born in Azerbaijan and moved to Sweden as an infant.

Win for win after an initial loss to HIF
The quick start seemed to fizzle in Round 7 on April 20 when Helsingborg beat Malmö 2-1 at Olympia Stadium. The win put HIF in first place where it would stay until Round 21 when Malmö pulled level. The key to those 14 games in between was Malmö’s ability to match Helsingborg win for win. During that time, those 20-somethings all matured and seasoned. Larsson and Mehmeti developed a sense for another that defied the short time in which they played together. Andersson and Portuguese defender Yago Fernandez—a late signing assistant coach Clotets helped orchestrate—put together a defense that allowed the fewest goals in the Allsvenskan this season and also worked well with second-year goalkeeper Johan Dahlin, who had 15 shutouts in 29 matches this season.

Through it all there was Nilsson, forever preaching his possession, short-passing, team-oriented game. He put his players on a fitness regimen that helped the team avoid major injuries. He won over his critics by putting a winning team on the field.
It was somehow fitting that Nilsson’s first-ever title race came down to a battle between Malmö and Helsingborg. Nilsson got his start as a professional player at Helsingborg before he moved to England, where he played for Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry. He was wildly popular at Wednesday, earning a name as the epitome of a professional. He became an assistant coach at Coventry, then moved to GAIS in 2004 before Malmö came calling in 2007.

Malmö rolled to 21 wins in 30 matches and rang up an Allsvenskan record 67 points. The victories evoked memories of the glory days of the late 1980s, when Englishmen Roy Hodgson led MFF to five straight titles.
Maybe it was somehow fitting that Nilsson got his start in coaching England, just as Hodgson, now manager of Liverpool, got his start in Sweden.

No matter what, everything came together Nov. 7 when Malmö beat Mjällby to win the Allsvenskan title, and right there celebrating with a team critics said was too young to win, playing a style that couldn’t work in Sweden, was Roland Nilsson.
The best team won and all it took was three years. An eternity for some, but for Nilsson and Malmö, it was time well spent.