AIK brought Stuart Baxter back to Sweden as the once-mighty club searches for answers to its dismal 2010 season. After narrowly avoiding relegation amidst yet another tumultuous season, the board of directors at Allsvenskan club AIK decided to turn to the man that led the club to some of its most memorable successes.
By Chipp Reid
Stuart Baxter agreed to terms to become a “senior advisor” to the club just before Christmas as AIK once again cleaned house of both players and trainers and vowed to usher in a new era of stability. It is a lesson Baxter preached during his nearly three years as the club’s head coach and one he said he plans to stress during his renewed association with the club.
“They’ve lost their way a bit by going between shooting from hip solutions and a long-term effort,” Baxter said. “It’s time to get things back on track.”
In many ways, Baxter’s role resembles that of Bill Parcells, who is the senior advisor to the Miami Dolphins of the NFL. Team owner Stephen Ross brought in the three-time Super Bowl champion Parcells to help rebuild a franchise that was once a powerhouse. Parcells advises Ross and the dolphins coaching staff on draft selections, long-term needs, free-agent signings and player contracts.
It is exactly what Baxter said he wants to do.
More advisor than coach
“I'm not there looking over the shoulder of the new coach,” he said. “I know I can’t get on the field and work with the senior players. That’s not my role.”
The 57-year-old Scot became available when he parted with the Finnish FA, where he coached the senior national team. Baxter drew criticism from the Finnish media as he attempted to transform Finland from being a perennial doormat to an actual contender for European honors. However, his methods and alleged preference for Swedish-speaking Finnish players caused friction.
AIK first approached Baxter while he was still under contract with the Finns. He said he told the Finnish FA he could act as an advisor and coach, as one would not interfere with the other. However, the Finns believed otherwise and Baxter left his post on mutual agreement.
“It’s strange the Finnish FA didn’t want me to do it,” he said. “I knew I could do it in a way that it would be beneficial to both, but for some strange reason the Finns didn’t want me to do it. Since I left there, I have had two or three offers to do consultancy work. You never know when I might go back to coaching on the field. I am just going to wait until the right job comes along.”
Even before he accepted the job with AIK, rumors linked Baxter to several jobs, including the head coaching jobs at both Glasgow Celtic and Aberdeen in the Scottish Premier League and with the Scottish National team.
He said the job with AIK would involve “very little actual time, maybe five days a month” and he said it’s something he can continue to do even if he takes a field coaching job outside Sweden.
“It’s very doable,” he said. “If and when I do accept a job, I can keep on consulting using phone and e-mail.”
Baxter led AIK to one of the highpoints in the long history of the club. After guiding the Gnaget to the 1998 Allsvenskan championship in what was then a record-setting season for the club, the Scot led AIK into the final group stages of the UEFA Champions League. AIK played toe-to-toe with storied club Barcelona in a 1-0 loss at Råsunda that made Baxter a fixture in AIK lore.
When AIK attempted to make a substitution in the second half, the French referee officiating the match refused to allow the player on the field. However, the AIK player being replaced had already left the field, leaving the Gnaget a man down because of the referee’s decision. Barcelona took advantage and scored the lone goal of the game.
Baxter blew up at the referee, telling him the match was in the “Bleeping Champions League, not the bleeping French Second Division.” His outburst earned him a dismissal from the match and a place forever in the hearts of AIK fans.
Ten years later, Baxter said he sees a big part of his job as helping to restore that kind of fire to the club.
“They have got to get back to AIK basics,” Baxter said. “I see that as being the possibility of achieving. In Sweden, no one ever says, ‘We want to win the league.’ I think here it’s different. AIK must find their way back to culture and character of the club that has been successful, that the supporters want and where players thrive; they must find their way back to better performances. For me, a massive success would mean we win the league and go to the Champions League.”
After fellow Scot Alex Miller abruptly resigned as head coach the week after the 2010 season ended, Baxter said the club directors “certainly had a gigantic wake-up call.” Miller quit in disgust as AIK toyed with selling off a slew of talented players to make up for financial losses. The former coach argued AIK would only get worse if it followed a course of panic but when the board refused to heed his words, he quit.
The move stunned both the board and the players. In a massive shakeup, AIK brought in Jens Andersson as general manager and hired two players with direct ties to Baxter as managers―Andreas Alm, who is head coach, and Nebojsa Novakovic as assistant. The club kept Lee Baxter, Stuart’s son, as goalkeeping coach. Lee Baxter is the only coach to survive the past three seasons as a coach as AIK went through five head coaches, including three in 2010.
“If this has not been a wake up call, people are not sleeping, they’re in a coma,” Baxter said. “It’s a massive wake up call, but in fairness you have to say wake up calls have happened at regular periods, especially being relegated a few years ago.”
Still, by bringing Baxter back, AIK has signaled its intention to recapture the glory years under the Scot.
“Andreas Alm said other day to me that we had a fantastic three years with you and that everything positive linked back to you,” he said. “I think it’s quite flattering but I’m not sure it’s 100 percent true. The players you buy and put on the field has something to do with it. So does the coaching environment and consistency and clarity. Those are just as important as the players and those are the things they have to get back.”
Exactly what he will do and how much AIK will pay him remain something of a mystery.
“I would hope if there’s some sort of policy decision like a big signing, I would hope to be consulted on that,” he said. “It really all depends on how much they want to get me involved.”
With his return, the Scot also returns to the calls of “Magic Man,” a title he earned when he turned around AIK and led it to the Champions League. Baxter, however, said he thought it was fans’ fantasy more than reality.
“I don’t think anywhere near as good when you do well and not nearly as bad when you do poorly,” he said. “I try to keep those things at arm’s length. I am very conscience of the fact that for some people, the second I put a foot into Rasunda, they expect things to go one way. That is difficult to live up to and that is why I am being very careful about my role.”