by Chipp Reid
Tom Prahl admits that when he was a teacher at Svedala Grundskola in 1972, his thoughts often turned to football.
“I wanted to be a football manager," Prahl said. “That was really my primary goal.”
Prahl went from teaching football to elementary school pupils to teaching his brand of football to Onslunda IF in 1972. Onslunda was the first team for which Prahl played in a playing career that lasted six years.
Now in his fourth year as manager of Trelleborg, the 62-year-old Prahl says he isn’t ready to call it quits.
“I think I have the chance to do something no one else has done,” Prahl said. “If I reach retirement age, I have really achieved something no other Premier Division coaches have done before me.”
Prahl is in his second stint as manager at Trelleborg. He coached them to a pair of third-place finishes from 1990-95. He then moved to Halmstad, where he won two titles. He also won gold with Malmo in 2004 before he moved to Norway for a season. With three gold medals, two silvers and two bronze medals, Prahl is the most successful coach currently active in Sweden, although the Smedstorp native says he thinks his success is also a sign of his longevity.
“To my knowledge there is no one who has more premier division games than I have as a coach,” Prahl said. “I dare say that there is no one before me who has reached retirement age as an Allsvenskan coach.”
That’s not to say older managers don’t exist in professional football. Sir Alex Ferguson, the famed head coach at Manchester United is 69 and shows no signs of slowing down. Ferguson, however, is the exception. Coaching football, like playing, is usually a young man’s game. The average age of an Allsvenskan coach is 46. Carlos Banda of Djurgarden at 32 is the youngest. Prahl, at 62, is the oldest.
“It is clear that it can be inspiring to see someone like Ferguson,” Prahl said. “He shows you it is possible, but mostly I try not to think so much about my age. It is just a number. The key is to be healthy.”
The Trelleborg manager, who is going into the 18th season as an Allsvenskan coach, said he is happy with his accomplishments, especially last year when he turned around a Trelleborg season that seemed destined for relegation. Trelleborg finished the first half of the season in dead last. At season’s end, TFF was in fifth and proud owners of the best second-half record in the Allsvenskan.
“Proud? It is clear that it's fun,” Prahl said. “Football's a perishable commodity and finishing in fifth place last year was a feather in the cap for me and everyone involved in Trelleborg.”
He said one of the lessons his lifetime in football has taught him is that he must always learn. He knows he can’t simply sit back and rely on his experience and past success as a guarantee of future winning.
“I've seen many names that have not been open to influences and who have disappeared,” Prahl said. "Football today is not the same as in the 90's, but yes, there is a security in having experience of what you are doing.”
Throughout the years, Prahl has developed his own particular style—one advocates say creates success while detractors claim it is a throwback to old-fashioned direct football. Prahl said he feels anything but old-fashioned.
“Yes, I feel modern,” he said. “I think the fifth place last year shows how well we played, the fitness-oriented style, but we still wanted to play football. I'm learning a lot, especially from someone like (Elfsborg manager) Magnus Haglund. He gave me a new lease of life when I moved home. We have a great relationship and he inspired me to play 4-2-3-1.”
Trelleborg plays with four defenders, two free-moving central midfielders, three midfielders who work the wings and one striker: 4-2-3-1. Although seemingly revolutionary, Prahl said no good idea goes unnoticed in modern football.
“There's no longer anything new in football. It’s too easy to steal ideas from other teams, even teams that maybe you’ve never seen play except on the Internet,” Prahl said. “I think experience helps when it comes to picking the best from the different parts and making it your own.”
Prahl’s success last year led Trelleborg to give him a three-year contract extension, making him eligible under Swedish law for a retirement pension. He said, if nothing else, the extension means he doesn’t need to think about a late-life career change.
“This course has been my way of living, and changing work environment when you are 60, it is difficult for anyone,” Prahl said. “I do not know what I would do otherwise, so it is good that I held on as long as I have.”