Brian Wake may play for a small team in northern Sweden but his talent speaks volumes, as does his new-found love for his new home.
by Chipp Reid
The hottest goal scorer in Swedish football isn’t in the Allsvenskan or the Superettan and he isn’t playing overseas. Instead, he’s a vagabond footballer from the hard-scrabble pitches of industrial England, and he has helped turn a tiny team into an up-and-coming football power, albeit with a little help from his friends.
Östersund FK striker Brian Wake scored 31 goals in 24 total matches for the tiny team in northern Sweden. The 29-year-old native of Stockton-on-Tees had 24 goals in 20 league matches as he led ÖSK to the Division 2 North title and a spot in Division 1 North.
"My season has been good,” Wake said. “It is very gratifying for me. We have had a successful season. It feels great to have been involved in it. We have a great team spirit in Östersund FK. This season has been a great team effort. We are really proud of what we have achieved.”
To call Wake “well-traveled” would be an understatement. After making his debut with Carlisle in the English Football League in 2002, Wake moved to the Scottish Division One in 2004, where he played for six different teams in six years, amassing 50 goals. Wake joined Östersund in March when head coach and fellow Brit Graham Potter gave him a call and asked him to move to Sweden.
“I really liked what he said about the club, so I decided to take the chance,” Wake said. “I'm very grateful that I got this opportunity. My family and my friends are very curious and want to know about my life in Sweden. I tell them that I play for a great club and like to play football here. I enjoy living in a new country, and get to learn about Swedish life and culture.”
Potter knew Wake when both played in the English Division One and decided to add the striker to his growing number of UK ex-pats on the squad. In addition to Wake, Potter brought in a pair of Ghanian players, Samuel Mensah and Isaac Shize, both of whom played at England Division 2 side Evesham United. Potter also signed Tony Pennycooke Morgan, a Canadian-born English player who was in the Sheffield United academy system. Alex Smith and Kyle Hawthorne joined ÖSK from Leeds Metropolitan University and Robbie Smith moved to Östersund from England Division Two side Doncaster United.
Just to add some spice to the suddenly England-dominated locker room, Potter also signed Estonian goalkeeper Besarion “Big Beso” Kodalaev, who was playing in Tblisi, Georgia, and Spanish central defender Juanjo Hervias, who played for Spanish Second Division side Novelda CF before he moved to Sweden.
“We have many different nationalities in ÖSK,” Wake said. “What makes it so good is that we have a good team spirit. It's nice atmosphere in our dressing room. It can be seen on the pitch. All get on well together, so I spend time with many different players.”
Still, Wake went through some football culture shock when he arrived at Östersund. Crowds, even in the lower rungs of English professional football, number in the thousands. In Östersund, the players are on a first-name basis with the few hardy supporters who turn out as ÖSK averaged slightly more than 900 fans per match in 2011. It was something to which Wake had to adjust.
“During my first season in Carlisle, I made my debut against Hartlepool United in front of 13,000 fans,” Wake said. ”The season we went to the finals of the LDV Trophy (tournament for teams in the English third and fourth divisions), we played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. We lost 2-0 against Bristol City in front of 60,000 spectators.”
Although the crowd size is very different between the UK and Sweden, the football is pretty much the same for the 6-foot tall center forward. Wake made his Östersund debut in April in a Swedish Cup match against Friska Viljor FC and scored four goals. It was just a glimpse of what Wake would accomplish as he scored 24 goals in 20 league matches to lead Östersund to the Division 2 North crown.
The Englishman missed one match with a yellow card suspension.
Östersund raced through the league almost untouched, suffering just two losses in its 21 matches, racking up a 15-4-2 record. Östersund next year is set to play in Division 1 North. A win there would put the tiny team in the Superettan. Wake said the team’s success this season was no surprise, at least to him.
“I am not surprised. Graham Potter has done a good job with the team. He has organized us into a good football team,” he said. “Graham has created a good environment for us to work, learn and improve ourselves in. I am glad to have scored 24 goals but the most important thing was that we achieved our goal as a team, and that is advancement.”
Although the influx of British, African and Spanish talent had much to do with the team earning promotion, Wake also credited a series of “team-building” trips Potter organized during the preseason. One of them brought the players, many of whom had never seen snow, to the northern ski resort of Åre, where Wake and his mates enjoyed not only skiing but also dog-sledding and snowmobiling.
“I really like it, but I must say that I can improve a lot,” Wake said. “I've been skiing twice since I came to Östersund. When we were in Åre with the team we went cross country skiing and snowmobiling. It was a good day. Our goalkeeper Besarion Kodalaev must get better at driving a snowmobile, for that was about to tip over. He is a crazy guy! Then I was in Åre with our team captain Martin Johansson. That time I tried the downhill. It was great fun. I look forward to skiing again this winter.”
As for snowmobiling, he said he might look for a new “partner” after his experience in Åre.
“We had to get in pairs and we had a little lesson and safety brief about the snow mobiles” he said. “Unfortunately my partner Beso didn’t seem to listen to much to the safety brief and tipped the snow mobile over within five minutes of driving it. I got the short straw that day and if i ever get the chance to go snowmobiling again, I will be avoiding Big Beso! Only joking.”
Wake built a special rapport with Kodalaev, who towers over everyone else on the team at 6 feet 8 inches, and whom the English players immediately dubbed “Big Beso.” During long bus trips to away matches, Wake would play “reporter” and with Kodalaev in tow using his cellular phone as a video camera, he would interview his teammates.
“It's great fun to interview the guys. We laugh a lot on trips,” Wake said. “Some of the answers are very funny. When I interviewed Robbie Clark, he used so many clichés that I lost count.”
Wake’s success this season has already put him in the Swedish football spotlight, but any team that might come calling for the Englishman will have to contend not only with his loyalty to Potter and ÖSK, but the love affair between Wake and northern Sweden.
“Östersund is a beautiful place and some of the scenery I have seen here is new to me and is quite breathtaking at times,” he said. “I come from a small town called Stockton-on-Tees and it’s situated just outside Middlesbrough. This area is famous for industry so there is quite a lot of chemical plants and factories so it is quite the opposite to Östersund. Since being in Östersund the people could not have been any more helpful and made it any easier for me to settle in.”
All of the players Potter brought to the team this year are under contract for at least three years, giving ÖSK not only an arsenal of talent but the potential to improve its finances through player sales. Wake, whose contract expires in 2014, said he is in no rush to leave.
“I am privileged to get to play for Östersund FK,” Wake said. “The club has given me a great opportunity to get over to Sweden and play football. It's an opportunity I want to exploit to the fullest. I am grateful to Graham Potter and Daniel Kindberg (sporting director). I want to pay them back by performing as good as possible for the club.”