Ex-Portsmouth, Norwich and Charlton striker Mathias Svensson: I was meant to join Liverpool, but my misfortune instead opened the door for Michael Owen

Positioned at a piano, Terry Venables had serenaded Mathias Svensson in a Kensington nightclub during unusual transfer negotiations over a Pompey switch.

Within four months, the Blues’ director of football had delivered more music to the ears of the striker – Liverpool wanted to sign him.

Pompey’s progress to the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1996-97 had consisted of the eye-catching scalp of Premier League Leeds, with Svensson netting in a 3-2 success at Elland Road.

A maiden international call-up followed, despite Sweden’s management having only watched him in action on a television screen.

Yet the 22-year-old’s instant Fratton Park impact had also stirred interest elsewhere, namely Roy Evans, manager of Liverpool, the club Svensson supported.

Evans was keen to add the former car salesman to Anfield striking ranks which included Robbie Fowler and Stan Collyymore, with ammunition provided by Steve McManaman and John Barnes.

Instead, wretched fate cruelly deprived Svensson of his dream move – and opened the door to a 17-year-old called Michael Owen.

‘Growing up in Sweden, we had two TV channels, and every Saturday there was a game from England on a muddy pitch,’ Svensson told The News.

Mathias Svensson (second from left) and his Pompey team-mates do the conga on the Elland Road pitch following their 3-2 FA Cup success at Leeds in February 1997

‘My age supported Liverpool and Manchester United, today Swedish people support Manchester City, and 10 years ago it was Chelsea. You can see the influence of the best English teams.

‘It was everyone’s dream to play in England and my team was Liverpool.

‘Pompey gave me that chance and, within a few months, we won at Leeds in the FA Cup, it was on TV back home and suddenly I found myself in Sweden’s team against Israel.

‘Not long after returning from my international debut (March 1997), Terry Venables approached me in Pompey’s training ground car park, smiling.

Mathias Svensson (left) started and ended his career at Swedish club Elfsborg, winning the Allsvenskan with them in 2006. Picture: BJORN LARSSON ROSVALL/AFP via Getty Images)

‘He told me: “I have some news for you. Liverpool are going to put an offer in for you”. Well that’s my team. Wow.

‘It turned out that Roy Evans had called him and wanted to watch me in our next match before putting an offer in. I had only been here a few months and now this!

‘As bad luck would have it, I injured my foot in training in the build up, so couldn’t play in that match after all. Roy Evans never came to watch me.

‘That was when Liverpool took the decision to take Michael Owen from the youth team for the final three games of the season and he scored on his debut against Wimbledon (May 1997). They probably made the right decision anyway!

Mathias Svensson made 51 appearances and scored 12 goals during his time at Pompey.

‘Today I can laugh about it, but, when you think back, what would have happened had I gone there? What would my career have looked like?’

By his own admission, Svensson’s move to Pompey owed itself to good fortune.

Venables had dispatched his former England assistant manager Ted Buxton to Sweden in October 1996 to watch highly-regarded teenage midfielder Jeffrey Aubynn for Gunnilse in the second tier.

Their opponents that day were Elfsborg, who ran out 6-0 winners, with Svensson netting twice in front of a 1,376 crowd.

Blues attention immediately switched the young striker and, following prolonged negotiations, he arrived at Fratton Park in December 1996 for £75,000.

‘My footballing style wasn’t Swedish at all, I was different. I felt England would suit me, for me it was perfect,’ added Svensson, who scored 12 goals in 51 games for Pompey.

Mathias Svensson celebrates with Norwich team-mate Darren Huckerby during a Premier League game against Birmingham in November 2004. Picture: Clive Mason/Getty Images

‘I was an aggressive player, too tough for Swedish football, running into tackles and throwing yourself about. They called it unprofessional behaviour here!

‘I had never heard of Pompey, but, during negotiations, they invited me over for a day to see the city.

‘While there, Venables then asked whether I would like to train with the first-team. Well, I would love to, but didn’t have anything with me. So they leant me the gear and I joined in.

‘After that, he took me to his London nightclub called Scribes West in Kensington. We started to eat dinner and suddenly he disappeared – only to turn up on the stage playing the piano and singing.

‘This was his club and Terry Venables was the entertainer on the night! I sat there thinking “This is odd”, but he could sing, he had a good voice.

‘He returned at the end of the meal and showed me Pompey’s offer. I asked to think about it, but had already decided.

‘At Elfsborg I was part-time and had two jobs, so anything Pompey offered would be better than that. Now I could live entirely off my sport, I would be a professional footballer.

‘My other job was working as a carer for Peter, a child who had autism, visiting him in school. That set the standards of how I think we should take care of people.

‘Then, in 1996, Elfsborg made it clear we had to get promoted to the Allsvenskan (Swedish top flight) so they wanted me to instead work as a car salesman, dealing in Vauxhall and Saabs.

‘It wasn’t necessarily to sell cars, but to talk football to people around there because of the buzz it would create around the city.

‘Today I can tell you I sold three cars during that year – one to my brother, one to my grandfather and one to a normal client. I wasn’t the best salesman!’

Now a Pompey player, on the occasion of his full debut against Huddersfield in December 1996, Svensson scored twice and won a penalty in a 3-1 triumph.

The following match he was sent off following a scuffle with Reading’s Barry Hunter, marking a first red card of his career.

Still, Svensson netted seven times in 22 matches during the second half of the 1996-97 season as Terry Fenwick’s side finished seventh in Division One.

He said: ‘When you come to a new club, you want to show who you are straight away. It was a good start and people tended to like the way I was playing football, immediately I got a good reception.

‘The way I played was really tough, but I was always hiding behind someone! I was like a coward and had Lee Bradbury by my side, who had come from the Army, so it was perfect.

‘I could muck about to do things, destroy defenders and make them so angry, then I’d hide behind Lee, who stood up for me all the time. He’s such a great guy.

‘That FA Cup game at Leeds in February 1997 came in that same season and is my favourite Pompey game.

‘There must have been 4-5,000 of our fans at Elland Road, Swedish TV was there, a group of 8-10 Elfsborg fans had flown over, while my brother also attended with Patrick, one of the disabled people I took care of who was in a wheelchair.

‘It was massive for me in many more ways than winning the game 3-2. A lot of people who meant a lot to me were present that day, it was so special.’

Injuries permitting, Svensson continued to be first-team regular during the following season (1997-98), however the club was unravelling.

Pompey were bottom of Division One in January 1998, leading to Terry Fenwick’s dismissal and chairman Venables also departing, with ownership reverting back to Martin Gregory.

It prompted the Fratton Park return of Alan Ball for a second spell as manager, who immediately dropped his Swedish striker.

Svensson started just two of the subsequent 17 matches – before Ball turned to him with two games remaining.

The 23rd-placed Blues were three points adrift of safety and faced win or bust fixtures against Huddersfield and Bradford.

‘It all changed when Ball came in, it became a tough time for me at Pompey,’ added the 47-year-old, who lives outside Boras, in Sweden.

‘I was on and off the bench, in the stands, I didn’t get to play that much. The manager’s reasoning was that my second touch was often a tackle, as he called it.

‘So I ended up training on my first touch, as you must do when the manager tells you. Maybe I got better, because he picked me for the last two games as we battled to stay up.

‘Bradford was probably one of the biggest matches of my career. Before kick-off, I remember coming out of the toilet and spotting the only guy left – my strike partner John Durnin. He was drinking out of a whisky bottle!

‘I said: “What are you doing? We’re going to play the biggest game of our careers, playing to stay up, and we need to perform as well as we have ever done”.

‘Johnny Lager replied: “You should have a sip, it will make you do even better”. My head couldn’t get around it, you don’t drink alcohol three days before a game – and this guy was having a drink when we were about to go out.

‘Well, he then scored twice in a 3-1 win to keep us up! Perhaps I should have taken a drink or two out of that bottle!

‘Bradford is a great memory. Our fans invaded the pitch and there’s a picture of me with nothing but my underwear on. They stole your shirt and took your boots, shin pads and socks.

‘I later heard from staff that if it hadn’t worked out with me back in the team for those last two matches, I would have been the one Ball blamed for relegation. That’s just what I heard.

‘The following day after Bradford, I had a call with Alan Ball, who told me: “Next season everyone starts at position zero, you have the same chance as everyone else to play. It’s all down to you”.

‘I replied: “Alan, I have to be honest with you, I haven’t felt you had me in mind for the starting XI until the last two games. Will you buy more strikers and make me number one?”.

‘He couldn’t really answer. I had moved from Sweden to play football, now I realised I had to play somewhere else.

‘Alan Ball was a great guy, I liked him, he was funny, he did so much for the club, he’s an England legend, but, in the ways of a coach, for me he wasn’t the best.

‘When he came in, all the English lads told me “This is going to be great for you. He loves the type of player you are”, but it never really happened for me under him. It was time to go.’

Svensson left for Austrian club Tirol Innsbruck for £100,000 in July 1998, yet within three months had been reunited with Venables at Division One side Crystal Palace.

The striker signed for the Eagles on the same day as Craig Foster, with Lee Bradbury later joining them to recreate a Pompey connection at Selhurst Park.

He would later win promotion to the Premier League with both Charlton and Norwich, netting on his top-flight debut in October 2000 after coming off the bench for the Addicks against Middlesbrough.

Svensson saw out his career with Elfsborg, winning the Allsvenskan in 2006 for the first time in 45 years, before retiring with a knee injury in March 2008 at the age of 33.

Following a period as Elfsborg’s assistant sporting director, in December 2013 he founded Effektiv, a temp and recruitment agency, which last year recorded a £37m turnover.

While in March they were crowned Sweden’s Recruitment Company of the Year at the 2021 Recruitment Awards.

Svensson, whose son Hugo plays as a striker for second-tier side Tvaakers IF, added: ‘Pompey was a club I didn’t want to leave.

‘Now being older and wiser, I realise that the manager will always pick the team he thinks is the best team. It was quite simple, in Alan Ball’s mind I wasn’t good enough to play.

‘I now understand that. If I was manager, I would have played my best team, that’s how football is.

‘But that doesn’t stop Pompey always having a special place in my heart.’

A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron

You can support our local team of expert Pompey writers by subscribing here for all the latest news from Fratton Park for 9p a day, thanks to our 30%-off transfer window deal.

Mathias Svensson (right) celebrates after his company, Effektiv, were crowned Sweden’s Recruitment Company of the Year in March at the 2021 Recruitment Awards
Mathias Svensson represented both Charlton and Norwich in the Premier League after winning promotion with each club. Picture: Phil Cole/ALLSPORT