The long autumn of Freddie Ljungberg’s career began at West Ham, in a season of injuries and security guards not up on their new signings…
If there is one story to sum up Freddie Ljungberg’s time at West Ham, it’s the one that appeared in the Sun about halfway through his spell there, which claimed a steward refused the Swedish hunk’s entry into Upton Park because he didn’t recognise him.
Apply all the necessary caveats but it’s one of those tales that, even if it isn’t true, you want to believe because it fits so neatly.
Because Freddie Ljungberg played for West Ham. No, us neither. If you’ve been following this noble series you’ll know it has thus far mostly featured players who had very short spells at certain clubs, making only a handful of appearances and their time is forgotten broadly due to brevity.
But for this edition, the spell somehow lasted a whole season, which nobody recalls. Well, a few people probably do. The HR department at West Ham, perhaps. Maybe the kit man. Definitely the physio. And Freddie Ljungberg himself, presumably.
Ljungberg joined the Hammers in the summer of 2007, leaving Arsenal after nine years in which he won two Premier Leagues and of course was part of the Invincibles team a few years earlier. But apparently the magic had gone, the spirit had died, the vibes no more and Ljungberg needed something new.
“Two years ago when I signed my last contract we talked a lot about the future and about bringing great players to the club,” he said at the time. “Despite building the new stadium we wanted to stay top in England and do well in Europe.
“For me that didn’t really happen. I stayed because I wanted to stay loyal to Arsenal. But when Thierry Henry left this summer it felt like the end for me unfortunately. I felt like all the unbeaten players (from the 2003/04 season) had left. I wanted to be loyal but I felt like it was the right time.”
Which presumably came as a surprise to some as, a month earlier, he had responded to speculation about him leaving Arsenal by saying: “This will be my 10th season with Arsenal and I cannot wait to start the season with them. I am very much looking forward to the opening game against Fulham. It is great to start the season with a London derby.”
Still, Ljungberg wasn’t wrong. At the bottom of the Daily Telegraph piece announcing the transfer, on a timeline of his career at Arsenal it rather quaintly confirmed that the Gunners had just completed a “second straight season without a trophy.” So, in short, Ljungberg saw the following decade or so coming.
But if leaving Arsenal was fair enough, the choice of joining West Ham turned out to be not exactly a roaring success. He made 22 league starts, which doesn’t sound especially bad, but his impact in those games…was minimal. He scored twice, was fouled for a penalty against Liverpool, had a brief spell of good form around the turn of the year and…that’s about it.
The whole endeavour was broadly scuppered by injury problems. Throughout the season Ljungberg was sidelined by groin injuries, a calf problem, a tweaked ankle before a Sweden game, a nasty-sounding migraine (a problem Ljungberg suffered from throughout his career) and finally, in his last game that April, broken ribs sustained after Newcastle’s Steve Taylor trod on him.
He did try, though. Him and some of his teammates took up pilates, only to be roundly mocked in the ever-cerebral and forward-thinking Sun, who declared such things “girlie” and in Gordon Smart’s ‘Bizarre’ column opined: ‘What happened to the days when men were men? This is football lads, not keep fit.’
Indeed, his most significant appearances of the season seemed to be away from the pitch. A regular in the tabloid celeb-spotting columns, Ljungberg was nominated as Australian newspaper the Townsville Bulletin’s weekly ‘Hunk o Spunk’ (for people that don’t speak Australian, that means ‘attractive man’) feature, while he also declared that he would be giving up the undercracker modelling gig as seeing his semi-naked self on the side of buses was getting a bit weird.
All of which is fine, but didn’t really represent a terrific return on investment for West Ham, given that his wages were rumoured to be around £75,000-a-week, which in the quaint days of 2007 was a monstrous amount of money for a team who had only survived on the final day of the previous season.
But it was in keeping with West Ham’s general policy at the time, having lashed significant sums on Craig Bellamy, Scott Parker, Julien Faubert, Kieron Dyer and Nolberto Solano, a policy that had to be quickly reversed a year later when they realised that having a load of expensive players wasn’t the same as having a load of good players. And that reversal included a conscious uncoupling with Ljungberg, which set them back a rumoured £6million in severance pay. “This deal is mutually acceptable to both parties,” solemnly said club chief executive Scott Duxbury, frantically shoving a sack of cash into Ljungberg’s hand and bundling him out of the door.
And the full extent of those free-spending days only really came out a couple of years later, when new finance director Nick Igoe discussed their annual accounts by referencing Ljungberg and Dyer (who broke his leg in his third appearance). “It has to be concluded that many of the group’s investment decisions in the last two to three seasons have been ill-judged,” he sniffed.
“Two players who signed in the summer 2007 transfer window, one of whom has since left the club, have started a combined total of 32 games and will have cost the group £34m over the term of their contracts. No football club can sustain this level of expenditure on underperforming members of its squad.”
Ljungberg, remarkably enough, went on to play until 2014, taking in spells at Seattle Sounders, Chicago Fire, Celtic, Simizu S-Pulse and Mumbai City. Hopefully the security guards at all of those places knew who he was.
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