ASK ANY Premiership manager and he will tell you, only half jokingly, that his life is brutally hard,
filled with aggro and probably driving him to an early grave.
The players, too, would cough up a few moans and groans about pressure, hassle and living under the media spotlight. But there is no job in England´s 92 league clubs which does not pale into insignificance compared with the death threats, letter bombs and violent intimidation which are the way of life at AIK Stockholm. The club, chasing the Swedish title, produced Coventry goalkeeper Magnus Hedman have former Arsenal winger Anders Limpar as their playmaker, employ Spurs target Johan Mjällby in midfield and are managed by a scot, Stuart Baxter. There, an early grave is a prospect which player and staff do not joke about. They have too much genuine fear of it every day. Pure evil runs unchecked among nasty hard core och AIK fans whos threaten players´ wives and children send incendiary devices to club staff and kneecap fellow supporters over drug debts. AIK´s British connections go further as it was in their stadium that Chelsea won last season´s Cup-winners´ Cup and where England last month. Despite the links, AIK could not be further divorced from the normality of the Premiership if they played home games on Mars.
It defies belief that people who pursue a living in sport are subject to such barbaric conditions. Before England´s recent Stockholm international, keeper Hedman gave an interview in which he admitted how close he had been been to becoming one of those criminals who populate the Råsunda stadium in support of AIK. Hedman said: "Without sport I would have been an criminal, although perhaps my parents might have saved me. Those of my friends who went bad had it really tough, but when I say they have gone bad, I mean heavy criminality." By heavy criminality he means people who run drugs, send bombs, carry guns and threaten women and small children. They have AIK in such grip of terror that players are often prevented from transferring because The Firm, the most dangerous fan group, would not like it. Bodyguards travel with the squad and Stockholm´s police spend more time in and around the club than in the local cop-shop. It is difficult to get anyone to speak openly about the horrific conditions in the otherwise delightful Swedish capital. But some are willing to describe the most frightening episode this season, one in wich two lives were nearly lost.
A club insider said: "We all took a much different view of the threats when they sent a letter bomb to the head of AIK security. He already knew that they were out to get him but these guys were smart about it. They sent something purporting to have a video in it but he checked it out when it was delivered and could feel there were wires attached so he put it in a bin and called bomb disposal. They sent a robot bombhandling device and it turned out to be an explosive which they said would have blown up his flat, killing him and his wife." The shock waves from such a callous crime gave weight to the daily threats which come from the club´s own fan base.
One evening this season, several allaged Firm members turned up at the swish Stockholm restaurant owned by Limpar. The ran up a bill of about £1,000, which was left unpaid, even unconsidered, as the group walked out. Chased by the Maitred´, the thugs allegedly retorted that if Limpar wanted the money, he would have to improve his perfomances and if the point was pushed, he might not even have a restaurant the next day.
Manager Baxter came into even more direct contact with people so frightening that he sent his family away to another part of the country for protection. Having drawn 1-1 against a lowly side this season, the Stockholm manager was told by the special police that five Firm members were demanding to see him. In a face-to-face confrontation with one particularly threatening individual, Baxter is understood to have argued against their threats and established an uneasy truce. Police reports confirm that the same fan with whom Baxter shared the stand-off then left the stadium, went to The Firm´s local bar near the stadium and shot someone in the knee for a £200 drug debt.
Gradually, the local police are trying to stem this tide of violence but, in the meantime, the club captain has been stopped in the city centre and told that his play had better shape up because "we know where your children go to school".
Baxter has AIK three points clear at the top of the league with only three games left. He is also a close confudant of Arsene Wenger with whom he swaps coaching expertise in a relationship wich was founded during their time in Japanese football. Baxter is at the cutting edge of fitness training and is respected throughout the European game. It is ironic that he should land in this situation after his last posting found him in the Japanese city of Kobe, where he avoided the earthquake which killed 6.000 people only because he was scouting for players in Portugal. He is the man who persuaded Micheal Laudrup to play in Japan and has already turned down offers from Sampdoria, Bordeaux and Paris Saint-Germain to apply his magic touch. Interestingly. he chose Sweden for its quality of life. Somehow his street savvy, his mixture of bullishness and quick brain, has formed a truce of sorts with the Firm. The truce is based on results which has taken AIK to the top of the league, no surprise given that Baxter has won titles in a handful of countries, including Japan, where he took the J.Legue crown with Sanfrecce Hiroshima.
But the respect Baxter carries, after a number of death threats and aggressive promises about his family, is most firmly traced to an incident after defeat in his first Stockholm derby against Hammarby. The club insider recalled: "The Firm incited the crowd to riot and burst onto the pitch while they went around the stadium to try to break in and fight the Hammarby supporters. The AIK players had been warming down but when the fans stormed the pitch, the all sprinted for the dressing room. Baxter ran the other way and tried, single- handedly, to force the fans back by demanding what the hell they thought they were doing." Now the stadium carries banners stating that the fans are "Baxter´s bodyguards", showing how fickle the thugs can be.
Hedman knows the type and remembers running with their like from his earliest days at AIK. He said: "I still see them when I go back, hanging around the stairs of a nightclub trying to make a "rumble". They´ve never escaped the same old mantality"
It is a mentality which makes AIK Stockholm probably the most dangerous European club to play or work for.