FROM warming the bench at Whitby Town to posing for pictures in sofa shops in sub-Arctic Sweden, Jamie Hopcutt’s rise to European football has been an unlikely one.
Six years ago, Hopcutt was facing up to a career in ruins when he was told by York City chief Gary Mills that his services were no longer required, plunging him into a series of brief and unsuccessful stints on the northern non-league circuit.
Last week, having scored a stunning goal in the first leg, Hopcutt was starring again for Swedish minnows Ostersund as they claimed a 3-1 aggregate win over Galatasaray at their notorious Ali Sami Yen stadium in Istanbul to reach the third qualifying round of the UEFA Europa League.
The Ostersund odyssey continues tomorrow when Hopcutt’s team, managed by another former York man, Graham Potter, take on Luxembourg’s Fola Esch at what is likely to be a sold-out Jamtkraft Arena in the central Swedish city, where temperatures have been known to plunge below minus 35 degrees Celsius.
“When I was released by York I was only 19 and I thought my career was already over,” said Hopcutt. “Looking back, I’m thankful it happened because with respect, I was never going to play in the Europa League with York.
“I was being sent out on loan to places like Whitby when I got an email inviting me to a trial day at Warwick University. I scored a hat-trick and got a call from Graham, and he invited me over to Sweden to see how I liked it.”
When I was released by York I was only 19 and I thought my career was already over. Looking back, I’m thankful it happened because with respect, I was never going to play in the Europa League with York.Jamie Hopcutt
The Ostersund revolution under Potter, who played for Birmingham and Stoke as well as briefly in the Premier League for Southampton, was already gathering pace.
Potter had lifted the club from the fourth to the second tier in Sweden, defying home crowds which initially numbered in the hundreds and a general apathy among locals more enthused by ice hockey and the city’s status as a biathlon World Cup venue.
“It was difficult at first,” acknowledged Hopcutt. “I’d only ever lived at home with my mum and dad, and when I arrived at the airport it was a bit of a shock. The place was full of snow and I was alone in an apartment and I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing.
“But what’s happened here since has been crazy. We had 10,000 people watching the Galatasaray match on a big screen, and they waited hours to cheer us back at the airport. Last week, I was out shopping for a sofa with my fiancee and I got stopped and asked for pictures.”
Hopcutt’s form – he scored 15 goals in the club’s promotion campaign and six goals already in this – has attracted attention with clubs like Aston Villa and Brighton reportedly lining up bids in the region of £1.5m.
“Obviously, Jamie Vardy (England and former Halifax striker) has shown that it can be done and you’ve just got to heed his example and see what happens,” he said.
But there is more to the Ostersund story than meets the eye. The club’s domestic rise, which culminated in promotion to the top tier Allsvenskan in 2015 and winning the Swedish Cup earlier this year, has been forged upon an unlikely cultural backbone.
Under the direction of club chairman Daniel Kindberg players are required to participate in parallel cultural activities that included a full production of the ballet Swan Lake in front of 500 local connoisseurs at the city’s theatre.
Painting lessons have followed, some members of the squad have become published authors, and Hopcutt and his team-mates are juggling Europa League preparations with workshops on the indigenous Sami people.
Hopcutt added: “It takes you out of your comfort zone, but it’s been great for team bonding. I had a part in Swan Lake, but I’m still a shocking dancer. But, just like when you’re playing football, it’s all about trying to perform on the day. I don’t know how it would have gone down at York, but it’s working up here.”