Spaceman, hard man, snow man, top man. Former Arsenal and Sunderland midfielder Stefan Schwarz was all these types of men and more…
When George Graham was asked in the summer of 1994 who Arsenal’s £1.8m Swedish signing Stefan Schwarz reminded him of, he pondered for a moment and replied, “A young Robert Redford.” It turned out to be an apt description for the classy midfielder, who showed plenty of star quality during two spells in English football, first at Highbury and later at Sunderland. Simultaneously a rugged warrior once voted Sweden’s sixth hardest man, and a deep thinker intrigued by the prospect of space travel, Schwarz was more complex than the average footballer.
The Arsenal he joined in 1994 was a very different beast to the one of today. Fans getting agitated about a lack of league titles, a legendary manager losing his touch… Well, maybe not a completely different beast. But still, it was a side about to enter a tricky transitional period between the pragmatic Graham and the exotic Arsene Wenger.
“The old guard looked like they’d lost their spirit and desire that season, but if there was one positive it was Stefan Schwarz,” recalled one fan on the Online Gooner website.
“He was more technically gifted than the other plums we had running about in our midfield,” said another, while Schwarz was also described by Gunners supporters as “the sort of player Arsenal had been craving - hard tackling and could also use the ball” and commended for his “decent left peg”.
This appendage was to the fore in the Swede’s finest hour in north London red-and-white - a spectacular injury-time piledriver against Sampdoria that helped drag the jubilant Gunners into the European Cup Winners’ Cup final, where an ill-fated halfway-line reunion with Nayim awaited.
That dramatic extra-time defeat to Real Zaragoza was Schwarz’s last game for Arsenal. He left the club after just one season, leaving Gunners fans wondering what might have been.
“I loved him as a player and was gutted when he left. He could have been a major star for us if he stayed around,” lamented one Gooner. Another said it felt like the Gunners “hadn’t lived up to his expectations” and a fellow fan labelled Schwarz “one that got away”.
Arsenal’s loss was Fiorentina’s gain, as Schwarz spent the next few years shining in Serie A and later in La Liga with Valencia, but that wasn’t the last we’d seen of him. In 1999, Sunderland brought the 31-year-old back to the Premier League, but first they had to iron out some complications with his contract.
It emerged during negotiations that Schwarz was booked on the next flight to space. That’s right, space. In 1999, the first commercial passenger flights beyond the Earth’s atmosphere had been tentatively pencilled in for 2002 - and Schwarz had already put his name down. Sunderland’s directors, nervous the Swede might swerve a rainy night in Bolton to check out Jupiter instead, inserted a “Space Clause” into his contract prohibiting all inter-galactic travel during his stint on Wearside.
“One day it could become quite acceptable to put such clauses in various contracts,” predicted Sunderland’s chief executive John Fickling, who is probably quite disappointed that it’s 2015 and footballers still don’t have their own spaceships.
Despite the unusual start to Schwarz’s Sunderland career, the club’s fans were quickly over the moon with their new signing as he boldly took them where no one had before - namely successive seventh-place finishes in the Premier League.
“They don’t make them like that anymore,” said one wistful supporter, presumably just after watching Lee Cattermole’s latest midfield display.
Many Wearsiders regard Schwarz as the Black Cats’ best player of recent times. His legendary status was assured when, during one bleak north-east winter, he was arrested for chasing a group of young Newcastle fans who had been throwing snowballs at his car. Full details of the altercation were never disclosed, but the fact that one of the fleeing teenagers suffered a broken ankle during the incident was enough to endear him forever to Sunderland’s fans.
His hard man reputation was also cemented during his days playing for Sweden’s national side, when he broke his leg during a match against Scotland and attempted to “run it off”.
After hanging up his boots in 2003, Schwarz became a football agent while cultivating a flowing blonde hairdo that looked so ludicrous it threatened to undermine all his previous achievements. Thankfully, a recent haircut safeguarded his status as a Sweden and Sunderland legend. There’s just one thing missing: he still hasn’t been to space.
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