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Swedish minnows Ostersunds FK have come a long way in a short time.
From playing in front of a few hundred fans in the fourth tier as recently as 2011, on Thursday they face Luxembourg’s Fola Esch on the next step of their Europa League journey.
And leading them on the way are a seasoned English coach, a York City youth product who never made it beyond the Northern Premier League, and a former army officer who wants his players to perform in a Tchaikovsky ballet.
At 19, Jamie Hopcutt was released by home town club York City and feared his professional football career was over soon after beginning.
Now 25, he is starring for Ostersunds in Sweden’s top division and playing European football.
The midfielder helped his side to a 3-1 aggregate win over Turkish giants Galatasaray in Istanbul last week, after scoring in the first leg, to reach the third qualifying round of the Europa League.
But six years ago it was a different story.
“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,” Hopcutt said.
It was Ostersunds manager Graham Potter – another former York player – who invited Hopcutt to join them in 2012.
Hopcutt scored 15 goals last season as Ostersunds were promoted to the Allsvenskan, the Swedish top flight.
He has six goals this term, and Aston Villa and Brighton are reportedly preparing bids in the region of £1.5m.
“I’ve made a life out here but one day I’d like to come back to England,” said Hopcutt, whose journey echoes that made by Leicester City’s former non-league striker Jamie Vardy.
“Obviously Jamie Vardy has shown everyone that it can be done,” he said.
‘I’m still a shocking dancer’
Potter, who played for clubs including Birmingham and Stoke as well as briefly in the Premier League for Southampton, has enjoyed success in his management career.
The 42-year-old has lifted Ostersund from the fourth to the top tier. They also won the Swedish Cup last season – giving them a route into this season’s Europa League.
And what stands out in their success is the club’s requirement that players take part in cultural activities in addition to their football – such as their recent production of Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake in front of 500 local residents at the city’s theatre.
That is something that is being driven by club chairman Daniel Kindberg, a former lieutenant in the Swedish army.
“The chairman is big on holistic development of players,” Potter explained.
“Running a culture academy alongside football training will help us be braver as footballers,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.
“I had to do a routine with a partner, which was very difficult. I’m still a shocking dancer but, just like when you’re playing football, it’s all about trying to perform on the day,” said Hopcutt.
“I don’t know how it would have gone down at York, but it’s certainly working up here.”
There have also been painting lessons, some players have become published authors, and they are currently juggling Europa League preparations with workshops on the indigenous Sami people of the Swedish Arctic.
“It takes you out of your comfort zone but it’s been great for team bonding and I’m sure it helped us prepare for occasions like Istanbul,” Hopcutt added.
Ostersund face Fola Esch at the 8,500-capacity Jamtkraft Arena in the Swedish city on Thursday.
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