Until the final moments of Ostersunds FK’s Europa League win over Galatasaray last Thursday, the best thing ever to happen to Jamie Hopcutt in football was being released by York City.
It was an inauspicious start to a career that has been on an upward trajectory ever since, topped off with a brilliant injury-time goal to seal a famous 2-0 victory over the Turkish giants.
“I’ve dreamt about scoring a goal like that,” Hopcutt told The Set Pieces. “My parents had come out to watch me and to score that type of goal in that type of game in front of them was just amazing. It was one of the best moments I’ll probably have in my career.”
It wasn’t always like this for Hopcutt, who had to deal with being rejected by hometown club York as a teenager.
“It was tough to take. I was at York for ten years from eight to 18, so to go all the way to the first team and then to not get a chance was tough at the time. But looking back now I am thankful it happened.”
After a period playing in non-league for Ossett Town and Tadcaster Albion, Hopcutt received an email that changed his life forever. New Ostersunds manager and former York City defender Graham Potter was recruiting players for his third-tier Swedish side.
“I had a few trials with Brentford and places like that while I was playing at Tadcaster. After a few months I luckily saw an email for trials with Ostersunds – knowing the manager Graham – and the rest is history.
“I travelled to Warwick with my mum and dad, we had a trial match and I scored three goals. The next morning I met Graham in York and we decided I would go over for three months and see how I like it.”
Those three months have turned into five years for Hopcutt, who has recently been linked with a move to Brighton in the Premier League. The 25-year-old’s spell at Ostersunds has coincided with the club climbing from Sweden’s regional divisions to the top flight and now the Europa League, thanks to victory in the Swedish Cup last season.
“Coming here was a new experience and I did not expect us to get where we are now. I was just happy to be playing football full-time. There were four or five English lads, plus the manager so that helped me settle in.
“Halfway through the (2015) season we had a big belief we could get promotion. When we did, it was one of the best feelings in football, and it just carried on, signing better players each year and the club being more ambitious. It’s just gone from strength to strength and it’s non-stop with the amount of success we’ve had.”
Hopcutt is full of praise for fellow Englishman Potter, who has been the driving force behind Ostersunds’ rise.
His unconventional methods of making his players perform Swan Lake and host art exhibitions might not suit many footballers, but the club’s success have proved they work. In the process, Hopcutt has gone from an unwanted man in his own country to one of Sweden’s most high-profile players.
“I’ve done it all! We’ve done a theatre play, we’ve done painting, we’ve done dancing, we’ve done singing, I’ve been part of every one and it doesn’t get any easier each year! It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone but it has helped us come together as a team, so it seems to be working.
“The manager has been really, really good for me, he’s put his trust in me. We live in a small town in the north of Sweden, so not a lot of people want to come up here. He’s used his ways to get players who have ability but haven’t really had the chances in football and just want to come here to improve and concentrate on that.
“He gives you all the advice and knowledge you need to become a better footballer. The style of football we play is what every footballer wants to play. We play against teams and the players want to come here due to the way the manager has us playing. He also cares about how you are as a person, not just a footballer, he wants you to grow as a person.”
Just as things were going so well for Ostersunds and Hopcutt, he suffered a double leg break in his Swedish top-flight debut at the start of last season. The injury ruled him out for the rest of the campaign, although he was brought on for the last few seconds of the cup final.
“It was a big low in this journey. We’d won promotion, I’d won player of the year, I was top goalscorer for the league the year before, and everyone in Sweden was excited to see me in the top league. And then in the first game I broke my leg. It was devastating but it’s made me stronger. I’ve come back in a good way and I’ve shown that I am ready for fighting and I can still perform at a high level.”
After a solid start to their second season in Sweden’s Allsvenskan, Ostersunds were drawn to face Galatasaray in the Europa League second qualifying round, a tie few gave them a chance of winning. But Hopcutt and his teammates have upset the odds before, and they were confident of posing a threat to their illustrious opponents.
“We were on the way to training one morning and the draw was live on the radio. It was called out and it was a crazy feeling. There was nothing to lose for us. We knew it was going to be tough but we had a strong belief inside the dressing room that if we played the way we had this season we could cause them problems.
“I was watching from the sidelines (at the start of Thursday’s game) and in the opening 30 minutes we were really good and matched them in every department. At half time everyone had belief that we could win and we managed to get the goal, sat back a little bit and I was just hoping to get the shout. The manager put me on and from then it’s gone perfectly.”
Evading the despairing Galatasaray defence, Hopcutt worked his way into a shooting position and slid the ball past Uruguayan No.1 Fernando Muslera. It capped a fairytale story for Ostersunds, who are now looking to go one step further when they take a two-goal lead into the second leg in Istanbul.
It’s a game Hopcutt knows won’t be easy but no one in the team is afraid of going to ‘hell’.
“As soon as the draw, each player received about 50 messages (from Galatasaray fans) saying ‘Welcome to Hell’ so we knew what was going to happen. On Thursday they had 300 fans and it was so loud, so God knows what it will be like with 30,000-plus.
“It’ll make us better as players and we’re definitely ready for the occasion. If we can sneak an away goal it will give us a massive chance to go through to the next round.”
Whatever happens in Turkey, Hopcutt has enjoyed a miraculous rise through the game and his story isn’t over yet.
“When I first came some of the grounds were like non-league in England, with a few hundred watching, on horrible grass pitches. Now it’s big arenas, nice pitches and I’m enjoying every moment.”