Exclusive Interview – ‘Proud’ Erik Sviatchenko speaks to Matt Corr about Celtic

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CELTIC author Matt Corr spoke to former Hoops hero Erik Sviatchenko, The Celtic Star today carries the full and exclusive interview with one of our Invincible heroes from season 2016/17.

Erik Sviatchenko signed for Celtic on January 2016 when Ronny Deila spent £1.5m to bring in the rugged central defender from Midtjylland.  There was a change of manager that summer at Celtic when the Norwegian was replaced by the former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.

Some supporters believe that Erik  was simply not a Brendan Rodgers type player, but as the Celtic Wiki points out, he still managed a wealth of games under him. Celtic continued to have centre-half problems throughout the 2017-18 season, and even whilst away there were the odd call from some that he should return and was better than the incumbents. Few were convinced this was a solution. The Celtic Wiki continued…

“He played a good role in the wonderful treble winning Invincible season that saw Celtic go undefeated domestically. For that he deserves much respect. He came and integrated very well socially with the supporters, a much welcome sight. There were also plenty who wished he could have stayed for longer. We hope him the best. A likeable, affable character and a fair player too.”

Matt Corr speaking to Erik Sviatchenko for The Celtic Star…

Matt Corr – Firstly Erik, thank you so much for taking the time out to talk to The Celtic Star about your time at Celtic and that Invincible season in particular.

Erik Sviatchenko – Not at all, Matt. It will be a pleasure to catch up and share some great memories. We loved our time in Scotland. In fact, my son William was born there. We have so many good memories of Scotland.

Matt Corr – I have to ask…was William called after William Wallace?

Erik Sviatchenko – (Laughs). Yes! Braveheart. It was a good choice. The name William works in Danish and in Russian also.

Matt Corr – Can you recall the first time you heard of Celtic Football Club? How old were you and what was the context?

Erik Sviatchenko – Ah! I’ve never been asked that before. It was through a really good friend of mine back in Denmark. He was a big Celtic fan. Do you remember those Martin O’Neill masks, with the holes cut out for the eyes? Well, he had two of those and I remember putting those on. I would be around 10 or 11-years-old then. Strange to think that years later, when I was 24-years-old, I would become a Celtic player.

Matt Corr – Who was your favourite team growing up in Denmark and why?

Erik Sviatchenko – For me, when I was young, I was more of a general football fan. I had no particular affiliation with a Danish team, as such. Growing up, I favoured Real Madrid and Chelsea. I liked the individual players and, in particular, Hernan Crespo. He was a striker, as was I, and he had that long hair, just as I had. I would be around 14 or 15 before I became a central defender.

Matt Corr – When were you first aware that Celtic wanted to sign you and how much did you know about the club and its history before you joined?

Erik Sviatchenko – I remember that very well. It would be early January 2016. We had played a training game and I was in the gym, in charge of the music. My agent phoned me, which was unusual during training hours, so I took the call.

He said, “Listen, Erik, Celtic are quite keen to sign you.” I was excited. Celtic are a big club, offering European football. And those fans…At that stage of my career, I felt ready for a bigger challenge.

I was already a champion in Denmark. There was a possibility for me to play in a bigger League, with interests from two teams in Italy and one in Germany. I felt that this would be a good step for me, a club with big ambitions and where the expectations are high.

You must ‘win in style.’ I thought back to an interview I had seen with John Terry at Chelsea, where he spoke of ‘playing for the fans.’ I wanted to experience that. This may sound strange but I also felt that the ‘Scottish mentality’ would be a good fit for me. Despite the other interest, as soon as I was made aware of the Celtic possibility, I immediately just got a good feeling about it.

Matt Corr –  Am I right in saying that you passed up the opportunity to play in European football for Midtjylland against Manchester United to join Celtic?

Erik Sviatchenko – Yes. That’s true. We were on holiday in Dubai when the draw was made. I was thinking even at that time that I would probably not have played, as there was already interest from Celtic and I was looking to play at a different level.

Matt Corr – I seem to recall that Midtjylland won the home leg?

Erik Sviatchenko – We did (laughs). I mean they did. It was 2-1 in Denmark. I was delighted. They have amazing fans at Midtjylland, just not the big numbers. We lost over two legs, sadly. It was 5-1 at Old Trafford.

Matt Corr – You signed for the club in January 2016 and were thrown in at the deep end, coming off the bench at Hampden for your debut in the League Cup semi-final against Ross County, with Celtic reduced to ten men after the dismissal of Efe Ambrose. What are your own memories of that occasion?

Erik Sviatchenko – The word ‘ambivalent’ springs to mind but overall it was an amazing feeling. Many players have to wait six months to make their debuts. They train. They get ready. I had had a break of four weeks and so it was a good feeling to be thrown into the game, although it was a terrible feeling at the end.

Having to deal with such a disappointing result. Scott Brown stood up and made it clear that this was a big embarrassment. It gave me a taste of what to expect, that this cannot happen. We have to be much better.

Personally, I felt I had played well, so, strangely, it should have been a joyful moment for me personally, however, the result meant that it would be a horrible night for our supporters so that was more important.

Matt Corr – Do you recall scoring your first goal for Celtic? The match involved, the goal itself and how it felt when the ball hit the net?

Erik Sviatchenko – It was very similar to my debut. Again, it was at Hampden and I had that same feeling, coming on for Dedryk (Boyata) after 25/30 minutes. Kenny Miller had already scored. I remember thinking, ‘This is quite surreal. This is a historical, legendary game, one of the biggest games in Europe and perhaps in the top ten in the world.’

In terms of the goal…I still get goosebumps. I rose and I met it, like a ‘hammer with the head.’ It went in like a shot. I jumped five metres up into the air and ran towards the supporters. It was such an intense, emotional feeling.

I had joined the list of names, the Celtic greats, who had scored in this fixture. At the end, just like my debut, there was that weird thing. That this was such a big moment for me but we had lost. The only sad thing was that we could have won the game. The next time we played them, we were under new management and we showed that we were far better.

It was that magical 5-1 game.

Matt Corr – You lived every Celtic supporter’s dream, Erik, by coming on at Hampden in the Scottish Cup final against Aberdeen, as we closed in on an unprecedented INVINCIBLE Treble. Can you explain how you felt coming onto the pitch and your emotions as you walked around the stadium at the end?

Erik Sviatchenko – It’s funny when you think about that time. You get those feelings again. That amazing thing. The feeling of having done something which had never been done before.

Being on the bench for the Scottish Cup final was one thing. But coming on to the Hampden pitch… And then that feeling of joy at the end. Of professional pride. We never spoke about an INVINCIBLE Treble. Never.

Brendan Rodgers presented slideshows where we were given ‘goals to achieve’ but we never spoke about that. It was an incredible feeling, at the end. Taking it in with my teammates as we walked around the stadium. Feeling it. The same as the fans. I picked up a Danish flag and tied it around my waist. I had dreamt of this day since childhood.

Wearing my national flag in a foreign country, on such a special occasion. Living the dream.

Matt Corr – You returned to Midtjylland on loan, Erik, following the injury you received early the following season, with that then becoming a permanent move in the spring of 2018. What were the main factors in your decision to stay in Denmark?

Erik Sviatchenko – I had two amazing years prior to returning to Denmark. The entire year of 2016 was amazing, those months with Ronny and then Brendan Rodgers came in.

I think there is sometimes a misunderstanding about what Brendan thought about me as a player. That perhaps I wasn’t his kind of player? That’s not actually true.

We were really close to each other. We were in Slovenia, pre-season, when he came over to me and said, “I’ve seen you play. I want to build the team around you.” He gave me really good indicators as to how I could develop, with and without the ball. I couldn’t have asked for more. He pushed me. Made me a Champions League player. I was in the side which won the League Cup against Aberdeen. I played something like 46 games that season.

Then it changed in January 2017. I hadn’t been fully fit but we had played 8 or 9 games in December. A really hectic schedule. But I was playing well. I had scored against Ross County just a few days before the game at Ibrox on Hogmanay.

Some people said I was at fault for the first goal that day but I made a tackle in the 85th minute which was vital in securing the win. That was as important as a goal in many ways. The first game after the break was a Scottish Cup-tie, away to Albion Rovers. I had a yellow card suspension carried forward from that game against Rangers at Hampden the previous season. Dedryk (Boyata) came in for that game. He had only made one appearance previously under Brendan, a night match at Kilmarnock. Brendan put his arm around me and said, “Everything will be fine.”

Dedryk played really well but again Brendan said, “Don’t worry.” Then, for the first League game, against St Johnstone, I was on the bench. I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ Now as I reflect and look back, I would sit out much of the next three or four games, as Dedryk and Jozo started together.

Dedryk actually scored a couple of match-winning goals in midweek games at Celtic Park at that time. I am not the kind of player to make scenes when I don’t start. This is just part of football. And then we were in the Dakota Hotel before the game against St Johnstone in Perth at the beginning of February, when I learned that Jozo had suffered a groin injury.

You never want to see a teammate injured but in football sometimes, sadly, that is where the opportunities arise, so there is something in the back of your mind which says, ‘This is my chance.’ Anyway, Brendan comes to me and says, “Erik, you’re starting.”

I played well in that 5-2 victory and I was in the team again the next week (a 6-0 home win over Inverness Caledonian Thistle in the Scottish Cup) but then I was back on the bench for the next game, against Motherwell, and Jozo played. But only for one game. The following week, I was back in the team as Brendan made a few changes for the Hamilton game and many folk thought I was the man-of-the-match that day. I was sitting on a bike in the gym just after that when Brendan walked in and said, “This is the way I want you to play.”

I stayed in the team which played at Inverness and in a 4-1 win over St Mirren in the Scottish Cup, when Chris Sutton’s brother played against us. And I also started the following week against Rangers at home in a 1-1 draw. They attacked us from the first minute but we still tried to play our game. I played an ok game. So I had been a virtual ever-present in the team all the way through February until the international break in mid-March but then I was third choice after that. I would get a game against the likes of Partick Thistle and Ross County, when the squad was rotated. Otherwise, I was on the bench.

In the summer, we were at our training camp in Austria when Dedryk got injured and I came on for him. Brendan spoke with me, telling me that he knew what kind of level I could reach. This was my time. But I had a groin strain for 7-10 days pre-season, prior to the qualifiers, then, in the away game at Rosenborg, I was injured after 25 minutes. It was an MCL (medial collateral ligament) injury, so I was out for three months, basically August, September and half of October.

Dedryk was playing really well at that time. I really wanted to be playing again, to show what I could do but that opportunity never came. To end those two amazing years with an injury was a bit of a blow. I felt really sad that I never had the chance to say farewell to the Celtic supporters. But now that’s all in the past. I have so many amazing memories of all the good stuff instead.

In January 2018, we were at our training camp in Dubai. I guess I had realised by then that Brendan would never change a winning team. I knew I had to have game time. It was a really difficult call. I wanted to show myself again and needed games to do so. Midtjylland was the right choice at that moment.

I had a really successful six months back at Midtjylland. They knew me. What I was capable of. That was a really important factor. It was a safe choice but the right choice. We won the title again and I felt I was getting back to a level of performance that I was satisfied with. I was captain and one of the most important players. Would that be the level I would be going back to at Celtic? Or would I be third or fourth choice? All those feelings.

I would love for the Celtic fans to see how I’m playing now, because I know and feel that I’ve become even better than I was back in Glasgow. We won the championship again in 2018 and the Danish Cup the following year, and we were leading the League last season until the last 10 games but lost our breath a bit.

This season though, we have been outstanding so far, conceding only 18 goals. And personally, it has been nice to hear my name get mentioned when folk speak about their Player of the Year. So, on a personal level, I couldn’t have dreamed or asked for more, having started here as a 14-year-old.

Interview continues on the next page….

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About Author

The Celtic Star founder and editor, who has edited numerous Celtic books over the past decade or so including several from Lisbon Lions, Willie Wallace, Tommy Gemmell and Jim Craig. Earliest Celtic memories include a win over East Fife at Celtic Park and the 4-1 League Cup loss to Partick Thistle as a 6 year old. Best game? Easy 4-2, 1979 when Ten Men Won the League. Email editor@thecelticstar.co.uk

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