He was the goalkeeper who never stopped moving. As a teenager, he won a historic Swedish title. Later he became a pioneer in Scotland. With the United States, he lost to Mussolini but helped defeat Hitler. Meet Julius Hjulian – a forgotten footballer of firsts.
Legend has it that the English monk Eskil was sent to Sweden in the middle of the 11th century. His mission: to convert the stubborn heathens west of current-day Stockholm. The result: after interrupting a traditional sacrifice to the gods, Eskil was predictably stoned to death. His few brave supporters carried away the corpse, but after 30 kilometres it became unbearably heavy. Once the body was laid down, a spring of water shot up from the ground. Of course, a church had to be built at that very site. Around it, Eskilstuna evolved.
By the early 20th century, Eskilstuna had grown into an important industrial city, dubbed “The Sheffield of Sweden” by Anglophile journalists, due to its steel and iron production.
Population increased rapidly. Carl August Hjulin was one of those who had come in search of work - and found it, shuffling coal onto locomotives. With time, he advanced to actually driving the trains. In 1909, he was also elected to city council, representing the burgeoning Social Democratic Party.
Carl August and Emma Hjulin’s youngest son was born in 1903. After eight years of schooling, Julius crossed the rails – the family quite literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks, in the overcrowded working-class neighbourhood of Nyfors – to find work in one of Eskilstuna’s many small factories or workshops. The 17-year old is listed as a turner in the 1920 church records.
However, he was most likely unemployed (Sweden had managed to avoid World War I, but not the post-war recession). In the meantime, young Julius turned to sports. He tried his hand at both boxing and wrestling, but was drawn between the goalposts.
As with Christianity, the Brits had brought the football gospel to Sweden. Örgryte of Gothenburg had won the first national title in 1896. A quarter of a century later, teams from the two major cities continued to dominate – no club from outside of Stockholm/Gothenburg had ever won the knockout championship tournament. Certainly not IFK Eskilstuna. “The Blue Tops”, formed in 1897, led the way locally thanks to strong support from the upper echelons of the city. But nationally, IFK had failed to make an impression. In the spring of 1921, IFK finished ninth out of ten teams in an early version of the national league.
Fortunes soon started to change, though. When the championship tournament started in the fall, IFK first received a bye. Then two Stockholm teams were defeated. 1–0, 1–0.
Suddenly, IFK were to play a semi-final at the Olympic Stadium in Stockholm. It was all supposed to end there – Helsingborg were clear favourites. Especially with their goal being tended by the new star of the national team: Sigge Lindberg, who would soon turn down an offer from Arsenal.
IFK relied on 18-year old Julius. After two clean sheets in the early rounds, he now came up with the big save in the dying minutes. Eskilstuna’s one-goal lead survived. From Norrköping, more sensational news came in: the home team Sleipner had defeated Örgryte in the second semi-final. For the first time ever, two “countryside” teams would meet in the showpiece game.
October 16, 1921. A Sunday, but the Central Station platform was still crowded at 6 a.m. An extra train had been arranged to carry IFK Eskilstuna’s supporters on the four hour journey to Stockholm. Who knows – maybe Carl August Hjulin was the driver?
Three weeks earlier, his Social Democrats had won a historic election. For the first time, (almost) all Swedish men and women had been allowed to vote. Perhaps the Sleipner camp saw it as a lucky omen. They were the blue-collar club in Norrköping. Now, the fancy IFK Eskilstuna were to be defeated, too. Fans poured into the capital. Stockholmers also took an interest in the unusual final. 11,075 spectators – plus 620 non-paying conscriptees – set a new record for the title decider.
They were treated to a stale first half. For the second, Sleipner (named after the Norse god Odin’s eight-legged horse) came out kicking. Julius Hjulin was caught napping. When the clouds above the stadium brick walls suddenly cleared, he was blinded by the bright low October sun. A Sleipner shot, a futile late attempt to save. 0–1.
He had to brush it off, as IFK worked their way back into the game. When Gösta Pettersson finally equalised, Julius rushed upfield to hug the teammate who had saved him from eternal ridicule. When Henning Olsson scored the winner, six minutes from time, Julius turned to the stands with his arms raised. Then he pulled his cap as far down as it would go, and spit into the palms of his hands. But no more saves were required. In the stands – and in the main square in Eskilstuna – celebrations broke out.
That Monday, the Von Rosen trophy was displayed in a local shop window. Then reality returned to Eskilstuna. Unemployment continued to rise, no matter who was in charge. By 1922, a quarter of the population would be out of a job. Many grew tired of waiting and emigrated to the United States. Julius’s older brother Paulinus had been one of them. Being a footballer did not help, since the Swedish game was still strictly amateur. In November 1922, Carl August had saved up enough money for another ticket. Julius Hjulin, 19, was lost to Swedish football.
Over the last 20 years, a string of Swedes have found success at Scottish giants Celtic FC. The full-back Mikael Lustig is the latest, a permanent fixture in last season’s treble-winning side. Magnus Hedman and Johan Mjällby were in the squad that reached the 2003 Uefa Cup final. The greatest is of course Henrik Larsson, who scored 174 goals between 1997 and 2004.
But Julius Hjulian was the first.
Hjulian? Yes, he changed his name upon arrival at Ellis Island in New York. He continued to Chicago, where he found work with the railroad car manufacturer Pullman. Julius was also signed up for the factory-sponsored “soccer” team, on condition that he avoid working night shifts. Pullman FC won the Illinois state championship – the Peel Cup – in 1923, and Julius was recruited to Harvey FC.
He described himself as a brave goalkeeper. Not particularly tall, but powerful and quick off his line. Julius said that while playing for Harvey, a group of travelling English referees spotted his talent. They recommended that he try his luck in Britain. And Julius was never one to hesitate.
In 1925, he travelled back across the Atlantic. He stayed with friends in Glasgow, and earned his first trial with Second Division Clyde FC. After a successful session, word travelled quickly. The 16-time champions also wanted to see Julius in action.
Almost 50 years later, Julius told a Swedish newspaper the story of his first Celtic practice. There were no football boots available for him, so he had to wear his regular shoes while the Celtic stars fired away at him. “My hands were aching, my feet slipped and I thought I performed badly. When I returned to the dressing room, I had given up hope of playing Division One football.” But Willie Maley, the legendary Celtic manager who had been in charge since 1897, wanted him to sign a contract. Julius thereby became the first known Swede to play professionally on the British Isles. He definitely was the first Scandinavian at Celtic.
According to his 1973 interview, Julius received £200, plus match bonuses. Those did not amount to much, as Peter Shevlin remained Celtic’s undisputed number one. Julius is said to have played only three games for the club, since the reserve team had been scrapped for the 1925/26 season. The campaign ended with Celtic winning the league, but losing the Cup final following a Shevlin error. The next winter, after more mistakes, he was replaced by John Thomson.
Not by Julius, who had already left. He returned to Eskilstuna in the summer of 1926, playing one final (exhibition) game for IFK. He also trained the team that autumn. Then he was lost again.
May 27, 1934. Twelve Swedes took the field on that historic afternoon. Eleven in Bologna, where Sweden made their World Cup debut against Argentina. One in Rome. Representing the United States.
Julius hopped on another America-bound ship in 1926, heading back to Chicago. Now he found a job with the steam-pipe-producing Crane Company. It was discovered that he could interpret the most complicated blueprints, something he had picked up during his youth in Eskilstuna. When the Great Depression struck, Julius was safe at Crane, working in the engineering department. He continued his goalkeeping career as well, representing Sparta ABA FC and then Chicago Bricklayers (later renamed the Wieboldt Wonderbolts). Both won the Peel Cup. And then there was another Cup.
The American national soccer team had played its very first game in 1916, coincidentally in Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium. After defeating the Swedes, the US fitness coach Davenport was hired for a few weeks by the impressed hosts. And standards continued to improve. At the inaugural World Cup in 1930, the US finished joint third. Then financial hardship hit. The professional American Soccer League – based entirely on the East Coast – collapsed. The Federation waited until the very last minute to even sign up for the 1934 World Cup. Once they did, a series of try-out games were hastily arranged to pick a squad. Just four players were to survive from the bronze-winning side. Only one goalkeeper was deemed good enough to make the trip to Italy: Julius Hjulian, by now 31 years old.
The team travelled by steamship to Naples. Curiously, they had not yet secured a place at the World Cup. Because of the late entry, a qualifying game – against Mexico, for the North American spot – was arranged. In Rome, three days before the tournament proper was to start. Julius conceded two goals, but the striker Aldo Donelli scored four. The American reward? A first-round game against the feared Italian hosts.
For that game, Benito Mussolini took his seat in the Stadio del Partito Nazionale Fascista. The dictator’s PR people let it be known that “Il Duce” had paid for his own ticket. He sported a white sailor’s cap. Julius Hjulian wore his usual grey one.
All eight games of the opening round started simultaneously. Sweden advanced in Bologna. In Rome, Italy’s Serie A pros ran rings around the American amateurs. 3–0 at halftime, 6–1 after 70 minutes. The New York Times would report that “only the fine goal-tending of Julius Hjulian of Chicago kept the score as low as it was.” In one surviving photo, Julius has rushed out to intercept the ball. He has grabbed it, just in front of Giuseppe Meazza. But the Inter legend was to have the last laugh, scoring Italy’s seventh goal in the closing minutes.
Two weeks later, Italy won the title in controversial fashion (the Swedish referee Ivan Eklind had a long chat with Mussolini before the final). The eliminated Americans had already moved on, to a tour of Germany. After that, Julius was done with football. But not with Germany...
And back to the beginning...
These days, the Stockholm–Eskilstuna train takes just over an hour. As we pull into the station, I spot the Nyfors neighbourhood where Julius Hjulian grew up. The whole block was torn down after World War II, and replaced. But problems remain the same: unemployment is unusually high in Nyfors.
All of Eskilstuna fell on hard times in the 1970s, when industrial demands changed. IFK would also run into problems. They played 14 seasons in the top-flight Allsvenskan, most recently in 1964. 28 straight years in the second division followed, until the real downward spiral started. In 2014, after years of mismanagement, the one-time champions were relegated to Sweden’s sixth level.
But I come here looking for remains from the golden age. For a few months earlier, I received an email. From Julius Hjulian.
Not from the goalkeeper, but from his only child, bearing the same name. 80-year-old Julius R Hjulian resides in Rockport, Texas, and is happy to share memories, photos and newspaper clippings of his famous father.
For example, it turns out Julius Hjulian Sr was recruited by the American military during World War II. The Navy was having trouble with steam pipes coming apart on their ships, after chasing the German submarines. The Crane Company in Chicago was asked to solve the situation.
“Dad sat in on the problem presentation on a Wednesday, and came back with the solution the following Monday,” writes Julius R Hjulian in an email. “But that created a problem for Dad, as the government felt that he was too important to be left out in public life. So he was required to move to Fort Sheridan Army Base for the duration of the war, and Mother and I only saw him on weekends.”
When the war was finally won, a long vacation awaited. The Hjulians relocated to Eskilstuna for a while. In 1946, IFK’s veterans gathered to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their triumph. Julius Sr was there, telling tall tales of his American adventures. He was still considered the club’s finest goalkeeper. The rest of Swedish football had forgotten him long ago.
Eventually, the family returned to the US. But Julius Sr and his wife Agnes continued to visit Sweden in the summers. Back in Illinois, he became known as an inventor (32 patents in total) and a keen collector of clocks. In 1974, his time was up.
Which brings me to Eskilstuna. I walk to the impressive Kloster church, where a statue of Saint Eskil welcomes you. Inside, a baptism is about to start. I ask for directions to the cemetery. Once there, I search it. Then search it again. And finally, I find it. The headstone is hidden behind a sprout of weeds, the writing hard to make out in the bright October sun. But yes, it does read “CA Hjulins familjegrav”. The family tomb of Carl August, Emma and three of their children. Including Julius Sr. The last stop on his long journey.
I continue mine. To a small football field in the south of town, where the last round of the 2016 sixth division is being played. IFK win, and clinch promotion. In Eskilstuna, the age of miracles has not yet passed.
By Per Nguyen-Johansson. This article is an adapted excerpt from his book “När bollen rullade vår väg” (Pintxo, 2017) – about 14 Swedish football clubs that once were successful, but now play in the lower divisions.
Photo credit goes fully to Jakob Hürner.