THE eye was almost closed and the cuts around it were red and vivid.
Viktor the Viking had been in the wars again. Not that he minded.
A club photographer had captured his battered face after Rotherham United’s clash at Preston North End in February yet, despite the bloody effects of an opponent’s boot, the goalkeeper was smiling.
Viktor Johansson cares only about Rotherham United and keeping the ball out of the net, not about his own safety. A messed-up mush was a small price to pay for a 2-1 victory.
Keeper and crowd have yet to meet in person while coronavirus is keeping stadiums empty, but the young Swede is already a cult hero among Millers supporters.
“I’ve seen some of their messages on social media,” he says. “I really appreciate that, like. It’s made it easier for me to settle in. It will be brilliant when I can play in front of them next season.”
Viktor has a beard, Viktor is from Scandinavia, Viktor is brave beyond belief. No wonder fans watching his exploits on iFollow have dubbed him ‘The Viking’.
“He’s crazy,” says his admiring manager, Paul Warne. “Crazy in a good way.”
“Yeah, I am bit,” the player grins. “I’m quite calm outside of the sport and I don’t need to be the centre of attention, but when I go on to the pitch something just happens to my head. I don’t know what it is.
“It’s just the way I am. It’s how I like to be. If people like me for that I’m grateful.”
The 22-year-old is at his home in Handsworth, between Attercliffe and the Parkway, when we’re speaking on the phone last weekend.
He’s living on his own now girlfriend Emelie has returned to Sweden to complete her studies: “She loves it here. She can’t wait to come back in the summer.”
He’s expecting my call and picks up first ring. “Hello, Mate,” he says in a deep Viking voice laced with friendliness and I immediately warm to him.
This is Johansson’s first year as a Miller. Long spells in the youth set-ups at Aston Villa and then Leicester City had ended and he was back in Sweden last summer contemplating his future when Rotherham offered him a trial.
“I didn’t have a club because of Covid,” he says. “I had some options but I wanted to wait. Then Rotherham called, my agent said ‘Do you want to go?’ and I said ‘Yeah’.
A flying save
“It was two weeks of quarantine in a hotel first, then I had a few training sessions and they liked me.
“The gaffer says I made a good first impression on him and he also made one on me. Everyone did, to be fair: all the players, all the staff.
“The very first day I came in, there were so many positive things. Everyone was smiling and greeting me. It was my first senior dressing room as well.
“I’d trained with Leicester’s first team so I found the step up from under-23s football okay. I knew the tempo was going to be higher, but everyone was so positive and helpful that I adapted quickly.
“It’s very different playing games for the first team than it is for the under-23s. It’s a lot tougher. You get roughed up and that. I enjoy that part.”
His English is excellent; slightly accented but accomplished enough to include colloquialisms picked up during seven years in this country, like, and for his sense of humour to shine through.
The keeper’s first season at AESSEAL New York Stadium was meant to be a development one but he forced his way into the side in November before cementing his place in the side at the beginning of February. Tuesday’s clash with Watford would have been his 13th match of the campaign and ninth on the trot had he been fit.
“We have great goalkeepers here in Jamal (Blackman) and Josh (Vickers),” he says. “We push each other every day and I’m just happy to be playing games.
“I’ve done better than I thought I would in my first year, definitely. It’s hard to explain without sounding cocky. I knew I had to believe in myself. I wouldn’t be in the team if the staff didn’t think I was good enough.”
Rotherham followers marvelled at him on his debut — coincidentally another game against Preston — when a moment of breathtaking courage saw him deny Tom Barkhuizen a certain goal and help the Millers to a 2-1 win. There have since been plenty of other gravity-defying saves and fans know a warrior when they see one.
“I can’t say I’m not pleased to be called ‘The Viking’,” he says with a loud, ready laugh. “It’s a cool name.”
His upbringing, with an older and younger sister, was in Huddinge, Stockholm, and he was playing in the net from the age of three while also enjoying floorball (a type of hockey) and handball until football took over as he approached his teens.
“My dad was also a goalkeeper,” he says. “He played in Sweden’s Division Three (fifth tier).
“I’m very vocal on the pitch, like. That’s something my dad instilled in me when I was kid. He was my coach for a bit and he played me at centre-half to show me how much better it is when someone behind you is talking to you.
“When I was 14 I got scouted by Villa. I went back and forth for trials and they decided they wanted me. I spoke to my dad and mum and we decided I couldn’t miss the chance so I took my luggage and went.
“I was in digs for the first three years, when I was 15, 16 and 17. It was a big step coming to England on my own at that age.”
Nowadays, England is home, and there could be a few more Swedish faces at New York next season when fans are finally allowed to return.
“Yeah, absolutely my family plan on watching me play,” the Swedish youth international says. “My dad and mum are desperate to come over, my step-dad and my sisters too. My missus’s family, they want to come as well.”
By then Rotherham will know the outcome of their fight for Championship survival.
“Absolutely I think we can stay up,” Johansson says. “We believe in ourselves. There is a positive feeling around the club. Even when we haven’t got the results we wanted there has still been a positive drive.”
The Millers have 13 games left and their keeper, the man who smiles through the pain, is relishing the chance to keep putting heart and body on the line.
Emblazoned on his personalised shin pads is a telling image: a bearded Viking going into battle.
THE GOAL CELEBRATIONS
THE sight of Viktor Johansson racing the length of the pitch to celebrate an important goal with his Rotherham United teammates has become one of the highlights of the season.
The goalkeeper was at it again at Hillsborough a fortnight ago when Freddie Ladapo fired in his 97th-minute derby winner against Sheffield Wednesday.
Within seconds of the ball hitting the back of the net, a green-shirt was in the middle of the red-and-white throng.
“It’s just the way I am,” he says. “It’s so lonely back there sometimes. I like to share in the moment.”
MILLERS 2 PRESTON NORTH END 1 ... HOW THE ADVERTISER RECORDED VIKTOR'S NOVEMBER DEBUT
It took one crucial moment to make a good debut an excellent one.
Tom Barkhuizen was through on goal with the score at 1-1 in the second half. Out came Swede Viktor the Viking in a blur of bearded bravery and skinhead swiftness. Instant decision, ball taken, thumping collision, danger gone.
“I like my goalkeepers to play on the edge,” manager Paul Warne said. “There are times when keepers have to come for things and take the pressure off the back four.
“The one he tidied when they went through was worth a goal to us.”
Viktor helped put the ‘k’ in viktory.
Shin pads fit for a Viking