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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

'It's a bit unbelievable': Curtis Edwards' journey from non-league to Europa League

Rejected by Middlesbrough, playing in front of a handful of spectators in the North Riding Senir Cup, the Englishman will now face Arsenal with Swedish club Ostersund

Curtis Edwards has been on an upwards trajectory with Swedish club Ostersund. They face Arsenal in the last 32 of the Europa League. AFP
Curtis Edwards has been on an upwards trajectory with Swedish club Ostersund. They face Arsenal in the last 32 of the Europa League. AFP

Two years ago, Curtis Edwards was celebrating Thornaby's penalty shoot-out victory against Redcar, securing progress to the North Riding Senior Cup semi-finals in front of 39 people.

This week, in a scarcely believable turn of events, the midfielder is preparing to line up against Arsenal in the Europa League last 32.

Hebburn Town, Whickham, Billingham Synthonia and life in the Northern League second division has made way for life playing European football and silverware in Sweden with Ostersund - a club whose well-documented fairy-tale rise is arguably eclipsed by this midfielder.

A part of the Middlesbrough youth set-up for eight years, Edwards' stint was brought to an abrupt halt in 2013.

Let loose by his local club and unable to earn a contract elsewhere, he instead focused on being a teenager and making up for lost time.

"There was a bit of freedom when football went," Edwards told Press Association Sport.

"I was enjoying time with my friends that I'd never been able to do.

"Obviously when I got bored of that after like a year and a half, you start to think ... am I going to do this for the next 50 years?'.

"So, it was good that I was still 21 going on 22 when I realised that I need to like sort myself out and try to get back at what I'm good at.

"It was quite lucky that I got the opportunity, really."

Stints back in the game with Darlington and Spennymoor were followed by a spell at Thornaby, where he played alongside his brother Kieran and under father Paul.

"I was just playing for my dad at Thornaby and I wasn't really interested in football anymore," Edwards said.

"I got a call from someone who knew my dad, he was managing in Sweden.

"It was a lad from Middlesbrough was managing here and got in contact, seeing if I wanted to come out."

Brian Wake was working with lower league Swedish side Ytterhogdal, where Edwards would take a step into the unknown along with a clutch of other English talent looking to resurrect their careers.

The move worked well and, after spending the winter back at Thornaby, Edwards returned to Ytterhogdal in February 2016, producing performances that attracted admiring glances.

That summer Ostersund came calling.

Under the tutelage of former West Bromwich Albion and Southampton defender Graham Potter, the club have risen from the fourth division to the Allsvenskan and last April won the Svenska Cupen - the club's first major trophy.

Edwards played the entirety of the 4-1 win against Norrkoping and understandably calls that triumph his career highlight - even though this season's Europa League run is proving stern competition.

Ripples were sent across the continent at the beginning of the campaign as OFK beat Galatasaray and then held the Turkish giants in their own backyard to come through their second qualifying round tie.

Fola and PAOK Salonika followed suit as Potter's men made the group stage, where they finished second to Athletic Bilbao.

Edwards scored against the Basque side in what ended a 2-2 draw, which helped OFK ensure qualification from Group J ahead of more-fancied Zorya Luhansk and Hertha Berlin.

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"I don't know how we're doing it, really," he said with a laugh. "Just the daily work we do, everyone is working hard and just the belief.

"We've got a really good team and Graham always gives us belief and the tactics and stuff.

"I just have to enjoy it, you know, because football goes good sometimes and can change so quickly, you know? It's a bit unbelievable."

Arsenal's visit to the Ostersund Arena on Thursday is the latest chapter in this remarkable journey, but it does not sound like the end of the club or Edwards' upward trajectory.

"We are a hard-working club, a family club," Edwards added. "Everyone buys into where it wants to be, everyone wants it to go places.

"The chairman wants us to go to the Champions League and win the Swedish league.

"So, everyone all knows what they want - and they won't stop until they get it. They just keep working hard every day - they don't let a day go by when it's not 100 per cent."

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