World finalist Hykkerud inspired by his Greek adventure
Joakim Hykkerud’s European season ended before it even began.
His hometown club Drammen were due to compete in round 3 of the EHF European Cup Men against SC kelag Ferlach in December but travel restrictions in Norway meant they could not compete and their Austrian opponents progressed without playing a game.
Yet he sits in the glorious Greek sunshine between training sessions, looking forward to this weekend’s European Cup final with AEK Athens.
“I was out running one Sunday afternoon when I received a text from my agent, asking if I wanted to play in the European Cup semi-final with Athens and I thought, yeah, that would be good, when do I have to go? Tomorrow.
“So I had to speak to Drammen and tell them that I wanted to play, it was a good opportunity and only for the European Cup. They agreed and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to Greece. From that run to being in the Greek sun was 18 hours.”
A tempting adventure
At the time, Drammen were sitting third in the Norwegian league, exactly midway through the season, but their most recent game on 18 December 2020 would turn out to be their last this season.
“After that game in December, the league was postponed and we had pre-season training in January, February and March. It was difficult to stay motivated as you keep hearing that the second half of the season was going to be pushed back.
“We were training and training but not sure what we were training for. I am 35-years-old and need games, so this period of time made it more important for me to go on this adventure.”
Meanwhile, ambitious Greek club AEK Athens were making a charge in Europe, hoping to claim Europe’s third-tier competition for the first time, having reached the Challenge Cup final in 2018 and the semi-finals in 2019.
The international squad, starring Austrian goalkeeper Thomas Bauer and experienced Spaniards such as Cristian Ugalde, Ignacio Moya and Ignacio Plaza, saw off Kosovan, Romanian and Russian opponents en route to a semi-final against top Slovenian side Gorenje Velenje.
But AEK had something up their sleeve. Just before the first leg, they announced the signings of Drammen duo Joakim Hykkerud and Jesper Meinby.
Having been knocked out of the European Cup without even playing, the pair suddenly found themselves parachuted into the semi-finals.
“This season, we could not play because of the Covid restrictions and last season we were knocked out by AEK so I know the place well, the atmosphere and the wild fans.
“Having played in Germany and Sweden and with the national team, they knew I was experienced and needed someone who could come in on the Monday and be ready to play on Saturday.
“There is a real family feeling here, the people at the club treat you like a brother. They help set everything up for you, invite you over for lunch, it is quite amazing how comfortable they made us feel.
“It is a very international team, so we speak English, which helps, but we did not know how it would go. The first contract was just for the semi-finals, so if we lose, I would be back home after two weeks.”
But they did not lose. Facing Gorenje Velenje in the semi-finals, a club more accustomed to playing in the EHF Champions League or European League, Athens scored a narrow 31:29 victory at home before recovering from an eight-goal deficit in the second half of the second leg to rescue a draw and a place in the final.
Desire for more again
The 35-year-old line player was part of the Norwegian team which made a major breakthrough internationally, reaching the semi-finals of EHF EURO 2016 and the World Championship final a year later.
That year, Hykkerud brought an end to his six-year spell abroad, with stops at Kristianstad, Bjerringbro and Hannover, returning to Drammen. Did he think that would be the end of international finals?
“When I decided to move back to Norway, my son was about to start school and I felt it was time to be there for him more and I was 90 per cent sure that I was going to end my career with Drammen.
“But with the pandemic, I have thought that maybe I need something more. My son is now 10 and thinks it is great to have his father play professional handball abroad, which made this choice easier.
“Something has sparked in me, the motivation to play top handball is back and it is an amazing feeling.
“My focus is on this final and then we will see what happens next season but the desire is there, whether it is in Norway, Athens, Germany or France, we will see but these past weeks have definitely helped me as a handball player.”
I think we have a bit more game rhythm at the moment and plenty of experience as well. Games with Ystads IF were always intense when I played for Kristianstad, so it will be fun to play against them again. We also like to play with a lot of power, be aggressive in defence and we will use our home advantage to make it a battle.
This weekend’s final sees AEK face Swedish side Ystads IF in the final, with both legs in Athens, the first on Friday 28 May and the second two days later.
Facing a team with bright young talents mixed with the likes of the legendary Kim Andersson, Hykkerud is prepared for the challenge ahead.
“Ludvig Hallbäck is an amazing young player, very fast and good at one against one, then you have the experience of Kim Andersson and Dalibor Doder helping the young players.
“They are young, play good defence and run hard, like every team in Scandinavia, so I am trying to help prepare the team to see that they will run the entire 60 minutes.
“I think we have a bit more game rhythm at the moment and plenty of experience as well. Games with Ystads IF were always intense when I played for Kristianstad, so it will be fun to play against them again.
“We also like to play with a lot of power, be aggressive in defence and we will use our home advantage to make it a battle.”