When Chris Makin left for Ipswich last season, Sunderland fans were left cursing Melanie Sykes, scratching their heads and contemplating a serious void at right-back. Options seemed either more of the Void Personified (aka Darren Williams), or instead a permanent void left behind as Patrice Carteron went about putting in tackles on his imaginary defensive line (just behind the front two). Sanity has prevailed in pre-season, however: Cartman is apparently heading for the Valley, and it's been good to see Simon Ramsden getting the chance to move above Williams in the pecking order. Better still, however, is the arrival of 23-year-old Swiss international, Bernt Haas as the fifth of our new signings.
Haas comes with a big reputation from a small country - think Stan Varga, but with mountains and a confusing number of languages. Re-established as a key player for Grasshopper Zürich last season, he was in action throughout July as Grasshoppers began the defence of their league title. The Swiss media had him ranked consistently as the club's best defender in those first few games, despite the obvious distraction of the club thrashing out the reported £750,000 deal that brought him to Sunderland behind the scenes. Turning down Champions' League football to come to Sunderland shows a healthy set of priorities, and will no doubt make him another player keen to ensure a concrete achievement at the end of this season.
Unsurprisingly for a player closely tracked by bigger clubs, Haas had a meteoric rise in Swiss football. After playing as a junior for FC Freienbach and FC Wollerau, he signed for perennial National Liga champions Grasshopper Zürich in 1993, aged 15. From there, his progress was on the fast-track. Coming into the first team aged 18, he made an immediate impact and became a regular throughout the '96-97 season. When Grasshoppers played their first ever match in the Champions' League against Ajax early on in that season, Haas was their youngest player. They went on to beat Rangers 3-0 at Ibrox in September - presumably with Haas kicking ten barrels out of a tub of Geordie lard playing in Glasgow at the time.
Within a month of the Rangers win, Haas was in the Swiss national team as right-back in a 3-2 away win over Finland. Further caps were delayed for a couple of years while he learnt his trade, but he would be involved in 8 internationals from mid 1998 to 2000. At first, these were largely as a sub, most notably coming on as centre-back against Italy in a 0-0 draw, evidence that some of the versatility Peter Reid has seen in him can be carried through onto a higher stage.
His last three international caps all came as first choice right-back, but first injury then loss of form have allowed Marc Zellwegger to take his place in the current Swiss line-up. With Switzerland performing poorly in recent World Cup qualifiers, a return to the national team must be high in Haas's priorities. Proving himself against Messrs Giggs, Kewell and co will obviously make an echo or two back in the Alps. With Stéphane Henchoz a regular in Liverpool's treble-winning side last year, the Premiership is high profile in Switzerland, and Haas has a good chance to showcase his ability as one of the country's few right-backs of genuine class.
His early Grasshoppers career was under Spurs' future nemesis, Christian Gross, who was a great success with Grasshoppers. Haas cites Gross as one of his main influences, and there was some talk of a move to Spurs during Gross's short-lived, Gooner-delighting reign. Rumours that he turned it down when he realised how Cockneys would pronounce his name remain unproven... In the end, Haas stayed with Grasshoppers, Gross bought another Swiss defender before getting the boot, and Spurs fans had 3 years of the terror that is Ramon Vega unleashed upon them. Their pain, our gain...
Haas has a reputation as a solid, uncompromising defender, and, at 6ft 2 and 14 stone, will obviously bring a bit more of the brick Scheisshaus to the role than Mickey Gray on the left. Chopper Haas, perhaps? If he adopts Chris Makin's habit of booting tricky left-wingers into the middle of the East stand, no-one will complain. Peter Reid, who knows about these things, describes him as 'tough-tackling'. Swiss fans seem to view him as a good player, physically and technically, in a league where all matches seem to bring a good smattering of cards. Fans of Grasshoppers' rivals FC Basel can still be found bleating about him 'brutally' taking out their favourite, Supermario (no, really).
Of course, the SoL will be a step up from the 8-9000 of Zürich's Hardturm, and Haas may be used to fans more plain bonkers than passionate - Grasshoppers' 'Ultras' have a natty line in skull flags and, bizarrely, fishermen's hats. One fan, the aptly named 'Blue Stars' (see bit about bonkers, above) who runs the http://www.blue-stars.ch.vu/ website, describes him as 'a great guy and a reeaaally good defender.' The overall opinion in Switzerland seems to be that Haas should adapt well to the English game, and is young enough and promising enough to get back to international standard.
Now, the words 'Swiss' and 'glamour' are about as likely to go together as 'Smogland' and 'healthy', but it's undeniable that Haas is something of the golden boy of Swiss football. A few previous disastrous haircuts aside, we are assured that he is something of a lady-pleaser as well. [Libellous comments gleaned from Swiss fans deleted...ed]. Not that ALS has a celebrity gossip department or regularly reads the Swiss tabloids, of course, and we refute the suggestion that this will be of any interest to female fans mourning Tommy Sorensen's wedding, but...our sources reveal he was formerly one half of 'Switzerland's Dream Pair' (tabloid headline writers being the same the world over) a year ago when he was an item with then Miss Switzerland, Anita Buri.
It seems not to have lasted, however, and, having seen her, we feel his pain, we really do - especially since it seems his Grasshoppers team-mate, Marc Hodel was making her yodel a year later instead of Bernt. Oh well, never mind the gossip, feel the outstanding teamwork, that's what we say...
He remains a favourite with the Grasshoppers players, who wore t-shirts with 'Good bye and good luck' and a photo of Haas printed on them under their shirts for their first match after his departure. They promptly won 6-1, and, from one good omen to another: jetting in from Zürich to fill the right-back gap in time for the friendly against West Brom, Haas has made one big impression already. A debut goal against the Baggies after less than 20 minutes on the pitch - perhaps not entirely the stuff of dreams, but it has a certain irony after Sunderland fans' prolonged love affair with Chris Makin's right boot. Stadium bookies are no doubt rubbing their hands with glee, as Haas' debut goal probably means another year of punters ready to take comedy odds on the right-back opening the scoring. What odds for him doing it on August 26th, though?
Armed with a German dictionary and a couple of pounds of holey cheese, we scanned the World Wide Web for info about our new signing. This is what we came up with:
Born: 8th April, 1978
Came to Grasshoppers Zurich in July '93
Favourite colour: Blue (obvious really, G. Zurich are blue & white, but what a wimpy question)
Favourite drink: Mineral water (bloody 'ell)
Favourite food: Dumplings (that's it, I'm off to bed)
Hobbies: Listening to music (house)
Wishes: Health & success
What would you have done if you weren't a footballer?
My Father is my example - he was an electrical fitter and now he's a policeman. I'd like to have his attitude to work.
Are you a fan of a foreign team?
Is there a better Swiss No 2 than you?
That's a matter of opinion - I can't say.
What's the most important thing for you after football?
Have you a girlfriend?
What is your dream club?
A big club in the South - an Italian one wouldn't be bad.
What music do you like?
Songs in the charts, and I like house very much.
What's the worst part of being a footballer?
Not having many holidays.
Would you like a transfer abroad soon?
Not soon, but in the future it would be great.
Do you answer fan mail?
Are you a typical Aries?
I don't know what a typical Aries is. I'm certainly a calm, ambitious type.
Did you find Roy Hodgson a good manager? What do you think is good about him?
Yeah, definitely. You can learn a lot from his vast experience.
What do you think of grasshopper fans? Do they get on your nerves sometimes?
I think they're great. They only get on my nerves when they don't get behind the team, when things aren't going so well. And the same with their 'whistling concerts' too.
What position would you like to play?
Goalie - you don't have to jump so much (think we must have got this wrong in translation, or is it Swiss irony?).
What's you personal goal?
To play abroad one day. (Success!)
Under which manager would you like to play?
There's not one in particular. A player can't choose a manager anyway.
Who's been your favourite manager up to now?
Christian Gross would be the one.
Do you recognise many fans who come to a match?
Yes, in time you get to know them well.
What do you fall for in a woman?
Above all she must have an attractive character - her outward appearance is secondary (easy to say when you're seeing Miss Switzerland).
Which Zurich player are you most friendly with?
Are you aware that you're the player who's committed most fouls in the NLA?
I'm a defender - fouls go with the job. But I'm certainly not a dirty player.
Mike Metcalf and Sheila Seacroft