This is a guest blog written by Greg Matthews, who got in touch by email after reading my article in Football Weekends magazine. He, his wife and his son travelled to Finland at the start of August and watched a few games. Greg has written an account of his trip and included some photographs. Many thanks Greg!
Football is more akin to a marathon than a sprint. Each games lasts 90 minutes and a season lasts months. However, if you're having fun, they can fly by without you catching breath. Having booked my family holiday to Finland (with a brief sojourn in Estonia), I wondered if five matches in five days could result in my marriage 'hitting the wall'.
My 12 year old son Joel and I could manage it no-problem. It's in our DNA. We'd been training years for this - aimlessly watching not only our local team, Swansea City's first eleven, under-21 and youth levels, but also supplementing these with games on TV and the Welsh League. Mrs M on the other hand had come to football late. Although both knowledgeable and enthusiastic for the Swans, I feared this enthusiasm may not extend to travelling one hour out of Helsinki to sample the delights of FC Lahti v Jaro on a wet Sunday night.
Our first fixture was the Champions League qualifier between HJK and FC Astana of Kazakhstan. A glorious Nordic summer's evening spent in the impressive Sonera Stadium right at the start of our holidays. What more could we want? HJK are the Manchester United of Finland, however, their club shop wouldn't look out of place at FC United of Manchester. Still, Joel was happy as he got a pin badge and we took our seats in the North Stand.
That initial exuberance was tested as it turned out to be one of the worst games of football I'd ever witnessed, and I can assure you that I have quite a back catalogue of no-score bore draws. Neither team created any meaningful chance until late on in the first half, while HJK's Japanese pairing of Tanaka and Havenaar ran around like headless chicken. What surprised me most was that the Helsinki side's coach, Mika Lehkosuo, must have been very happy with the performance because he only made one substitution and that was not until the 92nd minute. Just shows that football is all about opinions.
Things could only get better. Unfortunately, they didn't, as two days later we went to Estonia and viewed the Tallinn derby between FC Flora and FC Infonet. Suffice to say another goalless draw and some pretty uninspiring football was beginning to test even my resolve. The only saving grace was when the three of us accidentally made it onto Estonian TV after taking a wrong turn in the stadium and stumbled into the players and officials in the tunnel as they made their way out of their dressing rooms and on to the pitch.
As we made the 90 minute ferry ride back across the Baltic Sea the next day, I hoped our luck would change soon as an already flagging Mrs M would likely declare herself unfit to continue if she didn't at least see one goal. If I could get through today, then we were nearly home and dry. At 4pm was Helsinki's other team, HIFK v Ilves at the Sonera Stadium and then, after refuelling at a nearby pizza restaurant, a friendly between HJK and Liverpool at 7.30pm in the Olympiastadion.
Luckily, over 90 minutes sat in the North Stand (Pohjoinen) of our first offering saw our love for the beautiful game reignited. The HIFK fans sang, bounced and flag waved, whilst the players tried their best to match the entertainment in the stands. Joel bought a HIFK badge and shirt and Mrs M came out saying she'd "been thoroughly entertained". The game ended 2-2, after HIFK had been 2-0 up, and the true acid test of a good atmosphere is when you are still humming the terrace anthems the next day. It was then decided that HIFK would be our 'Finnish team'.
The reason why the Finnish domestic league (Veikkausliga) struggles was best demonstrated at the evening kick off between HJK and Liverpool. There were over 20,000 in attendance and the vast majority of these were sporting the red and white of the Merseysiders, yet speaking Finnish. I find it bizarre when any football fan picks a glamorous foreign outfit over their local team and the sad reality is that I'd probably visited Anfield more times than many of the Liverpool shirted Finns in attendance. The Olympic stadium is an impressive venue. However, having hosted the 1952 Olympics it was now looking it's age and the open stands are exposed to the elements, whilst it's running track didn't exactly make it spectator friendly. The flat atmosphere and uninspiring football of this friendly were in sharp contrast to that witnessed a couple of hours earlier in the HIFK match. The game ended 2-0 to Liverpool and although I was now beginning to dislike HJK after two moribund games, I secretly willed them to win, if only to shut up the Finnish Reds sitting around me.
Our final encounter made me a little wary. FC Lahti v FF Jaro was taking place in a city that had been nicknamed the 'Chicago of Finland,' due to its somewhat dodgy reputation and not because it's a particularly windy city. As we took the train from Helsinki, I figured that in such a peaceful nation being labelled hostile probably amounted to no more than raising your voice at a waitress if your rye bread was a little stale. We needn't have worried, having had a knife pulled out on me at Millwall v Swansea in 1990, Lahti was more Cheltenham than Chicago. Everyone was welcoming, my son picked up a FC Lahti shirt and badge for €19.50 and the game was enlivened by two teams trying to play football in rather damp and difficult conditions.
The score was 1-1 at the end of play, but we saw two superb goals, a controversial disallowed effort and it really was a fitting end to a footballing extravaganza. The Finnish people we encountered were all friendly, and Helsinki is a beautiful place. We hired bikes, kayaked, went stand-up boarding, shopped and drank lots of coffee. I love the way the fans get over-excited at every set piece, but frustrated at Clubs lack of merchandise and appalled at their need to stick advertising on anything and everything. I will have wonderful memories of a marvellous country, my son will have the kudos of having the only FC Lahti and HIFK shirts at football training and my wife - well, she deserves a medal.
Many thanks again to Greg for taking the time to write this fine blog and for allowing use of his photos.
If you'd like to write something for the site about a trip you've made, or to share your photographs, then please get in touch via the usual channels.