Sunday, October 25, 2015

Veikkausliiga 2015 - SJK triumph

The curtain comes down on another season of Veikkausliiga, and it was a hum-dinger. Not many leagues in Europe reach the final day with all the play for a both ends of the season. The last round of 2015 got plenty of people excited, not just for the prospect of a different champions for the first time in since 2008. HJK had won six titles in a row, yet they still had a slim chance of retaining their crown.

The bottom end of the table still had unresolved issues too. VPS had looked in danger of relegation for most of the season, but a good run (after a change of manager) meant that while they could still be dragged into a play-off against PK-35 Vantaa, they just needed to better KTP's result. Jaro had slipped to last place after a rotten run with one win in fifteen games, they needed to win at SJK to have a hope of avoiding automatic relegation.

Finnish champions SJK (image via Facebook)

In the end, SJK scored in opening and closing minutes to win 2-0, securing a first ever league title and sending Jaro down. It was a nervy match, Jaro threatened but couldn't make it. A draw would have gifted the title to RoPS, who won 1-4 at Lahti, helped by a third hat-trick of the season from Aleksandr Kokko. HJK managed a hard-fought 0-1 win at KuPS but could only secure bronze.

All outcomes covered at Lahti (image via Risto Oksanen)

The relegation play-off will feature KTP, who lost 1-2 to Ilves but due to Jaro's loss, they finish 11th. VPS lost at IFK Mariehamn but will be relieved to open their new stadium in Veikkausliiga. The two-legged match between KTP and PK-35 Vantaa will be tense, but potentially entertaining if Shefki Kuqi's side come up.

So how was the league won and lost?

Well I saved the "HJK in crisis" blog until the season was over. I think better writers than I have done good work on this topic, while it feels like I'd just be sticking the boot in. Ultimately they were decimated by injuries to key players, but a transfer approach resembling a closing time trolley dash in Lidl was just as damaging. The shameless attempt at attracting Japanese fans resulted in Atom Tanaka (who did well) and Mike Havenaar (shockingly poor), African journeymen Taiwo, Jallow, Mendy, Moussi and Kandji were a mixed bag, and little confidence in goalkeepers. HJK had been so wonderfully run off the field, but this year has been a smack in the chops. Expect wholesale changes for next year.

SJK retained the majority of the squad who performed so well to come second last year. A solid spine of Mikhel Aksalu in goal, Savić and Gogoua in defence with Mehmet Hetemaj, Brown, Vasara and Tahvanainen in midfield provided solidity and some spark going forward, while the addition of Akseli Pelvas provided goals, but it was two summer signings who added the final solution. Brazilian midfielder Allan Souza joined on loan from Liverpool and Roope Riski added eight goals in 13 matches up front.

I doubt Allan is ready yet for Premier League football, but SJK have acknowledged that they may not be able to keep him for next season. But they too will move into a new stadium, with Champions League football and a championship trophy to show off.

Allan key to SJK title win?

Ultimately, SJK were the most consistent side over the season and were well deserving of their win - but what about the other challenger?

RoPS hadn't been great in 2014, finishing ninth in the table and hardly looking like title candidates. But it was already evident that coach Juha Malinen was building something. Faith Friday Obilor was one of the top defenders and continued to develop, attracting interest from big clubs in Turkey. Aleksandr Kokko had been out of contract but re-signed for the season, ending up as top scorer with seventeen goals (including three hat-tricks). The creative addition was Finland U21 midfielder Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who had been stuck in contract limbo between Latvia and Russia. Mosa provided a threat from set pieces (scoring a number of free kicks), a spark and a little bit more fire in the centre of the park. Of course he deserves to be docked points for taking a selfie after his goal against KuPS in October, but hey ho, he did well and will surely get a more solid move now.

Special mention needs to go to two of the promoted clubs, HIFK and Ilves. HIFK's entirely Finnish squad competed well at the top level, while their fans brought a lot of noise and smoke, making next season's Helsinki derbies the hottest tickets in town. Ilves came up after the demise of MYPA, against the wishes of some fans, and while they hit the headlines for strange reasons (the sacking of TV star Keith Armstrong), another great set of fans and solid performances ensured top flight football again in 2016.

Off the pitch, Veikkausliiga had a good year. The availability of every match live via Ilta-Sanomat was a huge hit, other than the matches where the technical gremlins prevented broadcast. State broadcaster YLE also showed games on terrestrial TV, including the "Futiskierros" format of showing goals as they go in from all the other grounds. Average attendances were good with a total of over 500k attendees, boosted by the three HIFK v HJK games and some good turnouts at Ilves. The league are still lacking a decent international broadcast partner, even I have to use less-than-legal means to watch games as the approved streams are via little screens on betting sites.

Ultimately 2015 was a great season, with plenty of drama and as always, eccentric moments on and off the pitch. I'll come back later with summaries, while I've no idea what I'll do until the new season kicks off in April. I'll leave you with a picture of my dog Woody in an SJK shirt. Perhaps next time I bump into Wayne Brown in a cafe at the top of my road, I'll get him to sign it...

Unfortunately SJK unfollowed me on Twitter (which I've yet to moan properly about), I suppose they've got better things to do. For shame.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Interview with Finland goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky

The latest ETS q&a is with Finland and Eintracht Frankfurth goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky, who has been generous enough to give some fantastic answers. He joins a growing list of big names, click on the interviews tab along the top of the page for more. Thanks again Luke for your time!

Finland’s Euro 2016 qualifying campaign ended strongly but you just missed out. How is the mood in the camp ahead of the World Cup qualifiers?
I believe every team needs to go through a tough time to grow together, so the way we came back after the four consecutive defeats; and the change of the coach indicates our strong mentality. So the mood is optimistic and we have no reason to believe that we can't qualify next time.

Lukas celebrating the win over Greece in September 2015

There has been a long tradition of great keepers from Finland, what’s the secret?
I've no idea actually, maybe it's an easier position to develop talent more than for the outfield players. More and more clubs have a goalkeeper coach available, which means three or four keepers have a coach to themselves, so compare that to outfield players and the ratio and effectiveness of personal coaching is not so big. Wow, this was actually a pretty deep answer by me! But it all starts and ends with the personal desire to make it within each keeper, maybe Finns are crazy enough to want to be keepers...

Which goalkeeper was your idol when you were growing up?
It has kind of changed, as a younger kid and a keeper I saw the keepers differently to how I do now. Now I actually analyse while watching a game and see if they are making a mistake or something worth learning. But if I have to mention Jose Luis Chilavert's freekick taking, which was one of my first memories and the keeper I started to idolise. Then came Casillas, Buffon and the others, now I'm with Neuer ;) 

In the book about Robert Enke (A Life Too Short by Ronald Reng), there was a lot of mentions about the friendly rivalry between keepers in one team – how do you try to help the kids learn?
I've never actually read the book, don't know why. Some of my friends who read it recommended that I not read it, so I never did. But to answer your question, it's seen to be universal. I mean the thing they call the "goalkeepers' union", you fight for the same position and you're almost best friends on the team, that might be paradoxical to believe for many people; but that's how it is here as well. I always tell everybody that you don't want to succeed at somebody else's expense, if and when you get the chance and take it, then you've made it on your own. Lot of work has to be put in to even get a chance as a goalkeeper, I learned that during my first three years in Esbjerg when I was mostly on the bench. 

Now you’re at Eintracht Frankfurt, what is the biggest difference between Danish and German football? 
Different clubs might play different styles within a league as well, but it feels like most teams here want to be better offensively than defensively, when in Denmark it was usually the opposite. No wonder they score more goals in Bundesliga, and I only have one poor clean sheet in nine games, madness! 

Your brothers (Tomas at RoPS and Matej at TPS) are also doing well at their clubs, is there any more Hradecky talent to come?
Most definitely, there must be something useful in our blood sportswise. We used to play everything together, hockey, floorball, volleyball, tennis, you name it. The pride of not losing has developed our talent, just ask our mother how many things the loser always broke around the house. When I was growing up, Tomas had to find a new way to beat me and the same applies for Matej, who I rate the most game-intelligent and talented in our family, because he was the youngest and had the "roughest" patch. 

Some footballers play Xbox, some make music, what are your hobbies?
I don't even own a PlayStation or anything like that, definitely not my thing. I watch a lot of movies and TV series, they're a great way to relax your body and mind. 

Luke celebrating winning the Danish Cup with Esbjerg in 2013 (photo via Liselotte Sabroe)

With Slovakia (Lukas was born in Bratislava) qualifying for the Euros, do you follow their progress at all?
I do! I'm happy to see how well they're doing, but I'm merely a fan, if there ever had to be a choice to make, I hadn't even considered playing for Slovakia. In football, I really only care and feel for Finland, our system produced me and made me the player who I am. 

Manuel Neuer has shown that goalkeepers to be as talented as an outfielders – would you fancy playing in midfield?
No way! Too much running. The beauty of being a goalkeeper is for me to be versatile, and I'm proud and happy that I can play with my feet and be more part of the game than some other keepers. Football is the sport where I'm the worst in the outfield, I always played outfield in every other sports tournament back in school. Strange. 

Do you think you’ll ever return to TPS?
If it's only up to me then yes, most definitely. Right now I can only imagine living in Turku after my career. It would be great to play for the team and city that raised me. For me it's a haven with all the good memories, friends and family. That's where I feel home. 

Luke visiting TPS (photo via


Many thanks again Luke, good luck for the future. Watch this space for more interviews!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Euro 2016 - too little, too late

The list is getting smaller. More people are RSVPing to the invitation. Despite the break-up of Europe in the last quarter of a century, these latecomers are promptly accepting. The list of European countries who've never played at a major tournament is getting smaller. Yet Finland remain on that roster.

San Marino.
Faroe Islands.

With 24 teams qualifying for next summer's tournament, it seemed almost harder to fail than to make it. But a lot of countries have risen to the challenge, boosted by confidence and perhaps the (early) complacency of the bigger nations. Iceland and Wales were improving prior to this competition, while Northern Ireland, Austria and Albania qualified ahead of expectations.

Finland's group, at the time of the draw and with the benefit of hindsight, was the best possible. The top seeds were Greece, who'd made the last 16 at the World Cup in Brazil. Hungary and Romania were tough with good (great?) historical teams. Northern Ireland hadn't qualified for anything in 30 years. Faroe Islands are still a level above the true minnows.

After winning the opening match away to Faroe Islands 1-3, the hard way after conceding a sloppy opener, it was all going perfectly to plan. But it was all downhill from there. One point from the next five matches, a draw at home to a dreadful Greek side, was terminal.

In defeats to Hungary home and away, in Belfast and to visiting Romania, Finland looked pedestrian, ponderous and without the perspective to see what was wrong. Mixu Paatelainen was the manager with the backing of the Finnish FA, but looked utterly clueless and left behind while other sides played to their strengths. He persisted with the Christmas tree formation (4-3-2-1), designed almost to hamstring the players rather than improve them. A good coach should make the team better than the sum of their parts - how can a side with Roman Eremenko, Tim Sparv and Niklas Moisander look so impotent? The blind faith is admirable, but did Teemu Pukki do enough to deserve his regular starting place? 

Paatelainen was sacked after the Hungary defeat in June, where a very public recruitment process led to former New York Red Bulls boss Hans Backe's appointment - but not until January as he had more pressing television commitments (he'll do well in Finland with that). Long time assistant Markku Kanerva stepped into the breach, to his credit he did well with two wins followed by two draws.

Maybe it was due to the handbrake being removed, or the players being allowed more freedom in those four fixtures. The side moved to a 4-4-2, Pohjanpalo scoring three times and there seemed a bit more vibrancy. Despite the loss of Eremenko to injury, Moisander only featuring once and suspensions at various points to Sparv, Hetemaj and Halsti; there was more positivity and it's got to be a good sign at the disappointment of conceding a late equaliser in Bucharest.

The Olympiastadion is now closed for renovations and the 2018 World Cup qualifiers will all be played at the Ratina stadium in Tampere. It's a much tougher group (Iceland, Croatia, Ukraine and Turkey) with only one guaranteed qualifier. Due to the poor performances under Mixu, Finland's FIFA ranking dropped so low that they are the bottom seed in that group. Had the draw been made with October's rankings, Finland could have been as high as third seeds.

Most of the players (if not all) will still be available for selection come September 2016, while the year will give extra development time to prospects like Thomas Lam and Jere Uronen. Lukas Hradecky and Pohjanpalo cemented their places as starters and the U21s have made a decent start to qualifying for their Euro adventure.

Ultimately the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is a failure. Mixu should have been relieved of his job earlier, if not after before. I don't know a lot about Hans Backe, my main doubt is of the FA's selection process, going for an easy option, possibly the cheapest. Kanerva restored some pride and performances, it's unclear yet if he'll remain on Backe's staff.

Onwards and upwards, OI SUOMI ON!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Keith Armstrong's Day Off

I've been following Finnish football for a while now, it's provided me with an awful lot. Friends, excitement and some very odd stories which have to be seen to be believed. But one of the strangest events I can recall from Finland (or anywhere else for that matter) occurred on Sunday 4th October...

Ilves in Tampere are one of my favourite clubs in the country. The atmosphere at their ground is fantastic and I've enjoyed myself each time I've visited. They were promoted last season into Veikkausliiga after the demise of MYPA, they had a small budget and have performed well throughout. Their new manager was the Englishman Keith Armstrong, who has been involved in numerous clubs throughout the country and coaching HJK to three titles at the turn of the century.

Sunday saw them visit the league leaders SJK in Seinäjoki, Ilves still not mathematically safe from a relegation play-off. A big game affecting both ends of the table, so of course the players would need a Braveheart-style rousing speech before the match to inspire. So how did the coach motivate his team?

He appeared on television as a pundit for the English Premier League matches being played at the same time.

Admittedly these are huge games, Everton v Liverpool and Arsenal v Manchester United... The broadcaster clearly wanted an English perspective, but did it have to be Keke? Anyway, as Ilves said in a statement on Monday, his absence was a big surprise to the CEO and that his TV appearance had not been authorised.

Armstrong on TV, during his side's defeat at SJK

As a supervisor in my day job, I'd be severely concerned if one of my employees failed to turn up for work. What had happened to them? Were they ok? Could I do anything to help? Nah, they bunked off to dick about. Book thrown at him.

Ilves announced on Wednesday afternoon that Armstrong's contract would be terminated. The players had lost confidence in their coach, such behaviour was unacceptable. What next for Ilves? They go into the final three matches of the season without the man who led them to (probable) safety.

Meanwhile, K€k€ will go onto something else. His video diary with IS:TV earlier in the season was reminiscent of Brendan Rodgers on Being: Liverpool.

Being: Ilves

A sorry, amateur affair all round.