Sunday, November 20, 2016

Finland's darkest hour

It's around this time of year, in late November, when the sun sets on Utsjoki in Northern Finland for winter - not to be seen again until January. Even then it's only for an hour or so, but it's essentially eight weeks of darkness. It's not all bad, it's the best time to see the Northern Lights and the snow does bring some relief.

Image: Pentti Kallinen / Yle

In a similar vein, the sun was supposed to rise on Finnish football on January 1st 2016. The reign of Mixu Paatelainen and his Christmas tree was over, a solid caretaker spell from Markku Kanerva steadied the ship, Hans Backe taking over the job full-time at the turn of the year once his television commitments were finished.

Since then...

It isn't (all) Backe's fault. He's had a rotten run of injuries. At various points, he's been without Moisander, Sparv, Pohjanpalo, Uronen and Hetemaj. He has also inherited a World Cup qualifying group in which Finland were fifth seed because of the FIFA ranking at the time of the draw (90th in July 2015, thanks Mixu). A group containing Croatia, Iceland, Ukraine, Turkey was always going to be tough, especially with the addition of a Kosovo side who'd never played a competitive game. Certainly harder than the Euro 2016 pool, where third place guaranteed at least a play-off.

Away friendlies were arranged against big teams in Belgium, Poland, Italy and Germany. They were even leading in Belgium in the 89th minute. But...

There is a tactical inflexibility as infuriating as Mixu's 4-3-2-1. Playing seven defenders at home to Croatia, which left about half a mile of space behind Pukki, was knackered as soon as they conceded. Moisander in midfield? I've gone on record saying I'm not his biggest fan, but don't play him there. Of course he then picked up a booking which ruled him out of the Ukraine match.

Moisander v Iceland

The players need to take responsibility. Moisander himself was lucky to play against Croatia after a complete lack of discipline after the injury time goal in Iceland where he grabbed the ref by the collar. Backe's video analyst John Wall has said that "only half of the players" watched the pre-Ukraine footage that was sent to them by mobile phone. Individual errors have directly resulted in conceding goals.

This brings us onto Roman Eremenko. This week he received a two-year ban from UEFA after testing positive for cocaine in a Champions League match between Bayer Leverkusen and his club side CSKA Moscow. Eremenko scored in a 2-2 draw on matchday one. Russian journalists have suggested that the levels in the sample implied that he almost certainly took the drugs on the day of the game. His club have indicated that they will appeal...

Eremenko has probably been the most consistently excellent Finland player at club level over the last two years. He hasn't always brought that form to the national team, but his quality is unquestionable. Assuming the appeal is unsuccessful, he won't be available again until October 2018, at which point qualification will have begun for Euro 2020. Then one has to take into account his readiness - fitness, mental state, motivation, plus he'll be 31 and not played a match in two years. Will he still be on the gear during his enforced break?

There are benefits - his presence in the team arguably slowed things down in the final third, while it may allow younger dynamic players like Robin Lod to flourish in his absence. There are several others in the U21 side who may also benefit, Simon Skrabb to name one. But his absence is another black mark on Finnish football, one which will bring extra scrutiny on players and support staff alike.

The other elephant in the room is the FIFA Ranking. I touched on it earlier, how the rankings are used to decide seedings. Well, under Backe the ranking has dropped to 101st at the time of writing - Finland's lowest since the system came into effect in 1991. Ranked below Syria, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan is a sad day. The methods used to calculate the positions are questioned, but they are based on results. To put it into context, even the defeat to Ukraine will see Finland rise back into the 90s due to the re-weighting of older matches.

Finland have hardly had glory days in their football history - a fourth place in the 1912 Olympic games is their biggest success, with no World Cup or Euro appearance to list. The team of the late 90s came closest, conceding a shambolic last minute own goal equaliser to Hungary cost a play-off match. A generation with Litmanen, Hyypiä, Johansson, Niemi, Riihilahti, Kolkka, Forssell didn't make it. There was no root-and-branch review.

The biggest nations look to themselves when things go wrong. Germany did it after poor showings in Euro 2000 and 2004 (despite a World Cup final appearance in-between). Brazil took some time after their 2014 semi-final humiliation against the Germans, but replacing Dunga with Tite this year saw a massive upturn in form after a poor start to their qualification. England constantly try new approaches but with similar results - constantly looking elsewhere in a bid to establish their own identity.

Several Finnish youth internationals are based at clubs in England, with supposedly access to elite coaching. Keto at Arsenal, Virtanen at Everton, Sundman at Aston Villa to name but three. Their time may come, but they will need regular first team matches. It's a conversation had regularly about Jari Litmanen - would he be allowed to stay in Finland until 21 in the current age, playing regular games and winning trophies?

Domestic league football in Finland has had something of a renaissance in the last couple of seasons, in interest and drama at least. SJK and IFK Mariehamn winning maiden titles after proper title races, Helsinki derbies bringing sell-out crowds and some needle too with a promotion/relegation play-off between the two big Turku clubs. While average attendances haven't jumped, the fact that every Veikkausliiga game is streamed live and some shown on free-to-air TV won't hurt at all. Even the second tier had a strong finish. The PK-35 shambles didn't reflect well however and we can almost certainly look forward to the annual financial scrutiny resulting in some movement within the divisions. We've seen Backe calling up some Finland based players for recent squads - Granlund, Riski, Saksela and Viitala have all been watched.

Ultimately, there's no quick fix for Finland's problems. Palloliitto (the Finnish FA) aren't flush with cash and there are numerous reasons why the changes also need to come at the top. Removing Backe will only work if a proper structure is in place to choose the correct successor, and there is little chance of that happening given the calibre of applicants for the last vacancy. The disparity between international sides is greater than in league matches, there are more mismatches in qualifiers. Backe's recent contact with Wales manager Chris Coleman seemed to suggest a desire to look past his own side, but Finland do not have Aaron Ramsey or Gareth Bale.

At their recent meeting, the weekend of the Eremenko ban news, Palloliitto reminded everyone that the number of registered footballers in Finland is up 7% to over 140,000 players, including 32,000 females. These are numbers to be proud of, for sure. But the context in which these figures were unveiled suggests that everything is fine.

It's a long time until the next qualifier away to Turkey in March and a lot can change. It certainly can't get any worse.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Interview with FF Jaro manager Kristian Heames

In my day job, I've worked with a variety of different people. Some wonderful, some awful, most ok. One is a contestant on this week's Come Dine With Me (Mark aka Bobby), another is the spitting image of Giles from Gogglebox. I didn't ever think that one colleague, someone I have a lot of time for, would have a brother who would one day manage a Finnish football club I also have a lot of time for. But nonetheless, I should have twigged earlier that Sinead's brother is the new boss of FF Jaro, Kristian Heames. Through Sinead, I managed to get a few questions in, all for the price of some jelly popping candy chocolate. Even after all those times I bored her to tears by talking about the dog...

How did you end up at Jaro? Did you have previous links to the club?  
I have a coaching company in England called FDS, we work with West Bromwich Albion and have been coaching in Finland for nearly 10 years.  In that time we worked with Jaro and got to know people at the club and on the board.  After Nikolas Vidjeskog was coming to the end of his caretaker role they interviewed me whilst I was in Finland, I felt it went well and they offered me the job that evening with a three day start time which was a bit of surprise!

You've done a number of other roles in football, how have they prepared you for management?
I think spending time delivering sessions to many thousands of players over the last 16 years prepares you well for working with a new group.  Whoever you coach you have to earn their respect and give them what they need to improve and perform. Also having worked in strength and conditioning, scouting, coaching and business has given me a broad range of experiences which help when you have to cover a lot as a head coach of a small budget club.

Do you think the club can achieve promotion next season?  
Yes and that is what we are aiming for.  

The infrastructure of clubs varies hugely, how is Jaro looking below the first team?
There are many juniors playing and for the size of town and club they compete well in Finland. The ultimate success being the number of players making it through to play for the first team.

Jaro have a good recent history of bringing through young players (Öst, Eremenko, Atakayi, Skrabb etc), any more on the production line?
Samu Alanko was a big plus from this season. At 18 years old to score seven in eight at the end of the season and starting three games was obviously a success. Also local boy Joni Remesaho, who at 23 made his Jaro debut and a big impact even though it was his first experience of the Ykkönen. Going forward we have Adam Vidjeskog and Oskar Sandström, who I would expect to make good progress and an impact next season, with possibly some B juniors like Axel Vidjeskog moving up.

Joni Remesaho and Kristian (via FF Jaro Facebook)

What have you changed at the club since you arrived? Results suggest a big improvement. 
There were many good things in place already but I think confidence and team spirit certainly improved quickly when I arrived. I think this spirit is so important and we used that to win all types of games. When you win games the confidence comes. To achieve this on the pitch, we tried to play in a positive manner and also by increasing the tempo which we played at.

There's a big mix of nationalities in the squad - what is the team spirit like?
Really good, but it took some work. We are currently in the process of building next years squad. The local players need to be recruited first as you need at least 9 homegrown players. After that it is about selecting the right players from outside the club, whether they are Finnish or elsewhere.

What are your early thoughts on living in Finland? How much of a culture shock has it been?
I have been in Finland many times over the last ten years and spent a lot of time with Finnish people, so the culture shock was not that big, I feel quite comfortable here. I think the social media thing has already boosted the club, albeit in a small way. The club's Facebook page seems to have had a lot of new likes from England since I started!

Woody wearing my Jaro shirt - thanks Viktor!


A big thank you to Kristian for his time and Sinead for sorting it out. More interviews over the winter months. You can hear more from Kristian in an audio interview with local paper Österbottens Tidning, available from this link.

Veikkausliiga 2016 predictions reviewed

Back at the start of the season, some friends of ETS, led by Henry, made some predictions before the first ball was kicked (you can have a gander here). Now, with the snow falling and the trophy safely secured in Mariehamn, the guys reminisce about how it all went - with gratitude that little money was invested on the results...

Henry Hakamäki - Twitter @huck1995

Key to the Title:  Defence, defence, defence, and preparation. Mariehamn kept 18 clean sheets in 33 Veikkausliiga games and only conceded 25 goals all season. This is despite having the second lowest possession share in the Veikkausliiga.  All of the players, even the strikers, worked tirelessly off the ball and when not in possession, constantly harassing the opponents and then bunkering down once they took the lead.  Keeper Walter Viitala and defenders Albin Granlund, Kristian Kojola, Philip Mantilla, Bobbie Friberg da Cruz and particularly Captain Jani Lyyski need to be particularly commended for their incredible work this season.  Also, worth noting is that the new coaching staff of Kari Virtanen and Peter Lundberg had the team looking extremely prepared and organised for every single fixture of the season.

Why PK-35 and Inter Turku Were the Bottom Two: The cynical side of me wants to say that the common thread between the PK-35 and Inter Turku is Shefki Kuqi, but he wasn’t entirely the problem with either team.  In reality though, it was mainly what was going on higher up.  PK-35 were run horrifically, and it’s no surprise that they finished so far down at the bottom that they had less than half the points of the second worst team. It’s hard to come into the season with little finances, have the coaching staff revolt and resign, lose a manager, have all the best players pack up and leave, and still have to play games. With Turku, there was a lack of cohesion between players.  Look at the roster and you’ll see enough talent that they should have been easily safe, but they did not work together well at all, leading to scoring the least goals in the league and giving up the fourth most goals. Shefki’s appointment certainly didn’t help with the cohesion, and due to this, their results actually got worse once he took the job.

Player of the Year:  Jani Lyyski (IFK Mariehamn), with Alfredo Morelos (HJK) and Roope Riski (SJK) being runners up.  Mariehamn’s defence was practically impenetrable throughout the whole year, in no small part to Captain Lyyski.  Ferocious in defence, calm and collected in organising those around him into seemingly always the right spots, and even chipping in five goals and an assist to his name, he virtually did it all.  Pretty much impeccable all season. Meanwhile, Morelos was the main reason that HJK finished second, without him it’s doubtful they would have made the top four or even five, and Roope as usual was the driving force behind SJK for the majority of the season and rightfully collected the Golden Boot for the league.

Dark Horse (obviously Mariehamn, but another is…):  What Mariehamn accomplished cannot be overstated.  And to be pretty much at the top of the table from beginning to end of the season is a testament to their stability and consistency.  Beyond the obvious, Ilves and VPS were both hugely surprising this season. VPS did an incredible job of succeeding despite losing Juho Mäkela after last season, and gave up the second least amount of goals of any team (behind Mariehamn).  Ilves, meanwhile, seemingly won every time they were in a close game, and to finish fifth in the league with the budget that they have was incredible.  Special shoutout to Ilves keeper Mika Hilander, who looked like the best goalkeeper in the league for big chunks of the season.  Their midfield actually was really solid, scoring 29 goals.  If they had a big time striker, they could’ve even won the league (their strikers only accounted for 8 goals…).

Biggest Disappointment:  PK-35, whom I picked to surprise a lot of people this season, certainly surprised, but it was the surprise of being worse than I could have even imagined. The season started badly and progressively got worse and worse, with the sole happy moment being their final game of the season where they got revenge on Shefki, who had basically abandoned them mid-season, by beating Inter Turku and ensuring that Inter would play in the promotion/relegation playoff.  Also worth noting is HJK. Outside of their young loanee, Alfredo Morelos, Atomu Tanaka (who got injured once again), and Taye Taiwo (also injured), there was very little explosiveness, and without them their season could have been very, very bad by their standards. For a club with their resources to have to rely on three players as heavily as they did and to not run away with the title is an indictment of the lack of focus on domestic fixtures by the club.

Most important signing of the year: Probably Morelos, but since I’ve written about him several times already, I’ll spend some time talking about Emile Paul Tendeng (Ilves) and Rob Taylor (RoPS). With 7 goals and 9 assists, Tendeng was behind a significant amount of Ilves’ goals this season, and he was key to them surprising nearly everyone and finishing 5th in the league.  With the lack of finishing by the strikers of Ilves, Tendeng could have had many more assists as well. Meanwhile Taylor pretty much did it all for RoPS, leading them in goals and tied for the team lead in assists, all while playing attacking, center, and defensive mid over the course of the season.

Young Player of the Season:  I can’t choose between Alfredo Morelos (HJK) and Rob Taylor (RoPS). Morelos was one of the only reasons HJK were in a position to win the title through the season.  He was second in the league in goals, and seemingly half of them to either put HJK in the lead or draw them level.  He did underperform in their “must-win” games, but without him, HJK would likely have not even been in the top 4.  Rob Taylor also was vital, driving most of RoPS’s attacks throughout the season.  He’s already looking like he could be a part of the Huuhkajat lineup moving forward.

Manager of the Year: Clearly the dynamic duo of Peter Lundberg and Kari Virtanen. To do what they did with the resources that they had was nothing short of miraculous. Theoretically the Huuhkajat should have a managerial vacancy soon, and while there are lots of managers out there that we would be delighted to have, these two would almost certainly have more success than he-shall-not-be-named (his surname rhymes with “Sacke”…).  Beyond them, Jarkko Wiss (Ilves) and Petri Vuorinen (VPS) deserve a shout for what they did with their respective sides.

What was the most exciting part about this season?:  Could it be anything other than the title race? For the second year running, we’ve come into the last round of fixtures not knowing who would win the title, and again we have a new first time champion. The Veikkausliiga was tight all season, and after the previous dominance of HJK over everyone else, these last two years have been wonderful for the fans.  The excitement and suspense have been incredible, and I’m hoping next year is more of the same!

What was the least exciting part of the season?:  PK-35 were painful to watch, and after losing Billy Ions to SJK, so were Kemi.  Despite the title race being close the last two seasons, the resource gap for the majority of teams is still plain to see.  Furthermore, no one likes to see retrospective point penalties, such as PK-35 and SJK were subject to this season.  Finnish football still has a long way to go in terms of running leagues smoothly and clubs need to spend more time ensuring all paperwork is in order and things such as player eligibilities are taken care of.  It’s the little things that are holding back Finnish football at this point.  The sooner they can be taken care of, the sooner we can move forward.

Juhavaltteri Salminen - Twitter @jvsalminen

Key to the Title: Certainly there's a great surprise element involved, but you have to give credit to IFK Mariehamn for the way they run the club. They're not paying the highest salaries and Åland in itself isn't a huge attraction for players, but boy do they take good care of their employees. They're excellent at finding potential players who have yet to make a breakthrough. They create a very family-like atmosphere in and around the club and have been consistenly developing over the past few years. So while their title was inarguably a shock, that doesn't mean it wasn't also a great reward for doing a terrific, consistent job over the long run. Last year's Finnish Cup title was a sign of things to come, but I definitely didn't see them doing quite as well as they did.

Why PK-35 and Inter Turku Were the Bottom Two: Well, as far as PK-35 are short answer here won't begin to adequately answer this question. The club was in turmoil before they ever got promoted, and the ownership changes that were supposed to stabilise the club worked for the exact opposite. Horrible leadership, terrible financial awareness, what have you. Finnish football has had enough of these kinds of stories, but somehow we never seem to learn. 
As for FC Inter, the answer is simpler. While Job Dragtsma will always remembered as the coach who took Inter to glory, there were signs of weariness on both sides. The club had fallen into a feeling of routine and complacency, and while there have been warning signs in the past few years, this was the year things finally came to a head.
It's not just about the coach, it's about the way the club is run in general. It's Stefan Håkans' work of passion rather than your ordinary, success-driven and ambitious football club. Håkans' heart beats for Inter and football, but a sense of being too well-off has emerged at Inter. They have no financial concerns, no real pressure to succeed because it's a thing of passion more than anything else. Inter have become complacent, fallen into the routine of doing things the way they've been doing them for ages, when what they really needed to do long ago was shuffle the pack to keep things interesting. Now it's been same faces, same routines, the same stuff for too long and the club has stagnated to the point where it's starting to cost them massively on the pitch.
As far as this particular year is concerned...Well, Dragtsma seemed to have lost his spark some time ago and didn't seem like the right man to change the club's fortunes anymore. Then they put their faith in a rookie head coach who was just as much a face of the club's stagnation as Dragtsma, so the first change of coach didn't really change anything. Finally, they got Shefki Kuqi, which, given Kuqi's recent history, was a huge risk to take. On the pitch Inter were a mess most of the time, and somehow the club thought they could save their ass in the transfer market. While they signed good players (on paper), that's just not how you turn things around if you can't play decent football. There's countless examples of that. So it was a summer of amateur mistakes from Inter, and a year in which their lack of ambition finally caught up with them. Maybe a relegation play-off spot and a possible relegation is exactly the alarm clock they needed. The club really needs somebody to take responsibility of everything that has to do with the actual football in that organisation. Inter are a huge fiasco. With the players they have the club should have been in the running for silverware. This is a total disaster, even if they stay up.

Player of the Year: I hate it when the awards always go to those who record the most goals or assists, but this time I just have to go for Alfredo Morelos of HJK because of his overall value to his team. HJK were hideous by their standards, and if it wasn't for Morelos, they would've missed the top 3 entirely. What little success HJK had, they owed it to Morelos' goals, so I just can't overlook him. A shout out has to go for Emile Paul Tendeng of Ilves, what a great signing.

Dark Horse: This has to be Ilves, even if they were unlucky to narrowly miss out on a Europa League spot. While many expected the classic "difficult second season" problem to catch up with them, what happened was the complete opposite. Jarkko Wiss proved his credentials as a coach, and they made some fantastic additions (Tendeng, Soisalo) while keeping faith in the players they had. I also wanna name VPS. I didn't expect much of them, but for me, VPS were the team that showed the most improvement over the season. It's a club with a new football philosophy, and I can see them becoming a force in the next couple of years (if they aren't one already).

Biggest Disappointment:  I can't pick one over the other, so HJK and Inter will have to share the prize. For HJK to miss out on the title for the second year running is a disaster that can't be overstated, given their resources. There's just no excuses, and I'm interested to see who carries the responsibility and how. Their form dipped remarkably after their UEL qualifiers, just like last year. That clearly suggests the club is too obsessed with Europe, no matter what they say. They've lost their focus and it's cost them. European fixtures are a great opportunity, but how can you build an entire football season around a few European fixtures? To concentrate so fully on Europe is to underestimate the league and the other clubs. They've been arrogant and not in a good way. It is also very much a coaching issue. A Veikkausliiga coach can't ask for more than Mika Lehkosuo was given, and for HJK not to win the title with the players they had is an unacceptable failure. Inter share the top spot in this category for reasons mentioned earlier. It's baffling they haven't even secured their Veikkausliiga status with the players they have.

Most important signing of the year:  My both player of the year nominees happen to be new signings, so it has to be Morelos or Tendeng. But a shout out has to go to Gabriel Petrovic, who returned to IFK Mariehamn and was an unsung hero in their success. While he doesn't provide too many goals or assists, he's an extremely important balancing factor in IFK's midfield and a key player in their fantastic defensive record.

Young Player of the Season: Mikael Soisalo (Ilves). His move to Ilves went very much under the radar, but what an exciting prospect he turned out to be. Ilves also deserve a lot of credit for finding such a gem of a player.

Manager of the Year:  It just has to be Peter Lundberg hasn't it? To replace a club legend after a 13-year tenure and take a mid-table side to an unlikely title is really remarkable. I don't want to understate Kari Virtanen's role as a mentor either, but Lundberg has done a fantastic job at the training ground. Jarkko Wiss (Ilves) and Petri Vuorinen (VPS) are well worth a mention as well.

What was the most exciting part about this season? Almost everything! Finnish football has badly missed a title race, but now we had one for the ages. The relegation battle was also a three-way contest right until the end. Not a single one of the last round's games was a dead rubber. What more can you ask for? So the most exciting thing for me was the general competitiveness of the league. It has boosted interest and attendances, so I hope the trend continues even if it's not realistic to expect a similar ending every year. I also want to mention the opening of new stadia in Vaasa and Seinäjoki, Finnish football is in dire need of proper grounds.

What was the least exciting part of the season?: The whole PK-35 situation was just catastrophic, and it's time the Finnish football community sat down and started thinking how we can put and end to the recurring theme of badly-led clubs and financial worries. Something also needs to be done about the fixture list sooner rather than later, although this is more of a recurring discussion than anything that has to do with this particular season. This will continue to be a problem until there are enough top-flight teams with proper stadia. For Christ's sake, Veikkausliiga doesn't even have a concept called "a round of matches". While all European leagues primarily run on weekends with a settled format, Veikkausliiga continues to be played on all imaginable weekdays. Teams don't even have a similar rhythm, it's not unusual to see a league table with two or three games separating teams. Some improvements were made this year, but all in all the fixture list is a mess that shows a total lack of football culture. Either we have to admit that 33 games is too much or we just need to make the season longer by whatever means possible.

Mark Hayton - Twitter @fcsuomi

Key to the Title: Jani Lyyski, mainly Mariehamn's defence it was the meanest in the league, Albin Granlund at right back also did well connecting the play, he justified his call up.

Why PK-35 and Inter Turku Were the Bottom Two: PK-35 hit a fork in the road back in May and with the coaching staff revolt and finger pointing, they decided to self implode... I wouldn't put that on Shefki, the problem was higher up. Inter, that was Shefki. By bringing in so many of his own players (Njazi, Garcia, Zeneli etc.) he created a rift in an already fragmented dressing room. The players have the quality to survive the play off, it's just a question of whether they can work together.

Player of the Year:  Roope Riski, golden boot, without him SJK would've been mid table. HJK's Alfredo Morelos is in the same category, but he tended to go missing in big games.

Dark Horse (obviously Mariehamn, but another is…): Ilves, the job Jarkko Wiss has done is phenomenal. 

Biggest Disappointment: Inter Turku. That club just seems to romp from shambles to shambles. Oddly if they survive I think Shefki might be a good fit, they both need success now.

Most important signing of the year: Arguably, Alexei Eremenko for SJK, who crippled the champions and created the vacuum for Mariehamn to march into. On a positive side, probably Ville Jalasto for HJK, imperious at Centre back.

Young Player of the Season:  Robert Taylor best thing since Santa, Pyry Soiri also looks tasty.

Manager of the Year: The obvious (IFK’s Duo), with special mention to both Jarkko Wiss at Ilves and Muurinen for keeping HIFK out of trouble (on the pitch).

What was the most exciting part about this season?:  The last Stadin Derby had everything and meant so much at both ends of the table... A proper footballing experience... Oh and the hilarious head scratching from anyone that was brave enough to make a prediction.

What was the least exciting part of the season?:  Kemi, but for a filing error they'd have finished 2nd bottom. No win since August, Billy Ions departure made them really tough on the eye

Keke Myllari - Twitter handle & Website @kekemyllari

Key to the Title: IFK Mariehamn’s team spirit... maybe it’s an island mentality!!! Also Klubi’s inability to turn draws into wins!

Why PK-35 and Inter Turku Were the Bottom Two: Errmmmm Shefki.....?

Player of the Year: Sticking with my prediction, Roope Riski, top scorer whose goals almost won the league for SJK

Dark Horse (obviously Mariehamn, but another is…): Sticking with my prediction of VPS, for those guys to finish in fourth is a great result for them, also a mention for Ilves who were predicted a tough season by many and ended the season in a very respectable fifth above established Veikkausliiga sides like RoPS and KuPS.

Biggest Disappointment: HIFK, I was expecting better things from HIFK this season but was surprised that they struggled and only just avoided a dangerous relegation play-off.

Most important signing of the year: Well my prediction of Eremenko to SJK didn’t quite work out so I’ve gone for my young player of the year Robert Taylor, despite the name he is Finnish and he proved to be a great signing for RoPS also a mention for young Mikael Soisalo picked up by Ilves from Klubi 04 for nothing, he is definitely one for the future!

Young Player of the Season: I’m sticking with my prediction Robert Taylor, had a great season chipping in with 11 goals from midfield this season finishing 7th on the top scorers list .

Manager of the Year: Shefki Kuqi for almost relegating two teams in one season!!!

What was the most exciting part about this season?: Ykkönen title race, culminating in JJK being crowned champions on the last day of the season followed closely by Veikkausliiga title race!!

What was the least exciting part of the season?: PK-35 giving up their Veikkausliiga existence without a whimper....

Monday, October 24, 2016

IFK Mariehamn - Finnish champions

In many ways, 2016 was a pretty typical year in Veikkausliiga. Points deductions for financial mis-management (PK-35 Vantaa), wins annulled due to incorrect paperwork (SJK) and police overreactions to football fans (too many to list).

But for IFK Mariehamn, from the autonomous Åland Islands, lifted their first league title - just one year after their only major honour (the 2015 Suomen Cup). Champions League football is now on the menu, IFK will enter next season's competition at the second qualifying round. They clinched the title with a 2-1 win at home to Ilves, scoring the opener after just 52 seconds.

Their season was based primarily on a solid defence - keeping 18 clean sheets in their 33 matches with keeper Viitala and defender Kojola playing in every match. Albin Granlund received his first call-up to the Finland squad thanks to his performances, while captain Jani Lyyski was superb, weighing in with five goals as well.

Up front, the main source of goals (12) came from Jamaican striker Dever Orgill, who has already confirmed that he'll be leaving in the winter. Diego Assis, scorer of the winning goal on Sunday, has also hinted at his own departure but the two of those have been at the core of Mariehamn's attack for the last three seasons. They will be missed.

Mariehamn itself is a small town, with a population of just 11,000 people. To put it in perspective, that's the same population of the local area I work in (Kew in South-West London) and roughly the number of people in each of the 624 electoral wards of London. Åland issues it's own stamps, it's in demilitarised zone and even Vladimir Putin owns land there, to the bemusement of locals. 4335 people squeezed into the Wiklöf Holding Arena on Sunday to witness the title decider - over a third of the population of the town. 
Over the winter, I'll be speaking to various people involved in the club to get a richer picture of the magnificent achievement. I'm sure there are a number of sore heads this morning - all well deserved.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Bad Santa - amateur hour in Kakkonen

On the day the Guardian published an in-depth interview with Hercules coach Daniel Amokachi, the Northern/Western group of the Finnish third tier provided two matches which proved how much work is needed to raise basic standards further down the pyramid.

Amokachi raised a salient point about the availability of his players: "We started the season really well but then you find things that you only see in Finland – players missing games because they’ve already booked holidays, their friend is getting married, things like that. You can’t protest because you’re not really paying them. The professionalism angle is difficult. For them, football is just about getting together with friends and having fun but that’s not what our vision is all about, we want to take them to a different level and we’ve lost some who aren’t used to that kind of push."

On Sunday, two of the sides struggling at the foot of group C were in action away from home and completely proved Daniel's point.

Virkiä, from Lapua, have been in the relegation places all season - yet met notoriety a couple of months ago by beating Hercules 4-1, a shambolic display which raised all sorts of alarms regarding match fixing. In their penultimate fixture, they made the trip to Pori to play MuSa, challenging for promotion. In any case it'd be an uphill struggle - but they only arrived with ten players. They kicked off and gamely lasted the full ninety minutes. Alas it was all for not, with the final score of 8-0. Matters not helped with the second MuSa goal being scored from this corner. Or MuSa announcing their opponents fielding ten men with a tweet including #facepalm.

This wasn't the most outlandish football news from Kakkonen group C. That came further north in Kajaani, where AC Kajaani hosted "banter's" FC Santa Claus of Lapland. Santa again have struggled this season, while the hosts still had an outside chance of promotion via the play-offs. It's quite a long trip from Santa's grotto in Rovaniemi to Kajaani, over 300km. But Santa Claus decided to give some early presents to their opponents.

They arrived with eleven players. Not unheard of in the lower leagues in Finland. However... Three of the eleven were goalkeepers! So when the game kicked off, Juhani Kangas lined up in goal, with his fellow keepers Harri Nykänen and Juho Saukko playing outfield. Despite fielding three goalkeepers, Santa were 6-0 down at half-time, the final score a humbling 16-0. Michael Ibiyomi bagged a double hat-trick, Alberto Ramirez scored three, as did substitute Rundell Winchester.

Ibiyomi celebrates his sixth goal of the game

Strangely, the previous fixture between the two sides in July ended 0-9 to Kajaani. Clearly they haven't been very good little boys.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Matsipäivä - a Finnish football photo book

Nine Finnish football photographers have joined forces to compile and showcase their most beautiful and interesting photographs. Matsipäivä (the Finnish word for "matchday") is a confession of love for Finnish football.

Football is the most beautiful sport. A photograph can capture the endless layers, to tell you all about a single moment, a single player, one team or the nature of the entire event. It can act as an interpreter of emotions when catastrophe strikes, and at the time of redemption, as evidence of an immortal genius hero moment or a villainous twist.

But how do you capture Finnish football? How to preserve the passion and longing? Matsipäivä presents images from lower leagues up to Veikkausliiga, as well as the Finland national team in one volume.

The book will present the photographs of Mari Hietala, Olli Jantunen, Niko Karumaa, Teemu Kvist, Riku Laukkanen, Petteri Lehtonen, Matti Savolainen, Jaakko Stenroos and Joppe Survonen.

The project is being crowdfunded, with some good benefits for donors. If the project is funded, contributions can be rewarded with copies of the book, along with poster sized prints of a selection of the photographs included in the books. 

You can contribute to Matsipäivä by clicking on this link -

The group can also be reached on the usual social media channels:
Twitter - @matsipaiva
Instagram - @matsipaiva

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Taking a break

I've been doing ETS on my own for four years now. It's taken a lot of time and energy, I've enjoyed most of it... But I need a break. My day job is busy enough and I've got a new boss starting in a fortnight.

We've also got a baby girl coming in May, I want to be able to enjoy that precious time without thinking about clubs with funny names or counting the sponsors on a jersey. Plus I fully expect to be absolutely shattered.

I'll be back.


Rich, Hanne, Woody and baby.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Veikkausliiga 2016 predictions

The increasingly-contributing Henry has collated some predictions about the new Veikkausliiga season. These were written before the opening matches, just took me a while to put them on. Strongly recommend you follow them all for a wide range of views on Finnish football.

Henry Hakamäki - Twitter @huck1995

Champions: SJK. A couple weeks ago, I was feeling a lot more confident in this pick.  However, at the end of the preseason, SJK’s attack started sputtering and HJK made several good moves. If SJK can get their attack back on track, I still have them as the eventual winners though.

Bottom two:  Hard to pick, but I’ll go with Ilves and VPS. VPS didn’t score much last year and lost Juho Mäkelä, who scored most of their goals. Ilves, while I really like how scrappy and tough they are, just don’t have enough players to take the game into their own hands.

Player of the Year: If SJK retain their title, it’ll most likely be in large part due to the goals of Roope Riski.  He lost his strike partner Akseli Pelvas, so more of the goalscoring burden will be on his (extremely capable) shoulders.

Dark horse: Both promoted clubs, PK-35 and PS Kemi, will surprise people, I think. Of the two, PK-35 should be more able to climb up the Veikkausliiga table.  The top half is not out of question for Shefki’s boys if they can keep out goals as effectively as they should score them.

Biggest disappointment: In terms of team most likely to disappoint, it’ll be IFK Mariehamn, who will struggle to repeat the success of last year’s Suomen Cup winning side, after losing big players and not bringing in many reinforcements.  Player most likely would be Atom Tanaka (HJK), who with his value and talent must start showing that worth by salvaging points single-handedly.  If he isn’t one of the Veikkausliiga players of the year this season, it’ll be a disappointment.

Signing of the year: The player here could either be the most important signing or the biggest disappointment, depending on his commitment to getting into form, Alexei Eremenko (SJK).  If in form, he could be towards the top of the league assist charts, and he has so much talent left in him that if this doesn’t happen, it’ll be a big disappointment.

Young player: Urho Nissilä (KuPS).  The 19 year old attacking midfielder made a pretty big impact for an otherwise disappointing KuPS side last year, and he looks to take on more attacking responsibility this year with the team lacking other threats.  Expect him to bag several goals this season and climb into the top ten of the assists chart (if his teammates can put away the chances he creates at least).

Manager of the year: While I predict that Simo Valakari will defend the Veikkausliiga title with SJK, I’m going to be bold here and say Juha Malinen (RoPS).  RoPS lost a lot of good players from last season, but I think Malinen will help guide the team into the top half of the league table regardless, which would be a major accomplishment.

Most excited about: Shefki Kuqi and his PK-35 side. The Vantaa based team plays with an exciting style, but even if the team hits a rough patch, watching Shefki going ballistic on the touchline will make their fixtures entertaining regardless. He’s already been made to watch from the stands for several of the team’s matches in pre-season.

Least excited about: The same as every season, saying goodbye to one or two of the teams from the Veikkausliiga. Maybe it’s a bit sentimental of me, but I do become slightly attached to the teams over the course of the season, and knowing that at least one of them will not be back next year is heartbreaking.

Juhavaltteri Salminen - Twitter @jvsalminen

Champions: HJK. A very tough choice, not much between them and SJK. Right now I consider HJK marginally stronger, and after a disaster of last year they won't take anything for granted.

Bottom two:  Ilves aren't a terrible team, but I don't see them having the quality of their competitors. They've had a bad pre-season too. I'm picking VPS for play-off. This is a very tough choice too as the league seems very tight again this year, but VPS look like a very mediocre side to me.

Player of the year: Many good options here, but SJK's Roope Riski has been in fine form during pre-season and looks like he has a fifteen-goal season in him. So maybe it's finally Roope's year!

Dark horse: PK-35 are not your usual newly promoted side. Many are not very fond of the club, but there's no denying they have a good team that might ruffle some feathers.

Biggest disappointment: IFK Mariehamn have a good team on paper, but their pre-season doesn't convince me one bit. Furthermore, it's always tough succeeding a coach who's been around for ages so in many ways it seems like Kari Virtanen and Peter Lundberg have their work cut out for them. It doesn't look too bright for KuPS either.

Signing of the year:  Many good options again. You could pick almost any HJK or SJK signing really, but I'm going to dig a little deeper and go for Pape Habib Sow (FC Inter). He's already a commanding prescence at the back for Inter, I expect them to be difficult to score against.

Young player: Lauri Ala-Myllymäki looks set for a big role at Ilves. He shows a lot of promise and already has some Veikkausliiga experience under his belt, so maybe this is his breakthrough year?

Manager of the year: HIFK haven't changed much, but they're a very well coached team quite ready to make life difficult for the bigger sides. The patient, long-term planning of Jani Honkavaara has been key to their success over the past few years, I think he deserves some credit.

Most excited about: We seem to be in for a genuine title race (not a given in Finland), and overall it seems very even throughout the league. So many teams can challenge for European places with a good run and just as many teams might face a relegation battle if things go wrong. It was very hard for me to pick my relegation candidates, that's what Veikkausliiga is about!

Least excited about: We have one of the longest pre-seasons in the world and still clubs are struggling to put their teams together just weeks before the league starts. That's of course due to lack of money. Finances are a big issue for Finnish clubs and a serious obstacle for European successes.

Mark Hayton - Twitter @FCSuomi,

Champions: SJK, Simo Valakari has strengthened slightly, but the main reason is that the major contenders HJK and RoPS are weaker now than when they ended 2015, behind the team appropriately dressed in gold.  

Bottom two: VPS (R). Take away Juho Mäkelä’s 16 goals (about half of VPS’s) in 2015 and VPS would have been bottom by some distance, his departure will massively impact Vepsu’s season. Veli Lampi’s arrival may slow the decline but his presence didn’t lift HJK last season. Ilves (PL). Once Ilves secured their Veikkausliiga status, the 2015 season ended with 6 defeats in 10. Mika Lahtinen is the sole provider of attacking threat and he hit double figures last year for only the second time in his career, while at home the re-emergences of TamU threatens to dilute the vociferous home support Ilves enjoyed last year.

Player of the year: Roope Riski – 8 goals in 11 games put the most unexpected title on a plate for SJK last year. If he hits similar form he may not stay in Finland, particularly if SJK advance in the shop window of European competition. Even if he plays only half a season in Finland, he’ll still be the best player in the league.

Dark horse: PK-35, Ilari Äijälä, Pablo Counago, Lucas Garcia and Njadzi Kuqi are the kind of reliable players that will grind out results, that and the combative style of the latest Shefki Kuqi still could push them to the upper echelons of the table.

Biggest disappointment: Inter Turku, whatever happens in the league, Inter will finish 4th. Always well-organized with talent, their problem is how quickly that talent is shipped out. I don’t expect anything exciting at the Veritas stadium, and if something comes up, they’ll sell it.

Signing of the year: Mikael Forssell, HJK. Roope Riski will keep SJK at the top but Miklu’s arrival in Helsinki was needed far more. He’s the only player in the HJK squad where you can reliably find the goals Klubi need to keep pace with an improving SJK.

Young player: Robert Taylor (RoPS), the Kuopio native has moved to Rovaniemi charged with one simple task: fill Mosa’s boots. Unlike the current star of the Latvian league, he’ll more likely do his talking on the pitch.

Manager of the year: Simo Valakari, he’s already on the shortlist for some British clubs, if Simo progresses in Europe, which SJK’s signings could accomplish, this will be his last season in Finland.

Most excited about: Nikolai Alho is back after a long injury, he’s only 23 and has an outside shot at making the national side, if he can find the kind of form that got HJK to the Europa League in 2014.

Least excited about: Incessant referee and media focus on Shefki Kuqi. Yes, he swears and shouts, most managers do… get over it!
Keke Mylläri - Twitter @kekemyllari

Champions: HJK

Bottom two: PS Kemi and PK-35, both of the newcomers.

Player of the year: Roope Riski (SJK)

Dark horse: VPS

Biggest disappointment: The Finnish National Team.

Most important signing: Alexei Eremenko (SJK)

Young player of the year: Robert Taylor (RoPS).

Manager of the year: Jani Honkavaara (HIFK)

Most excited about: SJK playing in Europe and a new stadium.  Also, Ilves fans pyro shows.

Least excited about: Klubi winning once again.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Interview with HJK fan Aachi

In a slight change from my usual interview subjects, I've spoken to Arto "Aachi" Ihatsu, who is one of the most well known football fans in Finland, who follows HJK home and away. He has given some great and impassioned answers, well worth the wait.

As one of HJK's biggest fans, how did you get into supporting the club?
It all began on August 12, 2004, when I was twelve years old. I went to see HJK v Inter with my father. HJK lost the game 0-1, but I was hooked and I got a season ticket for the 2006 season. The first match was in Kotka, I had just turned 14 and it was my first away trip alone, although Klubi lost 2-1 (to KooTeePee) and I continued from there. As soon as I knew I was part of the fellow supporters, they became my a family.

What was it like being in an away end on your own in Kazakhstan?
I wasn't in there by myself, as two HJK senior supporters were there as well and I spent a lot of time with them. It was slightly scary when I was there moving about in the stadium by myself, such as when I went to get some beers, and also in the stand when the sound was coming from all directions and I was missing my fellow Klubipääty crowd. It was such a shame we didn't get into the group stage that we were supposed to end up in, but luckily there were still fans greeting us at the airport and supporting the team in a weak moment.

A photo posted by @akiriihilahti on

Have HJK looked after you (and other away travellers) on European trips?
Not really, I've done it myself and organised things including away tickets. Everything has always been sorted by ringing Markku Peltoniemi. For the Besiktas game in Turkey there was some confusion as I couldn't at first find him and get the tickets. I think Klubi should have a controlled amount of tickets at their office for each Euro away game to be sold, whether it be in Andorra in the first round or one of the group stage matches.

What job do you have which gives you such flexibility for travel? Do they enjoy seeing where you go?
I work at a port terminal. My boss is a keen HJK supporter as well as another colleague of mine who is also a member of the Klubi family. We take most of the match days off. You wouldn't necessarily always have the energy to go to every game but one of the perks of the job is being able to go to the games so I wouldn't change this for anything.

2015 saw HIFK return to Veikkausliiga - was the atmosphere at derby games the best you've been to in Finland?
Derby days have always had special atmosphere, whether it's a friendly being played in the hall or at the Sonera stadion, which is very special, especially for the players and the supporters.

What more can clubs do to make fans feel more involved in their clubs?
Perhaps a bit more involvement in the day to day business - co-operating to build a community between players, the staff (coaches etc) who are working at the club, along with the fans.

The image of you falling out of the stand in 2013 was shared all over the world - what exactly happened?
I was celebrating a goal scored against FC Lahti and I flew over the railing in style. Fortunately, I was sober so it didn't hurt too much!

Aachi taking a tumble (thanks to Mika Laakso for the photo)

Video of the HJK goal referenced above - go to 09:20 for the fall

How did you feel when HJK postponed the IFK Mariehamn game to play Liverpool last summer? Had you already booked travel?
It was really bad because everyone was waiting for that match in Åland. The news of the Liverpool game came while I was in Tallinn on a cruise - I was full of anger and the cruise was ruined. I genuinely think my blood pressure rose from zero to one hundred. I can honestly say I was pretty shocked. I think these matches should not take priority over competitive domestic matches, especially on a Saturday ahead of Mariehamn away. Fortunately we were away to IFK Mariehamn in the Suomen Cup two weeks later and the club sorted us out. When the league game was moved to October, only eleven fans made the trip, but it warmed the heart because it was HJK's first away win for months.

What do you think of HJK's chances in Veikkausliiga this year?
We have a truly superior team compared to last year, some extremely interesting names arriving such as (Anthony) Annan, (Alfredo) Morelos, (Vincent) Onovo, (Ivan) Tatomirovic and Medo will all be a big help for the coming season. We hope the results of each game go well, and the title is settled in before the start of the Europa League - we can focus on the end of autumn and spring, knowing the final is being played in Stockholm (Friends Arena). There is a possibility, at least in my imagination...

Which club would you most like to see HJK play in Europe? Or is there anywhere you wouldn't go?
I would love to see HJK play against Arsenal, they are my favourite team in England. I could never go to Dubai - there are only a few places where you can get alcohol, not in the stadiums...

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Veikkausliiga 2016 kits

With a new season of Veikkausliiga beginning, it's usually a time to marvel at some of the kits that will be on display - with the obligatory large number of sponsors. I didn't do a kit blog at the start of last season, which is just as well as some of the kits remain the same. I've included last season's kits by way of a comparison... Most of the photos are official Veikkausliiga profiles.

Most of the clubs have a webshop, the details of which are on a tab at the top of the page.


The champions will play in the same Adidas kit as last season, as modelled by new signing Abdoulaye Méïté. Special mention though to the jackets worn by the coaching staff, classic Adidas Originals gear with the trefoil logo. Magnificent.


Last year's silver medallists are again decked out in Puma, this time the same template as the current Arsenal home jersey.


Looking to regain their crown, the club have made several signings but keep the same shirt as last season. Perhaps they still have some remaining from last year that they didn't sell in Japan?

Inter Turku

Inter remain with Nike jerseys, but they've moved onto a more subdued template. Less identifiable, but far more attractive.
FC Lahti

Same Umbro jersey as last year, but with... A bigger main sponsor? Was there a bit too much black left? I do hope Halton have paid more for the privilege.
IFK Mariehamn

Same Puma kit as last season... Same official profile photos too!


Very little change other than an updated template - nice to see Kappa still doing kits, shame about the lack of shoulder trim like the Man City kit of the 90s.


A change in template, little else. A shame, I loved the 2015 design but it's not a bad replacement.

Same kit as last season (the 2015 official photographs were of the previous kit). All that's missing is a copy of today's newspaper being held by the obvious hostage.


Same Puma kit as last season, clearly found in a basement bin somewhere in Vaasa.

PS Kemi

It's putting it mildly to say that I'm heartbroken. This is the biggest shame of all. One of last year's finest kits, a custom made Adidas abstract effort (underneath the sponsors) has been replaced by a budget plain red Stanno rag I wouldn't clean my car with. Such a shame.
PK-35 Vantaa

Shefki's boys are following the Inter Turku model, replacing red and black stripes with a low-key number. Nice. I've got one already...
So that's the fashion parade for the upcoming season. As I said before, most clubs have a shop online - check the tab at the top. I'm not on commission, but don't forget that every penny counts for most of these clubs.