Tuesday, October 10, 2017

What next for Finland?

2018 World Cup qualifying is over for Finland. Well, it's been over for months. Monday night saw the final match in group I, in Turku against an also-eliminated Turkey. It turned out to be an entertaining 2-2, but ultimately counts for little other than FIFA ranking points and cementing Finland's place in division C in the upcoming Nations League.

Like the qualifying campaign for the 2016 European Championships, the best sequence of results was saved for the end, when the pressure was ultimately off. Finishing with two wins and two draws has echoes of that group, but the seeds of failure were sown much earlier.
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The World Cup group was drawn in 2015, when Finland were at their lowest ebb after the sacking of Mixu Paatelainen. Placed in the fifth seeding pot due to a poor FIFA ranking, the Finns were drawn in a tough group with Iceland, Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine, before being joined later by Kosovo. Fifth place was expected, and achieved.

After Markku Kanerva steadied the ship post-Mixu, the Finnish FA (Palloliitto) held an open search for his successor. Applicants included Stuart Pearce and former Gibraltar boss Allen Bula; but the selection panel of the late FA chairman Pertti Alaja, secretary Marco Casagrande and advisor Jari Litmanen went for Swede Hans Backe - a manager who had mostly worked in Scandinavia, with diverse spells at Notts County and New York Red Bulls...
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Backe's reign was an unmitigated disaster. No wins, a complete lack of vision and an even lower FIFA ranking, which ended up outside the top 100. The fixture choices seemed baffling, taking prestige batterings by Germany, Poland and Italy over more productive games. Probably not Backe's fault, but still.
Kanerva again took the reins, this time on a permanent basis. Despite a friendly win over Morocco, other results stayed poor. Injuries played their part, Moisander and Sparv were long-term absentees, while Joel Pohjanpalo and Eero Markkanen struggled to get minutes for their club sides. When he was able to field a virtually full-strength team against Iceland, they won 1-0 and followed that with a win over Kosovo and score draws against Croatia and Turkey.
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It's perhaps harsh to compare Kanerva with England's Gareth Southgate - promoted after a sacking, more experience of coaching or working with youngsters. Barring a catastrophe or a complete change of heart at the top of Palloliitto, Markku will be in charge when the Nations League kicks off in 2018 and probably the Euro 2020 qualifying in 2019. Are there any obvious Finnish contenders to replace him? Simo Valakari is now in Norway, Lehkosuo has won a double with HJK but was lucky to keep his job a year ago.

Individually, Finland have some very good players. There is a decent spine that, when all fit, should provide plenty of tough opposition. The youngsters on the fringes of the side have shown that they can add dynamism and pace. Players like Simon Skrabb, Fredrik Jensen, Pyry Soiri and Sauli Väisänen show promise and could become established internationals in the coming years. Alex Ring has come on leaps and bounds at New York City FC, Paulus Arajuuri looked good in the qualifiers and Lukas Hradecky has a fine record in the Bundesliga.

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Will Finland qualify for a major tournament any time soon? Well the 24 team Euros and the wildcard spots from the Nations League represent the best chance. It'll need a favourable draw and good luck with player fitness and form, but recent results should enable a better seeding.

It's easy to get carried away after such a long time of scraps and defeats. It's a time for reflection and building for 2020.

Oi Suomi on.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Top five - Huuhkajat needing a transfer

Another guest post from Mark of FC Suomi - this time looking at the five Finland players in need of a transfer... Five players at various stages of their careers.

Tero Mäntylä

By the end of 2014, Tero's stock as a ball playing centre-back was on the rise and with the number of games under his belt increasing both domestically and in European competition, the then-22 year old looked like in Ludogorets and the Bulgarian top flight, he'd managed to take the road less travelled to the big time. As qualification to the Champions League became more likely, however billionaire owner Kiril Domuschiev decided to throw money into the first team. After playing his part in the qualifiers to get them to football's top table, Tero found himself at the back of the Ludogorets queue. With game time looking scarce, Tero made a bold move to mutually cancel his contract, packing his six winners medals (two leagues, two cups, two supercups) and heading north to Aalesunds. The 2015 season started well enough for Tero, playing behind then-captain Sakari Mattila; though Aalesund with a lack of firepower struggled in the league. Harald Aabrekk was sacked, Trond Fredriksen came in and Tero's role slowly diminished. and in 2017 is yet to make an appearance for the Tangoshirts. At his best, Tero was seen as an understudy to Niklas Moisander, composed and a good reader of the game who relies more on wits than strength. The promising youngster is now 26 and may be well served with a return home, to (for example) a former champion looking for composure and calm after a disruptive start to the campaign.

Mehmet Hetemaj

This may be tough for SJK fans to hear, but Mehmet Hetemaj is too good for the Veikkausliiga. Through the highs of Simo's transformative reign and the pain of the Boström experiment, Mehmet has been a constant throughout. Mehmet often provided the extra quality needed (see the Finnish Cup Final last year, and semi-final this year) to drive the team forward. His three years in Seinäjoki have taken him to the ripe old age of 29 meaning it may be unlikely there's still one big move left in him, but a good showing in European competition could be all he needs.  

Thomas Lam

Mark Warburton is a fighter. He was installed at Nottingham Forest to avoid yet another crisis, so he rallied the troops around simple, direct tactics and the kind of tackling that wouldn't be unusual outside of a nightclub at four in the morning. While it's true Thomas Lam may need to toughen up his edges, their styles in play and approach to the game may be too broad to bridge. Warburton and his assistant David Weir have no time for "luxury players", yet seem to define such players by the thickness of their accent and are no strangers to falling out with people. Throw in the inevitable chaos and confusion that is the once mighty Nottingham Forest, and you've got one of the intelligent prospects of Finnish football potentially being taught the art of the concealed Glasgow kiss, the cheeky nut-grab or the hoof. With many admirers still back in Holland and a host of Championship managers also aware of his poise and calm, it may be best for all concerned to simply agree to disagree.

Tim Väyrynen

The Veikkausliiga player of the year in 2013 left Finland with high hopes, three cup winners medals and a burgeoning international career. Since then he's had a series of impressive false starts, despite scoring on his Borussia Dortmund II, Victoria Köln and Dynamo Dresden debuts. Köln in the German regional leagues was the only place he got a run of games, scoring 11 in 15 and lifting the Middle Rhine Regional Cup at the end of the 2015 season. Other postings have seen Tim limited to sub appearances, which for a developing player with his potential was less than ideal. Like others in this list though, he is no longer a young player. Now 24 with roughly around ten appearances a season (mostly off the bench) for the past four seasons, at four different clubs, Tim needs consistency, that means games, which usually brings goals.

Berat Sadik

Two years ago, Sadik was in the prime of his career, banging goals in for a resurgent FC Thun and causing Mixu Paatelainen problems by carrying his scoring form to the national team with a goal against Northern Ireland. With plaudits from every corner, European competition beckoning and Mixu on his way out; the summer of 2015 looked decidedly rosy. Football is however complex, a mistimed tackle (in Finland's win over Greece) and misguided transfer to newly promoted Krylya Sovetov in the Russian Premier League combined to give Berat just 17 appearances in the last two years, only four of them starts and grabbing no goals. This turn of events is made all the more galling considering Krylya simply don't play with wingers or to a target man, like Berat, they were relegated last season. Still only 30 and with rumours that he is to fill an Alfredo Morelos shaped hole at HJK, Berat is still a powerful target man who has shown that a regular run of games ends up with goals. You just can't help feel that whatever agent took him to the Soviets (literal translation of "Sovetov") should pay back his 15%.

Congratulations must be lauded also on Petteri Forsell (number 1 in the draft of this article), who is clearly too good for the Polish first division and should make a real impact in Krakow next season. 

Many thanks again to Mark for this stellar contribution. You can follow his works on FC Suomi and on the Finnish Football Show podcast.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jere the pacemaker

Here is a guest post by my Finnish Football Show co-host Mark Hayton from www.FCSuomi.com - talking about one of Finland's brightest prospects - defender Jere Uronen.

It's not easy being a full back. Usually, you face the opposition's fastest or most skillful player. Your immediate support are centre backs and wingers (translated: guys barking orders and guys ignoring orders), and the role has little to no recognition - noticed only when there's a gap or a mistake and even for the best full backs in history such from Roberto Carlos to Philip Lahm often had the ignominious "...for a full-back" suffix added to their list of accolades. 

In the modern game this is magnified as the role of the full back has evolved. In the 1990s, full-back and wing-back were two different roles, yet in the last decade someone decided to merge those two roles and not tell anyone. Modern wingers are essentially wing-forwards (in old money) and it's rare these days to see defences set up with high lines or offside traps so basically intrepid full backs cover byline to byline.

One of our own currently mastering this tactical evolution is Jere Uronen, who has also managed to quietly navigate another of modern football's tricky areas: game time. When Genk came knocking in 2016, the then 20 year old had already racked up 100 career games in the Swedish league and game time in European competition. During this time he garnered recognition from the national set up, but little fuss was made in the media about the young Turkulainen blessed with pace, good control and positional sense. Focus, as usual, fell not on the players covering grass, but on those in fancy track suits on exotic training pitches nearing first team considerations but not what we called back in the 90s "learning the trade". 

Genk's Europa League run this year took them to within a hair's breath of a semi-final round jam packed with Europe's elite. Against a strong Celta Vigo, the Belgians, our man ever-present of course, were competitive, threatening and were it not for (former KuPS defender) Omar Colley's off-night in the first leg, could have returned from Spain with more than just the two away goals. Semi-finalists in the Belgian Cup and currently on track to return to European competition next season, Genk and Jere are an improving side and have made themselves a comfortable reputation for being a testing ground for players heading to the big leagues. 

So, as the Sima cracks open this Vappu and the discussions around the plight of Finnish players rev up, remember Jere. A young man with talent and determination not taking a fast track to the subs bench but working his way up the football pyramid, who earned his Vappu through graft, through competition, through silverware and continental experience. Raise a glass and give him some recognition to his achievements, he's worked hard for them... even for a full back.

Many thanks to Mark for this - you can catch up with his regular updates on the national team and players at www.fcsuomi.com

Friday, April 14, 2017

Veikkausliiga kits 2017

Every year, I start the season by looking at the kits to be worn in the upcoming Veikkausliiga season. I'm a big fan of football kits, although sometimes they do get a bit boring... This year, we're looking at a variety - some awesome, some incredibly dull. Make your own mind up!

IFK Mariehamn - Puma

HJK - Adidas

SJK - Adidas

VPS - Puma

 Ilves - Adidas

RoPS - Puma

KuPS - Puma

Lahti - Umbro 

PS Kemi - Stanno

HIFK - Puma

Inter Turku - Nike

JJK - Nike

If you fancy getting your hand on these, click on the club shop tab at the top - most are readily available...

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Veikkausliiga predictions 2017

Last year, during my Lumi-related hiatus, some of the Finnish Football Show extended family did some predictions ahead of the 2016 Veikkausliiga season. No-one called IFK Mariehamn's title. Now I'm back, and while it's lumi of a different kind which is having an effect, let's see what we can see.

Your name:  Henry Hakamäki
Twitter handle/Website: @Huck1995 https://thefootballexperience.com/author/huck1995 Finnish Football Show and Shorts Contributor

Title Winners:  HJK.  And unfortunately, I don’t see the title race coming down to the last day of the season, as we’ve been blessed with the last two seasons.  After the past two seasons of (comparative) failure, at least according to HJK standards, they’ve really reloaded this summer and have looked really strong in the Suomen Cup this pre-season.  Last season’s title winners IFK Mariehamn have a lot of their title winning side, and SJK has through injury and transfers lost a lot of their team’s spine, so it’s hard to see them playing to the standard they set last season.  If Tanaka manages to finally stay healthy this season, Morelos continues to play to his incredible level from last year, and the incoming Demba Savage, Mosa Yaghoubi, Faith Obilor, Juha Pirinen, Hannu Patronen, et al. make an impact as soon as they come in, watch out.  The rest of the league will have trouble keeping pace, and HJK could even do a bit of damage in Europe this year if they get a decent draw.

Bottom two:  Kemi Kings and JJK.  Kemi was lucky to avoid relegation last season, which was mainly due to the dumpster fire that was PK35, and the sheer incompetence of Inter Turku despite having quality players.  Needless to say, Kemi had one bright spot last year, Billy Ions, who left halfway through last season to join SJK, and they haven’t really done anything big in the transfer market to expect better from them this year.  If the young players they picked up can make a big impact right away, they might have hope, otherwise it could be a long season for our friends from Kemi.  Meanwhile, as much as I hate to say it, JJK looked absolutely abysmal in the Suomen Cup, finishing with 7 goals for (4 were in one game against Kakkonen side Mikkelin) and 19 goals against (including a 9-1 thumping against KuPS) in only 5 games.  Their side is basically the same side that won the Ykkönen last year, but their only additions were the midfield additions from KuPS, Patrick Poutiainen and Saku Leppänen.  If the Suomen Cup was any indication, expect them to ship in a crapload (scientific measurement) of goals and struggle this season.  

Player of the Year:  I always tend to see the Player of the Year as the player most responsible for a team winning a title or over-performing dramatically.  Therefore, I am going to cheat a little in this category and say that if HJK win the title in a landslide, the MVP will be Alfredo Morelos, who will likely be the league’s leading scorer as long as he doesn’t get transferred out to a bigger team halfway through the season, with Mosa Yaghoubi coming in second in the PotY race.  However, if Ilves push HJK whatsoever, or possibly even do the unthinkable and snatch the title, Emile Paul Tendeng will almost certainly be the Player of the Year.  Seeing as the former scenario is more likely at this point, I’m going to give the odds to Morelos.  

Dark Horse (Team that will do better than expected):  Ilves.  Ilves and Inter Turku both look like they could challenge, though with Inter something always seems to go wrong and they under-perform, so I’ll go with Ilves.  Jarkko Wiss did an incredible job last year of taking an Ilves team that was widely expected to be one of the teams that would be fending off relegation and turning them into a legitimate decent team.  With another off-season under his belt at the helm, holding onto Emile Paul Tendeng (one of last season’s best players), and adding more experience in the backline with the incoming Jani Tanska and Teemu Penninkangas, as well as an exciting attacking player (what they lacked last year outside of Tendeng) Tuco, and a few promising youngsters in Youness Rahimi, Eero Tamminen, and Iiro Järvinen, Ilves could be posed to at least make things interesting for HJK, and a European place is a reasonable minimum goal for them.

Biggest Disappointment:  IFK Mariehamn.  Until this past week, it would have been (unfortunately, as I love them) RoPS. They lost a lot of big players in the off-season and didn’t really replace anyone, and they had a pretty horrific financial report come out which didn’t instil confidence that they would remain a mid to upper table Veikkausliiga team.  However, within the last week they picked up Ivan Tatomirovic and David Addy to shore up their back line, and Sani Kaita to join captain Antti Okkonen, freshly back from injury, to close up shop and keep their goals conceded figure low.  Keeping Robert Taylor and picking up Sakari Tukiainen (who bossed the Estonian league) in the offseason at least gives some signs of life.  Meanwhile, IFK Mariehamn lost their best two attacking players in Dever Orgill and Diego Assis, promising young midfielder Thomas Mäkinen, and reigning Veikkausliiga goalkeeper of the year Walter Viitala, and haven’t sufficiently replaced them this offseason.  Robbin Sellin comes in to fill in the midfield, and Lucky Mkosana arrives from the New York Cosmos to try to get the goals for the side, but that’s pretty much it.  Their main hope for not having a disastrous season is that they are still run by last year’s miracle workers Peter Lundberg and Kari Virtanen, and Jani Lyyski (who was my personal Veikkausliiga MVP last year) will still be in the heart of the defense and acting as a coach on the field.

Most important signing of the year:  Mosa.  If Mosa keeps his head down and keeps working hard all season, he could be the piece that’s been missing for the last two years for HJK.  Perhaps his recent call ups to the Huuhkajat will help him refocus himself, and if so, his addition makes HJK’s attack terrifying.  Mosa could be the player to bring the most out of Tanaka, Akseli Pelvas, Demba Savage, and Morelos.  If he can be the glue that helps these guys gel together, there’s no team in the league that won’t struggle to stop HJK from putting up goals.  And as much as I’m hoping for the title race to come down to the wire, I’m hoping for a great season for Mosa to help get him back on track, even though a great season for him most likely means a non-competitive league.  Timo Furuholm for Inter could also play himself into contention here, he’s a proven quality Veikkausliiga player, and Inter could rely on him to fire them into European places, which would be big after the past couple seasons.

Young Player of the Season (22 or younger):  Rob Taylor.  So, Mosa is 22, but if I have him listed as #2 for Player of the Year if HJK win in a landslide, and as the most important signing, I’m going to spread the love a bit to another fantastic young attacking talent in the Veikkausliiga.  Rob Taylor was great last season with RoPS, and looked decent at the international level as well when he got to trot out for the Huuhkajat (missing sitters notwithstanding), and I expect that he will continue to grow as a player and have a big season.  As I said, RoPS had a questionable off-season until they picked up some defensive players, but they are still lacking in the firepower department, so I anticipate that manager Juha Malinen will give young Rob the keys to the car and let him run the show a little higher up the pitch than he maybe did last year.  Expect him to bag a decent amount of goals and assists, and have most of their attacking moves run through him.

Manager of the Year:  Jarkko Wiss.  Gotta give it to Wiss, he did a tremendous job last year with Ilves, and I expect them to be one of the strongest challengers this season.  For a team that two years ago got into the Veikkausliiga on luck alone and managed to cling onto their league status despite losing former manager Keke Armstrong partway through the season, Wiss has done an incredible job of stabilizing the club since he’s come in and getting his squad to overperform.  Plus, he seems like a genuinely good guy, and that’s got to count for something, right?

What are you most excited for in this season?:  The past two years we’ve been spoiled with incredible title races, but that’s not likely to happen this year.  And I would have said the return of JJK to the Veikkausliiga, but if their Suomen Cup results were any indication, it will be more trainwreck than triumphant return.  So I guess I’ll have to go with Inter Turku games.  Their team is looking strong, and while they likely will underperform (as is the norm), they should at the very least score a lot of goals, and that always makes for fun viewing.

What are you least excited for?:  Kind of the theme of my whole set of predictions, HJK should run away with the league, and with the amazing finishes we had to the title races for the last two years, culminating in two first time Veikkausliiga Champions (SJK and IFK Mariehamn, respectively), this year looks like we will go back to the theme from the five straight years before that, where HJK just crushed everyone in their path to the title.

(As a brief aside, if anyone wants to give me something to be happy about, whoscored.com has had detailed stats and player ratings for the Swedish and Norwegian leagues for the past few seasons, and I’ve been trying to get them to cover the Veikkausliiga as well. Would be great to have some analytical based player ratings for the league, so if you want to help me out, tweet to @whoscored and tell them to get player ratings for the Veikkausliiga this year! Every tweet to them is extra incentive for them to do it!)
Your name: Mark Hayton
Twitter handle &/or website: @FCSuomi / www.fcsuomi.com / The Finnish Football Show

Title Winners: HJK - Mariehamn and SJK are weaker this season, Hannu Patronen, Moshtagh Yaghoubi, the return of Demba Savage and retaining Alfredo Morelos should see Klubi take it at a canter.

Bottom 2: JJK and PS Kemi, a shame because it's another damn fine shirt from Kemi this season.

Player of the Year: If he stays and keeps his head Moshtagh Yaghoubi, if not it usually falls to Antony Annan to keep HJK together.

Dark Horse (Team that will do better than expected): Are Ilves a dark horse? They look like HJK's strongest challengers, you also have to mention Inter Turku. 

Biggest Disappointment: Probably RoPS, who didn't pull up any trees in Suomen Cup and have had a quiet pre-season. 

Most important signing of the year: Timo Furuholm. He is nailed on gonna get 20 goals for Inter at least.

Young Player of the Season (22 or younger):  Mosa is still 22, but if and if, I'm hoping Robert Taylor will push on also keep an eye out for Irfan Sadik at Lahti Berat's younger bro.

Manager of the Year: Jarkko Wiss. 

What are you most excited for in this season?: Shefki. On paper that team could win the league, but it never seems to work like that... there will be fireworks on the west coast this season though, that's for sure.

What are you least excited for?:  the final two months of the season when HJK have it in the bag... but then they can't all be like last season.

Name: Juhavaltteri Salminen
Twitter: @jvsalminen

Title winners:  HJK have looked very good in pre-season, and anyway, they screwed up badly to not win the title the last two years. I'm not sure their decision to stick with Mika Lehkosuo was an ideal one, but the way they've been playing and the sheer quality of their players should make sure the season doesn't end in another disaster.
As far as challengers go, KuPS look very strong. SJK's pre-season has been quite ridiculous off the pitch, but I expect them to find form sooner or later and challenge at the top.

Bottom 2: It's not looking bright for JJK, is it? They've got a few quality players, but to me they just seem to be lacking the necessary depth. It's weird how they couldn't keep the promotion-winning side together, and pre-season hasn't showed much signs of improvement. In my head it's a tight race for the other spot between HIFK and PS Kemi. I'd say HIFK will just edge it with their experience and slightly better playing squad. Losing Ryan Gilligan right before the start of the season is a blow for PS Kemi.

Dark horse: Well, I have no clue what to make of FC Inter. They've made some good signings and, provided their foreign acquisitions prove to be good players, their starting 11 is very impressive. Two of their strikers have every chance to be the league's top scorer! That being said, with a disaster of a season in fresh memory and the still-unproven Shefki Kuqi as head coach, who knows. Anything can happen, quite literally.

Biggest disappointment: I was very impressed with VPS last year. For many years VPS were just another Veikkausliiga team with no real edge or talking point about them, but under Petri Vuorinen they've found an identity. I see a lot of potential in VPS, but with that said, they haven't looked very good in pre-season. I love how they try and keep the ball on the ground and go about their play, but it's looked quite ineffective to me so far. So I'm afraid VPS will disappoint me. As for IFK Mariehamn, I expect them to slide back to mid-table, but I'm not sure that counts as a disappointment? For them to win the title last year was exceptional, for them to finish mid-table this year would be in line with expectations.

Most important signing of the year: Important as in best? I'll go for Timo Furuholm at FC Inter. Everybody knows how dangerous he can be in this league, but his off-the-pitch influence should also be kept in high regard. Inter fell into complacency over the last few years and that almost resulted in a catastrophe. Furuholm has the attitude, he won't stand anybody not putting in the required effort. An important signing for a team that's seemed to suffer from a leadership void, and the captain's armband should tell you something about his influence.

Young player of the season: Ilves' Tatu Miettunen played really well last year, I'm eager to see if he can keep it up. As for up and coming names, FC Lahti's Paavo Voutilainen has gathered some experience in pre-season and done well, I'd love to see him get some minutes once the league kicks off. Also keep an eye out for Mikko Kuningas and Santeri Hostikka at the same club. And here's hoping Nnaemeka Anyamele and Fredik Lassas finally manage to take the next step at HIFK...

Manager of the year: Now that's a difficult question. I think Ilves' Jarkko Wiss had been very deserving of the award last year, but obviously there was no way you could overlook IFK Mariehamn's Peter Lundberg and Kari Virtanen. If Ilves keep it up this year, I think it's time for Wiss to receive the award.

What are you most excited for in this season? Once again the league seems very evenly-matched for me, so that's my pick! HJK might win by some margin, but there will be tight competition for the other important spots. KuPS, Inter and Ilves look promising, VPS might improve as the season progresses, and you never know about Juha Malinen and RoPS. I'm probably going to laugh at my predictions when we do our recap in October, and that's what I love about Veikkausliiga!

What are you least excited for? Just hoping clubs keep their income and expenditure in balance. We've had more than enough bad news in that regard over the last few years. For example RoPS' financial situation is looking rather bleak, but I'm sure they have enough money in the bank to at least buy a calculator?

Name: Keke Mylläri
Twitter: @kekemyllari

Title Winners: Despite the heroics of IFK Mariehamn last year I cannot see another team achieving that success and beating Klubi to the title so I am going with a boring predictable HJK as title winners

Bottom 2: This is a really contentious category for me, my head says our JJK team may struggle my heart lives in hope that we can avoid the bottom 2. So I’ll go with my heart and predict a bottom 2 of PS Kemi and VPS

Player of the Year: I was really looking forward to seeing Mikael Soisalo tear it up in Veikkausliiga this season but as he is now plying his trade in the PL2 with Middleborough’s U23 squad I am going to go for another player who I have mentioned before in Robert Taylor. We in Jyvaskyla have known about Taylor for a long time and I think he can really make his mark on veikkausliiga this season with RoPS. Another player I am excited about is JJK striker Toni Tahvanainen, JJK will certainly need goals from him to stay in the League. 

Dark Horse: Going with SJK for this category, which may seem strange given they were champions not so long ago but they have gone through some well documented upheaval of late and so expectations are not as high as they once were. I can however see Sixten Bostrom getting it together and SJK possibly reaching their previous lofty heights.

Biggest Disappointment: This will have to be IFK Mariehamn’s title defence, their team has been decimated and I cannot see them mounting a serious defence which will be disappointing following the fairy tale of last season.

Most important signing: Saku Leppanen. Another selfish JJK prediction. Saku is home after some time with that yellow mob and will hopefully be the midfield general that JJK will need to help keep us in the league. 

Young Player of the Year: Fredrik Lassas, still only 20 it seems as though Freddi has been around for a while, he has attracted interest from Germany but is still with HIFK and I can see him really coming of age this season. 

Manager of the Year: Another I have previously mentioned but I think the enigma that is Shefki Kuqi can do good things at Inter. The man is certainly is a maverick but I can see him getting his act together this season and Inter doing Ok under his stewardship.

Most excited: A personal one this but I am most excited about JJK’s away game at Ilves. I’ll be in Finland in summer time and as always will take in as many fixtures as time allows and Ilves away is one I am certainly looking forward to. It will be my first visit to Tamela and I hope that Harjun Pojat will take some good numbers down and it will be good to go at it with some of my Niilon Pojat mates who I know from the National Team support! As always, I am also excited to see Finnish teams in European competition. Club loyalties go to one side when the Veikkausliiga is represented in Europe and I always support any Finnish team in Europe.

Least excited: the lack of a title race…. As I said I can’t see any particular club mounting a serious challenge to HJK, having said that who expected IFK Mariehamn to be crowned champions last season and we can live in hope of a meaningful title race! 

Your name:   Rich Nelson 
Twitter handle &/or website:  @escapetosuomi     www.escapetosuomi.com 

Title Winners:   HJK. Their closest rivals last season have weakened, while they have significantly strengthened. Players with lots of experience have come in, an apparent departure from recent experiments in signing up and coming prospects or mercenary journeymen. Keeping Morelos was vital, despite the significant financial outlay of around half a million Euros - either they'll sell him on for profit or keep him and potentially get 20-25 goals. Pirinen, Obilor and Patronen will be solid and consistent, with yellow card collector Lum Rexhepi now in Holland. See below for a look at the forwards...

Bottom two:  Kemi and JJK. Kemi were so reliant on goals from Billy Ions (now SJK) and Erik Törnros (now in Sweden) that it masked various issues at the back. Hard to see many of their new signings making a difference at either end, while their away form was awful, with their only two wins at the two teams below them, PK-35 and Inter. JJK won a tough Ykkonen division last year but haven't looked good in pre-season and again have made some very low-key signings. They do have some very experienced players which should at least provide some spirit, unlike the mutiny at Vantaa last season. Again I don't see many goals.

Player of the Year:   Mehmet Hetemaj. Strange how he hasn't been called up to the national team, carried SJK on his own through several games last season and has scored a few in the cup run already. Makes the team tick and vital in the spine of the side - too early to see how much changes on pitch with new manager but losing Riski (to Germany) and Matej Hradecky (season-long injury) will require his guile.

Dark Horse (Team that will do better than expected): KuPS showed both Jekyll and Hyde in the Suomen Cup. Scored goals for fun in the early games, then lost when they really needs to against bogey sides Ilves and Honka. Gbolahan Salami is a dangerous centre-forward but off-field issues may play a part in whether he stays focused. Sebastian Sorsa and Ville Saxman will provide a more professional head in the dressing room, with KuPS keen to blood plenty of youngsters. Otso Virtanen in goal is a great signing. Top three will be a push but they look a lot more prepared than under the previous regime.

Biggest Disappointment:    IFK Mariehamn. To be expected - losing Viitala, Assis and Orgill after winning the title was likely but painful nonetheless. Don't know enough about the replacements yet - pre-season has been tough and it will be hard to replicate the atmosphere of last season, the buzz and anticipation was clearly running through the side. They were lucky to keep key players at the back fit, although at least the (best performing) defence remains largely untouched... If disappointment is a (probable) top half finish.

Most important signing of the year:  Timo Furuholm. Well established goal-scorer returns to Inter where he won all domestic trophies... Timo and Njazi Kuqi up front will be a nightmare for defenders, although Kuqi Jr spent plenty of last season out with suspension. Still only 29.

Young Player of the Season (22 or younger):   Alfredo Morelos. Shone in a mediocre HJK side last season, and this year will be ably supported with a more solid team which should both remove the pressure from him and also provide more opportunities. No longer a surprise, but he showed a range of goalscoring last season which will at least keep opposition on their toes, and will now have a chance to be more creative to assist his able teammates.     

Manager of the Year:   Jani Honkavaara. Struggled to inspire HIFK last season but perhaps his replacement will find similar issues. KuPS gave the impression that they were treading water under Marko Rajamäki and again needed some new ideas. There is a promising group of young players at the club who will benefit from older heads in the dressing room. Only recently became a full-time football manager, having previously combined it with work as a teacher.  

What are you most excited for in this season?:   HJK's forward line clicking. Morelos. Atom Tanaka returning from injury. Mosa Yaghoubi back in Finland. Demba Savage. Evans Mensah. Atom's injury last season left a huge creative hole, and he has already shown glimpses of his vision and passing in pre-season. Yaghoubi is less subtle but equally effective. If Savage can remain fit, he provides both goals and assists as well as plenty of experience. Mensah could prove fierce competition for Morelos in the goalscoring charts and is only 19.

What are you least excited for?:   Poor showing in European club competitions - only HJK presently look set to have a decent run in Europe, but it's hard to gauge relative strength against other nations until afterwards. Other than their group stage appearance in 2014, there has been little to shout about from any side other than perhaps KuPS in 2012. Mariehamn will be unseeded in their Champions League draw and face an uphill battle, without the safety net of a Europa League spot.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Finnish football video clips

This week, as part of a rare five minutes of peace, I finally managed to work out how upload videos to the various ETS social media accounts. It's easy to forget that not everyone spends every second tied to their smartphones, so I've compiled them in one place for your viewing pleasure... Feel free to check out the Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pages.

A post shared by Rich Nelson (@escapetosuomi) on

Monday, January 30, 2017

When lies get out - a story of SJK and bullshit

It's human nature to exaggerate on a CV. Whether it's Joey Tribbiani claiming he can speak French, the youngster claiming that they really did get an A-Level in Klingon or just a slight dressing up around reasons for leaving a job - selling ones self is pretty common. Where it leads to genuine concern is when it is exposed as a lie, or at least doubted so heavily that it can't be trusted. This emerged as an issue in the relatively secluded sphere of Finnish football this weekend, as a result of some unsavoury circumstances.

The fine work of some dogged journalists (not just sports writers) has uncovered the appalling abuse committed by people acting as coaches, scouts and mentors in British football in the not too distant past. As a result, these men are slowly being arrested and victims gaining the courage to come forward. Alarming echoes of Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree. Yet the arrest of one such person this weekend has shone a light on 2015 Veikkausliiga champions SJK (Seinäjoen Jalkapallokerho).

Michael "Kit" Carson is an Irishman who spent most of his career working at English clubs such as Norwich and Peterborough. He was arrested and bailed last week for historic sex abuse allegations. His LinkedIn profile shows his current employer as SJK with the job title of UK scout, along with his own soccer school company (which incidentally is down for maintenance).

Lari Paski, SJK's media officer, told me that Carson had a consulting role with the club in 2012 but has never been employed as a coach or scout, and while he does have connections with current and former SJK staff, he is most definitely not on the payroll. More worryingly, Carson's connection with Finland goes back to the 1980s where he brought junior teams to Finland to compete in tournaments such as the Helsinki and Kokkola cups. Even SJK chairman Raimo Sarajärvi has had to come out with a similar statement, while admitting "I find it hard to believe, how can we know what dark sides humans have - I hope it's not true".

It goes back to the original point - we all know someone who claimed to be on the books at Arsenal, or whose uncle was a scout for Chelsea. Essentially it's harmless fun, especially when you see the state of most football scouts, nursing a team sheet on a cold Thursday at Motspur Park, getting paid in mileage in the hope that they discover the next Lionel Messi to keep them in the game. Reading the Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin shows what a life it can be.

In a sport dominated by who you know, these claims need to be tested more than ever. No more so when the safeguarding of young boys and girls is the issue. No matter how often the world changes, people will still be lured in by the promise of signing for a famous club, giving prestige to the people in club jackets, floating around the local park with a jobbing League Two manager on speed dial. Even recently, I've seen a lot of nonsense from people who claimed to have scouted players as soon as that player signs for a team - Maximus Tainio signing for Tottenham a recent example.

We can't police the Internet, especially what people put in their Twitter bios and LinkedIn profiles. But we can call out the bullshitters. We can take claims of abuse seriously. We must not allow these predators the arena to work, making promises of stardom and glory, taking advantage of vulnerable young people, in an industry where football clubs strive to find them early.