The curtain comes down on another season of Veikkausliiga, and it was a hum-dinger. Not many leagues in Europe reach the final day with all the play for a both ends of the season. The last round of 2015 got plenty of people excited, not just for the prospect of a different champions for the first time in since 2008. HJK had won six titles in a row, yet they still had a slim chance of retaining their crown.
The bottom end of the table still had unresolved issues too. VPS had looked in danger of relegation for most of the season, but a good run (after a change of manager) meant that while they could still be dragged into a play-off against PK-35 Vantaa, they just needed to better KTP's result. Jaro had slipped to last place after a rotten run with one win in fifteen games, they needed to win at SJK to have a hope of avoiding automatic relegation.
Finnish champions SJK (image via Facebook)
In the end, SJK scored in opening and closing minutes to win 2-0, securing a first ever league title and sending Jaro down. It was a nervy match, Jaro threatened but couldn't make it. A draw would have gifted the title to RoPS, who won 1-4 at Lahti, helped by a third hat-trick of the season from Aleksandr Kokko. HJK managed a hard-fought 0-1 win at KuPS but could only secure bronze.
All outcomes covered at Lahti (image via Risto Oksanen)
The relegation play-off will feature KTP, who lost 1-2 to Ilves but due to Jaro's loss, they finish 11th. VPS lost at IFK Mariehamn but will be relieved to open their new stadium in Veikkausliiga. The two-legged match between KTP and PK-35 Vantaa will be tense, but potentially entertaining if Shefki Kuqi's side come up.
So how was the league won and lost?
Well I saved the "HJK in crisis" blog until the season was over. I think better writers than I have done good work on this topic, while it feels like I'd just be sticking the boot in. Ultimately they were decimated by injuries to key players, but a transfer approach resembling a closing time trolley dash in Lidl was just as damaging. The shameless attempt at attracting Japanese fans resulted in Atom Tanaka (who did well) and Mike Havenaar (shockingly poor), African journeymen Taiwo, Jallow, Mendy, Moussi and Kandji were a mixed bag, and little confidence in goalkeepers. HJK had been so wonderfully run off the field, but this year has been a smack in the chops. Expect wholesale changes for next year.
SJK retained the majority of the squad who performed so well to come second last year. A solid spine of Mikhel Aksalu in goal, Savić and Gogoua in defence with Mehmet Hetemaj, Brown, Vasara and Tahvanainen in midfield provided solidity and some spark going forward, while the addition of Akseli Pelvas provided goals, but it was two summer signings who added the final solution. Brazilian midfielder Allan Souza joined on loan from Liverpool and Roope Riski added eight goals in 13 matches up front.
I doubt Allan is ready yet for Premier League football, but SJK have acknowledged that they may not be able to keep him for next season. But they too will move into a new stadium, with Champions League football and a championship trophy to show off.
Allan key to SJK title win?
Ultimately, SJK were the most consistent side over the season and were well deserving of their win - but what about the other challenger?
RoPS hadn't been great in 2014, finishing ninth in the table and hardly looking like title candidates. But it was already evident that coach Juha Malinen was building something. Faith Friday Obilor was one of the top defenders and continued to develop, attracting interest from big clubs in Turkey. Aleksandr Kokko had been out of contract but re-signed for the season, ending up as top scorer with seventeen goals (including three hat-tricks). The creative addition was Finland U21 midfielder Moshtagh Yaghoubi, who had been stuck in contract limbo between Latvia and Russia. Mosa provided a threat from set pieces (scoring a number of free kicks), a spark and a little bit more fire in the centre of the park. Of course he deserves to be docked points for taking a selfie after his goal against KuPS in October, but hey ho, he did well and will surely get a more solid move now.
Selfie time (second photo by Oona Sarajärvi)
Special mention needs to go to two of the promoted clubs, HIFK and Ilves. HIFK's entirely Finnish squad competed well at the top level, while their fans brought a lot of noise and smoke, making next season's Helsinki derbies the hottest tickets in town. Ilves came up after the demise of MYPA, against the wishes of some fans, and while they hit the headlines for strange reasons (the sacking of TV star Keith Armstrong), another great set of fans and solid performances ensured top flight football again in 2016.
Off the pitch, Veikkausliiga had a good year. The availability of every match live via Ilta-Sanomat was a huge hit, other than the matches where the technical gremlins prevented broadcast. State broadcaster YLE also showed games on terrestrial TV, including the "Futiskierros" format of showing goals as they go in from all the other grounds. Average attendances were good with a total of over 500k attendees, boosted by the three HIFK v HJK games and some good turnouts at Ilves. The league are still lacking a decent international broadcast partner, even I have to use less-than-legal means to watch games as the approved streams are via little screens on betting sites.
Ultimately 2015 was a great season, with plenty of drama and as always, eccentric moments on and off the pitch. I'll come back later with summaries, while I've no idea what I'll do until the new season kicks off in April. I'll leave you with a picture of my dog Woody in an SJK shirt. Perhaps next time I bump into Wayne Brown in a cafe at the top of my road, I'll get him to sign it...
Unfortunately SJK unfollowed me on Twitter (which I've yet to moan properly about), I suppose they've got better things to do. For shame.