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 concerned...my 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.
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
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....