The transfer window banged shut and left managers all over Europe on their knees, gripping at their mobiles with locked fists, the colour of their knuckles equalling the whiteness on their ghastly faces, pouring cold sweat as they stare with bloodshot eyes at the clock on the concrete wall in disbelief. Time is up. It’s all over. We’re doomed. There are no more opportunities to do rash purchases in seizures of panic either to beat the drop, win the title or qualify for Europe. Because that’s all anyone tries to do in European football nowadays, isn’t it (what ever happened to the comfortable mid-table position). Now all there is actually left is to cut it on the pitch. So coaches and players alike (old and new) do what you are supposed to do. Play football.
Meanwhile, in the far north of the European football map, after which there will be monsters, stands the Finnish Veikkausliiga. The confused and sleepy entity has risen from hibernation spent in a cold and damp cellar of an ice-hockey arena and finds itself standing on the side of a frozen football pitch, shaking the snow off its football boots and watching the kids hacking each other with ice hockey sticks. Perhaps it’s a bit too early to announce the outdoor football season open just yet but the season is, nevertheless, very much underway indoors. So maybe it is also a good time to kick-off the Veikkausliiga discussion here at I Went for the Ball!.
So as the big boys in Europe have been getting ready for the latter half of the season and the managers have been whining about the shortage of fresh banknotes to warm their houses with in the unusually harsh winter/ financial climate, here in Finland teams are preparing for the new campaign ahead and the coaches are just getting on with it despite the unkind meteorological and economic conditions. For them it is business as usual since they have never had any money to burn in the first place and it’s always cold around these parts in February. Nevertheless, in Finnish football, like everywhere else, the transfer window is now shut. No more signings (unless for free) and only hard work ahead.
Overall, teams have been quite busy renewing their squads. This, of course, doesn’t mean that there has been money going around much, most transfers being free signings. One club that is an exception to this rule is HJK. Traditionally they have been able to sign what they actually need instead of settling in for what they can get. So let’s take a look how they’ve fared. Who’s come in and who’s left the capital city of Finland:
Out: Tuomas Aho (to Mypa)
After the disastrous 2007 season, he was made the unlikely captain last term. In 2008 his performances improved but he still remained a hazard with his combination of poor positioning and lack of pace. Aho could never justify the armband with his inability to lead the defence which he should be able to do with the level experience he has. Returned to Mypa where he made his name.
In: Pyry Kärkkäinen (from FC Lahti)
A utility man who was part of the Finnish U-21 team that qualified for the European Championships. The jury’s still out with the young central defender/ full back/ holding midfielder from Lahti but he might prove to be a smart buy with regards to his age and versatility. However, versatility can also be a blessing in disguise, especially since he was brought in as a central defender. He needs to adjust quickly in the big role offered to him if HJK still want to keep up a title claim come summer. The demands at HJK are miles away from those at FC Lahti but should Kärkkäinen find his feet, he has the potential to form a solid partnership with Jukka Sauso in the heart of the HJK defence.
Out: Sakari Mattila (to Udinese Calcio)
Potentially the brightest player that has emerged from the HJK youth set up for a decade. Fortunate to sign a contract with the club from Udine that can nurture the massive potential Mattila has. The 20-year old has a fine passing range, excellent shot, good control and composure on the ball and a tall figure which doesn’t hurt when you’re playing in the middle of the park. If Mattila had stayed at HJK for a longer time, we might have seen another Vili Savolainen, a talented midfielder that HJK couldn’t nurture to his full potential.
In: Cheyne Fowler (from FC Haka)
A tough central midfielder who has gradually become a decent holding midfielder in Veikkausliiga. Tackles and works equally hard but has limited ability with the ball. Nowhere near as good as Mattila even if more experienced. Doesn’t add much to the squad and, therefore, hard to see Fowler having much of an effect either. Better dress up warmly for the cold season ahead on the bench.
Out: Erfan Feneli (released)
Chelsea fans used to have a witty, although cruel, chant about Jesper Gronkjaer; a chant that not only characterises the Dane but nails Feneli as well: (to the tune of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer) “Ooh his half way there…Give him the ball and he’ll fuck it up I swear”. The impression Feneli left was that he constantly wanted the ball but always managed to mess it up somehow. During the seasons the diminutive winger spent at HJK he progressed very little, if at all. Technically gifted but utterly inhibited as a footballer. Lacking tactical awareness, physical presence, a sense of position, an ability to cross consistently and his shooting is as good as that of a decent pub team player. Has a fairly big reputation but, quite frankly, nothing to show for it.
In: Sebastian Sorsa (Hamilton Academic)
An addition that the HJK fans welcome with open arms. The former HJK player and trainee spent a disappointing time at Leeds and Hamilton but is a player of definite quality. He has pace, is excellent in one-on-ones and can cross with precision and power. Will be one of the leading wingers in Veikkausliiga in 2009. If not the best.
In: Valeri Popovits (FC Haka)
A disconcerting signing. After being snubbed in the most undignified manner by the new owners in Valkeakoski, HJK coach Antti Muurinen took a gamble on the FC Haka legend. No one can deny what a fantastic player Popovits has been, but is just bad business to sign a 38-year old player who is not only prone to injury and has a heavy wage bill but has also has been in decline for a couple of seasons. HJK need a leader in attack but Popovits is simply not the answer. He might still provide the pass that no other Veikkausliiga player can but with all the pace in the HJK attack (Roiha, Parikka, Sorsa, Oravainen and Pelvas), HJK need a dynamic playmaker to take them places. What Popovits represents at Muurinen’s HJK is another question left unanswered by the former Finnish national team coach.
All in all, although HJK have not necessarily weakened from last season, Muurinen’s signings still do not impress (Sorsa not included since he would have been signed whoever the manager). Like last season, Muurinen has signed a bunch of decent Veikkausliiga players, but nothing more. None of the 2008 signings became key players. Ville Taulo and Petri Oravainen showed glimpses of their quality but they were never used to their full potential. Muurinen’s signings are simply not players that give you the extra quality you need to win trophies. And because HJK are playing European football in 2009, the demand for decisive players is even greater.
Nonetheless, HJK have (like they had last term) enough quality to put up a title fight. The problem is not the players but Muurinen himself. If the club really had enough determination, they should either bring in a coach who would be able to squeeze the best out of a good team or bring in players that could do it without him. But since structurally the club renews itself with the pace of a fossilized walrus, the board let Muurinen maintain his transfer policy of signing players who do not threathen his fragile sense of self. Instead of bringing in big profile players that would put your heart racing, Muurinen plays it low key with signings that are barely newsworthy. And when Muurinen does splash the cash, you can bet your horse it’s on someone like Popovits who will satisfy Muurinen’s Litmanen fixation and stagnate his game book to his preferred 90s style of nice, attacking football (whatever that means).
HJK’s signings signify a club without identity. A club lacking either the courage to spend big or rely on their excellent youth system. Jarno Parikka finally made his breakthrough in 2008 and 2009 could be the year for Akseli Pelvas, another young striker that came through the HJK youth system. Now that Muurinen has someone like Popovits, it might be that neither will get regular first team football.
What do HJK really want to be? The pride of the capital area? Well they might, but looking at the way things are handled west of Helsinki, FC Honka have empathically stripped HJK off any illusions of splendour. A reunion club for former FC Lahti players then? This seems closer to the truth. HJK have become a club filled with small club players. However, before accusing me of being an urbanite essentialist, let me make my case clear. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with players from smaller clubs as such. HJK have always signed quality players from small clubs and that’s exactly what they should continue doing. But there is everything wrong with signing small club players to HJK. Players who simply aren’t good enough for a team that can only have one objective, winning the title. Every new player (no matter where he comes from, including own youth players) should be tailored to improve the team’s way of playing. With Muurinen’s signings, it seems, HJK are just making up the numbers.
Or maybe I got it all wrong. Maybe times have changed. Maybe HJK simply do not carry the muscle any more. Maybe the players they sign are good enough. Maybe they are fit to wear the white and blue shirt. Mediocre signings for a mediocre club, led by a mediocre coach. HJK fans, get ready for another mediocre season.