2008 Veikkausliiga – the changing of the guard

The biggest disappointment this year has been HJK Helsinki. They started with high hopes, big signings, and a fluent attacking style, but things have fallen apart for them since the 3-2 win over Inter that seemed to renew their title hopes back in August. Their strategy – big money signings combined with the cream of Finnish youngsters – has failed, as they finished fourth in this year’s Veikkausliiga and will now rely on the Finnish Cup to qualify for Europe.

The cream of Finnish youngsters is a particularly wasteful part of the strategy, as Finland is full of ex-HJK players. Not just the pros, but amateurs who played for a while and then left the club as juniors, along with guys like Antonio Inutile who never really got a chance there.

Whereas Inter’s policy is that young players need a chance in the first team as soon as possible, because otherwise you will never know what they could have achieved, HJK’s seems to be that a place in their line-up needs to be earned, and can’t be wasted on just anyone.

Next year’s bright young hope for HJK is Akseli Pelvas, who moved to HJK from EsPa when he was 14. Pelvas has impressed, scoring 24 goals for HJK’s farm club Klubi 04 in Kakkonen this season. He was shipped out to IFK Mariehamn on loan to get a taste of Veikkausliiga, and then scored twice for HJK to give them a 3-2 win at FC Haka last week, but the 19 year old is going to have to compete with Paulus Roiha, Jarno Parikka and probably one new signing in 2009.

They have annoyed a lot of people in other Helsinki clubs with their magpie-like transfer policy, and I get the feeling that whichever Helsinki club manages to identify itself as the anti-HJK will get a lot of support and have a good chance of establishing themselves.

Compare that to Inter, who spent a large part of the summer without proper strikers after Timo Furuholm got injured. They eventually signed Gulliano Grot and Domagoj Abramovic, but the coach needed to demonstrate the desperate need, and potential rewards, before he was given the go-ahead to offer them contracts.

There’s been some disappointment about the drop in attendances for Veikkausliiga games this year. The average for Veikkausliiga this season was 2,631, down from 2,976 in 2007. I don’t really share the pessimism, as Veikkausliiga is not the only thing in Finnish football, and further down the pyramid there are some small rumblings of change.

Quality not quantity is what matters, and the big away followings and developing rivalries are what will make Veikkausliiga stronger in the long term. I’ve seen or heard about away followings of at least 100 fans from Inter, HJK, TPS, Viikingit, Honka, Tampere United, Lahti, PoPa and HIFK this season. Those are a lot of clubs to have taken so many people away, the kind of followings that usually only occur when there is something big to play for.

Once you get that many people travelling and chanting, then people will want to go to see the fans and the rivalry, as they have been doing at Turku derbies, and so people should maybe worry a little bit less about KooTeePee getting 1,700 rather than 2,200 people.

It’s a slow process, but as PoPa, HIFK, and whichever of the Oulu clubs comes out on top get their act together, the long term trend is upwards. Last season’s Veikkausliiga figures were most likely inflated anyway, as everybody talks about phantom spectators in Finnish football (the phenomenon of clubs picking a number and doubling it rather than counting the number of people through the turnstiles), but this season there was a bit of an attempt by the league to clamp down on the practice.

The great thing about 2008 is that Finland has three new ‘medal winners’ (that doesn’t make much sense in English, but it’s a very common phrase here) this year, and they all have reasons to be cheerful. Lahti finally showed their town a reason to support them, and took a huge, 500+ following to HJK for their final game. That is the kind of support that matters, not an extra few hundred juniors getting pisswet through and hating every minute of a home game they didn’t pay to see. They also have Jari Litmanen, who will surely finish his career there now and is just about the best marketing tool any Finnish club can hope for.

Inter have the best young players of any Finnish club, they own the best stadium, and they will compete in the Champions League next year. Job Dragtsma is hopeful that they would keep Dominic Chatto, which would be a major coup for the club. With Joni Aho, Mika Ojala and possibly Chatto as well, they will again be at the top of Veikkausliiga. Europe is another thing, but their style of play might help them there.

Honka did well in Europe this year, but their victory over Viking Stavanger and narrow defeat to Santander just failed to get them into the UEFA Cup group stages. Vasara and Kokko have been very good, but the middling playerslike Weckström, Peltonen and Kokko have been the real revelations this year. Nobody expected much from them, indeed Kokko was rejected by TamU when he was at their farm club, but Mika Lehkosuo has really gotten the best out of them. That’s a trick HJK have not yet mastered.

They really need a new stadium, and I was worried by the councillors I spoke to in Espoo talking about ‘private finance’ for it. That might be difficult to find in the coming recession, during which building costs will be cheaper and the owners of the ground will be able to get more for their money. We’ll see what Espoo council comes up with.

The biggest fiasco of the season has been Tampere United. That deserves a post of its own, and even then  you could only scratch the surface of what has gone wrong since the double win last year. Speaking to a member of their fan group a couple of weeks ago, the only source of pride he could come up with was that his group had fewer glory hunters, as their numbers have held up pretty well no matter how shit the team has played. And the team has played, very, very shit at times this season.


24 Responses

  1. Interesting!!!!
    I’ll follow this blog(noone else writes about this in English)

  2. It seems much more worthwhile when you get praise like that. Good luck to Spartak for the rest of the season.

  3. the only thing that I see is missing in Finnish football, as well as Swedsih is THE MONEY.

    good post btw 🙂

  4. It seems that have been an interesting season for the young players…

    In your opinion?…what are the best young finish player at the moment, the most promising?…both in Veikkausliiga and away. Thanks!

  5. If it possible name several players…thanks

  6. How can HJK be the biggest disappointment and TamU the biggest fiasco? Isn’t that kind of redundant? Not to say HJK wasn’t a disappointment, of course, but TPS and TamU were in a league of their own. Keep in mind, that it was those two who were touted as the 1-2 punch by pretty much everyone, with Klubi a close third.

    HJK’s biggest problem is that it’s main priority is the clubs continued existance, not continued excellence. It is a club with no vision or strategy for the future, and long-term planning means not having to buy 5 new players during the summer transfer window. My biggest gripe with them wouldn’t be finishing fourth, but rather how they finished fourth and what the future holds.

    As for the rivalry scenario, there aren’t too many clubs that could galvanize the Helsinki crowds into a wild anti-HJK frenzy. No doubt, there are more haters than lovers in the city (as all non-HJK football playing youngsters are brought up to despise the club), but so far the examples have been less than encouraging. Jokerit, Ponnistus and FinnPa managed only to find the same crowds as always, a small group of anti-HJK football fans. Viikingit is too removed and a totally separate phenomena. HIFK might manage it, but Töölö is pretty HJK-entrenched.

  7. Well, the money in the Nordic leagues is getting better. They are rich countries, after all..

    Sebas: Teemu Pukki is causing some excitement at Sevilla Atletico. He had an excellent year leading KooTeePee to safety before he left for Spain. Lauri Dalla Valle is supposed to be very good, but he is a youth team player at an EPL club – there’s a long way from that position to being a good player in a senior club. He did not play a great deal with JIPPO before he left, either.

    Tim Sparv is maturing into a very good midfielder with Halmstads BK, and along with Roman Eremenko should make the Finnish midfield very strong for the next 10 years.

    In Veikkausliiga I would say that Joni Aho, Kaspar Hämäläinen, Jukka Raitala and Mika Ojala are the best youngsters. Ville Jalasto is decent too, and Jarkko Lepola has scored some crucial goals for Honka recently.

  8. Janne: I didn’t hear much about TamU being a contender this year, most of the people I spoke to expected them to be well out of the reckoning. TPS can be dealt with by Juha.

    HJK made a lot of noise about having the best coach in the league, they spent big money on Roiha, Sajdak, Mäkelä and Oravainen, and their objective every year is the title. They said as much throughout the season, too, so finishing 4th is a massive slap in the face for them. Compare to TamU, who long ago set their main objective as Henri Myntti getting the golden boot.

    I have to say that Töölö does not look like a football hotbed. There are more grannies than goalkeepers, more fur coats than football scarves. Unless you’re talking about the SPL headquarters….

  9. Concerning Tim Sparv.

    He hasn´t played much at all for Halmstad this year. He has´nt placed in the team. But now after the u-21 success he has taken his place regular on the center midfield.

  10. central*

  11. He had a severe illness last winter, and spent the early part of this season on loan at Vaasan Pallo Seura. He was always going to play a big role for them, they just wanted him to convalesce properly first.

  12. Egan, don’t you remember Ollis Lyytikäinen just recently said in IS-Veikkaaja, that missing out on Europe would NOT be a disappointment? 😀

    Not that the statement in itself isn’t ridiculous (note outstanding double negative), but nonetheless. What I heard from Muurinen before the start of the season was, that they are the challengers, whilst TPS and TamU are favorites. And most media, to my recollection, picked those two as top teams, not HJK.

  13. Muurinen’s boss said about a year ago that he’d gotten the best of the best as manager, and was very happy about the fact. You might be right about the media predictions, but in all my conversations with HJK people they have said that the aim was the title. Here’s one prediction that agreed with them.


  14. Thanks Egan for the comments….now I have another question…what about Kokko?…he seems a talented player but I little nervious…in a few movements of him remember me to Litmanen.

    And do you think that Myntti have enough quality to get a regular place in National Team…I have seen highlights and he seems ver interesting…

    And Jussi Vasara can be a good mildfielder?…I see him potential…


  15. After 2 matches I’ve watched TamU alive, I’ve understood that he is absolutely irreplaceble in such TamU. He works much and good even as a midfielder and defender. I think that the he has the best percent of won air balls(don’t have official stats).
    I hope we wold see him in the national team soon.

  16. it’s a bit stupid to compete whose team was the bigger disappointment, but in my mind the defending double winners (not to forget the succesful european campaign) and at least one of the title favourites (losing wiss and savolainen hurt but they were supposed to have replacements..) shouldn’t be out of the title race after first month of the season.. it’s difficult to do worse than that.

    as you said, HJK always aims for the title. and they were terribly disappointing, I agree. not because they finished 4th but because they played pretty much crap football with no progress in sight during the season (occasional hammering of a out-of-form opponent doesn’t mean much if the next match is a loss to bottom-table team). losing to clubs like kups and jaro (at home) when still in the title race ?

    being 4th is somewhat acceptable if its achieved with players coming through from the clubs’ youth teams, but this current HJK squad is almost completely signed from elsewhere. if I’m not mistaken, only raitala, parikka and mattila have played for HJK youth teams..

    obviously lyytikäinen would pat himself on the back about signing muurinen, but not many agreed with him.

    with Honka making progress next door, HJK seems to be somewhat stagnant club that does everything as it has always done – it has worked in the past, why not now, they seem to think at the office.. many thought getting muurinen back was a disappointing backward move. and lahti fans were actually glad to get rid of him while under contract!

    mursu’s last two stints ended when the fans had had enough of the lousy results (first national team and then lahti) and ridiculous explanations (“we didn’t lose to anyone we weren’t supposed to” etc.).

    his last really succesful job was with HJK 10 years ago. the guy never seems to take any responsibility for his teams’ results. instead he is still whines about how the media and fans were too “cruel” after Finland’s 0-4 defeat at home. when the media asked him after the jaro game whether he had failed in his job, he said that this country is cruel and the media asks cruel questions.. he should try coaching somewhere else (say england or italy) and then talk about the cruelty of finnish media..

    he doesn’t seem to have a game plan other than telling the players which positions they play, and his substitutions are always planned before the match (the wingers seem to be always subbed between 60-75 minutes no matter how they play). additionally, some players don’t need to fear being dropped, while some don’t even get a chance (where was multaharju the whole season?)

    raitala has said that he wants to leave veikkausliiga for stronger leagues, because he feels he can’t improve here. I wonder whether he would think so if he was at honka currently..

    since lyytikäinen is not going to sack muurinen (especially after getting to europe yesterday), the next season won’t be any better than this one.

    maybe I’m no real fan, but after watching painfully bad football for 2 seasons in a row, I’m not that interested in spending my time at “Finski” just to get annoyed at the crap HJK serves its supporters.

  17. Some excellent points, pissedoff. Thank you for posting them. I should point out that I’d rather my club had a ‘dissapointment’ than a ‘fiasco’, and I speak as a Sheffield Wednesday fan with a lot of experience of both.

    I think you’ve very accurately summed up the situation at HJK, and in the wider Helsinki district. Honka look very strong in all departments, with a new ground in the pipeline and lots of decent youngsters (not many ‘stars’ exactly, but lots of young players who can compete at the top of Veikkausliiga).

    I wonder if HJk need to start losing junior players before they sit up and take notice – that seems to be the source of their strength. The ability to cherry pick the best, and outvote clubs with smaller junior sections at SPL district meetings, might be lost if they continue their tried and tested policies.

    HIFK have signed Ville Lehtinen, and I’m sure that will make them Helsinki’s number one club very soon indeed….

  18. Heh heh,
    ´outvote small clubs at SPL district meetings´,
    good one Egan ; ) !!
    they have the strangest voting system in the Helsinki District!! Every club pays the same membership fee, but a few clubs have the tenfold voting powers over others!!

  19. It\s a serious point, and I’m not sure the voting system is wrong. HJK currently have what, nearly a thousand junior players? Why would they stay with HJK once they hit 14-15 and realise they are really good? Why not move to Honka, who will give them a chance in the first team much earlier than HJK?

    Even if they don’t want to move to Espoo, there are plenty of Ykkönen and Kakkonen teams in Helsinki who will promote guys easily. Getting a move to a Finnish or foreign club from that level is not as difficult as it used to be. HJK will need to adjust to an environment in which they are the second team in the metropolitan area, and it will be fascinating to see how they manage.

  20. This season made sure nobody will laugh at Honka, and HJK will now have to do something to remain no 1 in the Helsinki area. They are doing this very stupidly but Lyytikäinen is very good at not realising that.

    The biggest disappointment in my opinion was TamU. TPS were shit on the pitch, but TamU were ridiculous in the office as well. Ari Hjelm kept whining in public and they sacked those two guys whose names I can’t remember, leading to them complaining how they had no power in the club. TPS and TamU were disappointments, but TPS are doing OK as a club. I’m not sure about TamU.

  21. “HJK will need to adjust to an environment in which they are the second team in the metropolitan area, and it will be fascinating to see how they manage.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by this, but HJK has had a few local challengers lately (finnPa, pk, jokerit, allianssi) that have topped them in the league but not really won anything. Honka isn’t that different from them yet, though they have much better youth organization and more potential..

    it could be they are just a flash in the pan like the other challengers – what happens after lehkosuo leaves for example? what I’m trying to say is that 100 years of history and “domination” won’t be outdone by being second best on the pitch for 2 years. but that’s obviously exactly the way of thinking that should be avoided at the HJK office..

    that said, I do agree that if HJK management keeps on doing things their way, it’s hard to see them making any progress. which would mean Honka overtaking them as the top club in the area.

    so far the current HJK-way has been enough to be the number 1 club in the Helsinki area, because all their local competitors have self-destructed. no one affiliated with HJK should be satisfied with being the best club in Helsinki area though, they should be the best club in the country and have success at european competitions.

    the self-destruction thing is also something to remember. there really aren’t many traditionally succesful clubs (+50 years) on the top-level in Finland..

  22. I think you’re missing the point. It was obvious very quickly that this would at best be a ‘transitional’ season for TamU. Their league cup performances were lacklustre, the new signings were hit and miss, and Hjelm’s public comments destabilising.

    So expectations were reduced accordingly, and you can only disappoint against expectations. TPS lost their local derbies 7-0 on aggregate, they sacked their coach at a ridiculous time, and they lost money yet again. Their officials are impressive, yes, but the appointment of Kuusela was a massive and costly failure, and for all their expenditure they finished one place above TamU.

    TamU are in a bad situation, no doubt about that at all, that is why I called their season a ‘fiasco’. But a lot of that is about money and power, and has to be resolved soon. We’ll see what happens, and also who Tepsi appoint as manager.

    Honka’s youth organisation and new stadium (if and when it happens) are the reasons they are different to the others. I know from talking to youth coaches in the area that youngsters from Helsinki now prefer to travel to Tapiola rather than submit to the Klubi 04-loan move-maybe get a game for the first team career ‘plan’. That’s a big shift in Finnish football, where junior sides are so important.

    I don’t know too much about Allianssi, Jokerit and the rest. But Honka have all of Espoo to draw support from, and Lord knows there’s nothing else to do round there. It’s a long way ahead, but they’ve shown over the last few years that they can build a team of young players who can compete in Veikkausliiga. If lehkosuo left they’d have a problem, but where would he go before he’s had some real success with Honka? It probably wouldn’t be a good move for him….

  23. This post has got me thinking back to an edition of the the Iltasanomat veikkausliiga season preview from a year or three ago, in which the author of a Honka article hoped that the newly-promoted team would become the side that every Espoolainen would rally around.

    I don’t have a copy of this edition anymore, but at the time it seemed as though Espoo may have been in a situation similar to that of Oulu; i.e. numerous teams in the top three tiers of the football pyramid, each with their own junior/senior setup and set of fans (In the case of the Espoo district: FC Espoo, Grankulla IFK, Esbo BK and EsPa, amongst a number of others). I’d be interested to know whether people are able to come together and get behind one team – experience in Oulu suggests that this isn’t always possible.

  24. I’m not saying everything’s all hunky dory at TPS BUT things are not bad at all. They had their asses kicked on the pitch and have a few things to solve out, but TamU were just as bad football-wise and much worse in the office. A transitional season or not, but they were aiming at the top spots. Every football team has a bad season on the pitch every now and then, but that doesn’t mean the club is in a crisis.

    TPS were always going to lose money and are deliberately planning to do so until 2016 so they can raise the standards at the club. According to what I have heard, their player budget was not the biggest in the league, but a lot of the money goes into long-term investments. The panic signings might have changed things this year, but anyway.

    Kuusela’s appointment was definitely a failure, but it’s easy to say that now. I think everyone in Jakonen’s position would have signed him in the spring.

    The point is that TPS are doing OK despite the beating they took on the pitch this year. I’m not saying TamU are in any sort of a crisis, but they should decide who’s in charge at the club.

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