FC Haka v Cork City preview

This should be in today’s Irish Daily Mail:

Cork City manager Alan Mathews is expected to name an unchanged team for his side’s UEFA Cup First Qualifying Round clash with Finnish club FC Haka tonight. Cork need at least a high scoring draw after the first leg at Turner’s Cross finished 2-2, but there was an upbeat mood among the Cork squad as they trained in hot sunny weather at Haka’s Tehtaan Kenttä ground yesterday afternoon.

Cork are aiming to emulate the aggressive, up-tempo game that saw City claw back a two goal deficit in the first leg. Haka will welcome back the calming influence of 38 year-old Russian playmaker Valeri Popovitch, who did not travel to Ireland because he is afraid of flying.

The Finnish club have won nine Finnish Championships, more than any other club except HJK Helsinki, but off-field issues have dominated their start to the 2008 season.

The Valkeakoski side were initially refused a licence to play in this season’s UEFA Cup because their finances were not in order. Part of the solution came when the local council bought all the tickets for the home leg of the First Round tie, and then distributed them free of charge.

A capacity crowd of 3,500 is expected at the stadium, which has a pleasantly wooded setting on three sides, and a foul-smelling wood pulp factory on the other.

The pulp factory is a symbol of the previous backers of the club, United Paper Mills. After they pulled the plug on Haka, local nightclub owner Seppo ‘Sedu’ Koskinen stepped in and bought the club, promising to glamorise football in the small industrial town of Valkeakoski.

The 51 year old owner has promised to increase the ‘buzz’ around Haka games by inviting Finnish celebrities to Haka games, and has suggested that Haka players will need to be good-looking in future so as to ensure plenty of women turn up.

Cork will be without striker John O’Flynn, who has not yet recovered from his ligament injury. Haka’s Mikko Innanen and Pieteri Holopainen were injured in Sunday’s 1-0 win over VPS Vaasa and will be replaced by first leg goalscorer Janne Mahlakaarto and Jarno Mattila.

Probable line-ups

Haka: Dovbnya, Mattila, Kangaskorpi, Viljanen, Okkonen, Mattila, Kauppila, Manninen, Popovitch, Lehtinen, Mahlakaarto

Cork: Devine, Horgan, Murray, Sullivan, Danny Murphy, Healy, Gamble, Darren Murphy, Kearney, Behan, Mooney.

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Tamas Gruborovics is alright

He didn’t look alright yesterday, after being knocked out by Haka goalkeeper Sasha Dovbnya while challenging for a cross. At that point KTP were, shockingly, 1-0 up after Dovbnya had dropped the ball and substitute Vesa Helenius swept the ball home with his first touch of the ball on 43 minutes. Finnish footballers are extraordinarily quiet on the pitch, and when they all started bellowing at the stretcher men to come on quickly we knew something was seriously wrong.

The game stopped for 15 minutes while an ambulance crew arrived to lift Gruborovics onto a stretcher (the aforementioned stretcher men not wanting to risk exacerbating things). The most striking thing about this interlude was the reluctance of the tannoy man to allow this period of time to go unfilled by music, jingles, or adverts. After a few minutes’ doubtless solemn deliberation, he decided that a serious head injury was best accompanied by The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony.

Thankfully, news from the hospital today indicates that Gruborovics is okay.

The matchday experience was noticeably different yesterday. Straight through the turnstiles we were immediately accosted by bored-looking, pretty young women in FC Haka tops asking us to enter a draw for 4-person VIP ticket to a Haka match. The catch was that we had to join the Haka ‘inner circle’, providing name, address, email address, date of birth, mobile number and operator.

Many football clubs collect this information from as many people as they can, in all their interactions with fans. Haka emphatically do not do this, indeed when I tried to buy a season ticket before a match earlier this season I was told to come back next time as they didn’t have any. When I finally did get it, I just paid my money and was given a card, and FC Haka still know nothing about me.

This is a problem for Sedu Koskinen, Haka’s owner. As a nightclub manager he understands marketing to Finnish people, and some of his ideas are very interesting indeed. He has mentioned getting prettier players, to attract women to Haka games; and filling Tehtaan Kenttä with celebrities, to create a buzz around matches. The lack of a database of customers must be frustrating for him, but you sense that he will turn that around and his keen sense of what suburban, provincial Finland wants will see him at least arrest the decline in Haka’s fortunes.

Highlights here (also of HJK’s 2-1 win in Lahti and Honka’s victory over IFK Mariehamn)