I was 17-years old. After signing a youth academy contract at the age of 15, captaining the youth sides (lastly the under-20 team) and going through the ranks of Finnish national team junior sides, I was finally pushing my way in to the first team. The club was FC Turun Palloseura, or FC TPS Turku in short. It's one of the most traditional clubs in Finland, an 8-times Finnish Champion and 3-times Finnish Cup winners. As a Turku-born boy, it was the club of my childhood dreams.
At the time TPS wasn't doing so well. In the beginning of 21st century the club had major financial problems, and were eventually relegated to First Disivion. They came straight up though, but were not living up to their name, challenging for the title or featuring in European competition. The black-and-white stripes were no longer beating the likes of Inter Milan like they did in 1987-88, and were instead playing in the bottom half of the Finnish highest level, Veikkausliiga.
I made my debut in the summer on 2006, playing in a friendly match against Salon Palloilijat. The man in charge was a former Finnish international Kari Ukkonen, who had a decent career in Belgium. TPS was known for their excellent youth academy, products of which are for example Peter Enckelman, Kasper Hämäläinen and Niklas Moisander. The team was built on home grown players, with a few players signed from abroad. I came in to the squad mid-season, promoted from the youth side along with a few other players. I was doing well in the training-sessions, and in an interview Ukkonen named me as the next upcoming talent to feature in the Veikkausliiga for TPS.
TPS weren't doing well under Ukkonen however, and a 0-4 home defeat was enough to seal his fate. With the team struggling, I didn't even make it to the bench and kept playing in the u20 side.
The big news came after the season. Finnish banker and businessman Seppo Sairanen had bought the club along with other investors, who called themselves the “Sydän pelissä” (Heart in the Game) group. Sairanen was ready to invest big bucks on the club. The big wheel started turning. In came the highly respected Mixu Paatelainen to take the hot seat as the new manager. Five new signings soon followed, the biggest name being ex-Derby midfielder Simo Valakari. I was a midfielder myself, and had mixed emotions about the fuss around the club.
By the end of year 2006 I was back in the junior side captaining the academy team in a winter series. Paatelainen came to watch a few of a our games, and in February I was called to train with the first team again. I played in a few League Cup games, starting one and coming on as a substitute in a couple of more. Mainly I still played in the under 20’s side, a third season for me in that team.
That season was the comeback to the bright lights for TPS. Playing entertaining football, challenging for the title and eventually finishing third. There was no longer any space for upcoming youngsters though. The "youngster group" had four players - the hugely talented attacking midfielder Riku Riski, fast striker Patrik Lomski, goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky and myself.
We trained with the first team, went to the stadion on match days at the same time as the others, found out we weren't even on the bench and hung out on the stands until the game began in TPS suits and ties. Only the attacking players Riski and Lomski got regular playing time, both coming of the bench for a dozen times. I was playing for the junior side, which was getting both easy and dull.
At the end of the season Paatelainen called me to his room. The club was offering me a 2-year contract, and the manager told me I would be second choice defensive midfielder next season, behind Valakari who had knee injuries and got a lot of yellow cards every season. I spoke with the academy coaches about whether to sign the deal or look for more responsibility and new challenges elsewhere. "It's not easy. A few years back a player of your level would be starting every game here, but now there's no guarantees," I was told. I decided to sign after a few days thinking. I honestly believed I would have a role in next season's team, and felt like Paatelainen and Valakari had a lot to teach me.
Again it was December that changed it all. Paatelainen was offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to take over his former club Hibernians in Scotland. That's a chance a Veikkausliiga manager rarely if never again gets. Our new boss was a legend in Finnish football. Martti Kuusela had made himself a name not only in Finland but also in Denmark and Hungary. The former national team coach was the most successful Finnish manager abroad by far, but he had been out of the game for a decade.
Soon after Kuusela had come in, TPS were made number one favourite for the title in the media. We went in tho League Cup final, beat Swedish giants Hammarby and played some great stuff during the pre-season. I had no part in it what-so-ever. I featured as a substitute in one or two League Cup games, and played a half in a friendly against Estonian amateur side. Kuusela's ambition was to win the title and go further than any Finnish team ever in European competitions. To achieve that, he needed better players. That's what he kept saying in the media, and in the board room. And better players he got. After last season a few players had left, but many more were brought to replace them.
The junior group felt more like outsiders than the season before. I was, for example, included in the squad that travelled to La Manga, but despite the team playing three games in just one week I did not play a single minute. In the last game the same players that had started the two first games looked tired and got trashed by a Norwegian second tier side. Only goalkeeper Hradecky started a game, and managed to do well enough to eventually win him a transfer to Danish SAS-league side Esbjerg FB later on.
I was frustrated to be looking ahead to another season in the u20 side. Luckily, TPS bought themselves a reserve team in the second division. Along with the other youngsters, I was given something new to look forward to.
It was bizarre after the academy years, that no one seemed to care what we were doing. When being a member of the academy, we kept food diaries, met with education councellors and had regular chats with the coaches who made sure weren't playing too much or even not enough. I was a hard working, hard tackling midfielder, and when they sent me to play for the reserve side I would usually play as a wide attacker or central striker. It was okay. I did well in my opinion, but I don’t think it helped my game one bit.
The season for TPS was a disaster. Kuusela was out of date, and the results in the League were bad. The team had an awful lot of injuries, but every time a player got injured Kuusela brought someone from the outside to replace him. TPS even signed Christian Gyan, a former UEFA Cup winner from Feyenoord. As well as a guy who had retired and was playing in the second division for fun. Both of them were defensive midfielders.
I finally had my chance and my official debut in an Intertoto Cup game away at Odense, playing half an hour as a right back and did very well. After that I came out as a substitute in two games within the next two weeks, playing in a Finnish Cup quarter final and making my league debut against VPS. After the VPS game I sat in the press conference next to Kuusela, when he was asked about my debut. He had no idea it was my debut. He was not interested in building something for the long term. He just wanted to win something, and it was not a priority to him that he would raise youngsters to Veikkausliiga-players.
The next day I talked to Kuusela at the training field, he said that "I could have played you all the time, I just didn't know you're that good." It was probably meant to cheer me up. It didn't.
Kuusela got sacked in the last third of the season. The under-20 side was pushing to win their own championship and us youngsters were playing regularly there to help the team. It was in one of those games I hurt my knee and had to have surgery. While I was out injured the first team was led by the former academy coaches, who were handing out opportunities to young players. It really was not a good season for me.
New season, new manager. Pasi Rautiainen was another household name in Finnish football. He was a great coach, inspiring and focused on the little details. Again, he wanted to win the title and nothing else. He had a one year deal. I began full training just in time to start preparing for new season. I played in all but two of the League Cup games, and started both of our friendlies against Swedish Allsvenskan sides. On the eve of the league's kick off Rautiainen brought in a new midfielder, claiming that with us youngsters playing regularly TPS wouldn't win. I found the explanation strange, since we got in tho the semi finals in League Cup, and drew both of our games in Sweden - one of which was against eventual Swedish Champions AIK. I had made my debut in the Finnish under-21 national side, and felt great going into a new season. In the last friendlies before the season, I was dropped from the set-up.
I didn't make it even on the bench for the first league games. It truly was a shock for me. Playing in the reserve side did not interest me either, so I phoned an agent I knew to start looking a new club. It happened fast, and soon I was in Kokkola playing for the first division side KPV. I featured in every single game for the Greens. After more or less wasting two years I was finally taking big steps into first team football. The problem was, I was playing as an attacking midfielder or a wideman - not where I wanted to be. The season however was a success. We finished second in First division and got into the two-leg qualifying games to win promotion to Veikkausliiga. We lost both legs but I felt I had made some kind of breakthrough.
My contract was running out with TPS. I was asked to return to training when it started, but when I asked about an extension to the contract they told me that it was not possible at the moment. I felt I didn't need to work for free, with an offer from KPV on the table and interest from another First Division side PoPa. I told TPS I would not return.
I’ve never really liked the winter, and that winter I got another reason for that. KPV were broke, so I never got any formal offer from the club. I did really well in the trial with PoPa, but the club's owner who spent his winters in Brazil had already signed midfielders from the Copacapana beaches. Something strange was happening in Turku as well. They finished third again, but it was still unsure whether Rautiainen would continue as a manager. Sairanen was withdrawing his money and the club was facing financial problems. People were sacked, costs were cut and no new contracts were made. Finally the club announced Rautiainen's departure.
New season, another new manager. This time the club-legend Marko Rajamäki, who had spent the last few years as the coach of the under-20 side. One phone call from the man I'd worked with so many years, and I returned to TPS in April with a contract until the end of the season.
I never really got into the team. Kasper Hämäläinen was sold to Djurgården and Valakari retired, but in came Toni Kolehmainen and a few youngsters Rajamäki had worked with during the year when I was gone. There was no place for me, and an ankle injury meant I missed the games where I could have got my chances. I was back where I started or maybe even further beyond that. I felt a bit depressed and did not train well.
Another mid-season loan to KPV was arranged. I played four games in Kokkola, in my own place at the heart of the midfield and found my game. The only reason I had to come back to TPS was that KPV couldn’t afford the fee that had to paid if I went on to play more than four games. TPS was doing well again, and I had to settle for the reserve games. The second division team was coached by Valakari, and if there was one thing I was right about when I first signed for TPS it was that Valakari had something to teach me. I played some excellent games at the end of the season.
During the time I had basically given up on football, I got myself in to the University of Turku. With no real hope for a new contract from TPS and all the other clubs lacking the funds to sign lottery tickets like myself, I decided to do my compulsory military service and then sign up to University. I kept training with TPS because the military service would be easier for a national level athlete. Training was fun with no contract or playing time pressure, and I did really well. The club had to sell some of their finest players, including Riku Riski who had finally got his chance under Rajamäki showing everyone he really should have played regularly a lot earlier. In February, I found myself playing League Cup games and friendlies again.
At the end of the season, I had played in nearly 10 league games, in an Europa League qualifier against Westerlo and in the Finnish Cup along with doing my nine month military service and starting my studies. I never signed a contract with the club. It was a favour that worked both ways. They lacked money to bring width to their squad, and I got away from the army to train with them.
Somehow it was all too late. I had already made my mind up about giving up on the dream and the aim of being a professional footballer. What was probably a hobby and a fun game for Seppo Sairanen for three years, changed my life. I can't say I would have made a good career as a footballer without these events. I wasn't particularly talented. Small, slow and quite weak. I was a hard worker, had a good understanding of the game, and was a decent passer of the ball but it sure made it a lot harder.
Football is an honest game. If you are good enough you will play. The money, the ambition to win titles fast and the changing coaches raised the bar of "good enough" to a level that was unrealistic for a teenager. I spent the most important years as a footballer sitting on the bench or in the stands, or being tossed between teams I was too good to play in. If you are a young player on the verge of breaking into a first team, don't get excited about the bright lights. Playing is all that counts.
Today studies are my number one priority. I did not quit football. I never will. I play for KaaPo from Kaarina, in the fourth highest level in Finland. I am a junior coach as well and a season ticket holder of FC TPS. TPS are doing quite well in the time after Sairanen. Sairanen is gone along with the luxurious office, many employees, expensive players from abroad, and unfortunately the academy as it was. Rajamäki is still the coach and they are one of the heavyweights in Veikkausliiga, but bringing up talented youngsters at the same time.