Far-Flung Adventures: Keith Armstrong’s 35 years in Finland

“In Finland, they started calling me ‘Goldfinger’. It was after I’d won my fifth title. They said everything I touched turned to gold.”

Keith Armstrong achieved that feat in 2003, the year he also claimed the league and cup double with Finland’s biggest side, HJK. It saw him named the Finnish Football Manager of the Year for a third time, and he remained the only foreigner to win the award until 2012.

“A reporter arrived for an interview before training with a tin of gold paint, and asked me to dip my finger in for a photo,” Armstrong continues. “In no uncertain terms, I told him he could stick his own finger in it! He went on to slaughter me in the press after that.”

Today Armstrong is back in charge of second tier FC Haka, returning to the club he led to promotion, the Finnish Cup and three league titles over 16 years ago. But he first set foot on Finnish soil long before then, when he was a 21-year-old footballer looking for his break.

After four years at Sunderland followed by short stints at Newport and Scunthorpe, Armstrong fulfilled a boyhood dream when he signed for Newcastle in June 1979. 

Yet before the ink had even dried, manager Bill McGarry was answering a call from Finland. As a favour to an old contact, he had promised to send one of his players over the North Sea for the summer, where the league is played between April and October.

As Armstrong tells The Set Pieces in his unique Scandi-Geordie accent: “McGarry said to me, ‘Do you fancy getting me out of the shit?’ Obviously I couldn’t say no to my new boss, so before I knew it I was cancelling my summer holiday to Benidorm and on a flight to Helsinki, before having ever played a minute for Newcastle.

“I’d been told by one of the directors about jumping in the snow, about its beautiful frozen lakes and sub-zero temperatures. So I packed only winter clothes. When I arrived in Finland, it was 25 degrees.” 

He played eight games as a striker for Oulun Palloseura (OPS) that summer, based in the much colder northern climes of the country, but the impression he made and the goals he scored began a love affair with the country that the 59-year-old has continued to this day. 

After returning to Newcastle at the end of the initial loan agreement, limited chances meant it wasn’t long before Armstrong was playing for OPS again, by now Finnish champions. They retained the title the following season, a year in which Armstrong cemented his legend in his new home with a European goal against Liverpool at Anfield.

“We drew the Liverpool in the first round of the old European Cup,” Armstrong recalls. “They were the best team in Europe at the time, with Dalglish, Hansen, Souness, Clemence. We held them 1-1 at home. There were 15,000 people crammed into our 7,000-capacity stadium. People from all over Scandinavia were there.

“When we went to Liverpool, it was a bit disorganised. OPS hadn’t arranged much, thinking that because I was English I could sort it all. So we ended up in a Chinese restaurant and had a couple beers the night before the game.

“The next day at the hotel, it turned out someone had poured ice water in our kit bag. We found ourselves in the famous Anfield Boot Room drying our kits under hair dryers minutes before the game. We got stuffed 10-1. I got our only goal.”

It isn’t just the 11 title and cup victories in Finnish football that have made Armstrong a household name. As a regular pundit for MTV Sport, Finland is used to seeing him on screen providing the sort of forthright views that resonate with fans, but often less so with the game’s governing bodies. 

That he does all of this in fluent Finnish is another reason for his acclaim. Such is his level of naturalisation that at times during our interview, the man widely known as “Keke” in Finland, speaks in his adopted tongue first before racking his brain for the English translation.

“There’s a group of English speakers over here. When we get together we speak ‘Finglish’,” says Armstrong. “We’re talking along dropping in the odd Finnish word and all is understood. The problem is when I go home and accidentally do the same with my old school mates in Newcastle.

“English is widely spoken now but back then the Finnish couldn’t pronounce the British “th”. They couldn’t put their tongue behind their teeth. So I got ‘Keke’. The family at home call me Keke.” 

Such is Armstrong’s level of recognition in his adopted country that watching a dancing Ed Balls become an unlikely national treasure this winter brought back fond memories. Armstrong came fourth in Finland’s own version of Strictly Come Dancing back in 2006.

“I’d never done any dancing before, but I wanted to do it because my mam and dad were really good dancers,” he explains. “I lost nearly 10 kilos in three months. It was hard work. One week in training I tore my peroneal tendon, underneath the ankle. So before the show I took about three painkillers and a glass of wine. Somehow I danced my life away and we got through.

“Obviously I agreed it all with my HJK bosses at the time, but I got stick from the fans. The thing was, I wasn’t expecting to get through. I was like a waddling duck. But I went so far that it overlapped with a training camp in Cyprus.

“There was a load of hullabaloo as I took my dancing partner to Cyprus with me so we could practice while there. I never once neglected my duties, the football always came first. But that didn’t stop the press.” 

Armstrong’s straight-talking style has been well received in his managerial and TV duties, but it isn’t always appreciated by a beleaguered Finnish FA or the national press. Particularly when it comes to discussing the demise of the Finland national team.

At the time of writing, Finland have only one point from four games in World Cup qualifying, leaving them joint bottom of their group with Kosovo. They recently sacked manager Hans Backe after he failed to win a single game in 2016, and are now ranked a lowly 93rd in the world – 60 places down from their halcyon era of Jari Litmanen, Sami Hyppia and Mikael Forssell, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for Euro 2008 under Roy Hodgson. 

“One of the problems is we’re not developing enough grass-field players. We play on artificial turf almost all the time here,” says Armstrong. “My 11-year-old son has played on grass probably only five times in his life. It’s been one of my fears over the last five to ten years. I’m very critical of the pitches here.

“If you’re going to play on artificial fields at the highest level, everybody should have the same quality turf. And they don’t. Some of the fields have been wearing away for three to four years. Here you could have a turf matt put down on a concrete base. A lot of cruciates go here, and a lot of ankle injuries.

“It’s got its place, especially in a country like Finland, but one thing that has to be realised with artificial grass is they have to be taken care of as well. Otherwise they can deteriorate very quickly. Out of the 12 top flight teams, eight played on artificial pitches last season.”

Many of the country’s talented young players move abroad at a young age, but Armstrong isn’t convinced this is always the right answer. He cites the examples of Litmanen, Hyppia, Forssell and Jonatan Johansson, who all spent their formative years in the Veikkausliga before seeking a new challenge.

Armstrong sees plenty of advantages to youngsters staying in Finland during their youth. “What we have to remember is this country is one of the most stable in the world,” he explains. “It’s small, but it’s safe. Kids can still be kids here. They start school at seven (two years later than in the UK), and they have the highest standard of education in the world.

“Here we have more people with PHDs and degrees per capita than any other country in the world. So they’re obviously doing something right.”

The facts back up his claim. Finland continues to rank at the top in global league tables for pupils’ performance. Renowned for setting the bar high and allowing teachers to devise their own curriculum, the country’s outlook has ensured that teachers are as highly regarded as doctors and lawyers.

But in a country of only five million people, could this not also be one of the key reasons behind the football team’s plummet, as kids (and their parents) prioritise academia over sport, the blackboard to the tactics board? 

Armstrong agrees: “That’s it. If at 20 years old you’re given the option of earning €1,000 to €2,000 per month as a footballer, or earning €2,000 to €3,000 per month working part-time for a company while continuing with your PHD in electronics, which are you going to choose? That’s the challenge here.”

Armstrong isn’t short of theories regarding Finland’s footballing nadir. Whether it’s connected to competition from other sports – “Teemu Selänne, Finland’s Stanley Cup-winning ice hockey player, was a very gifted footballer but chose ice hockey. Over here ice hockey is the number one sport and pays five times what you’ll get for playing football” – or Finland’s reluctance to allow free market access for betting firms, it’s clear why he ruffles feathers among the game’s higher powers. 

But what is evident is that his passion and frustration is deeply-rooted in a love for his adopted nation and a desperation to see them achieve. Following his controversial sacking by FC Ilves in October 2015, when Armstrong appeared as a TV pundit at the same time his team were playing, he was offered a way out with a chance to coach in the USA. Yet he chose to stay and work in the country where he has met his wife and brought up two bilingual sons. 

“Even when I got kicked out of Ilves, I was torn apart on social media, but I still had people coming up to me in the street saying ‘fantastic job’. I had been considering going abroad, but there was a lot of things going on and I didn’t think it would be fair on the family jumping away every few weeks.”

His sacking came despite steering Ilves to survival in the top flight and just weeks after winning manager of the month. But while Armstrong is keen to give his side of a story that even made the news in the UK, current legal proceedings prevent him from speaking openly just yet. Instead, he wants to focus on his new role at FC Haka, where he has been welcomed back with open arms.

“In my first spell here, (former Finland goalkeeper) Olli Huttunen was one of my coaches. He’s now the CEO and we get on very well. There’s some of the same people here, so there’s a lot of familiarity, I know them and I trust them,” he says.

“They’ve had a little bit of a tough time recently. They were fighting against relegation (from the second tier) just last season. My job is to stabilise. We’ve got ten players right now under contract, two are probably leaving to go on to bigger things. So we’re in the process of building the team just now.”

In a country that saw its very own Leicester City story last season – when Mariehamn, the island town of just 11,000 people, won the Veikkausliga for the first time in its history – the lack of big transfer budgets forces coaches to try and get the best out of what they already have available. 

“I am not Jose Mourinho who goes to Man United and gets anybody in. I’m not a Dutch national team coach or a Spanish national team coach where you have a very clear philosophy as to how the game is to be played, and the players are brought up on that culture. That’s not possible here.

“I get 18-20 players in and I have to look at everyone’s strengths and weaknesses and I think how am I going to get the best out of these? As an English coach I get categorised over here for playing high balls to the centre forward. Some of the newspapers try to say I play ultra-defensive. But I’ve won five championships, and on three of those occasions my team scored the most goals.”

So what advice does Armstrong have for any young British coaches looking to follow in his footsteps and learn their trade abroad? “Do a little bit of homework. Contact some people who’ve been there. And learn the language as quickly as possible, people appreciate it.”

Armstrong is now back training FC Haka in familiar surroundings in the town of Valkeakoski. Over 35 years after he first moved to Finland, the temperature lows of minus 10 degrees shouldn’t faze him.

When he first arrived at FC Haka in 1997, not only did Armstrong lead the club to promotion, but they defeated several top division sides on the way to lifting the Finnish Cup too. It is an achievement he ranks as his proudest, and even his staunchest critics in Finland wouldn’t be surprised if he does the same again.

Far-Flung Adventures: Keith Armstrong’s 35 years in Finland
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