Following his decision to retire from professional football Antti Niemi spoke to fulhamfc.com about his time at Craven Cottage and recalled some memorable moments from a distingushed career.
Antti, did it take a long time to reach your decision?
My plan was always to finish my career after this contract, which runs out next summer. Due to my wrist injury it would be another two months before I could start training again.
I asked the Club for their views. I was very grateful that they understood where I was coming from and thankfully we settled the contract so that the Club would gain something and I would be happy with the terms. So it’s come a little bit earlier than I expected.
Looking back on your time at Fulham, what was your most memorable moment?
Of course, the Liverpool game at the end of the 06/07 season was a great feeling. It was really enjoyable playing at Craven Cottage the first year I came here because our home form was so good.
At the end of last season the Manager dropped me. I accepted his views on it, I didn’t agree with all of them, but that’s football. We were losing games and even if I personally felt I had a decent game, we were still losing games. Hopefully people won’t just remember the last few months over the two and a half years I spent at Fulham. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in football. I’ve had good career in English, Scottish and International football.
I got so much more from football than I could have ever wished for and that’s the most important thing.
How has the Club changed during your two and a half year spell at Fulham?
When I arrived we had lost some of our better players in Luis Boa Morte and Steed Malbranque. Soon after that Cookie, who I think was a great manager, left. He still has many things to learn but some people have that special aura and Cookie’s got that.
As soon as I heard that Roy was in the frame to get the Manager’s job I said, ‘Please talk to this guy because he really is very good’. After Roy came in, everything changed for the better. The training, organisation and how he dealt with players.
He knew that we were running out of time and I have to say, after we lost to Sunderland and Liverpool, I thought it was going to be really hard. But the players believed in him and our form in the last month of last season was excellent.
Roy's done a fantastic job. I’m sure it was very difficult to keep to the plan and not panic. Following our match against Manchester United last season when I wasn’t training much, I had lots of time to sit and observe the players in the dressing room.
I have to say that the dressing room was unbelievable considering the circumstances. There were no arguments or cliques which was one of the contributing factors to us staying in the league.
Did you have any bad experiences over you career?
When I went to Rangers in 1997, I was a young goalie learning my trade under Andy Goram. Then I went to Hearts for two and a half year and it was all good. Looking back, everything went so well – it was a lovely club, the team was doing well, I was playing well and we had a good manager in Jim Jeffries.
Then I went to Southampton and things got even better. I probably wasn’t playing any better but the stage was much bigger and considering Southampton was a ‘smaller club’ we had two fantastic seasons – finishing 8th and 12th and getting to the FA Cup Final.
Then came my first bad experience in British football, the year we got relegated. We lost our best players before that season started. I went to Claus Lundekvam’s testimonial a few weeks ago and he told me that he knew, before the season was over, that we were going to get relegated. I think, quietly, we all knew that it was going to happen.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough characters and I have to take some of the blame for that. We didn’t have anyone to create a fuss and tell people to try harder. That was the main difference between that side and the Fulham side of last season.
My second bad spell was last season, getting dropped and struggling the whole season result-wise was bad. But the difference between Southampton and Fulham was huge. There were characters here and people who believed.
You must have made a lot of friends during your time in football?
Yes, that’s priceless. You get to know people through football and I still keep in touch with people from Scotland, Southampton and people I just met along the way. I will keep in touch with the backroom staff at Fulham.
Nowadays you talk a lot about ’family clubs’, everyone wants to be a family club because it sounds good. Even the biggest clubs in the world want that. Here it really is the case. Fulham is quite a small club compared to others but a definite strength is that everyone is pulling together.
Throughout your time in England and Scotland you’ve always been very highly regarded by the fans at each of your clubs and even fans of other clubs…
I’m gutted that I didn’t win a Player of the Year award here – that would have made it three awards from three clubs.
For some reason I always played well against Liverpool. I had so many memorable games against them yet looking back over the last six years, I was never in a team that beat Manchester United.
I’d not only like to thank the Hearts, Southampton and Fulham supporters – I like to thank everyone because it’s really been a privilege playing in Britain. I don’t think people here realise how wonderful the atmosphere is and what football means to people.
When you come from abroad to a different culture, it really strikes you. The pressure is amazing; every single game feels like a big game. The atmosphere at games was one of my favourite things. Even if sometimes you’d hear things coming from behind the goal, it’s fine. British people have a great sense of humour, they come to the games, support their teams and it really is special for any foreign player.
You’re quite fond of Craven Cottage as a stadium…
Even if the stadium is pretty small in size, I love this style of stadium. I love playing at places like Everton and Liverpool, where you can still feel and smell that old atmosphere. It’s the same at Craven Cottage, when the atmosphere is good -it’s really brilliant. There are big, modern stadiums now and, of course, they’re beautiful but you don’t get that same feeling of history.
How difficult is it playing in front of huge crowds – how did you deal with the pressure?
It’s never bothered me to be honest. Ask anyone, I’ve found that over the last 15 years at testimonials or pre-season friendlies, I normally didn’t play well. I love playing in front of big crowds but 25,000 people can be just as loud as 60,000.
What was your best game for Fulham?
Last season looking back on the home match against Derby, they could have beaten us 4-0, it was a really busy game but so was the Portsmouth away game in the 06/07 season.
Who was the most inspirational played you’ve ever played with?
At international level I would have to say Jari Litmanen because he’s done so much for Finnish football and he was a brilliant player. Al Glasgow Rangers we had the likes of Brian Laudrup, Ally McCoist, Paul Gascoigne, Ian Durrant, Richard Gough and Andy Goram – all absolute legends. That was fun; it was an interesting dressing room I can tell you that!
As a goalkeeper I always did well playing behind someone like Sami Hyypia, Michael Svensson or Claus Lundekvam. With Ian Pearce at Fulham we had a lot of clean sheets. He wasn’t the most flamboyant player in the world but he was a steady, strong player who won his headers - you could always trust players like that. Brede Hangeland is another one of those players.
Did you look up to any goalkeepers when you were developing as a player?
Peter Schmeichel was breaking into the international scene around 1990 and soon after that he went to Manchester United. One of my first games at Southampton was against Manchester City when he had moved there. Just to be playing in the Premiership was a big deal for me. But to have Peter Schmeichel standing next to me in the tunnel – I had so many things going through my head.
On top of that, he turns to me, shakes my hand and says ‘Good luck, Antti.’ Just him knowing my name was unbelievable. After moments like that you realise how great it has been.
What does the future hold for you, would you be interested in coaching?
That’s one of the things I would like to do in the future. One day I would like to get in with the Finnish national team to do some goalkeeping coaching. But I would like to wait for a few reasons. Firstly, I would like to give my wife one or two years to find out what she wants to do because she’s been following me for 13 years, brought up two kids and has done a fantastic job.
Also I wouldn’t want to work with the national team right at this minute because there are so many former team-mates still around and I want to get a bit of distance.
I’m definitely not ruling out any coaching and if the Finnish FA every asked me, I would be more than happy to speak to them.
Best of luck Antti - any final words…
I would just like to thank all of the Fulham fans, the staff at the Club and my fellow players who have made my time here so enjoyable. It’s a really, really nice club and I’m not just saying this because I’m leaving – it really is.
It’s been enjoyable and successful most of the time so I’ve got no regrets whatsoever.
Fulham Football would like to thank Antti for his services and wish him and his family every success for the future.