Ahead of the Whites' match against Southampton at St Mary’s, fulhamfc.com caught up with a former Finnish international goalkeeper whose heart will be torn on Sunday afternoon.
Antti Niemi spent four years at St Mary’s before a two-season spell at Craven Cottage and since retiring from the game in 2010, the former Fulham number one has returned back to Finland to help nurture the next generation of home-grown talent.
“I'm now working in Finland as goalkeeping coach to the senior national team,” he explained. “Obviously we’re a pretty small footballing nation and our Football Association is not massive but anything to do with goalkeeping I'm always there!
“I spend about 70 days a year with the senior national team, obviously travelling, in hotels and preparing for the games. There’s also office-based work and the production of material for coaching and education purposes. We have goalkeeping seminars and lots of other things going on and I probably work in football roughly about 150 days a year.
“With the senior national team I'm working with goalkeepers who are pretty much the finished article. They’re over 20 years of age and have their own style. My role is more about preparing them for the games. You don’t want to do too much coaching but obviously there are things you need to point out every now and then.
“For example, how they play as individuals and what they can expect from the teams we’re facing. I wouldn’t call it coaching – it’s more about preparing for the matches and I hope my experience playing at a high level is proving beneficial.”
Niemi played almost 20 years as a professional and, whilst he misses the game, retirement has brought its benefits, not least being able to spend quality time with his family and two young children.
“At the moment, outside of football I'm left me with approximately 200 days a year and I’m calling myself a taxi firm because both my kids are very active. My son plays football and my daughter is an ice-skater.
“They are nine and 12 years of age and even though you sometimes feel like you’re sitting in a car and driving everywhere, I know there aren't too many years I’ll be doing this for, so I’m actually enjoying this time with them.
“I’m pretty sure at some point in the future I would like to work with younger goalkeepers – that’s my dream to be honest, to be working on a daily basis with some of the younger kids.”
Niemi has quite literally never looked back since he left London in 2008 and admits that with such a busy professional and personal life back in Finland, he has struggled to maintain contact with his former teammates.
“I haven’t been back to London since I left Fulham but I met my former Southampton teammate Michael Svensson last week because he was over for a few days with his family,” said Niemi. “It’s funny, and kind of sad, that I spent roughly 10 years in the UK and once you stop playing football you don’t see your teammates anymore.
“Slowly but surely you lose contact but I think that’s the same for everyone. I did keep in touch with some people but not as many as I would have thought when I was playing. Such is life.”
Niemi may have lost contact with his former teammates, but the memories from his time at Craven Cottage are cherished. When asked to name his favourite game, he recalled one famous day at the Cottage when SW6 breathed a collective sigh of relief.
“I have a lot of good memories from my time at Fulham and whilst it’s difficult to pick out one game in particular, the feeling after we played Liverpool at home in May 2007 and beat them 1-0 was unbelievable, because we were no longer in danger of being relegated,” Niemi explained.
“I buried a few demons that day because I was relegated at Southampton. It was an awful, awful feeling being relegated and a few years later, when I was at Fulham, we were really struggling before that win.
“First of all, I‘d enjoyed a pretty good game, we’d beaten Liverpool and - most importantly - secured our place in the Premier League.”
Niemi has been supporting his former clubs from afar in recent years and his affection for Southampton and Fulham will evidently cause the Finnish coach some problems on Sunday.
“Fulham have been fantastic over the past few years and it’s great to see the so-called smaller clubs can have a crack in the Premier League,” said Niemi. “Seeing clubs like Fulham and Everton doing really well is so refreshing.
“At the very top it used to be just Manchester United and Chelsea, but now you have the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City – I think from a neutral point of view the Premier League is getting more interesting now.
“Every Saturday, Sunday and Monday, I check the papers and the internet to see how my three clubs are doing; Hearts, Southampton and Fulham.
“I have some great memories from my spells at all three clubs and I always hope they do well in every game. It’s going to be a funny feeling on Sunday knowing who to support!
“It’s really difficult for me and I just hope it’s a cracking game that ends in a 3-3 draw. I want to see lots of goals, excitement and a draw to make me happy! That’s my wish!”
Niemi knows a thing or two about facing Premier League strikers and believes Fulham will have to keep a close eye on Southampton goal-machine Rickie Lambert this weekend, although his respect for the man he will have to beat couldn’t be higher.
“Lambert is the obvious threat for Fulham on Sunday," stated Niemi. "It’s great to see a player like him, who was not known by the big audience so to speak, until he joined Southampton. Even then, people were saying, ‘well it’s the Premier League next and that’s a different story’.
“Well, he’s been absolutely fantastic, scoring four times in six games already. He’s a big, physical player who finishes really well so I think Brede Hangeland and Mark Schwarzer will have to be on their toes this weekend.
“Mark’s been at the top of his game for 15 years now – he’s a goalkeeper I admire so much and he proves it’s not about your age. It’s about how they play and obviously they’ve been injury free which helps a lot.
“When I watch Schwarzer play I think he looks like he’s getting better and better. You’d think that a goalkeeper would hit their peak in their 30's but he’s unbelievable.
“I have to say he's so fit - I’m jealous because he looks marvellous when he’s standing in that goal! Once he finishes his career, whenever that will be, people will look back and say he was one of the best.”