From the past or present, each week we talk to a different Fulham personality. This Sunday, it is Finland goalkeeper Antti Niemi who helped the Club survive in the top flight.
Finland goalkeeper Niemi played an important role for Fulham in keeping the Club in the top flight in his two-and-a-half years in SW6.
As one of the few Finns to make the break into the European game, Niemi arrived at the Cottage in 2006 after spells with Rangers and Southampton. He insists he’s glad he spent time learning the game in his homeland before making the move overseas.
“Even if you were a pretty good player in Finland it didn’t necessarily mean that you would get a chance to play abroad,” he told fulhamfc.com. “We had very few players who have played outside of Finland and I was already 23 when I moved to Denmark to play abroad with FC Copenhagen in 1995. I had already got over 100 appearances in the league for HJK Helsinki so, for me, that was the right way to do things.
“Even if the standard wasn’t massively high, it still gave me a good grounding as I had senior games under my belt, I won the Finnish league and also the Player of the Year award. Personally, that made it so much easier to move abroad.”
Niemi impressed with his agility and shot-stopping and had already made his international bow in 1992 which would help him in his desire to move up in the game.
“At the time I was the captain of the Under-21s so I made the step up in ’92 and was hoping that I would get my chance to move abroad,” he said. “I was thinking maybe that I would stay and played hundreds of league games in Finland and that would be my career but thankfully I got my chance.
“I moved to Denmark to play for Copenhagen for a season and a half. Then I moved to Rangers. All my career moves have never really been planned. Perhaps they should have been but if I had a chance to go somewhere then I either took it or I didn’t. For example, the move to Denmark came about because they had a bit of an injury crisis and they wanted someone who would come in quickly. The Finland FA president at the time had played in Denmark as a goalkeeper and they asked him for a name. He mentioned me and everything happened in two days.
“I was inconsistent in my first six months in Denmark but did well in my first full season. I learned that Rangers had sent a scout to watch someone on the pitch when we played in a League Cup Semi-Final; it was one of those games where I just saved everything and we won. That 90 minutes made them choose to sign me, so it was all about luck really.”
Niemi’s move to Scotland almost never happened, though, as he nearly arrived in England a few years earlier.
“When I signed for Rangers, I was actually going to Coventry City who was managed by Gordon Strachan,” he said. “I was there and everything had been agreed. In the morning, when I was going to sign the papers, I got a phonecall saying Rangers wanted me and I had to decide what I wanted to do in 10 minutes. Looking back I might have done better signing for Coventry, but I signed with Strachan later in my career so it worked out.”
Arriving at Ibrox, it wasn’t the culture shock that you might expect moving from Scandinavia to Scotland, but a lack of playing time hindered the goalkeeper’s development.
“The Scots people are really friendly and nice,” he said. “At that time the club had people like Ally McCoist, Paul Gascoigne and Andy Goram. They were all seasoned old veterans and were really down to earth. When I first arrived I was nervous, but they treated me really well. Andy came up to me and said, ‘if there are any problems, just come to me and let me know’. That certainly helped me to settle.
“However, I didn’t get a chance to play in the first team as much as I wanted. Andy was first choice and I was probably third with Theo Snelders ahead of me. I think the plan was that Andy would retire and I might be promoted, but then Walter Smith left and Dick Advocaat came in. During my time there he brought in two more goalkeepers: Stefan Klos and Lionel Charbonnier. So it’s fair to say I wasn’t in his thoughts much. I had a chat with him and he said, ‘I think for your own sake, people need to see how good a goalkeeper you are’ so I moved to Hearts.
“They were the third best team in the country behind Celtic and Rangers, but I said to myself that sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forward. That was maybe the best decision that I ever made; it felt a bit of a downgrade at the time, but I wasn’t playing and I knew it would be good for me in the long run.”
Two-and-a-half years at Hearts saw Niemi play consistently well and he made a name for himself as a penalty stopper, while also getting a taste of European action. Ultimately, though, the dream remained in England and it was hard to say no when Southampton made a move in 2002.
“I was already 30, so I was thinking that I might never get a chance to move to the Premier League,” he said. “I got a call from Southampton and I wasn’t going to turn that down; I had learned my lesson from my previous contact with Gordon Strachan and I jumped at the chance. I said ‘yes’ straight away.”
The goalkeeper quickly established himself as the first choice and, while the club finished an impressive eighth, he almost opened his goalscoring account against his future employers Fulham in a 2-2 draw on 15th March.
“That was the season that Fulham were playing at Loftus Road,” he said. “We were 2-1 down in injury time and I remember it well because I never really went up for corners; I’m not a very big goalkeeper so it didn’t make much of a difference if I did. But I looked at Gordon and he mouthed ‘go on, get up there’. So I ran up and the ball came in, one of the defenders headed it out and one of our strikers had a shot which was blocked. It went high in the air and it felt like it was there for a minute. I knew that, from where I was standing, it would land right on my chest.
“There was nobody near me so I knew I had time to control it and do something, but I’ve never been in that situation before so it was odd. I took it down and managed to get a shot in. I was thinking ‘just don’t look stupid, whatever happens, just don’t mess it up’ and it crashed off the crossbar. Two inches lower and it would have been in, but it bounced off the goalline and Michael Svensson put it into the empty net. I certainly played my part in the equaliser, but that was closest I ever came to a goal.”
Niemi was also a key part of the club’s run to the 2003 FA Cup Final against Arsenal. However, he picked up a rather unwanted title when he became the first goalkeeper to be substituted in a Final, due to injury.
“I was going to have surgery after the Final anyway,” he added. “My knee had issues with the ligaments and I was having injections before the games to get me through. Even the doctor said to me that if it wasn’t the Final then he wouldn’t have let me play. I had no pain during the game and was enjoying the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium even though they scored after 38 minutes; then my calf went in the second half. I had to come off, but there was always a risk and we lost eventually [1-0], but I still had the experience of playing in the game.”
Southampton fell from grace somewhat in the following years as they slipped down to 12th the following campaign, and were then relegated as they finished rock bottom in 2004/05. So, in January 2006, Niemi chose to join the side he almost scored against. After six months in the Championship, he returned to the top flight to battle Tony Warner and Mark Crossley for a First Team place in SW6.
“Personally, everything went really well for me at Southampton and a large part of my time on the south coast holds great memories for me,” he said. “But when we got relegated it all went pear-shaped. We lost our best players, we had injuries, we had managerial changes and nobody was playing well. I spent six months in the lower division but got a chance to join Fulham and living in London was a big attraction. My wife was delighted to get a chance to move to West London and, as I’d played against them many times, I knew that it was a nice Club too.”
After joining, Niemi got a short run in the side in January, then again in the final few games of the season. The Club finished 12th but the Finland international had shown enough to persuade Chris Coleman to give him the number one jersey for the start of the new campaign.
“I played 31 games which was good,” he said. “But we were struggling against relegation and we only just stayed up with Lawrie Sanchez in charge, beating Liverpool in our penultimate game. The following season Roy Hodgson came in and that was difficult as well because it looked like we would get relegated. I had some injuries towards the end of the season, including one with my wrist, and I lost my place to Kasey Keller. It was an incredible season as we managed to stay up on the final day, but I had to watch from the sidelines.
“At the end of the season Mark Schwarzer signed and, although I certainly enjoyed my time there, I knew I wouldn’t be playing as my wrist was in plaster for another five months so I left.”
Niemi retired, although he later had a brief (albeit fruitless) spell with Portsmouth, and he moved into coaching.
“I knew I was never going to be a manager,” he said. “But goalkeeping coaching was a natural step. The only thing I knew was the world of football, so Finland offered me a chance to continue helping goalkeepers and I have been there for the past three years. Whenever I see the results at the weekend, I always look for Fulham and Southampton as they were close to my heart.”