What has been called the world’s longest preseason got even longer when the coronavirus pandemic shut down all football operations for most of the spring. The start to the season was initially postponed until June, but then got pushed back to July. But on July 1 it was finally time to kick off the new, condensed, season. Thankfully the Finnish government allowed spectators into the stands, although at a reduced capacity.
But the 1854 people that had come to Bolt Arena to see HIFK face reigning champions KuPS probably wished they had stayed at home. KuPS where ready to go from the start and a droozy HIFK had no chance of catching up. KuPS scored their first goal after only three minutes, the second after seven and the third goal came in the fourteenth minute. The match ended with those numbers, 0-3, and a massively disappointing start to the season was a fact.
– We started the season off against KuPS, which was a really tough match. They performed well and we were on the backfoot the whole time. Just a tough match, said coach Mike Keeney.
Precisely a week after facing KuPS, HIFK travelled north towards the arctic circle. In store was the first away match of the season against Rovaniemen Palloseura. Pundits had speculated that RoPS were in for a tough season, and some even suggested they might be facing a relegation battle. HIFK on the other hand were predicted to end up somewhere in the middle of the table. So on paper there should have been a clear winner – but football isn’t played on paper, it’s played on grass. On the pitch it was a much more even battle than had been predicted. HIFK had some chances, and RoPS had some chances, but for most of the match neither of teams was able to convert. RoPS biggest chance came when they hit the post. In the end what made a difference was Sakari Tukiainen(who’s scored against his former club every time he’s played against them in the HIFK jersey). Jani Bäckman delivered a corner that made itself into RoPS box, but neither players seemed to be able to get control of the ball. Tukiainen got his foot on the fumble ball and was able to kick it into the back of the net in a true goal poachers goal kind of fashion. It wasn’t the prettiest of goals or matches, but it did the trick. HIFK managed to get an important away win against a hungry RoPS and a win was very much needed after the disaster of the first home match.
A whole ten days later it was time for HIFK’s second home match, this time against FC Lahti. The RoPS win was an improvement on the match before that, so the home fans were eagerly waiting their team to take their first win at home. Sadly, it didn’t pan out that way. A disorganized HIFK didn’t seem to get a grip of the match. FC Lahti scored their first through Mikko Kuningas after 18 minutes. Twelve minutes later Dimitry Imbongo recovered a clearance and passed it to Vahid Hambo, who seemed to have no problem of putting the ball into the net for 0-2.
HIFK reacted at halftime and made three substitutions. The changes didn’t achieve the effect it sought though. FC Lahti increase the score line to 0-3 when Jasin Asshenoun struck a beautiful curveball into the upper corner, past Arnold Origi who did his best, but had no way of catching this ball.
– Against RoPS we were in the mix with them and then eventually got a goal from a corner, which was good, as we could get the first win of the season from that. Then when we came back home and faced Lahti, the overall performance was just nowhere near the level of what we expected, said Keeney.
What followed the next Monday was arguably the biggest news of the season so far. On July 20, HIFK announced that Tor Thodesen would no longer be head coach for IFK. Assistant coaches Teemu Kankkunen and Mike Keeney were to split the responsibilities of head coach. Their first test would be only two days later, when HIFK faced SJK at home. In charge of SJK was Jani Honkaavara. A familiar face not only to HIFK supporters, but also to both of the freshly appointed head coaches since both had acted as Honkaavaras assistant coaches in KuPS and HIFK respectively.
After a combined negative goal difference of 0-6 at home, the crowd was now really longing to see their team play a good match. While the pressure was on, the expectations were somewhat lowered due to the fact that the first two home games had ended up in disappointment. After 12 minutes of play, former HIFK player Tero Mäntylä fouled HIFK’s Luís Henrique just outside of the box. Sakari Mattila was to take care of the free-kick. Mattila struck the ball and a precise low flying ball made itself past the former HIFK goalkeeper Walter Viitala in the SJK goal. For the first time this season, the HIFK supporters at Bolt Arena jumped up and roared with joy.
As the match continued, HIFK showed that the more conservative style of play adopted for this match was yielding results. The defensive errors and problems that HIFK had faced in the first two home matches had seemingly gone away. 20 minutes into the second half, Tero Mäntylä received a second yellow card and was sent off. This should have changed the match in HIFK’s favour, but instead SJK managed to score an equalizer. Tuco made his way past Tuukka Andberg and was able to roll the ball into the net in the 79th minute. Things were looking dark, and undoubtedly some supporters started remembering some of the worst last-minute losses during the past years. Those kinds where two or three goal leads have been reduced to draws or even losses in the last 10 minutes of play. But the players on the pitch were determined to get three points. Erikson Carlos came close to scoring, Joel Mattsson came close to scoring, but it was to come down to the last seconds of the match.
HIFK got a free kick in midfield in the sixth and last minute of extra time. The HIFK players were overcrowding SJK’s box and all of SJK’s players were down defending. Moshtagh Yaghoubi passed to ball to Riku Selander who gave it back to “Mosa”. Mosa took on quick look at the HIFK players making a run towards goal and sent the ball into the box. There, ready to receive it, was Sakari Mattila. Mattila got his head on the ball and it slipped in at the front post. The home crowd erupted in jubilation, and so did the players as well. Sakari Mattila, who had been playing as a defender, was the two-goal man of the match. For the first time at home this season the fans and players got to celebrate together and Jani Bäckman got the scream the classic “GE MIG ETT I!” in front of them.
– With “Tema” (Teemu Kankkunen) and me taking over as head coaches we decided to make some slight changes to how we play. Just a few things. We were able to get the result against Seinäjoki, and the team had a good perforamcen, said coach Mike Keeney.
A couple of days later it was time for another long away trip as HIFK would play its third match in only 9 days. This time it was to Mariehamn on the Åland Islands, for a battle between the two IFK’s in the league. HIFK had faced IFK Mariehamn twice this season already, both matches ending up in last minute disappointment. First in the Finnish cup, a match that ended in a draw after IFK Mariehamn scored two goals in the last ten minutes of the match. The other was a friendly in June where IFK Mariehamn equalized for a draw just five minutes before the end. Sufficive to say, HIFK were keen on getting revenge on the islanders.
In the first ten minutes of play, it was IFK Mariehamn who called the shots and created the most chances. But in the 12th minute Joel Mattson played a through ball to Erikson Carlos, who ran past IFK Mariehamns defenders. “Tiki” was able to get a pass into the middle of the box, where his fellow Brazilian, Luís Henrique, was waiting. Luís Henrique managed to get himself free from two defenders and put a precise shot into the lower left corner. 1-0 to HIFK.
Roughly ten minutes into the second half, Joel Mattsson was breaking through the IFK Mariehamn defense. Adama Fofana was running besides him, completely free, and got a pass from Mattsson. Fofana was now alone against the keeper and his first shot went straight into the back post but, luckily for him and HIFK, it bounced perfectly back towards Fofana who didn’t miss a second time. 2-0 to HIFK and Adama Fofana celebrated with an impressive summersault.
Only four minutes later, Joel Mattsson was once again storming towards the IFK Mariehamn goal. This time he was interrupted by IFK Mariehamn’s Aapo Mäenpää who tackled him to the ground. Erikson Carlos was quick to recover the ball and got off a shot towards goal. Mariehamn goalkeeper Oskari Forsman got one hand on it, but the ball continued towards the goal. Forsman got up quickly and tried to catch it, but Jabar Sharza came running towards it and was able to get a touch on it first. 3-0 to HIFK. The rest of the match continued with HIFK trying to create more goal chances. HIFK used all of its five substitutions, including bringing on John Fagerström and Vitinho for their debuts.
– Getting the late goal against Seinäjoki really boosted morale and the feeling within the squad. There was a new spirit in the training, and I think that also showed in Mariehamn, with a very convincing team performance. We worked hard and everybody did their job the way they were supposed to.
HIFK now face two teams from Pirkanmaa away. Ilves on Saturday and FC Haka on Wednesday after that. When asked if IFK can keep their current momentum going, he points out that the day to day work is key.
– We have to ride the wave and continue to build it up and adjust the training and gage the feeling in training and in the dressing room. We have Ilves and Haka coming up, whom both are good opponents. And away none the less. The big thing for us is to take things match by match, day by day and step by step. We don’t want to say “hey, we’re going to be winning the league by the end of this season” but we can say that “hey, we’re not fighting for relegation”. We just need to look at the opponent, ourselves, and really prepare one match at the time. We have to be flexible and able to adjust our work environment according to many factors, so that’s our job as coaches and that’s what we’ll look to do going forward, said coach Mike Keeney.
At the time of writing, HIFK are fifth in the league with 9 points from five games.