Big Sam’s Mr Consistent is not ready to stop yet
LIKENED to legend Peter Schmeichel, admired by Arsene Wenger, a byword for consistency and a bona fide Bolton legend. Jussi Jaaskelainen is, without doubt, one of the finest goalkeepers the Premier League has seen.Yet that talent was far from evident when he stepped off the plane from Helsinki in the summer of 1997.
“Jussi was a very different player then,” said Fred Barber, Jaaskelainen’s coach at Bolton and the man who would become his friend and mentor for the next 15 years.
“He couldn’t handle wet weather. In Finland, he’d played in snow and they trained indoors, so his kicking was erratic. We had to bring in a specialist to help with that.
“He was the fourthor fifth-choice goalkeeper and I remem- ber one coach turned to me and said he’d cost me my job.
“But I believed in Jussi’s ability and we worked on all his weaknesses. He worked hard, listened, tried to dissect everything he was told. To see it pay off was fantastic.”
So enduring was the bond between Barber and Jaaskelainen that, when Owen Coyle brought in his own ‘keeping coach in 2010, the Finn threatened to quit unless his friend was reinstated. Last summer, following the goalie’s release from West Ham, Barber travelled to Bolton to put on a training session in Jaaske- lainen’s back garden. Yet this meeting of minds may never have happened had Norwich not been ruthlessly gazumped.
The son of an electrician, Jaaskelainen was born into an industrial community and had intended to follow his father’s lead before eagle-eyed scouts spotted his aptitude.
In 1992, aged just 17, he made his Veikkausliiga (Finland's first division) debut for home town club Mikkelin Palloilijat. Four years later, he was snapped up by VPS Vaasa, one of the biggest sides in the land.
Under-21 honours followed and, during a tournament in Romania, Jaaskelainen was invited for a trial with Norwich. Canaries boss Mike Walker was on the cusp of offering a deal when he was struck by personal tragedy.
Back in Finland, Jaaskelainen was unaware of the reason for the delay and, when Bolton nipped in with a bid of £100,000, player and club accepted.
These days, the Finn and his wife, Tessa, have embraced life in Bolton. Sons Emil, Robin and William were all born in the Lancashire town, with the eldest now a goalkeeper in the Trotters’ Under-18 ranks.
Back then, however, it was tougher.“I did not speak a word of English,” he recalls. “And, during my first three months here, we lived in a Travelodge.”
Nor did he much enjoy the tough love of Barber, whom he christened “Paholainen”, the Finnish word for ‘Devil’.
But the seeds planted by Barber soon bore fruit. From the day he made his debut in 1998 to the day he departed in 2012, Jaaskelainen barely missed a game, making 530 appearances as the cornerstone of Bolton’s transformation from Division One also-rans to European contenders. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Jaaskelainen was prone to the occasional howler. But they were far outweighed by moments of matchwinning brilliance: the sensational double save to deny Paul Scholes and Andy Cole in 2001, the two penalty stops in one game against Blackburn.
Then there was the 2006-07 season, when the Finn walked away with every player of the year award as Bolton finished seventh, subsequently spurning top-four interest to sign a new four-year deal.
Sam Allardyce, who once calculated Jaaskelainen was worth 9-12 points a season, said: “When you talk about centreforwards scoring and creative players making goals to win games, you sometimes overlook just how much of an impact keepers have on the outcome.
“He made great saves at crucial times. Without wanting to heap too much praise on him, I would have to describe him as our Peter Schmeichel, because I can’t think of any higher praise.”
Kevin Poole, the veteran stopper who vied with Jaaskelainen for the No.1 shirt at the Reebok, added:“He has been Mr Consistent over the years and he’s a great lad who works really hard at his game. I do think he could have gone higher, but he stayed at Bolton and he deserves all the credit he gets because it’s rare to see loyalty like that these days.”
Jaaskelainen finally departed in 2012, following Bolton’s relegation to the Championship, but not before passing his knowledge to Adam Bogdan, the Hungarian stopper who took his place.
“He gave me so much important advice,” said the 28-year-old, now at Liverpool. “The biggest thing was just how to be professional, and the important basic things that are needed to reach the top level, such as decision-making.”
Jaaskelainen would spend the next three seasons with Allardyce at West Ham before joining League One Wigan after a summer spent trialling with several clubs.
“That was typical of Jussi,” said Barber. “He was never going to lounge around and sit back on his reputation.”
Time is running out and other interests – he owns several horses – will soon take centre stage. But not yet.
“People have told me ‘Stay in the game as long as you can because once you are done, you are done’,” he says. “And I am not ready to stop yet.”
WET BEHIND EARS: The young Jussi Jaaskelainen struggled at first to cope with our rain
LOYALTY CARD: Bolton fans respected their goalkeeper’s long service