COMMENT: A risk-free alternative for the national side
By Erkka V. Lehtola
In hiring the services of Stuart Baxter to oversee the Finnish national side for the next two years, the Finnish FA got what it wanted: A foreign coach. International experience. Contacts. Language skills. A knowledge of football in the Nordic region. Value for a reasonable outlay of money.
All in all, a credible pair of feet to slip into the boots left vacant by Roy Hodgson.
Baxter is far from what one might call a risky investment. The FA did not buy a pig in a poke, and we should be grateful for that.
No embarrassing surprises are likely to be in store.
Whereas some Italian with immaculate coiffure and dress-sense might have frozen to death in the Finnish winter or torn his hair out watching games from the benches at Veikkaus League grounds, a British coach will pull on his winter overalls and get down to work.
Baxter knows exactly where he has put himself.
The FA leadership picked Stuart Baxter, but by no means all on their own.
The FA’s President Pekka Hämäläinen and Secretary-General Kimmo J. Lipponen consulted with Hodgson - now managing Fulham - at a meeting in London in early January.
At the end of their discussions, the shopping list of more than 60 possible coaches had been whittled down by removing all those whom Hodgson dismissed as linguistically-challenged, incapable of teamwork, or just plain and simple unsuitable cases for consideration.
Baxter, by contrast, got a resounding thumbs-up from his friend and colleague.
After this first filtering process, the (black) ball was passed to team stalwarts Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyypiä, whose opinions the FA bosses listen to with pricked ears - and with good reason.
The two captains turned their thumbs skywards and gave their blessing to the choice.
Hämäläinen did not give a hearing to the views of the younger generation of star players in the squad, which is a little strange.
The results of the work of the national coach will be measured in the World Cup qualifying games that begin from September this year.
Baxter thus has rather more than six months in which to prepare the Huuhkajat (“Eagle Owls”, named after the intrepid exploits of Bubi the eagle owl at the Belgium game last summer) to take wing once more.
No big changes would appear to be in prospect. A strong defence is once again going to be the foundation on which success is built, but Baxter may tweak things a little in a more attacking direction.
He will have noticed, for instance, the number of points dropped in goalless draws in the recent Euro 2008 campaign, and he will be well aware of the crying need for a striker who can score consistently.
For a British coach, Finland is a challenge and more.
The European Championships qualifiers raised expectations to a new high.
From now on, the bouquets will be handed out only for securing that long-sought place in the finals of a major tournament.
Finland is trying to get to South Africa from a perilously strong qualifying group.
The sharpest thorns in the Finnish side will come from Germany and Russia, but the team will have to emerge unpricked from lesser threats, too: aside from the need to score goals, Euro 2008 taught a harsh lesson about not losing to minnows like Azerbaijan.
The dream of a place in the finals of the 2010 World Cup can withstand only a few small flesh-wounds.
At yesterday’s press briefing the new coach - who came across as rather more down-to-earth and genial than his predecessor - commented on the Finnish team’s chances in the time-honoured roundabout fashion: “Difficult, but not impossible”.
In an amusing sort of way, Baxter’s assessment makes the quality of the man chosen as the national side’s coach a relatively secondary issue.
Reaching a place in the finals would be difficult even if the reins were held simultaneously by Fabio Capello, Jose Mourinho, and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Impossible it would not be, not even if my mother were coaching them.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 29.1.2008
The writer is a freelance journalist and football coach.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Finnish FA appoints Stuart Baxter as new coach for national team (28.1.2008)
Finland start World Cup campaign with home fixture against Germany (11.1.2008)
Stuart Baxter (Wikipedia)