Blast from the Past no.19: Aki Riihilahti
Reviving the Premier League players you forgot existed…
“Preparation and making the sandwich are the hardest part. Eating is the reason why there are sandwiches. It is the only fun part. Sometimes it is not that delicious but the most important things is that there are sandwiches.”
Not Delia Smith having a nervous breakdown, but rather an excerpt from a match report on Crystal Palace’s 4-2 defeat at Nottingham Forest in 2001. The unorthodox content may give the impression that its author was somewhat unhinged from the realities of second-tier English football, but nothing could be further from the truth. As any Eagles follower will tell you, the unmistakable prose could only have been written by one man - and he was a fine player.
Aki Riihilahti joined Palace for £200,000 from Norwegian club Valerenga in March 2001 and went on to spend five seasons at Selhurst Park. He didn’t have any particular affiliation with sandwiches, but he did possess a unique literary skill. Specifically, for writing the nuttiest footballer’s blog of all time.
As such it was quite normal for a disappointing loss in the east Midlands to inspire a deep contemplation of bread-based snacks. Just as a 4-1 victory against Stockport could prompt the reaction: “I almost even feel like a good man. However sometimes it fades away when I look into a mirror. And that is all because my hair looks like a jungle!”
Riihilahti’s football writings alone make him a trailblazer. But the Helsinki-born midfielder wasn’t just talk, he was also action.
The Palace side he joined in the final stages of the 2000/01 season was on the brink of relegation to the third tier for the first time since the 1970s, but the Finn’s arrival revitalised them. Riihilahti scored his first goal for the club in a victory at Portsmouth in the penultimate game of the season, as Palace ended the campaign with two away wins to survive by a point. It was the start of a beautiful relationship between player and fans.
“Riihilahti is the epitome of what every supporter wants in a player at every single level of the game: honesty, determination, commitment and loyalty in abundance,” said one Eagles supporter on the Holmesdale.net website.
“The man not only put 110% in to everything he did at the club, he was an absolute gentleman. One of my all-time favourites,” gushed another.
He could play a bit too, as this strike against Wimbledon, described on YouTube as the “best goal ever”, will attest.
Meanwhile, his blog continued to entertain and inform on subjects ranging from fitness: “Injuries are like ketchup: first there is long quiet period but then suddenly there comes out a big wave of s***”.
To geography: “My knowledge about Blackpool was quite limited. All I knew was that it was going to be a six hours bus trip. Which direction, I didn’t know."
Palace fans now describe Riihilahti as a "a great man” a “legend”, a “genuinely nice guy” and “stark raving Tonto”, while former Eagles chairman Simon Jordan once summarised him as “a ridiculous person in the best possible way”. At one point Riihilahti became so popular that the Palace club shop ran out of the letter i due to the demand for shirts with his name on the back.
Nevertheless, the south London club were back in the relegation zone midway through the 2003/04 season, until the appointment of Iain Dowie sparked an outrageous run of wins that landed them in the play-offs. Riihilahti anchored the side that beat West Ham in the Millennium Stadium final to complete the unlikeliest of promotions to the Premiership. It was a higher level than Riihilahti had ever played at before, but he did not disappoint.
“Watch the goals from 04/05 again and see just how many Aki is involved with, either getting an assist himself or being involved in an attacking move,” said another Palace fan of the Eagles’ top flight return.
Particularly memorable was his volleyed equaliser against Arsenal moments after Thierry Henry had put the Gunners ahead. “I was so high up the pitch I had a nose bleed,” quipped the Finn afterwards.
But he was merely being modest, as one Palace fan pointed out: “Aki was not given the credit he deserves. We all rave about his determination, consistency and effort. People forget though, he was a really, really good football player as well.”
Alas, Riihilahti’s acquaintance with the Premiership would be all too brief. The Eagles were relegated on the final day of the season, victims of West Brom’s Great Escape. Injuries disrupted Riihilahti’s following campaign and, when his contract expired, he moved to Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern. He ended his career at his hometown club HJK Helsinki, where he is now the CEO. His blog has not been updated since December 2012.
But the archive is still there, and scattered among the numerous zany observations are rare introspective moments, such as a post from 19 February 2003 titled ‘The ugly boy confesses’.
“I am not the best footballer. I haven’t achieved much and I am not that fit either. However I still receive admiration and interest only because what I am doing and what I have. For many people the status means more than who I really am. I wonder how many people want to buy me a beer after my football career.”
At Selhurst Park, Riihilahti will find about 25,000 of them.
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