The 2020 season has come to an end. It is clear that this was a unique and challenging year for the whole Roosters organization. How do you feel about it?

Well, I am very happy to have even had football this year. We are very lucky to be living in Finland. The kids worked very hard up until and during the lockdown, so it is very rewarding for them to have played actual football this year. And let’s not forget the psychological impact the pandemic must have had on them. None of us went through anything like this during our teenage years. But let us also not forget this is an ongoing challenge. We may face more challenges down the road and have to be very smart in the way we behave, both as people and as an organization.

I am also very thankful that the organization kept me on during a pandemic as well as during my knee injury that trapped me in Vienna for two months. So I do feel happy and thankful after everything that has happened this year. And I believe it has made us stronger as a team.

Can you give us an overview of the Roosters Youth Program?

Well first and foremost we need to talk about the players. We are constantly growing in numbers and talent. If you walked around outside Tali on a Wednesday afternoon you would see red helmets everywhere you look. It doesn’t matter if you think about the really young ones or the older teenagers, we are very lucky to have had many great kids join the organization and the ones we had set the bar high. So I believe we have built a great culture.

Secondly, we have the best coaching staff in Finland — maybe even in Europe — when it comes to the Youth program. Each coach has won several Maple Bowls as a coach or player while also being on the National Team. I mean, the legendary Juha Hakala shows a 10 year old how to tackle. Offensive mastermind Mikko Kokailainen shows a 14 year old how to run a perfect slant route. Or league all-star Okko Outinen teaches a 17 year old how to use his hands in pass rush. This is unreal and it reflects the culture we have built. And they do it for the love of the game. This is unheard of and unique and I am so lucky to have been working with all of them.

Thirdly, the organization, led by our president Jenni Hakala and the board, has done such a great job to allow coaches to coach and players to play. None of them get paid and I can only imagine what they have to deal with day in and day out, especially during a year like this. It all starts with leadership and I do believe that as an organization we are looking in the right direction.

Let’s talk a bit more about each unit individually. The U15 team lost the semi-final game in the 7vs7 league. How was the year for this age group?

Our U15 team was very, very young and very inexperienced. We combined our U13 with our U15 team and had a lot of players starting that had not even turned 14 yet. We also had very few players who had mass and size, which makes competing in a sport like football very hard. This is why 7vs7 helps teams that do not have enough big guys. In 11vs 11 you need five O-Linemen and three to four D-Linemen, so ideally you need five to nine big guys if you think some of them can play on both sides. We did not have that.

On top of that we had players who were afraid of contact, which is to be expected if you are small and just starting the sport. I believe Santtu and Tony have done a great job getting the best out of those kids throughout the year and we were able to have some success on the field. This age group needs to work very hard over the next couple of months and we need to do a great job finding new talent and beef up, so to speak. On a positive note, most players have another two to three years with the U15 team so I cannot imagine what the team will look like in the near future.

The U17 are Finnish National Champions. How would you describe their season?

There is not much to say as the result speaks for itself. The core of the team won a U15 title last year while we also added a few rookies and players from other teams. Combine this with hard work and great coaching and all you see is gold.

I mean, this team worked harder than most Maple League teams. We had three to four practises a week, we ran scout plays, we were able to go 11vs11 in practise and had scheduled meetings during the week. We finished this with a great final in front of 400 people.

Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot to improve on and defending a title is a huge challenge, which is why we’re getting back to work this month already.

The U20 played 7vs7 for the first time this year and was probably most affected by the pandemic, which forced them to have tournaments in September/October. What is the outlook here?

There is no doubt in my mind that the U20 team will return to 11vs11 football and compete for a title again next year. Especially after they just won a championship. Henri has done a great job with the few players we had that were truly U20 kids and not part of the Men’s team. In addition we have developed some players who will now move to U20 from the U17 team and we’re expecting many newcomers, both rookies and players from other teams.

Thus, our number one priority right now is to find a qualified head coach for this unit. It is undoubtedly important to have a strong U20 that serves as a farm team for the Maple League team. So we need to find the right guy for the job. The Roosters are a top organization in Europe and the U20 needs to return back to the top like it was for so many years.

Will you be with the Roosters for the 2021 season?

Minun kotini on stadissa, minun joukkueeni on Roosters.

Any final words?

I am saying what everyone already knows but the upcoming months will again be challenging and require a lot of commitment from our players. There will be obstacles along the way and we have to be flexible in the way we do things while also working harder than we did before. It will not be easy.

I am so happy to have my contract extended until the end of 2021 and I will strive to make your kids the best they can be, on and off the football field. 2021 HERE WE COME!


Interview by: Justin Dillons, Roosters Media

Picture: Luka Kückelmann