The first in a new intermittent series, we’ll be taking a look at some of sport’s most underrated and underappreciated figures. Players who, despite putting in top notch displays, never got the universal praise and recognition they deserved. It’s time to put that right!
Finland may be a small country, but it packs a punch. Churning out a freakish number of F1 drivers, it’s also given us the director of Die Hard 2, and has the most heavy metal bands and saunas per capita. It’s also produced a brilliant goalkeeper; Antti Niemi.
A shot stopper supreme with bleach blond hair and catlike reflexes, Niemi made over 160 Premier League appearances with Southampton and Fulham.
Having started a career in his native Finland, before moving to Danish side FC Copenhagen, Niemi was brought to the attention of England’s top tier when he transferred to Scotland’s Heart of Midlothian. A string of eye-catching performances saw Southampton pay £2 million for his services in 2002.
‘The Ice Man’ carried his form with him to the south coast, where he formed a formidable defensive unit with fellow Scandinavians Claus Lundekvam and Michael Svensson. Highlights with the Saints included a then record highest Premier League finish, being named the club’s player of the year in the 2003-04 season and an FA Cup final.
Despite a 1-0 loss to Arsenal in that match, where after picking up an injury he had the unwanted honour of being the first goalkeeper to be substituted in the final, Niemi was hailed as Southampton’s best player. Gunners striker Thierry Henry expressed his amazement at the number of saves the man from Oulu had made in the game.
With his imperious displays between the sticks, Niemi was unsurprisingly linked to top clubs including Arsenal and Manchester United, but a move never materialised.
Sadly, injuries to key players, coupled with boardroom turmoil and managerial upheaval, saw Niemi and Southampton relegated in 2005. He signed for Fulham in 2006 where he was the club’s first choice keeper before an uneventful one year spell at Portsmouth. Niemi announced his retirement in 2009.
Joining an impressive roster of Scandinavian goalkeepers, Niemi should be appreciated for his freakish reaction saves and cool demeanour. A quiet man off the pitch, but with a steely focus on the field, he may not be a household name for football fans. But regarded by those in the know as one of the best keepers in the Premier League during his playing days, we should tip our hats to this fantastic flying Finn.