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4.3.2003
25 minutes

Crystal Palace - Sheffield Wednesday 0-0
Wolves - Crystal Palace 4-0

The road is dark and rainy. I am staring at it and can feel its misery, because inside of me it is tonight just as dark and stormy. This is not how the day was supposed to end. But there I was: in a quiet team coach feeling bad and disappointed.

I couldnít believe it. This was not written in the script during the whole preparation for the game. We had done everything well: analysed the opponent, planned a suitable tactic and trained hard. We looked strong after getting many of our injured players back to full fitness.

I felt good. First time during this season that I have been so much injured at I really felt that I was close to my top form. I had had my best training week for ages, I felt confident and I was looking forward to meet Wolverhampton. It was highly important game for our play-off hopes plus Wolves at Molineux is always a big game. We had a good experience from there last season when we beat them to go top of the league.

Furthermore Finnish television decided to show this particular game live in my home country. There were lot of interviews and interest about it. During the week I got many calls and good luck wishes. Some people said that they were proud of Finland when they could be watching for example me playing at the telly.

So I really wanted to impress. Anyways I always make sure that I do a proper preparation for any game and now I really planned my whole week to suite the best for this important game.

Many players have some quite weird routines before game. I donít have any really superstitious manners but I like to do everything in the same order and way that I have always done and experienced most suitable for me. I have more or less the same diet, dinner and sleeping times and lot of lying down at the day before. I normally go through something about the opponent, my own role and visualise myself playing a good game.

This time at the day of the game I woke-up feeling really fresh and confident. I had my porridge, fruits and a coffee in the morning. I went for a walk and did some stretching. Shower, light pre-match pasta and team meeting. My legs felt good, that is usually a good indicator to a good game.

After a short bus trip to the stadium we had a look around on the nice pitch. I had always enjoyed the atmosphere and playing at Molineux. Like always I tried to be on my own before the game, to do my routines and to have a quiet concentration. I am not that much in a need of all the yelling and talking to everyone. It doesnít do it for me. I strapped my ankles, put on my kit and made everything ready.

I felt sharp at the worm-up. At the time of the final preparations and compulsory high fives with teammates at the locker room I could feel and see myself playing a good game. I had physically and mentally psyched myself up to a top mode. Now it was time to do some real business.

It is show time. I have a quick glance at my opponents. We run to the pitch. Everything seems perfect. It is a great day for football. I feel excited to be on the stage of football again and I want to show my very best. The whistle goes. Adrenaline starts to flow extremely high. This is what I have been waiting and lived for the whole week. I send myself there with full of energy.

The game starts nervous from both sides, there is nothing really going on for either side. I am maybe too anxious and fail my first two passes because I try to give them unbalanced. This starts the unpleasant inner talk but I get over it quickly when I give couple of good passes and win my next tackles. However I still know I am not at my normal level. I relax a bit, get back to my own comfortable game and soon I start to play bit better.

However it is already too late. Suddenly I am facing the nightmare that I thought could never happen to me. The game is stopped because my teammate and the fourth official are waiting at the sideline. There is my number on the board. I have been substituted after twenty-five minutes!

I am devastated when I am running off the pitch. I feel empty and stupid, even bit embarrassed. You get this feeling that everything stops, the whole concentration is on you: that player was taken away so early! Taxi for Mr Riihilahti!

The manager says that it was a tactical change because we wanted to put another striker in. It doesnít help me because I know early substitution never means anything good. I know that if I play well I will be never taken off after less than half of an hour.

So I sit to the bench and try to hide my disappointment. I can feel the television camera zoomed at me, how uncomfortable that is. Hello everyone, hello all Palace supporters, hello Mum and Dad, hello Finland, not the proudest moment of my football career. I really donít know what to think or how to be there. I would do anything to be back on the pitch.

Everything goes from bad to worse. I watch my team to loose 4-0. It feels terrible. Playing bad is one thing but on top of that it really hurts to loose any game, especially this one since it leaves us a mountain to climb at for getting play-offs now.

I am not just dealing with my own misery, but I can also relate to the whole teams and supporters agony. I also know my home nation has watched the game. Normally I would get lot of messages, now there is not even a single call. Everyone knows that I donít feel the best. I donít think anyone could understand though how deep it hurts.

I try to convince myself that it was not that bad, the game was only at the start and still even, plus it was a tactical change. However no matter what I think of or do, it wonít change the result or feeling. That is football. You never know for sure beforehand when it is going to go your way and you have only that ninety minutes time to change something, or sometimes even less, maybe too little.

At least in twenty-five minutes I wasnít good enough to create much football mastery or help to my team. It was even too little for me to be in a need of a cool down or massage. It must have been the shortest workday ever. And that also feels bad.

Football can get you either extremely high or really down but it is like a drug, you want it more anyway. I have had many great days in football but unfortunately this single day was one of the worse. However feeling sorry about myself doesnít help. You canít change the dark and rainy roads you have been at but you can and you want to make the next ones brighter. So when I finally arrive home I just canít wait to get to the next training and game so I could show everyone how good I really am.


aki


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