West Ham - Crystal Palace 0-1
THIS IS THE DIARY OF THE LAST DAYS OF THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY SEASON AND TIME OF MY LIFE.
Iím running like a headless chicken shouting something not understandable in human language. I have no idea what Iím doing so I keep on jumping in the middle of other shouting headless chickens. People do weird things when they are excited. We are all actually well over just being excited. There is no word to describe this feeling. The ones who have written dictionaries are probably not experienced winning a big match of football on penalties. We have just done it. We have booked our place to Cardiff. We know and feel it is already a massive achievement but we also decide there and then in the locker room of Sunderland that itís not enough for us.
We are flying home early. Some people have not had enough time to go to sleep at all. Emotions and exhaustion are too strong to see sweet dreams. Itís slowly sinking in. We have won the semi-finals in an entertaining and exciting 210 minutes against a good opponent. Once again our belief has saved us in the last moment. People are saying itís unbelievable. We are saying it is believable. And now we have a chance of a lifetime in the reaching distance. And the belief is longer than any other skill for reaching something.
Back in London we meet later in the evening in Covent Garden. Together we go to watch West Ham Ė Ipswich game. It is a good feeling to follow the game when you have already done the job. We have no favourite opponent, we believe that whoever we play itís our own job that matters. We are relaxed and have a good laugh. This is a good punch of lads here. That is important. It makes you to want to go to war for your team-mate.
My mobile is burning from the messages, everyone is asking for tickets for the playoff final. Do I look like a box office? People I hardly know think they are kind asking only couple of tickets for the game. On November I probably would have had to pay people to come to watch us. My solution: I donít answer the phone or messages. If it upsets someone, it wonít upset me.
ĎSuccessí comes before Ďworking hardí only in the dictionary. We have trained harder and more detailed than ever before. The long days and tiring training regime has paid off and turned around the results, even personal careers. This Thursday doesnít make a difference. There is intensity and quality at the training ground and the swimming pool. It is not just working hard, it is working hard with good standards and values. There is only ninety minutes to go. That is not the hard work. We have already done the hard work. What happens in those ninety minutes is a result of the last six months. Obviously anything can happen in one-off game. You can loose one-off game on a day. But if we win it, we have won it at the training ground, not on a day.
Intensity and eagerness increases day by day. Everyone is buzzing. Everyone wants to be on a team. Everyone wants also to help others to get to the team. We play very competitive games at the training ground. Our manager is a winner, good competitor. He leads by example. His desire has brought a winning culture to the club, something that has been lacking from there often. He has created a group of honest working, good persons, who can also play a bit football. It is always better to have players that are dedicated to win than having players with good ability but less passion.
Season has been long and we got very welcomed extra time for it. We also get first almost free weekend for a long time. For many it is the rare occasion to spend time with the family and sorting out personal life. My family here is Philips microwave oven so Iím pretty much free. I get my weekly massage, do bit shopping, eat well, sleep well and meet friends. Itís a weird situation, I sort of have to tell them goodbye as well, just in case. Although the manager has told me for the last two months that he wants to keep me no matter what, I still not have been offered a new contract. I really donít know what is going to happen at summer. I donít think Iíll be unemployed, but I am not bothered about it now, it is a problem for that time. Now I just want to win the game. Maybe that gives me another chance to see my friends in here again. It is very emotional time for me.
We have Player of the Year do at Saturday night. It is quite amusing event, everyone around the club just seem to be having time of their lives because of the turnaround in results. Or maybe it is the alcohol, many fans and sponsors have their fair share of it. We obviously drink water and leave early to get proper rest. The bottle of red wine can wait one more week. It is nice to see what our achievements mean to a lot of people. The whole club seems to be glad all over.
We do weight training at the gym plus boxing. Iím progressing but not ready for a title fight yet though, my left is still quite handbags. We finish the day with a game of cricket. My side have more foreigners, we get absolutely battered. Iím chosen man of the match Ė for the other team. Someone surely had put soap on the ball, my fielding and bowling were shocking to put it mildly. I tried to make it up at batting and started well getting couple of runs. However when my team-mate almost bowled a fast one to my head I accidentally dropped the wickets with my bat. I got the finger and although I donít know the rules the laughs told me to leave the pitch. What can you expect, have you ever heard of a Finnish cricketer before? Iíll demand a rulebook before the next season.
The media circus is disturbing the normal training day. Our fitness trainer John Harbin is wired for training so we give him stick for making us to do all the possible rugby exercises in the world. We have learned from other sports and used their methods. It has made a difference to our discipline. It is hard two hours and twenty minutes we spend at the pitch, in which almost an hour is fitness work. The day is harder than the days we had at the pre-season! This sums us up. We drive on hard until the last day, do the things what got us there. We want to be better every day. Afterwards we have video analysis about Sunderland game. We have played well and deserved to win, lots of positives is picked up from the game. Manager also takes the defensive unit to his office and we watch all the West Ham set pieces and learn their signs. We know the game is going to be even, small things will most likely decide the final. We try to make sure that we have all the small things on our side.
Free day, physios have banned me from the training ground. Knowing when to have rest is not my best virtues. Especially because Iím so excited about the final it is hard to stay home. I do sky sports interview in front of the Buckinham Palace. Palace player goes to palace or something. This looks bit bigger than my 2 bedrooms, eat-in kitchen flat. I prefer Crystal Palace anyway, no queens and kings there, only servants. Thatís our strength actually, we are all equal, all serving each other. We continue the interview at The London Eye. Iím scared of heights and my English must sound even dodgier. I probably donít make any sense, Iím glad they only going to show it before the game so I wonít be able to see it. London Eye is scary, much scarier than the task ahead. Plus I donít think that heights of the Premier League are this scary. In the evening I watch the Champions League Final. Millennium Stadium is our Champion League final. Like Porto nobody expected us to be there.
We shape our game plan and tactics. We have scouted their strengths and weaknesses but based the game plan on playing our own game. We feel ready on the pitch. Off the pitch it is harder. Media, tickets, getting families there and all the circus around the game is bit disturbing. The atmosphere is bit nervous, there are many distractions. At the same time there is anxiety, players canít wait to be there. This could be the biggest chance ever to get ourselves to fulfil our professional ambitions. Media and other people are mentioning what the possible promotion means to the club and the economical importance of the game. As a player, you think mainly what if means to your professionally: playing against the best teams in the world, really testing yourself against best players in the world. Any money in the bank account is worth less than the experiencing Premiership would be.
We travel by bus wearing torn tracksuits. There is no glamour on our way. There doesnít need to be. We are what we have been whole season. And that has got us here. The game is on the mind all the time. Even more when we visit the Millennium Stadium. Itíll look different tomorrow when there are 70000 cheering supporters. Iíve played there before twice, but this feels big, beyond anything I could ever imagine. Still it is a good feeling. Because we know we are ready. We are mentally strong and confident. That is a half a victory already. It is all a matter of belief. There is in nothing unusual happening in the preparation in Cardiff. We follow the schedule and the atmosphere in the camp is good. That puts me to good sleep.
Who do you play for? Do you play for yourself? Do you play for your team-mates and manager? Do you play for the club? I play for all of these. But I also play for everything that is dear for me. I learned it from our management team, but now I feel it is my own thing. I see my old man in the stands. He has travelled from Finland to be there for me. I play for him. My Mum and brother havenít been able to come, but I see them as well in the stand. I see my mentors, my best friends and people who have been there for me. I play for all of them. I know what it means to them. And I want to give them that feeling. That will give me an extra strength and extra yard. I know when I play my Mum, Dad and brother are right there with me on the pitch.
Itís almost a time to go. I donít know how this story will end. When you read this Iíll be hangoverish somewhere. Hopefully itíll be in the Premiership. When I look back I see all the hours Iíve trained myself and with the teams Iíve played for. I see all the good and bad times and emotions Iíve experienced. I see the results, injuries, people Iíve met. And it all makes sense. All these things are culminated to this game. This game is conclusion for everything that has happened for me in football so far. Are we going to win it? I donít know. I know we will get what we deserve. That makes me confident before the game.
"By the way, we did it!"
-Aki Riihilahti couple of days after Saturday