Canaries' bargain Goat ready to bite Liverpool
After Seville and Celtic woes, free transfer Teemu Pukki has won hearts at Norwich City
In this era of astronomical transfer fees and sky-high wages, has there been a better bargain in recent times than Norwich City's Teemu Pukki? He is arguably the shrewdest free transfer ever in the Championship and will spearhead Norwich's attack against Liverpool on Friday night as the poster boy for football recruitment departments up and down the country.
Pukki was a relative unknown when he signed for Norwich last summer but had the season of his life, scoring 29 goals to help propel the club to the title. Pukki translates as 'goat' in his native Finland, and for many Norwich fans, he is undoubtedly the Greatest Of All Time.
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It was a deal which suffered an initial hitch: sporting director Stuart Webber was preparing for a final scouting trip with head of recruitment Kieran Scott, when the plane was grounded at Stansted due to engine failure. But Pukki became a Canary on July 1 and ever since scoring in his first home game [a chaotic 4-3 defeat by West Brom], his star has been on an upward trajectory.
He has proved a revelation, a triumph for diligent scouting and data analysis, and he did not cost a penny.
"There is too much money in football nowadays, with all the transfer fees going higher and higher," says Pukki with a smile, ahead of an afternoon training session at Colney. "I cost nothing, so I think it was quite good business for Norwich.
"I didn't really have so many expectations when I signed. I knew I could do well here but I never expected to score 29 goals.
"Now I'm in the Premier League, I'm 29 and it's been a long journey. It's not easy to be a footballer. It's a lot of work and commitment away from football, and I've played in many different countries, but it now feels like it has all paid off."
Pukki, and Norwich, will kick off the season on Friday in the daunting shadow of the Kop, after the club ended a three-year absence from the Premier League.
Liverpool are European champions and won 17 of their 19 home games in the league last season, conceding only 10 goals, but Pukki has been counting down the days.
"It's the best game to start with. A lot of my family follow Liverpool, including my dad Tero and my uncle. In Finland I would say Liverpool is the biggest team, it started in the 1980s with the games on the TV. And then obviously they have had two Finland legends in Jari Litmanen and Sami Hyppia," he says. "I want to test myself against the best and this will be the ideal way to see what this season is going to be about.
"Of course, I hope I can score as many again, but the Premier League is far tougher than the Championship. We think we can surprise people this year. A lot of people won't know much about us but we are confident."
It has been a capricious yet rewarding route for Pukki from his childhood in the Finnish city of Kotka, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, to the pizzazz of the Premier League. At 18 he was playing for local club KTP when he was spotted by scouts from Seville and offered a life-changing move to Spain. Pukki reflects on his time there fondly, but it was not easy. "I was a teenager and it was probably too big a move for me. I was living away from home at a young age and the weather in Seville was obviously a lot warmer than I was used to in Finland. It was so hot and I didn't have air conditioning for the first few weeks in my apartment," he says.
"My mum [Teija] took one year off from work to come and live with me. That was really helpful but I was still struggling with the language. As a young guy I was really shy, more shy than I am now. To live abroad you have to grow up quickly. It was very tough and ultimately didn't work out in the end, but I wouldn't change it."
After making just one appearance for Seville's first team in two years, he returned to Finland to play for HJK Helsinki and effectively rebuild his reputation. The Pukki tour of Europe was then restarted with a move to the Bundesliga with Schalke, where he faced Klopp during his spell at Borussia Dortmund.
Schalke was followed by a high-profile switch to Celtic in 2013, where he struggled under manager Neil Lennon. "It didn't go as I planned, and they expected me to score a lot more goals," he says. "If I was there now I would definitely do better. The last four years have changed me a lot as a football player. The Celtic experience helped me to get where I am now."
Pukki did recover again, with an impressive four-year spell in Denmark with Brondby, but it was that Celtic experience which led to many raised eyebrows when he signed for Norwich.
Webber had been watching Pukki for six years, back to his time at Wolves as a talent-spotter, and saw the potential for him to flourish under head coach Daniel Farke.
It is not just Pukki's eye for goal which has made him such a success, but his ability to bring team-mates into play which is underlined by nine assists last season.
"After speaking to the boss and Stuart this was the best decision I could make," he says. "I had some other choices [PAOK in the Greek Super League was one option] but here they knew quite specifically what I was like as a person and player and how I would fit into the system.
"The more I played in the team, the more I saw the potential and after the international break in September it all fell into place. We played Middlesbrough at home, won 1-0, and we never really looked back. We just kept going.
"I've improved 100 per cent as a player here. I wasn't lazy before but the style of playing here has really made me work for the team more. I love being a striker in this team."
Spend an hour in Pukki's company and it provides an intriguing insight into the Norwich ethos. He is Farke's main man, with a cult following here and back home, but is devoid of ego, softly spoken, and displays a nice line in self-deprecation when talking about how he was named in the top 10 of Finland's sports personality of the year awards in January.
Much of his time away from Norwich's base is devoted to his two-year-old daughter, Olivia, while this summer he got married to Kirsikka, in Hanko.
"A lot of Finnish people are laid back and quiet and that's how I am. If I see someone that's too arrogant, that's not how I was raised. I will always keep my feet on the ground.
"The success here is down to the fact we're a family. There are no egos, everybody gets on and it's the best dressing room I've ever played in. We are so close and it's nice to be part of.
"When I was a little boy, my dream was to play in Spanish football, which I've done, and then it was the Premier League, so it's all worked out OK."
No Pukki, No Party.