Blue-eyed boys - Mikael Forssell

Mikael Forssell
Mikael Forssell.

Steve Bruce started to feel the pressure and it reflected on the team and especially individuals. I think a lack of confidence started to creep into the team and players didn’t play to the same level as they had before.

Mikael Forssell

In the final instalment of our 'blue-eyed boys series', Sean Cole catches up with former Blues striking legend Mikael Forssell to look back on his career and find out his hopes for the future…

With sensationally quick feet and clinical finishing, Mikael Forssell was once one of the most exciting prospects in European football. Born in Germany to Finnish parents, he moved back to Finland, via a couple of years in Sweden, at the age of three. There he diligently honed his skills under the guidance of his father.

“It was all my Dad,” says Forssell of his love of football. “He has one cap for Finland. He was a really good player. He’s always been very systematic with everything, so he taught me how to train, what sort of stuff I should focus on, and how to improve my technique with the ball. As I always wanted to be a striker, he said that repetitions of everything were really important. He basically got that stuck in my head and I’ve used that all my career.”

The intense practice paid off and Forssell was soon getting noticed by clubs from abroad. Starring in international youth tournaments for the Finnish national team and HJK Helsinki, he was routinely top goalscorer. Bayer Leverkusen were keen but an offer from Chelsea appealed most. Playing in the Premier League was an exciting proposition and Forssell had already learned English at school.

He arrived in 1998, joining a squad with plenty of household names like Gianfranco Zola, Marcel Desailly and Frank Leboeuf. The latter two had recently won the World Cup. The experience could have been overawing but Forssell has never lacked confidence. He embraced the opportunity to prove himself at the top level. “It was amazing,” he admits. “Those guys were very professional but also quite laidback. I was 17 when I went to Chelsea and they took me in with open arms. It was so easy to adapt. And, of course, when I showed that I wasn’t afraid of a tackle, and I was ready to work – that I’d come to England to prove a point and be a good professional footballer – that helped me to earn their respect.”

Forssell made his debut as a substitute against Arsenal before being given his first start three days later, in an FA Cup fourth round replay at Stamford Bridge. Second Division Oxford United were the opponents and it was perfect chance for the striker to make his mark. “I remember I got put through, one-on-one with the keeper, by a great pass from Zola in the first-half and I completely squandered the chance. I tried to do some kind of step-over to go past the keeper, but it didn’t work. I was so angry with myself. I remember Leboeuf saying, ‘Come on, relax, you’ll score a goal in the second-half.’”

And so it proved. Forssell made amends for his earlier miss in impressive fashion. He picked up on a poor backpass and curled the ball into the top corner from a tight angle. Minutes later, his second arrived. Set up by Celestine Babayaro, he lashed a shot in from 25 yards with the goalkeeper rooted to the spot. There was one more goal that season, against Nottingham Forest, as Forssell gambled on a long clearance from Ed de Goey and rounded Dave Beasant to slot home.

Although the teenager had made a positive impression, he soon had an expensive arrival to contend with. “Chelsea signed Chris Sutton for £10 million and he scored one goal that season. It was very hard for me to accept but I also learned that football is not always about skills, it’s a lot about politics as well. If a striker is bought for £10 million he has to play,” he says. “I was still only 18 at the time so I went on loan to Crystal Palace and it was great. The fans over there make a lot of noise and they’re very passionate. I then stayed on for a full season where I scored 15 goals so that was really important for my development. Whenever I’m asked if young players should sit on the bench or go out and play, I would always say it’s best to play because it will eventually pay off.”

Forssell remains thankful for the part Chelsea played in his career but disappointed he didn’t get to feature as often for the first team as he’d have liked. A combination of injuries and big-name signings conspired to push him down the queue. Their loss was certainly Birmingham City’s gain as Forssell joined on loan following a successful spell in the Bundesliga with Borussia Monchengladbach.

“When I came in I saw that the lads were great, so it was really easy to adapt. The football that we played suited me perfectly. We pressed really high most of the time and we’d win the ball in the opposition’s half, close to their goal. We had players like Robbie Savage, Stan Lazaridis and Stephen Clemence who would play quickly forward to me when they won it. I also played with Clinton Morrison many times and I knew that he would help me with his movement. His runs would attract a lot of defenders, creating space for me. I could basically concentrate on finishing. That season we played perfect football in that sense.”

A brace on his debut against Fulham was an ideal start. Supporters long deprived of a prolific striker took to him immediately. Forssell’s movement, anticipation and composure in front of goal were remarkable. He scored 19 times in all competitions, more than any of Chelsea’s expensively-assembled squad, as Blues spent the entirety of the 2003/04 season in the top half, unfortunately fading to 10th place late on.

After Roman Abramovich’s takeover, a host of international stars moved to Stamford Bridge. Already competing against Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink and Eidur Gudjohnsen, others were added to the mix. He hoped for a chance with his parent club, but the sacking of Claudio Ranieri created some uncertainty. Forssell couldn’t afford to wait around and see what happened, choosing to return to Blues for another year. Just a few games in, his problems started.

“I’d suffered a blow to the knee and had a cartilage injury. My knee basically just swelled up and I couldn’t play to the same level. I think I did ok, but it was a struggle and I didn’t train the way I wanted to. I thought I needed some surgical help, so I talked to the doctors and they said I would be out for around six months.”

Following plenty of hard work and rehabilitation away from the spotlight, Forssell made his much-anticipated return towards the end of the season, playing a couple of times for Chelsea. He was even part of the club’s title celebrations, featuring against Charlton after the league had been wrapped up the week before.

As Chelsea invested heavily again that summer, they were prepared to let Forssell go. Despite an offer from David Moyes at Everton, he preferred the familiarity of St. Andrew’s as he continued his recovery. A £3million fee was agreed and David Gold talked excitedly of putting together the best squad in Blues’ history. It didn’t live up to expectations, ending in relegation.

“We were quite unfortunate with injuries, which always mess the team up a little bit, but when things weren’t going that well, Steve Bruce started to feel the pressure and it reflected on the team and especially individuals. I think a lack of confidence started to creep into the team and players didn’t play to the same level as they had before,” says Forssell.

“Steve Bruce would then dig into people in a way that he hadn’t done in the past. I think that maybe that affected the self-confidence of many people, and then you add injuries to that, and a little bit of bad luck. We didn’t press as high up the pitch anymore. We started going deeper and deeper. We became very passive and, of course, that was the horrible end result.”

Blues returned to the Premier League at the first attempt, with Forssell again absent through injury for several months. When fit, he often wasn’t playing, and Bruce suggested that he could look elsewhere. The owners were less keen on the idea of moving on a proven goalscorer so made it clear that he would be staying.

Although the season ended in another relegation, there were some satisfying moments on a personal level. Forssell scored at Chelsea on the opening day and notched a perfect hat-trick against Tottenham Hotspur. “It was great,” he recalls. People still remember that hat-trick and that win over Spurs. I get a lot of messages on social media about it and that’s great. It was a happy memory for me, but it’s also touched many Birmingham fans, and that’s amazing.”

With David Gold and David Sullivan weighing up their own futures, Forssell’s was decided for him. The Club were supposedly keen to offer him a new deal, but none was forthcoming. As time dragged on, he had to make a decision. The Finnish international went back to Germany, spending three years at Hannover.

“The first season was good but then I unfortunately got hit by an injury. I should have been back playing within two months, but the doctor made a mistake and said it wasn’t anything – that it was all in my head. I had to take on a specialist by myself, who said I needed surgery. Overall, I was out for eight months when I could have been playing inside two. I was very bitter about that because that affected my last season at Hannover as well.”

A frustrating spell at Leeds United followed. “I really wanted to come back to England. I missed it in every way. Leeds offered me a contract and I spoke to Simon Grayson, who was the manager. He believed I could help him. I think in the first five games I got into the team and I made a couple of goals but then I was on the bench and, suddenly, the next game I was in the stands. I was asking some of the other players why and they said, ‘Oh, you don’t know our manager. He’s very superstitious. If you go on a good run, the moment it ends you’ll be replaced with someone else.’ I’d never heard that before. That was unfortunate. I obviously came on a few times as a sub then Simon Grayson got the sack. Neil Warnock came in, but I didn’t really get to have an impact.”

By now, Forssell had endured enough frustration and disappointment. He just wanted to enjoy his football again. He was 32 when he returned to Finland and his boyhood club, HJK Helsinki, where he scored 14 goals on the way to winning the title. There was a season in Germany with VFL Bochum before he returned to the Finnish capital, where he turned out for HIFK before hanging up his boots at the end of the last campaign.

“I turned 37 in March. I’m very interested in managing and coaching, so at some stage I’m going to take that step but it’s very difficult to let go of football because I love it. I scored eight goals last season, so I’ve still got it!” he laughs. “I’m also studying a master’s degree in sports management and should be finished in the next four months. I've been studying for five years outside of football, so I’ve got that as well. That’s more the administrative side, like a sports director or a CEO, so I should have some options. I’d love to come back and manage Blues one day. That would be my dream.”

GALLERY: A selection of images of Mikael Forssell in action.