'Hearts are THE club' - Antti Niemi on his special feeling for Hearts, that Celtic save and Craig Gordon

Antti Niemi gets up, turns and walks back across his six-yard box. The Finn blows out his cheeks in the manner of someone who has just taken the bin out. Not an arduous task but one that had to be completed nonetheless.

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For a split second there is a glint in the goalkeeper's eyes. He knows he has produced something special.

Only, describing it as special would be doing it a disservice.

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Tens of thousands of Celtic fans were midway through ‘Yaaaaa-’. Before they could get to the ‘s’ some were left cursing, others had simply fallen silent, as if they had been subjected to the Neuralyzer from Tommy Lee Jones.

As graceful as a dolphin, as effective as a wall, Niemi stretched every sinew to claw the ball around the post.

“When the ball left his head, for a brief second I thought ‘well, I’m going to go anyway but it is going to go in’,” he said. “Once you are in the air it was ‘oh, bloody hell, I might reach this’.

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"So it was surprising to get that but it was a very good save, I have to say.”

Antti Niemi still has fond memories of Hearts. Picture: SNSAntti Niemi still has fond memories of Hearts. Picture: SNS
Antti Niemi still has fond memories of Hearts. Picture: SNS

‘Self-taught’ talent

A very good save?

Niemi, who was talking on the day he was appointed goalkeeping coach of Finnish top-flight side HIFK, admits it is one of his best in a career which spanned more than 20 years, incorporating spells in his homeland, Denmark, the English Premier League and of course Scotland with Rangers and most notably Hearts.

It is a save many remember as part of a performance no one will forget in a game all would like to forget. Hearts were thumped 6-1 at Celtic Park in November 2000.

The Finn was a popular figure at Tynecastle. Picture: SNSThe Finn was a popular figure at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS
The Finn was a popular figure at Tynecastle. Picture: SNS

"It was one of those games where you let in a lot of goals and it was one-way traffic,” he said. “I still think it was one of my best saves ever.

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"I’d love to see the stats from that game because it was really, really busy.”

The save was one of many earning him fan favourite status. His quality was even more impressive considering he was a “self-taught” goalkeeper.

"I never had a goalkeeping coach until I was maybe 20 even though then it was just a couple of times a week volleying the ball,” Niemi revealed.

Niemi thwarted many a player during his time in Scotland. Picture: SNSNiemi thwarted many a player during his time in Scotland. Picture: SNS
Niemi thwarted many a player during his time in Scotland. Picture: SNS

“At an early age I already realised that if I was going to make a career out of football I would have to rely on my reflexes because I wasn’t the biggest.

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"I wasn’t one of those dominating keepers who commanded the box all the time. I was wise enough to realise, let the centre-halves do their job and if anything comes I can make a save.

“I think it was quite natural. The biggest strength I had in my game was quick hands and quick reactions.”

Fittingly, it is Niemi who has helped shape goalkeeping in Finland in a role with the country’s FA and will be heading to Euro 2020 as the nation’s goalkeeping coach.

Something romantic about Hearts

Nearly 19 years on from exiting Tynecastle after 106 appearances to land a dream move to the Premier League with Southampton, Niemi still speaks with such pride that he was able to represent the club.

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When Niemi, whose daughter was born in Scotland, departed it was emotional but it was an opportunity he felt he had to take.

Despite all he has achieved in the game it was the Gorgie club which burrowed its way into soul more than any other, instilling him with a special feeling he found hard to explain.

"When you are closing in on 50 you start looking back at what you’ve done in your life,” the 48-year-old said in an interview with CoffeeFriend.co.uk.

"You remember your footballing days and Hearts have always been THE club for me.

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"Don’t get me wrong. I was very lucky to play in the English Premier League with Southampton and Fulham but there was something romantic about the place.

“I went there from Rangers where I was second or third keeper and suddenly got the chance to be No.1 and be a big part of the team.

"We finished third, had some European football, memorable derbies. I hope it doesn’t sound cocky but I really can’t remember too many games I let the team down.

"I loved my time there and it’s definitely one of those places I miss now and then.”

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He added: “I was already 30 at the time and probably for a minute I thought I’m never going to be playing in the Premier League.

"So when the call came and Gordan Strachan wanted me to join them it was quite an easy decision.

"It was sad at the time but professionally, I hope, a very understandable decision.”

Niemi was taken aback somewhat when told he was, to some fans, the best they have witnessed between the sticks at Tynecastle. Something he found “odd” but appreciated.

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A significant feat considering the goalkeepers who have graced the club, from Jim Cruickshank to Henry Smith, Gilles Rousset and then Craig Gordon, who was just a young buck coming through the ranks during Niemi’s time at the club.

“Craig was this young, skinny, tall guy coming through the ranks and I remember him because I dropped him home a few times after training,” he said.

"I just remember thinking he was really polite and well-behaved kid and in the training you could see he had something special.

"He had a nasty injury, I was a little bit surprised he came back because he was out for a couple of years. I’m sure he didn’t know if he was going to play again or not.

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He’s fantastic. I left Hearts and when I stopped playing football I looked at the games or highlights on the TV or internet, some of the saves Craig was pulling out it was just wow, unbelievable.

"I’m happy for him.”

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