Former Hibs star Jarkko Wiss has backed Alan Stubbs’ latest signing Otso Virtanen to become the latest Finnish goalkeeper to make his mark in British football.
Wiss admitted he was surprised to learn that Hibs had snapped up the 21-year-old, but revealed Virtanen had already been on the radar of a number of German clubs before Stubbs swooped.
The ex-Hibs midfielder, now boss of Finnish Premier Division side Ilves in his hometown of Tampere, believes that despite his tender years, 6ft 5in Virtanen has made the right move.
Although he was coach of Finland’s Under-18 side before returning to club management, Wiss revealed he never had Otso in his age group, but he’s well aware of the youngster’s ability.
Wiss, now 43, said: “Otso has done well lately. He moved from Turku to IFK Mariehamn and quite quickly established himself as the No.1 goalkeeper. I think he has progressed really well and has played for the Finnish Under-21 team in the last couple of years.
“He’s tall and while I am not saying he will come and take everything, he is brave enough. It’s a big step for him but once you have played for a couple of years as the No.1 in the Veikkausliiga then it’s the right step. I know many clubs in Germany were interested and inquired about him. I was a bit surprised to see him go to Scotland. I hadn’t heard anything about Hibs watching him, I didn’t have a clue.
“It will be a learning curve for him, a different style and hopefully he is ready for it.
“I think the fact Hibs have given him a three-and-a-half year deal tells you all you want to know about the potential they feel Otso possesses. Such a contract gives a player security but it also tells you the manager has trust in his ability. Alan Stubbs said he had been tracking Otso for quite a while so obviously he has done his homework on him.”
Virtanen has come from the virtual backwater of Mariehamn, the biggest town of the Asland Islands, an archipelago of some 6500 islands and skerries lying at the entrance to the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea, with a population of less then 12,000 but that, Wiss insisted, will be no problem for him,
In fact, he believes Virtanen will welcome the fact that in Scotland the longest journey he is likely to make will be the three hours or so to the likes of Inverness or Dingwall.
He said: “Mariehamn had a long-term coach who has just left but I think it was a good place, because it is on an island, for players to focus on their football.
“I don’t think any team relishes going to Mariehamn. They are a well supported team but they have quite a small pitch. But it’s the travelling. It’s very difficult to get cheap flights from the mainland so you have to go by ferry meaning it is always a full day trip. So Otso will find the travelling in Scotland a lot easier than the away games in Finland. Coming from Mariehamn to Edinburgh won’t be a problem either.
“Otso is from Turku which is the second or third biggest town in Finland and although Mariehamn is a very small place in comparison they have quite an international mix of players, guys from Jamaica, Canada, Kenya, Sweden and so on.”
Hibs have a history of signing Finnish players, from Juha Riipa when Jocky Scott was caretaker boss, to Mixu Paatelainen, Wiss, Jonaton Johansen and, most recently, Shefki Kuqi, meaning Virtanen will see plenty of familiar faces among the photographs which adorn the walls of the Edinburgh club’s East Mains training centre.
Wiss, who was Franck Sauzee’s first signing, joining from Stockport to make 53 appearances in the green-and-white, said: “It’s sad to see Hibs in the Championship, I don’t know what happened, but it is still one of the biggest clubs in Scotland and a good place for Otso to go.
“Players in Finland aren’t all that well paid so everyone works really hard, wants to be part of the international team, to be recognised and to have people take interest and hopefully earn a move abroad.
“So with Otso playing for Finland’s Under-21 side word gets around and people hear his name. Football is very much a global game now, I know Otso’s agent very well and he has good connections.”
Finnish goalkeepers have made a name for themselves in Britain, most notably Antti Niemi with Rangers, Hearts and Charlton and Jussi Jaaskelainen with Bolton, West Ham and Wigan and, of course, with their national side. Today it’s left to the likes of Niki Maenpaa at Brighton and Eldin Jakupovic – who was ahead of Hibs’ current No.1 Mark Oxley at Hull City – to fly their country’s flag. But Wiss, who played 45 times for Finland, has no doubt Virtanen will harbour similar ambitions, revealing his nation’s proud record of producing goalkeepers wasn’t simply down to chance.
He said: “I’m sure Otso will be hoping he can go on to become as big a name as the likes of Antti and Jussi. Finland has enjoyed a lot of good goalkeepers, but we realised you have to invest in good goalkeeping coaches.
“At my club we have Mikko Kaven who was with Motherwell for a while and another former internationalist as goalkeeping coach, not just for the first team but our youth teams. That’s the case in every Premier League club, you have a decent goalkeeping coach.
“When I was coach of the youth international teams I can’t remember when we lost due to a goalkeeper being weak or poor.”
While Virtanen has headed for Scotland, Wiss revealed players could be moving in the opposite direction as he gears up for his first season as boss of Ilves. He said: “It’s a new challenge, back in the Premier League with my hometown club. We’ve had a couple of friendlies, have our Winter Cup which involves five matches and then into the league. I’m looking forward to it. I’m trying to find the right players and have a couple of foreign players coming on trial.
“I’m not going to name names, but I’ve been offered some Scottish players.”