Minnow to Matador: A Swan Song in Kuopio

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With the morning light creeping over the rusted stands of the Savon Sanomat Areena, I suddenly had a creeping thought hit me. ‘I’ve been hear for almost three years now’. Not only had the time flown by, but a gut-wrenching feeling hit him; ‘my contract with the club will be up this November’.

When I began the journey from the bottom of the football pyramid I knew in my heart that KuPS had taken a massive gamble; by hiring a 21-year old manager the club immediately sent a statement to the rest of Finland, that raw youth could triumph over experience. To reward the board’s faith I have so far ensured KuPS’ status in the Premier Division during the 2015 season and, to upset the odds, bring the Premier League title back to Kuopio for the first time since 1976.

Now I find myself in an unfamiliar place; with the board not offering me a new contract I have to treat this season as my last. With the prospect of playing across Europe in the Champions League Qualifier and another shot at the cup competitions and league title, I shall make this final season a swan song for my young career.

2017 Finland League Cup

Despite having one of the oddest (and exclusive) formats of cup football, the Finnish League cup was the perfect platform to establish early dominance. Going into the competition I made it clear to players that I would expect nothing less that a place in the final – even though the board had made it clear that the competition was of no concern to the club whatsoever. At the end of the day, this was more about adding silverware to the trophy cabinet, along with some minor bragging rights.

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The pre-season speech appeared to have paid off as KuPS delivered a stellar performance in Group B; finishing in first place with an impressive six wins and two draws under their belt. SJK, now managed by my former assistant manager Markus Sinisalo, gave us a late scare following a run of two straight defeats and were able to finish a point below KuPS – so special attention will have to be given to them come the start of the domestic season. But apart from that, I was proud of the boys as we booked a place in the final against FC Lahti, a side that would give us a tough time in the quest to lift more silverware.

Game on!

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A late goal from experienced Slovenian forward Dejan Burgar was enough to secure the Finland League Cup for KuPS. It was a scrappy affair, one which could have seen either side lift the trophy as both teams wasted chance after chance to widen the scoreline. Still, in my eyes, the better team won at the end of the day – and the result means that the club (and myself) have a second trophy to our names in as many seasons.

The overall performance of the team in the competition gave me hope that we could retain the Finnish Premier League title and push on to win the National Cup as well.

2017 Veikkausliiga

First Round

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Our campaign to retain the title began in great fashion following our first eleven games of the season; a convincing 4-1 win over fellow title favorites SJK opened our season in delightful fashion. KuPS’ strong attacking display also helped to establish wins over HIFK, FC Inter Turku, Haka and FC Lahti – all tough clubs within their own rights. However the minor blip to our strong start came with a 1-0 defeat to RoPS who, I must admit, were the strongest of the two sides. The victory on their part ensured that KuPS would remain second after eleven games – but given the efforts of the players on the pitch I was more than happy with our position. After all there are 22 fixtures still to go, so it’s all to play for!

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2017 Veikkausliiga

Second Round

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Unlike the performances of last season, the one quality I have to give the players credit for is their consistency to delivering positive results. For the second part of the season we responded to critics by maintaining a points tally that would take us to the top of the league, with three games in hand due to our European commitments. A goal-rout over Jaro was the pick of the litter as KuPS were able to go 5-0 up before the clock hit 60 minutes – only for the defense to switch off in the final ten minutes and concede two lazy goals. Despite the questionable defending for that fixture, KuPS were able to earn seven wins, three draws and a loss to take us top of the table. And with three games in hand, surely the title is all but returning to Kuopio once again?

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2017 Veikkausliiga

Final Round

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WE DID IT… AGAIN!!!

KuPS retained the Premier League title for a second season in a row, and this time with a more impressive goal and points tally. By recording twenty-two wins and only five losses throughout the league campaign, KuPS were able to finish eight points ahead of rivals SJK. Whilst the final third of the campaign didn’t yield as many goals compared to the previous twenty-two fixtures, the team still put in a solid display to remain consistent until the very end. It makes me proud to know that I have helped to construct a dominant side in the Finnish League; hopefully for years to come

However, our season still isn’t over just yet…

KuPS’ 2017/18 UEFA Champions League Campaign

It all seems unreal to believe that KuPS are about to embark on their maiden Champions League tour to some of Europe’s elite footballing institutions. The bags are packed; the coaches, loaded; the fans, all coated in the club’s colors. The only thing that remained was for KuPS to learn who they would face in the Second Qualifying Round. The gaffer’s phone buzzed, and the club’s fate was soon revealed as KuPS would be facing…

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A tough draw to Polish champions Lech Poznan awaited KuPS for the Second Qualifying Round and, whilst the journey won’t be too taxing for either side, the encounter would definately be one worthy of entertainment for fans of both clubs.

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What a way to get our European adventure off to a start; especially by causing one of the bigger upsets of the night by beating the bookies favorite. Despite going into half time with the result being at 1-1 a Poznan defender launched an aggressive tackle on Dejan Burger which resulted in a 74th penalty being awarded. Step forward Jamaican international Tristan Bowen to convert the winning goal. With the stadium sold out on the night the lads did not disappoint the fans, and one can only hope that this advantage will help us to progress into the next round.

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Well bookmakers, don’t write KuPS off just yet. Despite losing on the night to a Poznan side that made me nervous throughout the whole ninety minutes, two away goals from Bowen and forward Pedro Henrique were enough to see us progress into the Third Qualifying Round. The critics may put our progression down to luck but I will not take away this victory from the players. Now we get to further test our metal against another European giant, and with the drawn made we learned that our opponents for the Third Round will be none other than…

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… 14 time Belorussian champions BATE Borisov. This fixture certainly gave me a lot to worry about – not only was this a club that has experience at the highest level of the Champions League, but they also had an 18-year old forward, by the name of Alexi Osipov, in their ranks that was making waves back in his homeland – going on to score goal after goal after goal, which has earned him interest from clubs in Spain, France and Germany. When the time came to make the trip to Belarus we would hit the pitch with a counter-attacking mentality, hoping that would be enough to pull off an upset.

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If miracles are real then I’m clearly experiencing one right now! Beating BATE away from home by such a scoreline will certainly go down as one of the most famous results in KuPS’ history. Despite Henrique picking up an injury in the 47th minute, Dejan Burger was able to step up and net a brace to all but guarantee our place in the Playoff Round.

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A 2-2 draw at home was enough to see KuPS progress into the Champions League Playoff Round, with goals from Fraysse and Hakola allowing the fairy-tale to continue. Knocking out two of Europe’s more well known names in European football has certainly been memorable but our eyes are now fixed on who KuPS will draw for a chance to progress through to the Group Stage of the Champions League. However the draw decided to reward our efforts with the toughest encounter to date against…

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… reigning Czech Republic champions Sparta Prague. This was a team that we definitely wanted to avoid in the draw, as they are a formidable opponent capable of just about anything. With the first encounter being played away from home, the team knew they’d be in for a tough fight.

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Well… the result could have been a lot worse. Despite a Coulibaly own goal in the first half, Calvin N’Sobo’s 87th minute goal was enough to give us a glamour of hope to perhaps upset the apple cart when we return to Finland. But a tactical reshuffle would be needed for the defining encounter at the Savon Sanomat Areena.

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And so our Champions League journey comes to an end, but I am not disappointed in the team’s efforts. We came up against a club that was miles ahead in terms of development and skill, but we held our own until the very end. Overall I am very proud of the club; to think that we made it to the Champions League Playoff’s is a record of its own. And now, KuPS will be seeded into the Europa League Group Stage.

But…

Kilmister To Leave KuPS

It has been confirmed that KuPS manager Cameron Kilmister will leave his role as manager of the Finnish club, according to sources close to the club.

Following the Kuopio outfit’s exit from the Champions League Playoff Round Kilmister announced to the club’s chairman that he will step down as manager. It is understood that with only two weeks to go until his contract is up, Kilmister wants his replacement to be the one that leads KuPS through the Europa League Group Stages.

“My time here in Finland has been nothing but brilliant” Kilmister told reporters at a spur-of-the-moment press conference.

“My three years with KuPS has allowed me to develop my managerial skills and work with some truly amazing individuals who have proudly lifted two league titles and cup trophy.”

Asked whether he was leaving due to a breakdown in relationship with the chairman, Kilmister swiftly responded to refute the claim.

“I can assure you that there has been no breakdown in my relationship with the chairman whatsoever. The board did offer me a new contract a month before my current deal was due to expire, but I expressed my desire to pursue my career elsewhere.”

“I can only thank the chairman for being so understanding in my wishes At other clubs managers are not so lucky.”

During Kilmister’s reign at the Savon Sanomat Areena KuPS lifted two Premier League titles and the Finnish League Cup. They also went on to beat Polish champions Lech Poznan and Belorussian champions BATE Borisov before crashing out of the Champions League Qualifiers against Czech outfit Sparta Prague.

“To have been apart of this incredible journey with KuPS will stay with me until I die. I can only wish every bit of success to my successor and to the club as they look to make their mark in the Europa League. This is a special club that deserves every bit of success in the future,” Kilmister said, tearfully.

KuPS will now be looking to secure the services of a new manager before the club competes in the Europa League; where the club have been drawn in Group F with Borussia Mochengladbach, Viktoria Plzen and CSKA Moscow.

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And so, the first chapter of my managerial journey comes to a close as I depart Finland following our Champions League exit. Whilst I would have loved to have led KuPS through the Europa League Group Stage it would have meant being kept on a rolling month-to-month contract and, I believe that I’ve taken the club has far as possible. It was time for someone else to led the Kuopio outfit to glory.

With the majority of my items packed and stored away I performed a final sweep of my office at the Areena. For three years this was my Keep, and the Areena was my fortress as KuPS went onto to dominate Finland’s top flight for two consecutive season. But this chapter in what will hopefully be a very long tale had to come to an end sooner or later.

Picking up my remaining belongings and made my way out of the office, hitting the light switch off and strolling down the corridor to the front desk. Passing on my keys to the Secretary I gave her the keys and passed on a note – with explicit instructions that the note be read only by the players.

Once I completed my final task I made my way to the exit; where the sun was just beginning to set over a cold Kuopio. Great things had been achieved here and now it was time to see where my next chapter would begin…

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