Chris Lakey: A message for Teemu Pukki’s international boss
Join the club, Markku Kanerva – another international manager who doesn’t accept the fairly general but common theory that the Championship in the most difficult league in Europe, possibly the world.
Kanerva is manager of Finland’s national team, and so has a vested interest in the Championship and Norwich City’s return to it next season.
The interest is Teemu Pukki, the striker whose goals guided Finland through the European Championship qualifiers and into the first major tournament in their history.
The coronavirus pandemic has meant the 30-year-old’s Euro dreams have been out on hold a year - but his international boss isn’t convinced Norwich is the right club for him to be at.
“As head of the national team, I want our players to play in the toughest leagues possible and to be as fit and healthy. It’s good for the national team,” he said.
It’s a simple equation which rather ignores some of the facts and perhaps glosses over the effect that being a Norwich City player has had on Pukki - notwithstanding the terrible loss of form in the second half of the season.
Pukki has scored 25 goals in 80 international appearances and by far his most prolific time has come while a Norwich City player – he has scored 14 goals for Finland since arriving at Carrow Road two summers ago.
In 2019, he scored 10 times for his country – the previous calendar year he scored five in total, three of which came in a matter of weeks in early autumn, soon after Norwich had started their Championship campaign. His highest single-year total before that had been four – in 2012 when he was playing in Germany for Schalke.
He scored once while he was a Celtic player for a couple of years and his move to Brondby in Denmark didn’t make him prolific - four in three years.
Perhaps the bigger question here is how you regard Europe’s leading leagues. Schalke play in the Bundesliga, hardly a place for second-rate players, but how does the Scottish Premier League compare to the Championship? Not just the top two or three, but the whole shebang? Yes, Celtic and Rangers would probably be too good for England’s second tier, but of the rest, you’d expect them to have a fight on their hands to get out of it. Being a Celtic or Rangers player, though, doesn’t necessarily make you international class - not when you are playing most weeks against sub-standard opposition. The confusion, of course, is that Pukki couldn’t quite get going at Celtic - seven league goals in 26 appearances is no great shakes, and the reason he moved to Denmark, on loan and then full-time. In his loan season he scored one in every three games, and in the following three years 46 in 91 starts, but it wasn’t until 2018 that a few international goals came.
So, how strong is the Danish Superliga? Well, with due respect, not very. In Uefa’s league rankings for the purposes of European cup competitions, Denmark is ranked 13th. One place above Scotland.
The Championship is a strong league and the fact Pukki is playing in it next season – at least, as it stands he is – should not reduce his standing in the eyes of his national team manager.
Unless you live on Mars you’ll know Pukki struggled in the top flight after sustaining a foot injury just before Christmas. He scored 11 goals all told but suffered a 13-game drought in the second half of the campaign, The last time he scored was against Spurs in January. He had a golden chance at Manchester City in Sunday’s not-so-grand finale and looked woefully short of confidence as he shot, enabling Ederson to make a fairly routine stop.
But Pukki had a fantastic start to the season – he scored eight goals in his first seven games, including two for his country. In only his second top-flight appearance he scored a hat-trick against Newcastle. He was the Premier League’s first player of the month. And even when he had a bit of a dry spell for City, in November he score three in two games for Finland.
And, lest Markku Kanerva forgets, Pukki absolutely ripped the Championship apart in his first season in this country scoring 29 goals in 43 starts. He was named EFL Championship Player of the Season and was included in the 2018–19 Championship Team of the Season – and was City’s player of the season.
Pukki doesn’t deserve to be ignored like that previous great goal scorer Grant Holt was by Roy Hodgson, just because he was playing in the Championship. If Pukki does rip it up again, surely his confidence will be sky high, rather than down on the floor as he was as City struggled over the project finish line.
If Pukki thrives for Norwich City, Finland benefits. It’s been proven before.