In March 1991 a young trialist, unknown outside his home country, donned the Leeds United number seven shirt for the first and only time, for a meeting with Manchester City reserves. He did little of note and didn’t hang around to change the minds of the coaching staff, who saw nothing to convince them that he had what it took to influence a the team, near the end of its first season back in Division One. He didn’t do much afterwards, either; just five Dutch titles, a UEFA Cup, a Champions League, third place in the 1995 Ballon D’Or and 137 caps for Finland in an international career that stretched from the late 1980s to the early 2010s.
If turning down Jari Litmanen, the greatest player in Finland’s history, sounds like peak Leeds to you, you may be interested to know that we also turned our noses up at the second greatest. Sami Hyypiä, another future winner of Europe’s two premier cup competitions, played once against Bolton reserves and was deemed not good enough to challenge John Pemberton. Three Finns who fared marginally better were Seb Sorsa, Mika Väyrynen and an anaemic Mikael Forssell, who was released after fifteen colourless and goalless displays for the first team. Which is a roundabout way of saying that our record with Finnish players is the equivalent of tripping over a solid gold log and faceplanting into an open septic tank.
And then, two and a half decades later, whispers began among the lakes and forests of the frozen north — a new Hyypiä was on the march. Victor Orta, with an urgency sadly not shared by his predecessors, snapped up the youngster. It’s fair to say the spotty, hunched figure that turned up at Elland Road wasn’t what we expected. Sami Hyypiä was a square-jawed colossus hewn from the rock of Mount Halti. Aapo Halme looked like an Easter Island statue modelled out of Play-Doh.
[x_pullquote type=”left”]He’s twice the player Jari Litmanen was[/x_pullquote]
One thing he certainly didn’t look like was a typical footballer. On the day he signed for Leeds he wore a sensible black pullover and a Moomin-esque expression of otherworldly serenity. His hair was curly and lacking any discernible style. He looked less like the kind of guy who sprays champagne around a nightclub and more like the kind who sprays Lynx Africa into his boxers before going out. Some sceptics began to speculate that he might be a Simon Brodkin-style comedy imposter, or worse, an unfortunate intern from the social media team too polite or too embarrassed to say anything when Angus Kinnear sat him down in a chair and pushed a contract in front of him; meanwhile, stranded in a Helsinki airport, the real Aapo Halme watched the unveiling on a screen, disenchantment etched upon his square-jawed features.
Anyway, we resolved to judge him on his performances on the pitch. Except we couldn’t, because his name wasn’t on the next U23s teamsheet, nor the one after that. No official announcement came from the club, so his absence remained a mystery. By this point the infamous ‘salute’ badge had been unveiled and the club’s PR department was presiding over disaster after disaster, so the idea that Leeds had signed a Finnish Ali Dia wasn’t entirely without merit. It later transpired that Halme had injured a foot so badly that his season ended before it could begin.
Pre-season came and went; no Aapo Halme. Questions about his very existence persisted until November, when Marcelo Bielsa quelled them in typical Marcelo Bielsa style. “Aapo Halme is another possibility,” he said. “He’s ready.”
[x_pullquote type=”left”]I see him peering over a wall at Derby, disguised as a tree[/x_pullquote]
And there he was, suddenly, starting against Bristol City, running around on the pitch like one of those comedy giant players that you used to be able to create on the Pro Evo editor. And it was apparent that he was every inch a footballer — an awkward, gawky-looking footballer, but one possessing the composure and intelligence in possession to be trusted in a Bielsa side. There were a couple of slips, nothing out of the ordinary for a 20 year old debutant, but there was also aerial presence, and the right kind of aggression, and the promise of better things to come.
Of course, this doesn’t entirely debunk the ‘intern’ theory. Maybe Halme’s extended absence was down to Victor Orta packing him off onto an intensive nine-month crash course where Gaetano Berardi spends 23 hours a day smacking a ball at your head until you either learn to head it or expire miserably. What is more probable is that his emergence has been timely, and that centre-back is no longer the weakest position in our squad. Halme has, to date, featured in four Championship games and we are yet to concede a league goal with him on the pitch. A less composed performance against QPR in the cup ended with him subbed at half time, but not before he had scrambled in a close range rebound, becoming the first Finn to score a goal for Leeds and conclusively proving that he’s twice the player Jari Litmanen was.
I’m getting a definite whiff of cult hero potential from Aapo Halme. It’s early days in his Leeds career and I simply can’t judge if he’ll make it, because this weird mystical aura around him hasn’t quite dissipated yet. I don’t know what goes on behind those unnaturally calm eyes and Shaolin monk’s smile, and I don’t really want to; he’s different, and that makes him interesting.
I look forward to seeing him becoming the Yin to Pontus Jansson’s Yang at the heart of our defence; two Nordic titans of contrasting temperament, working in perfect equilibrium to repel all attackers. Or maybe peering over a wall at Derby’s training ground, disguised as a tree.
Let’s face it, he’s exceeded our expectations already. Anything’s possible for Aapo Halme now, in this most magical of seasons. ◉
(artwork by Dan Marsham)
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