Jari Rantanen

Former Player Remembers: Jari Rantanen

Jari Rantanen, 'The Mighty Finn', was a Finland international centre-forward who became a cult figure at Filbert Street in the late 1980s at a time when overseas players were a rarity in English football.
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Now living in Finland, he recently spoke to Club Historian John Hutchinson about his career in football in which also saw him play for clubs in Finland, Portugal, Belgium and Sweden.

Interrupting his holiday to reflect on his career, one of the first things Jari established was that he is known as Jallu, not Jari.

“Jallu is my nickname,” he explained. “I have been called Jallu for about 45 years! When I was at Leicester most people called me Jari but this didn’t bother me at all.”

Growing up in Finland, Helsinki-born Jallu grew up in a sporting environment. He is still immersed in this, a fact exemplified by this picture of him with two other Jaris, the ex-Liverpool star Jari Litmanen and Jari Kurri who is Finland’s all-time number one ice hockey player.

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Jari Litmanen, Jari Rantanen and Jari Kurri
Jari Litmanen, Jari Rantanen and Jari Kurri

Jari Litmanen, Jari Rantanen and Jari Kurri enjoy a photograph together.

“I was doing all kinds of sports from when I was a little kid. When I was young, as well as playing football, I played volleyball and basketball. My father was the president of the volleyball and basketball clubs so I had to play volleyball and basketball as well but I liked it. I also played ice hockey, and when I was 18 I played handball at the highest level in Finland too. But all the time, football was the love of my life.”

As a young boy Jallu joined HJK Helsinki, Finland’s biggest football club. HJK have won 27 League title and in 1998 became the only Finnish club to compete in the group stages of the UEFA Champions League. They have also competed in the European Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Cup, the Europa League and the Inter-Toto Cup.

“I had my first membership with HJK in 1968 when I was six years old. After about 12 years playing for the juniors I was ready to play for our club’s first team which I did when I was 18 years and a few months old.

“As a youngster, I played my first four years for HJK as a centre-half. They also tried to play me as a defensive midfield player. In fact I tried all kinds of positions. Later on this made me a better player. When I was 15 or 16 I even had to play goalkeeper because when our first choice goalkeeper was injured during the game, the coach called me over and said he needed me to be goalkeeper. I felt bad because we had our second goalkeeper sitting on the bench, but my coach thought that I would be better. But when you are told to do something, you do it. You don’t ask.”

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Jari Rantanen and Steve Moran
Jari Rantanen and Steve Moran

Jari Rantanen and Steve Moran played alongside each other in 1987 for the Foxes.

Whilst playing for HJK, Jallu won the first of his 28 caps for Finland.

“Representing your country is a great honour. I also played for the under-21 national team. Playing for them, we went to Portugal where we won 2-0. Somebody from Estoril was watching that game and a couple of months later I joined Estoril. They are a small club but they are still in the top league. Estoril is a nice place. I have been back there many times. I was there two summers ago.”

After spending a season at Estoril, Jallu returned to HJK for the 1984/85 season. It was a successful season with Jallu’s goals playing a big part in the Helsinki club winning the Finnish title.

Jallu then played for the Belgian club Beerschott VAC in 1985/86 before moving to Sweden to play for IFK Goteborg. His goals helped IFK reach the 1987 UEFA Cup Final. It was during this season that Leicester City became interested.

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Jari Rantanen
Jari Rantanen

The Finnish frontman is cautioned while playing for the Foxes.

Jallu recalled: “I was playing in Sweden for IFK Goteburg. I had a call from Leicester City’s manager Bryan Hamilton. He called me in about April or May 1987. I did not know a lot about Leicester. There was nothing that I could easily refer to, in order to find out about Leicester. There was no internet then. I thought I had better to check to see if Leicester were in the first division, so I went to buy the nearest equivalent of ‘Shoot’ magazine and when I found that Leicester were still in the highest division I was really excited to have received receive Bryan’s call.

“When he called next time I was even more excited but I couldn’t check that they were already relegated. At that time over 30 years ago it was not so easy to check the different leagues. Nowadays it is difficult for my son to understand how it was 30 years ago. So, I found myself going to what had been a First Division club even though they were now in the Second Division. By the time I came to England, I knew what was going on but it was difficult.”

Despite not quite knowing what to expect when he arrived in the East Midlands, Jallu’s first impressions of Filbert Street were nevertheless favourable.

“I loved the stadium and its old rooms. When I saw all of the old pictures I was really excited. Wow, it was really like a traditional English club. I loved everything about it. When I first came, I was on trial and I played against the big centre-half Steve Walsh. Send him my best regards! We used to play snooker at Willie Thorne’s. Send my best wishes to Ali (Mauchlen) as well. I also spent quite a bit of time with Paul Ramsey.”

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Leicester City's 1988/89 squad photo
Leicester City's 1988/89 squad photo

The former striker has his final squad photo taken as a Fox in 1988/89.

When Jallu arrived at Leicester it was a difficult time for the club. Newly relegated after four seasons in the top flight, Gary Lineker, Alan Smith and Steve Lynex had all left Filbert Street over the previous couple of seasons. Readjusting to relegation wasn’t easy.

In September of the new season, Leicester City paid a then club record fee of £350,000 to sign Luton Town’s Mike Newell, a player who had played with Steve Walsh at Bryan Hamilton’s Wigan Athletic. He formed an effective partnership with Jallu. The fans quickly took to both players. They were impressed by Jallu’s finesse on the ball allied to his bustling style, and quickly honoured him with his own song from the terraces, ‘The Mighty Finn’, sung to the tune of Manfred Mann’s 1960s hit ‘The Mighty Quinn’. 

Jallu enjoyed playing with Mike Newell. “Mike and I did really well together. He was a really hard working guy and it was really easy to play with him. Then I got injured. I think it was in some cup game (it was in fact a League Cup tie at Scunthorpe) when I was injured. I had scored in that game before I got injured if I remember rightly. It was an ankle injury and after that I wasn’t fit to play but I was kind of forced to play even though I wasn’t fit and when you are not fit, and you are limping and so on, things don’t go your way and your self-confidence isn’t as good as when you are fit.”

By December, with Jallu not fully fit, Leicester sank to the lower reaches of the old Second Division and Bryan Hamilton was sacked. He was replaced by David Pleat. It was not a good time for Jallu.

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Jari Rantanen
Jari Rantanen

The Mighty Finn features in a clash with Swindon Town.

“I was in David Pleat’s doghouse from the first day until the last day! Early on, we had our first meeting after a game somewhere in the South. I can’t remember which game it was. He started to say negative things about every player. He said to several players, ‘You will never play in my team’. The players weren’t getting anything positive. It was a really bad meeting the like of which I have never seen since that day.”

Jallu never really featured in David Pleat’s plans.

“There was a plan for me to go on loan to (Bundesliga side) Cologne but their head coach told me that Leicester City was asking for too much money. I don’t know if that is right or wrong. I remember one special game when I was playing in Leicester’s reserve side. At that time Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton and were playing against us in the reserve league. Manchester United was in danger of being relegated from that reserve league so Alex Ferguson sent the first team to play our reserves on a Tuesday night and we beat them 3-1. That was a really great game and it was nice to score a couple of goals against their (Scotland international goalkeeper) Jim Leighton. Bryan Robson scored their goal. After that game, David Pleat said, ‘Maybe we should try Jari next Saturday’ but I wasn’t even substitute. I felt he never wanted to give me a chance but I was sure that I could prove him wrong.”

Despite his frustrations Jallu, who incidentally had scored for his country against England and Peter Shilton at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki in 1985, continued to play for Finland, winning 10 caps during his time at Filbert Street. These games included World Cup qualifying matches against West Germany and Wales and a Euro qualifier against Czechoslovakia.  

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Jari Rantanen at Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat
Jari Rantanen at Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat

Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat are based in Kotka and compete in Finland's second league.

In the summer of 1989, Jari returned to HJK Helsinki for a fee of £45,000.

“The way that happened was kind of funny,” he said. “I went with Leicester City to Helsinki to play a pre-season friendly game. Before that trip I wasn’t planning to go back to Finland, but when I was there the HJK people asked if I would be interested to play for them again, especially as Liverpool were coming to Helsinki and AC Milan were going to play HJK in the European Cup. There were also some important international games coming up. I thought this could be really good timing. So I went to HJK. But in my first game with HJK I injured my knee really badly, 24 minutes into the game. I was out for eight months.

“The following season HJK won the title and we were in a Cup Final as well.

“In 1993 I moved to FinnPa, another Helsinki club. In 1994 I had a bad injury playing for them when I fractured my skull. I was reaching for a high ball from a side free kick and the goalkeeper’s jaw went to the side of my skull. I had a really bad operation. After that I realised that my head wasn’t as hard as I had thought!

“I played for about another year after that (including a fourth spell at HJK). I then coached at FinnPa in 1998 for 14 first team games. We won three games, drew eight and lost three. That was my record but it was not good enough because when we had relegation matches in the play-offs we only won one away and drew two at home so we got relegated.

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Jari Rantanen
Jari Rantanen

Jari Rantanen is currently a coach at Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat.

“After that, I did some coaching in Florida. At first, we were living in New York where I was doing a sports journalist job, reporting to Finland. I’m not doing this at the moment but I like writing.

“I am now back in Finland coaching in the second league. The club is FC KTP based in Kotka which is on the coast about 130 kilometres east of Helsinki. It is a nice place.

 “I have already been promoted twice with my teams (AC Vantaa and EIF) from the second division to the first. Hopefully KTP will be my third. I love coaching. It is the best thing since playing. I love the atmosphere in the dressing room before and after games and even at half time. I enjoy the tense feeling and seeing guys having self-confidence. You can see that when somebody is a little bit down, you can try to help and sometimes you do. It’s great to help.”

For John Hutchinson, it was fascinating listening to Jallu talk about his experiences in football. However, his final comment had nothing to do with football. He has recently become a grandfather for the first time. Pictured here with his son Jero, who is nearly eight, he proudly concluded: “My biggest achievement is my six children.”

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