You don’t remember Jari Litmanen playing for Fulham, because he didn’t, thanks to a series of slapstick injuries and some askew priorities…
The idea of this semi-regular feature is to remind you of the spells great or very famous players spent playing for clubs you don’t remember. So this entry is cheating slightly, because there’s a very good reason you won’t remember Jari Litmanen playing for Fulham in 2008: he didn’t.
But he was technically a Fulham player, signing in the January of that year as Roy Hodgson desperately tried to revive a half-dead Cottagers side and steer them away from relegation, which eventually he did, implausibly, by winning the last three games of the season. Hodgson needed some familiar faces and having managed Litmanen with the Finnish national team, and despite injury having scuppered the end of his time with Malmo in 2007, he signed until the end of the season after a ten-day trial.
“I don’t think there is a need to explain the qualities that Jari possesses as a player or the obvious reasons for wanting to bring him to Fulham,” said Roy Hodgson at the time. “I am delighted that he has agreed to join us for the remaining months of the season.”
And then, in a portentous statement rather akin to musing that a wet cardboard box is not entirely airworthy at the moment, Hodgson said: “Although he is not entirely match fit at the moment, I have no doubt that he will have a big part to play over the coming months and that we shall benefit as a team from his skill and experience.’
Litmanen signed on January 31, so you wouldn’t reasonably expect him to play any part in the first-team until the middle of February at the earliest. However, while Premier League football wasn’t on the cards, he did find the energy to play 79 minutes for Finland, scoring in a 2-1 friendly defeat to Greece held, slightly curiously, in Cyprus. ‘Finland Captain Jari Litmanen proved age was no barrier with a stylish display against the current European Champions in Nicosia,’ enthused the Fulham website, sounding like a kid who didn’t know his brand new shiny PlayStation was actually made from tissue paper.
A few weeks later though, Litmanen was rumoured to have suffered a heart scare and collapsed during a training session, although Fulham at the time were keen to play the whole thing down. “He did have some minor palpitations and I suppose you can call that a heart scare,” a club spokesman told the Guardian, “but he had everything checked out, there was nothing serious and he went back to Finland for a few days. He is back again now, out there training.”
An ankle injury and a groin strain delayed any appearance any further, and it was at some point in March when Hodgson’s patience appeared to snap, sparked by a couple of trips back to Finland: one, to have some special insoles fitted for his boots (ostensibly to correct that groin issue), the other to once again play for the national team, this time appearing for a half and scoring a penalty against Bulgaria.
Fulham were set to face Derby, in the death throes of their calamitous record-breakingly awful season and theoretically a walking three points, and Hodgson seemingly concluded that Litmanen might in fact be taking the piss. ”He won’t be in contention because I have 25 other players out there training Monday to Friday with the team every week,” said Hodgson.
“Jari has not completed more than 10 per cent of the training sessions we have done since I have been at the club. He has not played one game in the Fulham shirt yet has played twice for Finland. Strangely, his fitness periods seem to coincide with the Finland matches.”
Ouch. However, a few weeks later Hodgson’s attitude had seemingly softened, having realised that Litmanen was just football’s answer to the Fast Show character Unlucky Alf. “Litmanen was training on Monday when Ricardo Batista [Fulham’s reserve goalkeeper], who I must say is a very fearsome kicker of the ball, managed to smash it into the back of his head from about four yards,” said Hodgson. “It was like a missile, knocking him over and putting him out for the week.”
At this stage it seemed the next ailment would come about thanks to a banana skin on the pavement, or an errant worker carrying a large piece of wood on his shoulder. Hodgson offered a further anecdote to illustrate the point. “When I first went to the Finnish FA he was standing next to his sporting director at Malmo who opened a can of coke and the top popped into Jari’s eye.”
From that point, everyone seemed to accept that it wasn’t happening and wrote the whole business off as a bad job. Litmanen did pull on a Fulham shirt once, playing for the reserves a few days before the penultimate Premier League game of the season against Birmingham, but didn’t get anywhere near the first-team. Fulham survived, and Litmanen was quietly released at the end of the season.
You can listen to the latest edition of the Totally Football Show here, and even better, you can subscribe here. If you wish to reproduce any of the material in this article or from the podcast you are very welcome to, but please credit The Totally Football Show and include this link.
If you’d like to keep up to date with everything we do at the Totally Football Show, sign up to our newsletter.