The Danish Superliga is hardly the first place that springs to mind as a potential incubator for Premier League talent. One year has gone by since Norwich City manager Daniel Farke made the decision to place his faith in a relatively unknown figure from that league, and gamble with Norwich City’s immediate future.
It was a gamble rewarded, to an extent that even the most green-blooded of City acolytes could never have dared imagine…
Pukki: “Shades of Goss”
On the sun-soaked afternoon of 17 August 2019, Pukki stole the headlines with a sensational hat-trick against Newcastle, and confirmed that he was truly worthy of the English top-flight.
His first goal, taking the shape of an exquisite volley into the top corner of the net, is already considered a goal of the season contender. BBC’s Match of the Day also compared it to the sort of venomous piledriver that was Jeremy Goss’ party piece, during the golden era enjoyed by the club under Mike Walker.
Two more Pukki goals, both assisted by the increasingly eye-catching Todd Cantwell put the seal on a deserved homecoming win for Norwich, after a three-year absence from the top-flight.
While one good result never fully warranted any comparison to the early 1990s, Norwich are sure to command more respect when it comes to experts making Premier League predictions, and some of the stats that precede the Finn’s current situation are truly astounding.
However, the most inspirational stories invariably have humble beginnings, and the ‘Tale of Teemu’ began in earnest back in 2006, when a wet-eared 16 year old rookie ran out for Kotkan Työväen Palloilijat – also known as ‘KTP’.
A Rocky Road to Greatness
Pukki had already been identified in local circles as a potential wonderkid, but such a notion seemed unwarranted, with Pukki netting a goal just once in every ten games on average across two top-flight seasons. While such numbers appeared to rubbish all talk of him being Finland’s answer to Wayne Rooney, Pukki did at least get some early experience of success in the dressing room, with KTP winning the Kolmonen in 2007.
Perhaps seeing him as a long-term investment, who would flourish at a far a more salubrious club, Sevilla took him on board in the 2008/09 season – but again, establishment as a potential world-beater was not forthcoming. Pukki’s only first-team appearance for the La Liga giants was hugely nondescript, and though his return of three goals from 17 reserve appearances represented an improvement from his KTP numbers, settling in Spain was never really on the agenda.
The turn of the decade was when Pukki’s coming of age truly began. Once more a Veikkausliga player, now with HJK Helsinki, he made the most of the 2011 season, scoring 11 times in just 13 starts for the capital city club. That was his cue to re-examine his options in the greater top-flight leagues of Europe, and it was Schalke who chased – and acquired – his services. They did so after being subject to a one-man show from Pukki, over two legs of a Europa League qualifier, during which he scored three times.
Given the disparity in match sharpness, due to the differential scheduling between the sides’ respective leagues, Schalke’s move appeared to be a hasty one. While he had thrived against a ring-rusty Schalke in the Europa League qualifiers, his performances turned erratic once he was faced with fully up-to-speed Bundesliga opposition.
Brondby Spell Key to Final Transition
While a return of eight goals in 37 appearances saw him cross the threshold from ‘wannabe’ to ‘contender’ on the European scene, the lure of Celtic proved preferable to life at Gelsenkirchen. Now at a club almost unopposed in its own league, Pukki had much more of an opportunity to find the net. He did so at a rate of just over one goal every four games, representing an improvement upon his Schalke return.
However, Pukki would make just 26 appearances for the Glasgow outfit, and his next port of call was Brondby, initially as a loan signing. Eager to prove himself after years of frustration, Pukki ensured that his impact was instantaneous, ending up as the club’s top scorer, in an otherwise disappointing 2014/15 season that saw Brondby finish fifth. He retained that top-scorer status in the following two seasons, between which Brondby jumped three places in the Superliga.
Other than his ability to learn, a key factor in Pukki’s improvement – and Brondby’s – was the diamond formation that enabled him to thrive as part of an attack-focused formation. This strength revealed itself gradually, with Hany Muktar and Kamil Wilczek as his strike partners, offering a blend of vision, pace and shooting prowess. Yet, though the solution to his former shortcomings appeared to have been found, his life at Brondby ended after another second-place finish in 2017/18, after which he was unable to agree on a contract with the Danish heavyweights.
Never Too Late
Knowing that their peak years are soon to start running short, most 28 year-old strikers in Pukki’s position after 2017/18 would simply accept that the truly ‘elite’ leagues of Europe are out of reach.
Naturally then, it was something of a surprise when Finnish striker Teemu Pukki signed for Norwich in the summer of 2018. Nobody in East Anglia could honestly say that they had ever heard of this player, but after failing to take Norwich back into the Promised Land in his first season at Carrow Road, Canaries manager Daniel Farke was willing to make a maverick move.
Pukki’s successful integration into the squad is already well-documented, but perhaps the most surprising element of his debut season at Norwich was an infinite supply of stamina. It is a rare breed of player that can suddenly move from a far less competitive league, into a 46-game maelstrom.
That stamina saw him end 2018/19 as one of just five Championship players to register double figures for both goals and assists, and in the end, he scored 29 goals from 43 league appearances for the Canaries in 2018/19. Pukki was also equally comfortable netting at any venue, with 15 of those strikes coming in home games. He also developed a reputation as a talisman in the latter stages, with 12 of those 15 goals arriving in the second half.
Going for Gold
With three of Pukki’s four PL goals prior to the Chelsea game coming after the hour mark, Norwich fans can expect to see plenty of late shows from the Finn in the future. Somewhat in a reflection of his career to date, Pukki grows into games, and strikes the enemy at his most vulnerable. It is this sort of reputation that can restore the fear factor Norwich have misplaced for over a quarter of a century
Even though Pukki is closing in on his thirties, and perhaps better judged once he has accrued over 1,000 Premier League minutes, his early season form has not stopped his Golden Boot odds from shortening.
At his current rate, Pukki will breach the 20-goal mark that distinguishes good strikers from great ones, and there are precedents for unfancied hitmen racking up the goals.
Exactly two decades ago, for instance, Kevin Phillips was in the process of netting 30 goals for newly-promoted Sunderland. Even though the Mackems were not a particularly stylish outfit, his Golden Boot-winning efforts managed to put them on the cusp of European qualification.
More recently, there was the sight of former non-league player Jamie Vardy breaking the thoroughbred Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of consecutive Premier League goals, with the evergreen goal-addict proving crucial in Leicester’s miracle title win.
So far, Pukki has undoubtedly displayed the same killer instinct in front of goal so far, and while it may be too late for him to enjoy a good run at one of the expected ‘top-six’, his efforts will set the bar at Norwich for years to come. The likes of Todd Cantwell, alongside other starlets such as Max Aarons, Ben Godfrey, Jamal Lewis and loanee Patrick Roberts can only benefit from an influence like Pukki in the dressing room.
Thus, while Pukki may never enjoy a glut of major honours in a major European league, he does – at any rate – stand to create a legacy at Norwich that will be toasted by generations of City fans.