It is a well known fact that soccer is a team sport and every team member is as valuable as the other. But naturally, the recognition received by all the players of the team is not the same. As an audience, we rather watch strikers score goals than defenders preventing them. A spectacular last ditch tackle is not met with the same reaction as a spectacular goal.
The strikers or attacking players are always labeled the star of the team whereas the defenders or goalkeepers have to make do with the label “The unsung hero.” But the recognition given by the media or the audience does not truly reflect the value of the player to the team. Yes, we all love to watch goals flying in, but every team will have an underrated player who is vital for the team.
One of those underrated players plying his trade in the Premier League has to be Jussi Jaaskelainen. The Finn is a veteran of 13 seasons in the Premier League, having made 417 appearances in the top flight for Bolton Wanderers and most recently West Ham United. For some reason the Big Finn is so underrated that he is overlooked by most people even while compiling a list of top goalkeepers to have played in the Premier League Era. This may be due to the fact that he never played for top six club or maybe because of his quiet persona. But I find this baffling. In my opinion, he is easily one of the best keepers to have played in the Premier League.
Yes, he has not won anything of note during his time at England. But when you have played for Bolton Wanderers, a club that is run on a shoestring budget, it is hard to criticize him for that. I’ve always maintained that keeping goal for a weak team is tougher than keeping goal for a top team. He was a vital component for a Bolton Wanderers side managed by Sam Allardyce. The Trotters defied the odds and regularly managed to survive in the Premier League, gradually improving every year despite spending very less in the transfer market. He made fantastic saves week-in week-out and his distribution of the ball was very important for Bolton’s style of play.
If you have to point out Jaaskelainen’s qualities, it would be his quick reflexes, handling of the ball, commanding presence, fitness and loyalty. While at Bolton, he reportedly rejected advances from the likes of Manchester United and Galatasaray.
Bolton Wanderers under Owen Coyle eventually got relegated in the 2011/12 season, where Jaaskelainen lost his place to young Adam Bogdan due to some shaky performances. Even though it must have been a tough decision, he decided to move on. His decision to move was understandable. As a keeper of his stature, he deserved more than being a second choice keeper for a Championship team.
Sam Allardyce who became West Ham United Manager came calling and the pair reunited at the Boleyn Ground. Questions arose to whether Jaaskelainen was still good enough to perform at the top level. The manager himself was quoted recently, “When I signed him my fear was not about his ability, as I knew he had ability after working with him at Bolton. But wasn’t sure still had the drive and determination to put that back into this league again.” But he showed the drive and had a magnificent season playing all of the Hammers’ 38 league games in which the newly promoted club finished a very respectable 10th position. He, along with Winston Reid and James Collins, formed a very strong backline and managed to keep 11 clean sheets. With age, his reflexes may have gotten a little slow but he has improved mentally and his positioning has become better. According to stats he was the keeper who has pulled off the most saves this season – an incredible 156.