"We all feel very special here, and everybody needs to know that."
This week we turn to Finland in our 'This Is...'
series here on COPA90. We have travelled all over Europe, witnessing some of footballs most intense rivalries in Eastern Europe, as well as the community-based clubs over in Spain with Athletic Bilbao and Rayo Vallecano, but today we look at an interesting merger between four clubs that has really began to blossom into Finland's biggest success stories.
AC Oulu was officially founded just after the turn of the millennium in 2002, however, the history stretches back way over 100 years when in 1880 one of the original merging clubs - Oulun Luistinseura - was one of the first ever football clubs on the continent. Oulun Luistinseura never competed in the top-flight of Finnish football despite their long history, despite becoming professional in 1941 and their huge success in the hockey function of the sports club.
Due to a lack of success on the pitch, Oulun Luistinseura decided to merge with fellow Oulu-based football club Oulun Tyovaen Palloilijat (founded 1946) who had already spent five mid-table top-flight finishes. However, when the Veikkausliiga took over from the 69-year-old Mestaruussarja as the top Finnish division in 1990 the two clubs became known as FC Oulu, departing from their previous names.
Following a fall from grace in the late 1990s after relegation, a merger three years in the making began in 1999 between Oulun Luistinseura, Oulun Tyovaen Palloilijat, Oulun Palloseura and a conglomerate of small Tervarit clubs. Eventually in 2002, AC Oulu was launched as a joint initiative between the four teams in an aim to bring back successful top-flight football to the Oulu community. Although a select few were unhappy with yet another merger and formed independent phoenix clubs of the previous teams, most of the town was well behind the AC Oulu decision.
"The merger in 2002 was a fantastic idea from all four of the negotiating corners. We were well aware of the stir it would cause after FC Oulu became defunct in 1995 and the town were left with any promising football team to follow once it collapsed.
"In 2003 we started our first season in the second-tier of Finnish football due to the correlation the division had with the highest ranking club that we merged with which was Oulun Palloseura. The first season was rough, there was a lot of disorganisation that we simply had to let slide due to the disruption that the merger had caused.
"However, we really reaped the benefits of such a decision just four years from the decision. We finished 2nd place within 4 years of forming as a club and therefore were promoted immediately to the top-flight. It was incredible, and it really shut up the critics.
"However, from then on it was very up-and-down regarding league positions, although we never fell below the second-tier in this clubs history."
"The 'Oulu Sosiaalinen' formed as a fan club almost immediately after the merger in 2002, although I was only very young at the time I do remember it because my dad was so busy helping the club get on its feet.
"I'm 20 years old now so I'm pretty much as old as the football club itself and I obviously never really got into the game as much at such a young age, even though I took trials at AC Oulu when I was about nine or ten.
"It was when Mika Lahderinne - the manager before Virtanen - left the club that my ears really pricked up. We had been in the second-tier of the league system for 7 consecutive years and all we wanted was a return to the Veikkausliiga just so that we could prove ourselves as a forward-thinking club again.
"That's why I was stunned when I saw that Aapo was selected as the official new manager. I was just so disappointed seeing that rather than plucking someone from the top division, we had chosen to go with someone who was an internal appointment and hadn't even been involved with a first-team training session. He was a nobody.
"But I remember it so well, it was against Jyvaskyla in the second-tier and we won 3-0 at Raatin Stadion and it was our fifth win in a row at the time, putting us top of the league and I think it was then that everybody in the stands turned to each other and was thinking like 'yeah, this guy's the real deal somehow'"
"I was one of those who was pretty loyal to the Tervarit club after the merger and I worked at the phoenix club up until 2010 when I finally cut my losses and moved to AC Oulu as a first-team coach when Jani Luukkonen was manager. Oulu had literally just been relegated from the Veikkausliiga for the second time in three years.
"Then between 2010 and 2017 it was just the wilderness years for us here. Every season it was a mid-table finish no matter what. I think Aapo Virtanen joined as a youth coach back in about 2014 and he had a similar feeling because as backroom staff we chatted a lot.
"Then was Lahderinne left in December 2017 and the board told us it was going to have to be an internal appointment, so then both me and Aapo knew it was between each other for the job because Lahderinne's folks all left along with him. We both agreed that whoever gets it, there's no bitterness. Obviously, Aapo got the job and we've been working together ever since and I'm quite thankful it was him who got the job. I really couldn't have imagined me doing the job that he has done and creating the sort of vibe about the place, he's been fantastic."
"It's been magnificent. Truly magnificent. I joined here in 2014 and became the top boss in 2017 on a very limited budget to say the least, but that first season was a dream. I think I only brought in about three first-team players and the rest of the squad were pre-existing but somehow we managed it and got up there at the first time of asking.
"Once we were up in the Veikkausliiga, it was staying up by the skin of our teeth that was the minimum aim simply because this club had never reached the Veikkausliiga and stayed in it for more than one season. It was just pure elation in 2019 when we steered well clear of relegation in 9th place - probably a bigger celebration than the promotion itself because there were always them nerves.
"From then on, it just went from strength to strength. I remember the furore around the fans every single game, knowing from the previous season that we'd survived. The fans dragged us through that first period of our first title-winning season. Everyone was so excited - from the stands, to the dugout and especially on the pitch. I think it got to about July and we had a really good run of results and we were turning round to each other asking if the title shout was actually on! In 2020 in came down to the last fixture of the season to know if we'd won it or not because it was between us and Inter Turku and the atmosphere at Raatin Stadion was just phenomenal. Honestly, I've never experienced anything like it than when we won the league in our second season in the top-flight.
"I don't think I've experienced anything like that until last season when we were defying all the bookmakers in every stage of the Champions League, with beating Alashkert, then Astana. Then we were drawn against Basel - a massive, massive club. Nobody thought we had a sniff, but we turned up in Switzerland that night and smashed them 4-0 in their own back yard. The celebrations when we reached the group stage on away goals against Midtjylland went on all night, it was unbelievable. I'm not sure if there's anything capable of topping those experiences, but I thought that about when we won the league!"
It was really amazing going to Oulu this past week to really understand the magnitude of how much this clubs and the teams before them had gone through to reach the point of the Champions League group stage in 2021. It really does seem to be getting better for them and new experiences every single season for Aapo Virtanen and his players.
We will certainly be keeping an eye on their progress this season as they take on Hungarian team Ujpest FC in their first Champions League qualifying phase of the new campaign!
That fixture when we lost to Mariehamn was like a punch in the gut watching them take top spot and now we really have got to work hard to retain that spot in the coming months.
I can't believe it myself
Yaghoubi's been an absolute star this season - huge standout performer. About the song, you're not quite Elton John yet...