There are bigger accolades and achievements in football, but Markus Heikkinen’s quadruple in 2005-06 was a significant one. He picked up every single Luton Town Player of the Year trophy at the end of that season, a mediocre one in which the team finished tenth in the Championship.
He was a worthy winner of each of them, too. A Finland international, the centre half was sheer class, a joy to watch. His defending was stout, his distribution was sublime. In a sluggish side, he sparkled, shoring up the back line as best he could, spraying passes around in an effort to launch some kind of attack.
Sometimes he’d survey his surroundings, glancing around at his team-mates who were simply unable to anticipate his vision, and I would imagine him repeatedly asking himself what on earth had made him sign for this club, one riddled with problems on and off the pitch, one that did not even own its own home stadium. Surely he’d been promised ambition, promotion, progress when he joined; instead, at the end of 2006-07 Luton were relegated to League One, and Heikkinen left the club soon after. It wasn’t one of those departures you could begrudge. He always deserved better.
My friends Mark, Kev and I always talked about taking a trip to go and see him play again. We had form on this, albeit on a smaller scale; during the 2001-02 season, when all three of us were old enough to have some money but young enough to combine it with boundless energy, we travelled to a ludicrous amount of away games, including a road trip to Halifax on a Tuesday night. We also had a night out at a London café owned by former Luton and Bulgaria striker Bontcho Guentchev – a man who had played at a World Cup, and followed that up by treading the hallowed Kenilworth Road turf, signing for the club in a season during which they and new coach Terry Westley were thoroughly out of their depth.
To see Heikkinen again would require travelling a little further afield. He moved to Rapid Vienna in 2007, and spent six years there; a few days in Austria seemed like a good idea. Why did we not go? I hesitate to say, but perhaps it was age. Jobs, mortgages, graduate study, relationships and offspring changed the trio of obsessives we once were.
By that time, too, I had stopped watching Luton. That was a big decision for someone who had once been a home and away girl, who took pride in her attendance record, who prioritised her fandom over almost everything else in her life. It was nothing to do with what happened on the pitch, but machinations off it had disillusioned me hugely. Like the dissolution of a love affair, the only way I could deal with the distress and pain of the situation was by cutting myself off from it completely.
Yet that episode never dulled my feelings towards the teams and players I had watched and loved. If I tidy my keepsake box, finding my signed photo of David Moss never fails to make me smile. I was an infant when he played for Luton, but somehow I latched on to him and developed one of those odd obsessions toddlers sometimes have. Some children love trains; others ballerinas; I loved a moustachioed winger for a First Division football team.
Recently, my sister sent me a newspaper article about a forthcoming charity match near her house, which was billed to feature Darron Salton. On reading his name I was instantly catapulted back 25 years, when the then 20-year-old centre half was involved in a road traffic collision, the passenger in a car driven by his best friend and compatriot Paul Telfer. Salton was in a coma for several days, and suffered severe injuries to his leg, ending his professional career. When he had recovered enough, he came to Kenilworth Road as a guest of honour, making his slow way round the pitch to acknowledge the crowd, and to thank them for the good wishes he had received during his recuperation. I had rushed to the front; I had watched Salton and Telfer play in the reserve team prior to their first-team call-ups, and, as always, I felt a special connection with them. When Salton reached me, he balanced himself on his crutches, and gave me a hug and a kiss. I had completely forgotten about it until I read that news story.
And Heikkinen? Sometimes I wondered whether my memory exaggerated just how good he had been. After all, he had played in a very poor side; one which was suffering from financial and managerial turmoil off the pitch. But then I realised there would only be one way to find out – and that would be to watch him again.
On my birthday this year, I told Mark that I’d booked my holiday in August.
“Oh? Where are you going?”
“Finland. To see Markus Heikkinen.”
I’d booked a trip to Northern Scandinavia, where Heikkinen is now player-coach at AC Oulu. I’d never heard of the place; to be honest, all I knew about Finland was that the capital is Helsinki. But why go to the big city when you can go to a smaller one and watch a player you loved ten years ago?
It seemed like the right time to do it. Heikkinen is 38; even the most partial of fans would have to acknowledge that his playing days are likely drawing to an end. Me? I’m a couple of years younger than him; going on a quest to meet him was, I thought, at this point still on the ‘endearing’ side of eccentricity rather than the scary end of the spectrum, but it was a close call.
I was going for a week, because I wanted to do it properly. I hate to fly, and this would involve travelling from London Heathrow to Helsinki where I’d catch a connecting flight. But my holiday dates meant I could do a bit of sight-seeing – and bookend the trip with matches at AC Oulu. I landed at Oulu, got a bus into the city centre, checked into my hotel, and then headed to a shop to buy myself an AC Oulu shirt to wear to the game that evening.
And that was the evening I met Markus Heikkinen.
Unsurprisingly, he is also AC Oulu’s captain; it was fascinating to watch and hear him marshal his players, sometimes in English, sometimes in Finnish. Every time he played one of those cross-field passes to a team-mate, unerring as ever, I beamed.
When we spoke, he was as nice as I’d hoped – despite having been sent off for a second bookable offence in the dying minutes. We talked about his time at Luton, and he said that his three sons ask him to talk about when he played in England; though Luton may not be a big hitter now, they were once, and may be again. He smiled wryly when I told him that there are talks about the club moving to a new ground; they had been looking to relocate when he was there, and indeed for most of the 30 years before that.
He posed for a photo with me, and then asked, with another slight grin, “Am I the same as I was then?”
“You look the same. And you play the same. But you might be a little bit slower than you were then.”
He laughed, and I laughed; and then I fretted about hurting his feelings.
“But you don’t need to run,” I quickly added. “You can just pick out people with your passes, and then those young full backs can do your running for you.”
We shook hands, and I thanked him for taking the time to talk to me. He was sweet, and gracious; but what I really wanted to thank him for was making that episode of my football fandom special.