Kuqi: Why I Want to Be Town Boss
Thursday, 12th Apr 2018 18:12 by Mel Henderson
His application for Town’s managerial vacancy duly submitted, former fans’ favourite Shefki Kuqi has underlined his love for the club and in an exclusive interview told TWTD why he believes he is a credible candidate to replace the departed Mick McCarthy.
Kuqi may be only one of many hoping to fill the vacancy but few, if any, of his rivals will be remembered so affectionately by supporters of a certain vintage, such was the Finnish international striker’s immediate impact upon joining the club in September 2003, initially on a three-month loan deal from Sheffield Wednesday that soon secured him a permanent contract and saw him remain at Portman Road for almost two years.
Indeed, it was only the opportunity to realise his Premier League dream that led to his departure, and he has recalled how he twice rejected overtures from Norwich City, first of all to join Ipswich in the first place and secondly when his contract expired and the Canaries made another unsuccessful move to lure him up the A140 to Carrow Road.
Fifteen years ago it took roughly six minutes for Kuqi to capture the hearts of supporters when he scored on his debut at Watford, having been chauffeured down from Manchester by Willie Donachie, with whom he had worked at Hillsborough and who subsequently joined Town as assistant to manager Joe Royle.
Kosovo-born Kuqi, remembered for his amazing belly-flop dive after every goal he scored, said: “When I joined Ipswich everything happened so quickly. I only met my new team-mates at the hotel where we had our pre-match meal. Joe told me I would be starting on the bench – he said ‘Have a look and see what we expect of you’ – and then I would come on in the second half.
“We were 1-0 down when I came on at half-time and with one of my first touches I scored the equaliser. Jim [Magilton] scored that great freekick, we won 2-1 and from that moment everything went well. The fans were shouting and singing ‘Sign him up’. I got the connection and I have never lost it. You could say it was love at first sight.
“It was about three weeks later that Ipswich first started to talk about me signing permanently and they made me an offer. That was when I heard from Norwich and they were offering to pay me twice as much. But my loyalty was to Ipswich so I followed my heart and signed for them.”
The move was completed in November that year and paid off handsomely for both parties, Kuqi’s arrival coinciding with a run that saw Town lose just twice in 15 league games and ultimately saw them qualify for the play-offs, the powerful striker’s eventual end-of-season tally of 11 goals in 29 league starts doing a lot to power them on their way.
But that was merely an appetiser, Kuqi delivering 19 league goals in the 2004/05 campaign as they secured another top six finish, only for their promotion hopes to be dashed once again by West Ham, managed at the time by Alan Pardew, who may see the Town vacancy as a route back following his recent exit from the Premier League’s bottom club, West Bromwich Albion.
It was decision time again for Kuqi in the summer of 2005. His Ipswich contract coming to an end, he had to weigh up the many offers that came his way. By far the most enticing came from Blackburn Rovers, which allowed him to realise his dream of playing in the Premier League, although he recalls speaking to Town chairman David Sheepshanks and making him a promise.
Kuqi, who is married with two children, added: “Norwich came back in for me but I wasn’t interested. I had a chat with David Sheepshanks and I promised him that if I didn’t have an opportunity to go to the Premier League I would not talk to anyone else without first talking to him.
“That was how we left it and to this day we still have a really strong connection. It was my dream to play in the Premier League but if that opportunity had not been there I would never have left this club. This place is like my second home.”
His international career saw him score eight goals in 62 games and after Blackburn he served Crystal Palace, joining both Fulham and Town on loan before moving on to Koblenz, Swansea, Derby, Newcastle, Oldham and, finally, Hibernian before retiring and turning to coaching and management back in Finland, his adopted country after fleeing with his family at the age of 12 to claim asylum there.
“My first chance in management, at FC Honka, came earlier than I had expected,” said Kuqi. “They had financial problems but you know me, I love a challenge. It has been that way throughout my life. It was a tough job but I knew my love of the game would see me through and I duly kept them in the Premier League.
“I was building a team for the new season and we had been promised some new investment. But when I was away on holiday with my family I had a phone call to say the club had gone bankrupt. It couldn’t be saved; there were so many debts the club folded, finished completely.
“My next club was PK-35 Vantaa, who were in the Championship, and the guys who were going to invest in my first club said they were prepared to invest again. But two weeks before the season was due to start they pulled out.
“It was a hell of a job but my attitude has always been that nothing is easy in life. We started the season well but once again I encountered problems.
“The players were not being paid and we were warned that we could lose points. So, do you know what I did? I worked with the players every day and after training was over I went out and about to find sponsors.
“I did quite well, we kept the points and we finished second in the table, which meant a play-off against the team that finished second bottom of the Premier League.
“We drew the first game at home 0-0 but when I spoke to the press afterwards I said I was still confident we would go up. Well, we went 3-0 up in the second game, won it and got promoted.
“Sadly, in the new season, it got to the stage where I couldn’t continue. I am a loyal, honest guy and I always put the players first. But I got to the stage where I couldn’t sleep at night.
“I had created a great atmosphere within the squad but I knew I had to go. Physically, I couldn’t take it any longer. If I can’t focus 100 per cent on my job then I don’t want to do it.
“So I left PK and then I was offered the job at Inter Turku, who were in the relegation zone. A win in the last game of the season would have taken us three places higher in the table but unfortunately we lost and finished second bottom.
“So I was in the play-offs again but this time I was in the opposite position to before, not trying to reach the Premier League but to stay there.
“We won to keep Inter in the Premier League and the owners said there were going to be big changes for the new season, which was last year, but I knew it was always going to be difficult.
“Basically, I wanted to bring in my own people, but the owner appointed an assistant coach who I didn’t know. His title was sports director but I always knew there was going to be a problem.
“Inevitably, we had some issues and I eventually went to the owner and said ‘Listen, you have to make a decision. It’s me or him’. He made his decision – I had to go – and in a way I was happy.
“I had taken over when they were in a relegation fight and when I left halfway through last season we were fifth in the table. In other words, they were in a position to challenge for a top three place.
“I have always brought in young players – for example, at my first club Honka I gave a debut to Aapo Halme and he went on to join HJK, the biggest club in the country, before Leeds signed him in January.
“He was only 16, the youngest first-team player in Finland, when I gave him his debut. Throughout my time I have always wanted to give young players an opportunity and I know Ipswich have always been keen to develop their own players.
“I believe in the policy and it is one of the main attractions of being manager of Ipswich. For me, everything starts on the training ground.”
Kuqi, who has attended Town’s last four home games while staying with friends in the area and formally applied for the job on Monday, still retains the same desire and determination that paved the way for a career as a footballer.
He added: “I know I was never a top player. I wasn’t technically gifted – I was far from that – but through hard work I managed to play in the Premier League and against some of the best defenders around at the time.
“I was a striker, I scored goals and as a manager I always want my teams to play attacking football. I don’t mind admitting that in my last job we lost a few points away from home because I wanted to have a go.
“I would rather go for the three points instead of being happy with one, but I know it is about understanding the circumstances of the league. It can depend on a number of factors.
“I see the Championship in England as the most exciting league you can find, even if there is a huge financial gap between a lot of the clubs. The cash difference is like night and day, but you can’t see it during 90 minutes on the field, and the only way to close it is through the work you do on the training ground. That’s where I see my strength.
“As a player I always wanted to be the fittest I could possibly be because that way I could compete. So, as a manager, I have always given my players the opportunity to be the fittest they can be. I do it by bringing in the best people so that every angle is covered in making the players the very best they can be when they go out to compete on a Saturday afternoon.”
Why does he want to be the next Ipswich manager? He explained: “First and foremost, I love the club. They changed my life because they gave me an opportunity that led to me playing in the Premier League, the best league in the world, and since then I have always kept Ipswich close to my heart.
“I am very passionate about the club and I see this as a great opportunity for me to put something back and try to bring back the good times to Portman Road. I travelled up and down the country as a player and represented many different clubs but I never really got the same feeling for any of the others that I have for Ipswich.
“I liken my time here as a player to being a member of a loving family because I was surrounded by so many good, friendly people.
“The connection with the fans is very important to me. I had it as a player. The Ipswich fans were so passionate. The club is the biggest thing in Ipswich, the biggest thing around for many miles, and players must connect with the fans. There is nothing better than making them happy.
“I accept there will be defeats but what matters most is the manner in which you lose. All I ever ask of my players is that they give everything. At the end of the game, can you go and look at yourself in the mirror and ask ‘Did I give everything?’ If not, why not?
“Be honest with yourself. Fans are not stupid and if they can see you are giving everything they will forgive you, support you and you will have more success than failure.
“In my application I have added the names of two people I would want alongside me if I am successful. It is not all about me, it is about the club and the best way forward, and I firmly believe I have what it takes to lead them on a new, exciting journey.
“When I signed for Ipswich as a player I gave absolutely everything. It will be no different if I am lucky enough to be the new manager. The only difference will be that I won’t be doing a belly flop when we win!”
Photos: TWTD/Action Images
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