'Pompey? It's just a game. My enemy is always the ball'

The Interview Antti Niemi Southampton's coveted keeper will keep his cool in the frenzy of a Cup derby. Nick Townsend talks to the 'outsider' in a most uncivil civil war
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In Finland, where there exists ever-increasing pride in their sporting exports, they relish relating the story of the Sunday-school teacher who chides the errant child in her care. "Do you know what happens to little boys who don't go to Sunday school, but play ice hockey instead?" she asks.

In Finland, where there exists ever-increasing pride in their sporting exports, they relish relating the story of the Sunday-school teacher who chides the errant child in her care. "Do you know what happens to little boys who don't go to Sunday school, but play ice hockey instead?" she asks.

"Sure," the lad replies. "They grow up and become professionals in Canada and earn a hell of a lot of money..." Except now, while ice hockey still flourishes, it is more likely that the talented youth of the nation will grow up determined to emulate rally or Formula One drivers such as Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen, and Premiership footballers such as the Southampton goalkeeper Antti Niemi, a man who, from being an afterthought in Dick Advocaat's mind when at Rangers, has become one of the most coveted custodians in England.

So revered, in fact, that whenever the surname Niemi appears in newspaper reportage, the names of Arsenal or Man-chester United, or both, tend to be juxtaposed within the same sentence. It is inevitable, really. While both those clubs yearn to reinforce the security behind their respective back fours, his own club have an ominously vulnerable appearance about them when the big spenders come laden with offers.

In the court of King Harry, Niemi is the principal keeper of the keys to Premiership security, and though Redknapp, the Southampton manager, may well contend that "we'd be mad to sell Niemi and [striker Kevin] Phillips", the suspicion is that, should Saints not elude the slavering jaws of relegation, Niemi will be a principal sale item of what will be transformed, effectively, into a St Mary's trading post.

What irks Niemi, however, is the imputation that he would contrive at enforcing such a move. "Quite honestly, I feel like refusing to talk to the press ever again," he said after one recent headline suggested he had told Manchester United to "come and get me".

Fortunately, that antipathy had been mollified somewhat by the time we meet at Saints' Staplewood training ground. "I consider myself quite a loyal person," he explains his position. "Even if the worst happened and we go down, I won't knock on the manager's door and say that I want to go. I believe that you get what you deserve in life. That applies to football, too. After the season has ended, whether we're in the Premiership or not, then it's up to the club to talk to anybody who is interested."

He adds: "We are all in this together. I'm part of a team that is not doing well; I don't think I'm in a position to make any demands at the moment. Anyway, my wife's ideal future is that Southampton stay in the Premiership and I stay here for another three years, whatever. Our daughter is five years old and she'd already lived the first few weeks of her life in London before going to Edinburgh, then Southampton. Ideally, we would like to stay here - for her sake. But if something happens, it happens."

Three managers in one season - Paul Sturrock, Steve Wigley and now Harry Redknapp - is scarcely conducive to stability, and hence consistency. However, Niemi insists: "Of course we can still get out of trouble. If we finish 17th, it will have been a great season. But it's the end of January already and we still have to face all the big boys. It's going to be a struggle to survive."

He adds: "There's no magic tricks in the situation we're in. The manager hasn't changed the system too much, just changed a few players. There's only one way we can get out of trouble, and that is by working hard, and hopefully adding two or three players to the squad."

You suggest to the goalkeeper originally lured south by Gordon Strachan for £2m that his presence represents a bright beacon amongst the gloom for Redknapp. He cannot be implicated in the wretched sequence of results. "No," says Niemi. "It's a team sport and, to be honest, I don't think I've made so many winning saves as I've done in the previous two seasons."

That said, he hasn't contributed a surfeit of errors, either. The truth is that lustrous goalkeeping reputations are con- structed not so much on saves made as blunders avoided. Niemi's credit rating is unusually high, despite his team's results, compared with many of his peers. Can you recall his last obvious aberration? In fact, as he will remind you himself, it wasn't so long ago. "The Spurs game [at White Hart Lane] was awful. We lost 5-1 and I made a mistake for the last goal, but if you're going to make a mistake, that's the time to do it!"

There is sympathy, not schadenfreude, when he witnesses one of his brethren, a Dudek, a Carroll or an Almunia, costing his team points. "It's really difficult to explain to anyone who hasn't played in goal at this level, but you just feel so bad that you haven't done your job properly, and you've let people down: your own fans and your team-mates. Personally, I can live with it, though. It's not a problem. I sleep well, and go to training the next day and start again."

When we speak, he has just returned from training following treatment on that injury sustained at St James' Park last Saturday which reduced his contribution to five minutes. "Just a few studs in the kneecap" is how Niemi describes Shola Ameobi's accidental follow-through.

Just as long as he is available on Saturday: that will be the primary concern of the Saints faithful on an FA Cup afternoon in which Hampshire becomes less a divided county, more a matter of warring factions when, for the first occasion, the vagaries of the draw pitch Redknapp against the club from which he resigned in November. Defeat will either bring a mournful tone to the Pompey Chimes or a funereal pace to the Saints' march. Unlike the League, there is no sanctuary in a draw.

"In Glasgow, the atmosphere is quite nasty, although there's the religious issue obviously, so that's a different matter. But I do sense how much it means to the fans here, and what a hostile environment it will be," says Niemi. "It's difficult to understand why people should hate each other so much, being from the same country, but then they always say that the civil wars are the cruellest ones. Maybe it's the same in football; that the local derbies are the most passionate."

Niemi believes the fact that he is a relative newcomer in the port will help him escape potentially distracting emotions experienced by those with a close allegiance to either side. "Wherever I've played, in Glasgow, in Edinburgh and now here, there's been local derbies, and people always ask the same question: 'Do you appreciate how much it means?' I have to be honest, I don't. I wasn't born here. I'm a foreigner who arrived here two or three years ago.

"I've played in three games against Pompey, and for me, it's just another fixture. You see, my enemy is always the ball. That's what I concentrate on. It doesn't matter what shirt the opponent is wearing."

Certainly, after 14 years as a professional, starting at HJK Helsinki, where he embarked on a north Europe tour with stop-offs at FC Copenhagen, Rangers, Charlton on loan, and Hearts before berthing at Southampton, he regards the abuse and scorn from behind the goal from opposition supporters with studied indifference; if truth be told, even with faint amusement. "There's a lot of things I love about the game," he says. "But there's also an ugly side of it, though sometimes when I'm getting serious stick the worst thing is keeping a straight face. You just want to laugh and say, 'Honestly, you don't really mean to say that my mum was a hooker, do you? You don't even know her. She's a lovely lady'."

Like many of his ilk, he regards Peter Schmeichel as an inspiration. "One of my best-ever moments was when we played against Manchester City in the first season I was here. Before the game, he came up and just said quietly, 'Good luck, Antti'. I thought, 'Oh, my God, Peter Schmeichel wishing me good luck - and knowing my first name'. I thought, 'Antti, you've come a long way'.

Many miles, and years, in fact, for the 32-year-old since goalkeeping first entranced him as a five-year-old with a natural affinity for a role in which his shot-stopping and reactions are his prime assets - together with an Iceman-like demeanour.

"Some goalkeepers like to shout and pump themselves up when they get on the pitch. I'm the opposite. I'm always pretty laid-back. The important thing is that you are yourself and not try to act like anyone else," he says. "If I go in the dressing room at half-time and try to tell Jason Dodd or Kevin Phillips to 'f****** get at them' [he clenches a fist for emphasis] or something, they'd just look at me and say, 'Oh, shut up and sit down'. It's not me. It wouldn't be natural."

Helping to preserve Southampton's Premiership status, and maybe even assisting them to another FA Cup final, is what comes naturally. But then this is a man who prefers to live by a particularly pertinent Finnish saying: "A man is valued by his work, not his words".

BIOGRAPHY: Antti Niemi

Born: 31 May 1972 in Oulu, Finland.

Height: 6ft 1in. Weight: 14st.

Club career: HJK Helsinki (1991-1996). FC Copenhagen (Aug 1996-July 1997). Signed for Rangers (21 caps) in July 1997 before costing Hearts £400,000 in December 1999 (after spending a month on loan at Charlton). Made 106 appearances for Hearts before joining Southampton for £2m in August 2002. So far has played 88 matches for Saints.

International career: Finland, 52 caps. Debut v Tunisia, November 1992.

Honours include: Finnish League 1992, Finnish Cup 1993, Finnish League Cup 1994. Voted Goalkeeper of the Year by the Association of Finnish Football Journalists five times.