Exile in blue lives out the fantasy

A lively imagination guides Mikael Forssell through lone training sessions, but it is his vision for finding the back of the net that has made his loan deal so invaluable for the upwardly-mobile Birmingham City.
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A public park on a drizzly afternoon in what has passed for summer in the West Midlands. A solitary, track-suited figure darts about erratically on the grass. His spiky, blond crop looks familiar to the man feeding the ducks. A woman pushing a pram suspects he is in a dream world. They are both right. This is fantasy football, Mikael Forssell-style.

It is a routine he has followed since he was a six year old in Finland, poring over the videos of Bundesliga goals that his father brought back from his job in Germany. Forssell, now 23 and preparing for his second season on loan from Chelsea to Birmingham City, finds a patch of ground, visualises a match situation and acts it out.

An imaginary defender wraps himself around Forssell like a duvet. Others bar his route to goal. Yet with a swivel of the hips and a dip of a shoulder, he is free and beating the non-existent goalkeeper with aplomb. All that is missing is the arm raised in celebration and the acclaim of the crowd.

"I've done it as long as I can remember - in fact, I work on it after training here, as well as in local parks," Forssell explains following another morning spent sharpening up for Birmingham's opening fixture at Portsmouth on Saturday.

"At Chelsea the coaching staff used to hide the balls from me because I wanted to keep practising after the session had finished, but at Birmingham they encourage me. I don't necessarily need mannequins or cones, or even a ball. I just picture it all in my head.

"I love doing it because it helps me stay sharp. The more you do them, the more naturally, instinctively, they come to you in the heat of a game. I don't have to think 'now do a step-over' or 'go left'. It just happens. It's like a dance, and it definitely produces goals for me."

And how. Forssell scored 17 times in the Premiership last season - and 19 in 35 competitive outings overall - to help Birmingham climb from 13th to 10th just two years after gaining promotion via the play-offs. His total - bettered only by Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Louis Saha and Alan Shearer - was split fairly evenly between tap-ins, headers and booming long-range shots. It beat Michael Owen's haul and was almost double Wayne Rooney's modest nine.

More pertinently, given the fate which befell Claudio Ranieri, it was greater than the combined tally for Adrian Mutu and Hernan Crespo. Their arrival, for a total of £33m, had persuaded the then Chelsea manager to let Steve Bruce borrow Forssell.

Eyebrows were raised, especially among Chelsea fans looking for the club to maximise the potential opened up by Roman Abramovich's millions, when Birmingham succeeded in renewing the loan deal for another 12 months. Jose Mourinho has looked to Europe for firepower when, in Forssell, he had a proven Premiership marksman under contract.

The Finn would have made a small fortune, if not a Russian tycoon's one, if he had a pound for every time he has been asked whether - and indeed when - he will return to London SW6. "From the first day I came here, everyone has been pressing me for an answer. All I could tell them was: 'Please let me play the season, then we'll see.'"

Although he has done that, and become an integral figure with Birmingham, Forssell still regards himself as a Chelsea player. "Definitely," he says with typical bubbly directness. "After this season I still have two years left on my contract with them. I wouldn't rule out playing for them again."

Where does he expect to be this time next year? "It's impossible to predict the future in football," he answers diplomatically. "Things can change very quickly. All I can say is I hope I'm banging in goals. Somewhere! No one has been in touch but I'm sure Mr Mourinho will know about me. I'm still in touch with people at Stamford Bridge and from what I've heard from the inside, and what I know about him with Porto, he's very thorough."

Chelsea have the option to recall Forssell during the January transfer window. They also rate him highly enough to insist, for the second season running, that he does not play against them. "Abramovich said 'no chance'. That's a pity because I really wanted to play, but I guess I'll just have to watch."

He followed Chelsea's charge to the Champions' League semi-finals with a mixture of envy, admiration and affection for the club he had joined from HJK Helsinki at the age of 17. "I was gutted when it didn't happen for them," he says, although it is in his nature to keep looking forward rather than dwell on what has gone.

"I'm a person that wants to work every day, to develop. I never want to settle for what I've done, or feel I've made it. If I score, I'm content on one level, but I'm never really happy with myself. My aim is to be a multi-faceted striker - to score all kinds of goals."

For all that he wants to guard against the "complacency" a guaranteed place in the starting XI can induce, Forssell admits he has revelled in being a first-choice forward. "It means you don't have to snatch at the opportunity when you get in the team. Every time you started at Chelsea, you felt under pressure. If you didn't score, you were out."

The sheer volume of goals last season took aback observers who had typecast him as a bit-part player. True, says Forssell, he was summoned from the Chelsea bench more times than he started. However, he maintained a good strike rate, which he upheld on loan to Crystal Palace and Borussia Möenchengladbach.

"Other people may not have expected me to get so many goals for Birmingham, but it wasn't a surprise to me," he asserts, matter-of-factly rather than arrogantly. "I feel I can score goals wherever I go. I always have done."

Even for Finland, he might have added. Following in the footsteps of his father, Bengt, he has frequently foraged alone up front for his country. They have yet to qualify for a major tournament, despite being able to call on players like Jari Litmanen, Antti Niemi and Sami Hyypia. The prospects of a breakthrough are not enhanced by a World Cup group this autumn which pits them against the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and Romania.

"We always seem to get a brute of a group," Forssell says with a sigh and a chuckle. "But you must stay positive. We've been really close to qualifying before. If a little nation like Latvia can do it, we definitely can."

He spent much of his summer break back home, with family and friends, watching "every single match" of Euro 2004 on television. "I envy the players from the countries who got there. It was strange seeing Greece win the tournament because in one of Otto Rehhagel's first games as their coach, Finland beat them 5-1 and I scored twice. These things make you think we should be in there."

Two players who did perform in Portugal are now with Forssell at St Andrew's. Emile Heskey arrived from Liverpool for £6.25m, Birmingham's record outlay, while Jesper Gronkjaer, who patrolled Denmark's flanks at the finals, joined the Dutch defender Mario Melchiot in making a permanent switch from Chelsea.

"Having played on my own a lot, it's going to be interesting having a big centre-forward like Emile. He's good at holding the ball up and at seeing runs - look how well he played with Michael Owen at times - so I'm confident we can complement each other.

"Clinton Morrison was fantastic for me last season; he was very unselfish and created lots of space and goals for me. Stern John also did well whenever he got in. We're actually well placed for strikers now.

"I spoke to Jesper and Mario before they signed. I hope I may have influenced their decisions because they're both excellent players. I certainly told them how happy I am here and that Birmingham are a club going forward.

"Altogether we've added five quality players [Bruce has also landed Muzzy Izzet, from Leicester, and Julian Gray, from Crystal Palace], so people are saying we should get into Europe. I'd say we're capable of doing even better, but we need to stay humble and keep working hard."

A new first-team coach has ensured there is no slacking. Eric Black is a Scot who managed Coventry last season after playing for clubs in France and Germany. "As a striker I can feel his mentality," says Forssell. "I know we have to do our running, but in pre-season training I kept asking: 'Are we playing with actual balls today?' He'd say: 'I'm trying to put it in. I'll talk to the gaffer'."

Premiership reality - paradoxically the stuff of fantasy - kicks in again this weekend. It is easy to picture how Birmingham City could soon reap tangible rewards from Forssell's summer of dancing in the park.

Striking impressions Mikael Forssell's top-five

1 Diego Maradona

My biggest hero - apart from my dad! I've got all his videos, all the goals. His touch was the best. I love going past people, fooling defenders, and he did it all the time. I know he's a troubled guy, but to me he's a genius.

2 Ronaldo

Not the Manchester United one, though he's a fine player, but the original, Brazilian version. It's the blend of close skills and great physical power that makes him special. Another player that I'm forever watching on video.

3 Christian Vieri

The whole Italy team looked a little jaded at Euro 2004 and it wasn't easy for him up front on his own. But he's a classic big, strong centre-forward, a bit of a beast, who moves defenders around and scores all types of goals.

4 Thierry Henry

He was another who didn't have the best Euro 2004. But he's a beautiful mover - a true athlete - and a clinical finisher. The way he has kept on improving just shows the success can achieve if you keep working at your game.

5 Jurgen Klinsmann

A fantastic attacking player, whether it was with Germany, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan or Tottenham. He was alert and ruthless in and around goal and he was a really selfless player - he was prepared to run all day for the team.