Race to the Finnish. An in depth interview with Mike Keeney.
FROM Finland to Papua New Guinea, for a coach from the Golden State of California Mike Keeney has lived a life less ordinary.
How does a journey like that begin? When you ask the 46-year-old American that question his mind drifts back to Scotland and a meeting with Celtic legend Tommy Burns.
Keeney was Director of Coaching at Hoover Soccer Club in Birmingham, Alabama, and had worked with the Hoops' International Programs Manager Graeme Mathie to forge a partnership with the Glasgow giants that often saw him criss-cross the Atlantic.
Ideas were swapped, coaches educated and American players given the opportunity to train in the European environment.
Former Hoops midfielder and manager Burns was heading up the Academy then and Mike was a coaching disciple.
He recalled: "Tommy gave me the best advice ever.
"I was hankering after a spot at Celtic and he pulled me aside one morning and said: "You're doing great, you can coach and I'd love to have you here.
"But do you see that guy? He has over 150 games for Celtic in the Premier League. See that other guy? He is a legend at this club.
"You could be a great coach for us but I will catch all sorts of Hell if I employ some guy from America without all of his qualifications over a Celtic legend.
"You need to go and complete your qualifications and make your OWN story then you will have a chance in Europe. Do you have any other connections?"
Keeney didn't have to look far.
One of his former University of Kentucky players Ilkka Jantti, who was also his assistant coach at Hoover Soccer Club, knew the game in his native Finland inside-out.
Jantti helped Mike land a post as first-team Assistant Head Coach at FC Viikingit in Helsinki.
A whole new horizon was about to emerge for the coach brought up in Antioch, California, but set to become a citizen of the football world.
Mike confessed: "Looking back I had been chasing the dream in coaching since I was a 22-year-old player who was done after three knee surgeries.
"I went straight into coaching, got into a college job and the door had been opened.
"For 10 years that was my life in America but the link with Celtic made me began to yearn to be involved in the game in Europe.
"I felt like I had to get out of the University game because of the lack of the ability to be around the players all of the time.
"You were limited to the amount of time you could have with the players and when you have guys whose whole goal in life is to be a pro then I am the type of guy who wants to help them.
"Yet we were restricted in the hours we could work with them by the NCAA. Players wanted me to make them better and there were rules against it.
"As a coach that's not a good feeling and I knew that if I was in Europe that simply wouldn't happen."
These days, with franchises like David Beckham's Inter Miami and world-renowned stars such as Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic making late career stops, America's Major League Soccer is a vibrant market.
Back in 2006, though, when Keeney was coming up he had an interview for a job as an assistant coach in the MLS which was still finding its feet.
Between the club post he had and the University job he combined those duties with it would have been a $30,000 a year pay CUT if he had taken it.
Things have changed now but the truth is for Mike this has never been about the money.
That's why two years after deciding against the MLS he packed his bags and headed for Finland.
Working under respected coach Toni Korkeakunnas, Keeney began to build a coaching reputation in his adopted homeland.
Yet there were obstacles placed in the path of his journey of learning as the Finnish FA insisted he needed to speak the native language more fluently to be allowed on their UEFA courses.
Korkeakunnas smashed away those barriers, though, as he was an instructor and a seven-year odyssey of football education began in 2009 with Mike successfully gaining his UEFA B Licence.
By 2016 he would be rubbing shoulders with some of the game's elite on his Pro Licence.
Current Finnish men's national team coach Markku Kanerva, who was Mike's instructor on that elite course, became a firm friend and mentor.
Kanerva has led Finland, with a population of just 5.5million people, to a FIFA ranking of no.54 and into the Euro 2020 Finals this year where they face World no.1 Belgium, Russia and Denmark in Group B.
Keeney can always count on Kanerva for guidance and he said: "As part of the Pro Licence course we went to the Euro Under-21 Championships in the Czech Republic.
"All of the Pro Licence courses from around Europe were there at the same time and I was able to interact with Brad Friedel and Bob Bradley as we were the three Americans on the pathway at the time.
"That was great for me and it was a time in my life where I took a step back and realised I had watched Brad play and Bob coach on TV when I was a youth coach. I had to savour those moments.
"Once I got into the Finnish system they couldn't kick me out and I just started to grind my way on.
"The kicker is that when I was on my Pro Licence I found myself in UEFA HQ in Nyon, Switzerland, representing Finland to showcase their training culture.
"I had gone from not being able to get into the courses to being the poster boy for them. It was crazy!"
Over the last 13 years, aside from a one-season stop in Slovakia where he won the third-tier title with FC STK 1914 and the Papua New Guinea adventure, Keeney has forged a rock-solid coaching reputation in Finland's top division the Veikkausliiga.
So how does an American who has become a Finn end up as the man in charge of the footballing fortunes of a developing country ranked 166th in the FIFA rankings?
Back in 2013 Mike was coaching Ekenas IF in the south west of Finland when a bust-up with the General Manager led to a parting of the ways.
Stranded in the midst of the Finnish pre-season, jobs were scarce and Keeney had to delve into his network of contacts.
One of his former players Giovani Fernandes was working for the Oceania Football Federation and told him there was a vacancy coming up.
Mike confessed: "It was one helluva contrast, within two weeks I had gone from coaching in Finland to becoming Head Coach of the national team in Papua New Guinea.
"I found that there is passion for football there and so much raw talent but the infrastructure needs to be developed.
"The giants in that region are New Zealand and my job was mentoring coaches and coaching the national team.
"It was a fascinating project and I'd gone from snow on the ground to living on the Equator and going through a litre of sunscreen in the first two weeks!
"It was an incredible and enlightening insight into how the wide world of the business of football works.
"I wouldn't trade the experience for the world but I lived in a hotel for a year and that was difficult.
"It was all about work and football and I had to rely on locals to take me out for dinner so I stayed in the safer areas and that was a tough way to live."
Last week coaches across the globe marvelled at the excellence of a superb presentation on leadership from American Jesse Marsch, now in charge of Red Bull Salzburg in Austria, at the United Soccer Coaches Convention.
The inspirational Marsch has been with the Red Bull organisation since taking over at New York in the MLS six years ago but he is a relative newcomer to Europe having now coached at both Leipzig in Germany and now Salzburg.
It's worth reflecting on the fact that ground-breaker Keeney has been flying the flag for American coaches abroad since 2008.
As with every coach on the Sport Careers Agency roster there are many influential figures who have been pivotal in that journey.
For Mike they range from Celtic icon Burns to his University of Kentucky Wildcats mentor to Arsenal's footballing professor Arsene Wenger.
Keeney revealed: "I was fortunate enough to work with a coach called Ian Collins in Kentucky.
"That's where I learned my trade, he showed me what it took to be successful and the sacrifices I would have to make.
"I still talk to Ian two or three times a week, he is a touchstone for me.
"As for Arsenal I just loved the way they played, I'm a huge Gunners supporter and on a coaching visit to the club I got the chance to meet Arsene Wenger and chat football for 45 minutes which was amazing.
"He was terrific and genuinely interested in what was happening in Finland and how we worked.
"I was humbled by that experience and I learned so much on that visit, you can't buy learning like that.
"That's why on a far lower level if anyone ever asks me for advice I will always take time to help.
"I believe that as a coach you have to pay it forward for those coming next."
As the football world battles through COVID-19 Mike is currently coaching the U-20 side at VJS in Helsinki after internal turmoil at top-tier club HIFK where had been working when the pandemic first struck.
It will be intriguing to see how 2021 develops for a fascinating and fearless coach.
He admitted: "The truth is that those trips to Celtic meant I had caught a fever for football in Europe.
"Who knows? The next step might be away from Finland, I'm open to a challenge. If it's the right set-up I would be on the plane the next day.
"For instance, I'd love to work in Scotland for the experience of it. My driving force has never been the money.
"If that's the case then you can stay in charge of one of the major youth clubs in the States and I've been that guy.
"I just know that I still want to be on the pitch and not behind a desk yet.
"Eventually I want to give back to the game but for now I love matchday too much.
"I think, though, that one day I will have so much experience to give back because there are not many American coaches who go abroad to work."
Cosmopolitan Mike now has a Finnish passport as well as an American one and speaks English, Finnish, Swedish and Spanish.
His fiancee is Russian so learning her mother tongue means another linguistic challenge is looming.
He reflected: "If I hadn't listened to Tommy Burns and taken the leap of faith and gone to Finland then I wouldn't have had any of the adventures in coaching that I have had.
"It's been the experience of a lifetime so far, I'm excited to see what happens next."
MIKE KEENEY ON THE SERVICE RECEIVED AT SPORT CAREERS AGENCY
"Sport Careers Agency have been terrific for me. Everything I asked for they did and then they corrected it and made it better!
"I had something in my mind's eye and then they started to work on it and they improved it.
"They did a CV, a manager's brochure and I am on the website and the feedback when I am going in for jobs is very impressive.
"I feel that Sport Careers Agency go the extra step and it's through Piero Carrino at the firm that I became connected with Stewart Macgregor at Ark Sport who is now working as my agent.
"That typifies the sort of relationship they build with you."