Ignoring the fact Google tells you various different things in regards to the time difference between GMT and CEST, Tim Sparv of FC Midtjylland, was kind enough to pick up the phone earlier than we’d agreed – Cheers, Google!
En route to Ireland for FC Midtjylland’s second-leg in the Danish outfit’s Europa League qualifier against Derry City – Midtjylland should comfortably qualify having won the first-leg 6-1 – you could sense Sparv’s pride in being involved in one of club football’s highest profile tournaments.
Playing in European competitions is one of the biggest goals for any professional footballer, and Sparv is under no illusions that his formative years as part of the Southampton set-up – being involved in the English way of football – put him in good stead for his future achievements.
“For me, it’s not a setback when you don’t make it to the first-team; I went from Finland to get an education of football, and I definitely got that (at Southampton).
“I became stronger both mentally and physically; I grew up, I wasn’t the small kid from Finland, I was a young man when I came to Sweden from England. And the lessons I learnt were better than anything.
“I just didn’t really make the grade – it was certainly the right decision from Southampton to let me go; I was not good enough for the first-team. But I got a good experience and education that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
The Southampton academy’s reputation amongst the English game, certainly within the last decade, has grown rapidly, with Liverpool particularly enjoying the production line of talent the Saints have scouted and/or nurtured.
Sparv was part of that particularly profitable and impressive generation of Saints youth players that included Adam Lallana, Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott – interestingly, Bale wasn’t showing the attributes that would see him go on to become, at one point, the world’s most expensive player.
“Bale didn’t have the pace or the strength that he has now. But you could see he had a great left-foot; he’d stay back at training and practice his free-kicks, so he definitely had the right mentality.
“We had an exceptional group of talent, and top of that list was Theo Walcott; he was the one who had the skill and the pace – you could tell he was going to be a special talent, one day.
“And Adam Lallana, too, I just loved his mentality and personality; he would just work his socks off in training, running around like a maniac; he had a great first touch and was such an elegant player, who wasn’t afraid to do the dirty work.”
Sparv’s journey to Denmark to play for FC Midtjylland via Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, has seen the Finland international – with nearly a half century of caps – develop a reputation as a solid and reliable defensive-midfielder.
Sparv landed on Midtjylland’s radar thanks to his tenacious performances for his former club, Greuther Fürth, who play their trade in Germany’s 2.Bundesliga.
“Our model says that last season, Greuther Fürth were good enough to play in the English Premier League.
“(Tim Sparv is) the no stats all-star.”
Rasmus Ankersen, Midtjylland Chairman
Being referred to as the ‘no-stats-all-star’ is the footballing definition of backhanded compliment. And Sparv enjoys the excitement and interest levels around the former Danish champions’ approach to the transfer market – it’s basically Football Manager in real life.
“I think it’s exciting being in a club that don’t do things in the conventional way; it’s quite a conservative area in football, but I think Midtjylland are being creative and trying to get ahead in that area.
“When I was signed by the club, I heard I was signed based on statistics. I didn’t really think about it much at first, but when you come into this environment, it all starts to make sense.
“It has been interesting to be part of this exciting journey, in a small way. It’s just the beginning of things like this, they’re still trying to make it practical for football. But I think how can we maybe use it a little bit more…maybe in every day life?”
Although Midtjylland’s approach is all about statistics and whether a potential signing fits into their playing style, the Danish outfit do allow themselves the odd moment of ‘weakness’, a moment of ‘shirt sales over footballing requirements’.
Or maybe Rafael van der Vaart was flagged up in their footballing statistics programme as the ideal attacking-midfielder. Either way, the Dutchman, who has one-year left on his contract, has been a great addition to the side.
“I try to learn from every player I have around me, in some way. But with Rafael (van der Vaart) it’s his skills, his vision on the pitch and his first touch; some of the things he does are extraordinary – you can tell he’s played at a completely different level to the rest of us; the clubs he has played for earns him that respect.”
Unlike a lot of footballers, Sparv’s awareness of life outside of the beautiful game puts him in good stead for when retirement eventually comes for the now-30-year-old.
Sparv is a regular columnist at Finnish newspaper Pohjalainen, and is currently back in education – a recent decision based around the midfielder not feeling equipped enough for a world outside of the 90 minutes of football.
This awareness, this methodical thinking comes across in abundance when speaking to Sparv – all of us engrained into the footballing world could learn a thing or two about Sparv’s approach to life in (and out of) football.
“I figured out that I needed to do something, because you can’t play football for your whole life.
“I think the players have to realise that when it comes to hanging up your boots, it’s not going to be easy. I think it is a difficult time to quit your playing career; I don’t think many release how hard it is. So you need to have a plan B of some sort.
“Of course, many of the players have a lot of money when they stop, but it is not a life. You want to have something to do when your career ends.
“I felt the last few years that football alone is not enough for me; I have other interests; writing the columns, having a website, starting projects on the side – in Finland I’m building a restaurant.
It’s the “…that football alone is not enough for me” that really sticks out in all of Sparv’s comments. In England, Benoit Assou-Ekotto was kicked from pillar to post on social media when he admitted he doesn’t enjoy playing football.
And here, you’ve got a regular international footballer for Finland, highly recognised in his homeland, admitting there’s more to life, for him, than football.
Could you imagine the uproar if Dele Alli said something similar; the abuse, the outrage and the struggle to accept and understand that’s there more to life than football?
How many more examples from the European mainland does the English game need before it understands just how far behind, with its backwards thinking, it is in relation to being at the forefront of football’s continual evolution?!
You can check out Sparv’s impressive-looking site HERE.