Many fans will remember the blonde hair and endless running of Palace’s Finnish midfielder Aki Riihilahti. Born and raised in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki, he was signed by the Eagles in 2001 after impressing with performances for his country – displays which had put several European teams on the alert.
In the second of Palace TV’s Cult Heroes series, Aki says playing at the south London club were the ‘best years of my life’, but admits a career in football wasn’t always on the cards.
“I was always told I wasn’t good enough, but what I figured out quite early on in football was that if you find ways to contribute to the team, even small areas of the game where you are excellent, then if you’re not good in all the other areas it doesn’t matter so much. I realised if I concentrated on a few things that (have a positive) impact on the team and affect the result, then in the end I’d do well for the whoever I played for."
Aki’s no nonsense style of play worked to his strengths, and he had little time for flare players who would wow the crowd with tricks without having any end product.
“I did two things as a player, turning over the ball and set pieces which I scored a lot of goals from. Forty percent of goals come three seconds after you lose or win the ball, and that’s where I was good and it gave me the edge of being a fantastically average player in one of the best leagues in the world.
"I look at football through numbers and there are very clear variables that are often overlooked. A step-over or piece of skill in the middle of pitch looks good and gets you a cheer but it does nothing. I was the guy who gave everything. You could question my passing but you couldn’t question my work ethic.”
The midfielder is another club legend who played during Iain Dowie’s spell in charge, and he praises the manager for bringing structure and belief to a team in turmoil.
“When I joined we were in a relegation fight but there was a lot of potential and passion, it just needed more structure and direction. In the first few months after I joined there were a lot of things that happened that I didn’t expect in a professional club, then when Iain Dowie came he was in many ways the best manager for the club – he was young and emotionally fierce, and his work ethic made players better. He deserves a lot of credit for what he did at Palace.”
Go to Eagles.cpfc.co.uk to watch Palace TV’s Chis Grierson’s full interview with Cult Hero Aki Riihilahti.