Matt Healey continues the series.

During the 1996/1997 season Hereford United went European with the signing of the tall Finnish Striker Mika Kottila.

The previous season Hereford had reached the 3rd Division Play offs, but a high turnover of the playing staff meant that Hereford went with a younger squad and by October 1996 the Bulls were stuck in mid table and struggling to achieve the form of the previous season.

The power of Social Media tracked him down and via a WhatsApp audio call Kottila told me how the move to Edgar Street came about “Back then the Bosman ruling had started in Europe and there were lots of agents trying to get better clubs for lots of players, there was an agent from Finland who put my name about and I originally spent some time with Colchester United. That didn’t work out so I went on trial at Hereford United.

Main Hereford striker Adrian Foster had scored seven goals by then, but a lack of strike partner for the unfairly maligned Foster was apparent and another striker in Ian Foster who was signed from Liverpool was yet to get off the mark for the club and wouldn’t score a goal that season. Chris Hargreaves and John Brough would also play up front with Adrian Foster, but the pair of them weren’t natural strikers and their best positions were on the wing and in central defence respectively.

Enter the Finnish giant Mika Kottila. He was born in Vaanta on the 22nd September 1974. Hereford manager Graham Turner first announced that Kottila was on a trial in his programme notes of the Barnet game on the 2nd November “We are currently looking at a young striker from Finland. He is spending two weeks with us on a trial basis and under the Bosman ruling would be available on a free transfer. First impressions are that he looks a reasonable player, but we will reserve judgment until he has played a full game”

This was before the internet age where now anybody can google a player and little was known of Kottila back then, a Wikipedia search says he played for FinnPa, HJK Helsinki & Rops before joining the Bulls.

Kottila made his debut in the 4-1 defeat against Wigan Athletic on the 16th November 1996. He came off the bench to replace John Brough. Kottila then joined Hereford on a three month trial.

“I don’t remember my debut. My girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife came over to Hereford to stay with me, we had a house at Belmont near the Tesco. I would get the bus to training”

Graham Turner wrote in his programme notes against Lincoln on the 19th November 1996 “Mika Kottila has been offered an extended trial. He did not look ready for league action, but there were certainly enough qualities to suggest that with work on the training ground, he could be a useful acquisition. One aspect of his play which will need improving is his heading, or more precisely his ability to head a ball. He looks as though his size has given him such an advantage that he has not had to learn to jump and time a header. He has temporarily gone back to Finland to sort a few things out but will be back for three months, with an option of an eighteen month contract”

Turner saw something in the big striker and he was given the opportunity to impress.

Mika Kottila behind Jan Molby – Hereford United 0-1 Swansea City – 26th December 1996

Kottila returned to the line up with a substitute appearance in a 3-2 loss at home to promotion candidates Carlisle United on the 14th December 1996. Hereford were 2-0 down, but a battling 2nd half performance had the Bulls level at 2-2, but the visitors won it at the death when defender Nicky Law fall on his backside and Warren Aspinall clinched the three points.

Kottila would then make his first start in a 1-0 Boxing Day loss against Swansea City. Former Liverpool player Jan Molby was Player Manager for the Swans and he ran the game in midfield that cold afternoon. “I loved seeing the photo of me and Jan Molby, I’m a football pundit in Finland now on the Premier League, a bit like what Jamie Carragher does for Sky Sports. I work for Viaplay and Jan Molby works for the same company”

Kottila kept his place in the starting eleven two days later in another loss away at Hartlepool on the 28th December 1996.

Mika Kottila in action – Hartlepool United 2-1 Hereford United – 28th December 1996

“I remember the winter was a cold one in Hereford and we had a couple of games postponed, but being from Finland I was familiar to the freezing weather”

Hereford were on an horrific run of form, on the 18th January 1997 the Bulls were thrashed 5-1 away at Scunthorpe United. Kottila’s flick though set up Adrian Foster for Hereford’s goal.

Hereford had gone from being a couple of points outside the play off positions at the end of October 1996, to being entrenched in a relegation battle. In a miserable run of form thirteen matches heralded ten defeats and three draws.

3 points out of a possible 39 were achieved. It was Hereford United’s worst Football League set of results. Former Hereford colleague Mark Hibbard remembers Kottila during his stint at Edgar Street. He told us “Mika was a very well spoken person, he probably didn’t get enough of a chance to show us how good he could be”

Hereford United 0-1 Mansfield Town – 11th January 1997

On the 25th January 1997 the winless run was ended with a 1-0 victory away at Cambridge. Kottila’s header set up Chris Hargreaves for the Hereford winner.

Hereford then started to turn the corner. The following week the Bulls defeated promotion contenders Wigan Athletic 3-1, then Hereford achieved a point in a 1-1 home draw against Darlington on the 4th February 1997. Kottila started both games.

On the 8th February 1997 Hereford won again. A 3-2 win away at Barnet and Kottila opened the scoring with his first goal for the club. Adrian Foster told Your Herefordshire “I remember Mika, really nice guy. He definitely claimed one of my goals away at Barnet” he said with a smile.

Kottila told us “I remember my goal against Barnet and there is a funny story to tell you. I hadn’t scored for Hereford yet and Graham Turner said to me that if I scored against Barnet he would pay my electric bill for the three months I was in Hereford, so that gave me motivation. My header was going in, but Adrian Foster probably got the final touch, but the records said it was my goal, I made sure Graham paid the bill for me before I left” he says laughing

Kottila and Foster were forming a decent partnership. Kottila was winning his headers and his assist set up Foster to equalise with a wonderful volley against Cardiff City, the game was a fiery local derby played on the 16th February 1997 which was a Sunday lunchtime.

It was though noticeable that Kottila was now being substituted most games. Another striker in “The Flying Postman” John Williams had now been signed from Wycombe Wanderers, would Kottila’s contract be extended?

Sadly it wouldn’t. His last game was a 3-3 draw away at Lincoln City on the 22nd February, Kottila again was substituted but this was due to a concussion sustained in the 1st half. Kottila was stretchered off in a neck brace and taken the local hospital. Williams replaced him and became an instant hero by scoring his first Hereford goal in injury time to secure a point.

Kottila told us “I was hit on the left side of my head and was knocked out cold. I came around in the ambulance and I was X Rayed, but there was no lasting damage, I had a chat with Graham Turner about staying as my contract was expired, but he could only offer me a deal until the end of the season, the finances at the club weren’t great and they couldn’t commit to the 18 month deal they originally suggested. I wanted to stay, but was worried if I went back to Finland in the summer that I would struggle to get a club with all the other players out of contract, so we mutually agreed that I would leave”

Graham Turner explained why he decided against renewing Kottila’s contract in his programme notes against Exeter City on the 1st March 1997.

“Mika had certain attributes, his size being one of them, however I don’t believe he really came to terms with the physical nature of the English game. He missed several good scoring chances in his early games, had one or two of those gone in things may have well been different. We wish him well whatever happens to him”

Kottila’s Hereford career was eleven starts and two substitute appearances with the one goal scored. Him and Adrian Foster were building up a decent partnership and Hereford were in the middle of a seven match undefeated run when he departed.

Williams was on the scoresheet in a 2-1 defeat at home to Exeter City, and much was expected of his partnership with Foster. Stupidly the following week Williams kicked future Bull Neil Grayson in the head during another 2-1 home loss against Northampton Town and was sent off.

The three game ban for Williams would hurt Hereford. The Bulls had also lost Keith Downing due to retirement, enforcer Gareth Stoker had been sold to Cardiff, and Carl Beeston who was a class act in midfield had been recalled by Stoke City from his loan spell. Hereford were then weakened, particularly in the centre of the pitch.

Despite signing four new players on transfer deadline day, the Bulls ended up being relegated on the final day of the season. Graham Turner’s men achieved 11 points from the last 12 games, but this wasn’t enough to keep them up.

Hereford were tragically relegated from the Football League on 3rd May 1997. In an end of season shootout. The final game of the season was against Brighton. To stay in the Football League Hereford needed to win. Brighton needed a win or a draw. The game ended 1-1.

Despite accruing 47 points, which would normally most seasons keep you up. It was sods law that in the 1996/1997 season the rules had changed.

Usually when a team is level on points, the usual system of goal difference would kick in, but that season it was changed to goals scored, and with Hereford scoring less than Brighton, and with both clubs level on 47 points, Hereford went down by just 3 goals. If it had been on goal difference then the Bulls would have survived.

Kottila tells me “I was very sad when I heard that Hereford had been relegated, we had a good team and it was awful to read, I saw it in a newspaper that they had gone down, I felt sorry for everybody at the club, this was before the internet, so we could only read about English football in the newspapers or magazines”

Kottila returned to his native Finland and linked up again with HJK Helsinki. He played and scored in the Champions League group stages for HJK Helsinki in 1998 against PSV Eindhoven and Benfica.

“My time at Hereford was a happy time for me, it may have been the lowest league of Professional Football in England, but the experience was fantastic, Graham Turner was so good to me and he improved my game. The likes of David Norton and Murray Fishlock were great to me. Playing in the Champions League was fantastic, Graeme Souness was Benfica manager when I scored against them, both my goals in the group stages were diving headers”

Around that time he won his first international cap for Finland. During 1998-2004 he made 31 appearances for his country and scored 7 goals. He also played for Trelleborg in Sweden and MPS.

Mark Hibbard adds “When he left Hereford a couple of years later I was watching TV and there was Mika scoring on TV in the Champions League, I was delighted for him”

Kotilla is now a pundit on Finnish TV. “I’m good friends with the Finnish player Teemu Pukki who plays for Norwich, Dean Smith is now manager at Carrow Road, so have asked Pukki to pass my regards onto him”

I end by asking Kottila if he still keeps up to date with Hereford, “Yes, I do, I know the club started again and I follow Hereford FC on Instagram, I would love to come back at some point with my family to visit and see what the city looks like now, Hereford was a brilliant time for me, it’s been amazing seeing the videos and photos that you sent me, in fact I still have a box of Hereford United programmes at my parents house”

Mika Kottila 2020
Mika Kottila 2021 in the ViaPlay Studio
Sami Hypia & Mika Kottila 2020
Mika Kottila 2020

Photos supplied by Ron Parrott and Mika Kottila, quotes from Graham Turner – The Hereford United programme “Bullseye”