Former teacher turned KuPs manager has done his homework on Europa Conference League opponents Derry City

AS A former schoolteacher KuPs manager Jani Honkavaara was widely known in Finland as 'the civilised one' as he made his way up the coaching ladder.
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However, the Finnish coach warned his team must be prepared to withstand a physical and mental battle against Derry City who 'give no apologies on the pitch'.

His achievements as a player may be fairly modest but the astute coach with an academic background, who previously held a 'coaching educator' role within the Finnish FA, appears to have done his homework on his club's 'unorthodox' opponents ahead of the Europa Conference League second round qualifying tie at Brandywell.

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He's also researched his opposite number Ruaidhri Higgins and the tactics and various formations the City boss has deployed against different opposition during an in-depth week-long analysis into the Candy Stripes.

KuPs manager Jani Honkavaara pictured with Finnish international midfielder Jasse Tuominen. Photograph by Niklas Pehkonen.KuPs manager Jani Honkavaara pictured with Finnish international midfielder Jasse Tuominen. Photograph by Niklas Pehkonen.
KuPs manager Jani Honkavaara pictured with Finnish international midfielder Jasse Tuominen. Photograph by Niklas Pehkonen.

And Honkavaara, who is currently in his second spell as manager of KuPs having previously led them to the Veikkausliiga title in 2019, is confident Derry City haven't yet played against a team like his before.

That being said, while he believes KuPs are 'slight favourites' to progress to the third round given their superior European experience in recent years and big game players, he doesn't expect the tie to be decided on Thursday night.

"We have to be at our best if we are to go through but experience is helpful in these games," he said. "I don't know how Derry's record in Europe has been lately but as a coach, having been in Europe, it helps me in the preparation.

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"We have players who have been in tough places, playing in the international team. Jasse Tuominen, for example was a player, when Finland went to the Euros for the first time (in 2020), he played and scored in the game that got them there (play-off) so he has been in tough places. "He actually didn't get to the European championships after a knee injury which was unfortunate to him. Preparation is really important in these matches. So in that way I'd say we might have an advantage but that advantage always goes down when you play away from home.

"I have a relatively young team this year compared to KuPs last year. They also haven't been tested like this mentally this year so this will be a good test because I know Derry are physical and are coming tough on us. They don't give apologies on the pitch so we have to be accepting that and also be tough. That's the name of the game.

"We understand that and if we're up to that then we might be slight favourites. If they have a really good day and their coach chooses the right tactics, anything can happen after that. We have to make sure if we have a bad day then they have an even worse day. That's the mentality we have to have.

"I like the Derry team, it's a good team and I like the individuals they have so it's going to be an interesting game."

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He was in no doubt Derry were the better team in their first round qualifier against HB Torshavn and he hopes his team can match their passion over the two legs.

"I was watching the games from LOI TV. I saw the players' reaction and also the crowd's reaction and saw what it meant from the team and they got a big boost from that.

"We get to the second round straight. I don't totally like it because I would've liked to play the first games also to get that emotion too which is nice. We have big respect for Derry City. They are a good team. I've been watching them a lot.

"They play interesting football, quite passionate football so it's going to be a tough game. Basically they have a lot of running power. They are quite physical and really consistent in the things they do.

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"It's a bit of an unorthodox team if you think of the Finnish league, we don't have those types of teams. They often change their structure according to the opponent. But they are still able to play their own game so that's a big respect from our side to the coach. He makes his team really reactive according to the opponent.

"It's not easy to do it, even from game to game. That is something that is difficult when preparing for this match because you don't know totally what to expect.

"Luckily we have had good preparation time as we didn't have any league games since last week so we've had time to get to know Derry's game. We have our own way of playing but of course we always consider the opponent and also adapt to our opponent. We like to trust our own game but we have flexibility inside that.

"Derry is forcing us with the way they play, to make some adjustments. We also have to understand that they are really strong, especially at home. We have a high respect for our opponent. Of course we always want to show our best when we play.

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"Playing these away games in Europe you have to be mentally tough. That is the test we have to accept and then try to take. It's also quite interesting because we know all the teams in Veikkausliiga really well. Players know each other. Now you get to play against a team who you know absolutely nothing about so you have to research the players and a bit about the coach. What is he like, what is his background, what is his mentality because those are good information to understand them.

"We've been watching the Irish league which is a different league. We don't find clips which would give us answers to how Derry would react to our game. There's no team that plays similar to us. It's a bit more straight, more direct football in the Irish league compared to our own league. Even though Derry is a team that also likes to have possession, they are occasionally also direct."

KuPs have a decent European pedigree but have fallen short of reaching the group stages of both the Europa League and Conference League in recent seasons. It's a massive ambition of the club to replicate the achievements of the only other Finnish team to reach the latter stages, HJK Helsinki.

"Kups, for the last six years in a row, they've been in Euro games. I was at the club before from 2017 to 2019, so now I'm back in the club and we are in a good spell of being in Europe. So you could say we are quite an experienced European team.

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"That's why we always expect and our owner really likes these games so Europe is a really big thing for him."It's going to be tough (to make it to the group stages) because you saw the draw and most likely FC Basel is going to be the next challenge."

He's not sure if playing away from home in the first leg will be an advantage for his team but he expects both teams to be cautious and 'observe' in the opening 90 minutes.

"It depends. If they get a good match at home and a good result then of course it's some sort of advantage going away but these away trips are quite often an adventure as you have to travel and Derry is not so easy to reach and Kuopio is not so easy to reach.

"I told my players today that it is going to be a match that will last 180 minutes. So it won't be solved in the first leg, hopefully and I believe it will be solved in Kuopio. They will also maybe observe us in the first leg because we are a totally different team than Torshavn. So it might be a bit of observation in the start and then see who takes over.

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"Normally when we played against better teams, like when we played in 2018 against FC Copenhagen and then Legia Warsaw, both ties were a bit of observation in the first game and then trying to win it in the second but it depends.

"I'm a bit romantic in that I believe you can win any football game if the players have a really good day and the coach chooses the right tactics, then you have a chance against any opponent.

"Of course when it's two legs it makes it difficult. You have to do well at home and have to be consistent and solid away so you don't lose the key game away."

Listen to the full interview on this week’s ‘Talking Derry City’ podcast