Better than the Barry Butler
I’ve always felt it was too obvious to have a striker as your favourite player. How boring, I’d think, how basic, to like the player who scores the goals, the one who wants all the glory to themselves! Instead I loved brick-headed centre backs, valiant goalkeepers, midfield powerhouses — anyone but a striker.
Then came Teemu Pukki. It’s hard to know when, exactly, he won me over, but somewhere between his arrival in July of 2018 and November of that same year, when he emerged as the leading light of our promotion charge, I realised that he was different.
Level-headed, humble and hardworking, Pukki has come to exemplify this Norwich City team. He is the crown jewel of a canny recruitment policy that finds value in places others overlook: in his case, that was the Danish top tier, where he had spent four seasons with Brondby.
As we like to tell anyone who’ll listen, he arrived on a free transfer, making what followed all the more extraordinary: in his first season with us he won the Championship golden boot with 29 goals, the second-highest total ever, bettered only by Glenn Murray’s 30 for Crystal Palace in 2012–13. It’s worth noting that eight of Murray’s tally were penalties — Pukki’s 29 did not contain a single spot kick.
But it is his character, not only his talent, that makes him so likeable. He lacks many of the traits associated with top strikers: arrogance, aggression, vanity. He is relentlessly self-effacing, always deflecting praise, even when marking personal milestones.
You see it in his goal celebrations, when often the first thing he does is turn to acknowledge the assist — especially when the provider is Emi Buendía. Pukki has described the Argentinian as “the best partner I’ve ever had on a football pitch”, and the feeling is mutual. In our 4–1 win over Stoke City in February, Buendía helped Pukki to end a run of eight games without a goal from open play, setting him up for the second; he also won a penalty that he wanted to take himself, but which he relinquished to Pukki.
Afterwards Buendía recounted their conversation: “I asked Teemu if I could take it in the beginning and he said yes, but then he asked me if he could and I said, ‘Of course, you are the main taker, you are our goalscorer’.”
It was a neat summation of Pukki’s understated style, and the respect his team-mates have for him. It’s been evident this season in the way Jordan Hugill has applauded the Finn from the sidelines, even though his stellar form has limited Hugill to only a handful of appearances.
Pukki’s Norwich career has also led to an unlikely alliance: before his arrival I can’t say I took a particular interest in the fortunes of the Finland national side, but I’m sure I won’t be the only Norwich fan to make them my second team at the Euros this summer. And of course our Finnish fan club has grown exponentially, after giving their talisman the chance to play in the Premier League.
Though Pukki got off to a blistering start in the top flight, he will feel he did not do himself justice, ending with only 11 goals. That he looks set to get another shot is one of the many pleasing elements of this campaign — and it will be richly deserved, given that he has again been key to our success, scoring 25 goals and counting.
Such a feat has prompted the usual debates over where, exactly, Pukki belongs in Norwich City folklore. Well, most statistical measures would suggest he is a bonafide great already: he is, before kick-off today, joint-tenth on the list of our all-time top scorers, on 66 goals, with the joint-best goals-per-game ratio.
But there’s another way of evaluating his contributions, a more human one: by remembering the special moments he has given us. Not everything has to be weighed against the past, or quantified. Because that’s the other thing I never understood about strikers: the strange alchemy they seem to rely upon during their richest veins of form. It is fragile and, like a magic trick, does not benefit from close scrutiny — it should simply be enjoyed.
When recalling Pukki’s vast highlights reel I often go back to the opening goal in our 4–0 win over Bolton Wanderers in February of 2019. He ended a slick counter-attacking move, taking a touch with his left foot to check back on to his right, fooling both the defender and the goalkeeper, and firing home at the near post.
It wasn’t spectacular, but it was quintessentially Pukki: smart movement, quick feet, a neat finish — and, of course, his tongue sticking out in concentration as he went for goal.
He already has plenty of accolades by now, but here’s another, perhaps the most precious of all, given it’s one no other Norwich striker has managed to earn: he’s my favourite.
This piece was published in OTBC, the Norwich City matchday programme, for the Championship game against Bournemouth on 17th March 2021.