Thursday, 22 September 2011

An Englishman in Tallinn

Originally from Lancashire, Richard Barnwell has been in Estonia for almost ten years in a career that has seen him play for some of the top Estonian clubs. Now involved in youth coaching at Levadia Tallinn, he kindly took time out to answer some questions and give an interesting first hand insight to life in Estonian football:

Hi Richard. Firstly, how did you end up in Estonia? Who have you played for in your time there?

I first came to Estonia in February 2002. The temperatures and snow gave me a great introduction to the area’s climate. The only person I knew here was my then girlfriend who I met in New York, where I lived for a year, so I decided to play football just to meet a few other like minded people. The team I joined won promotion to the First League via the play-offs, which is just below the Meistriliiga.   During the off season I received a phone call from Levadia and ended up playing for them. I played in 2003 and 2004 and also had a loan spell in Iceland.  I managed to play twice in the UEFA Cup qualifying rounds and started to coach for the club. A couple of years ago a few old Levadia players were in the Nõmme Kalju team that won promotion to the Meistriliiga and I played for them in 2008.

How have you found playing in the Meistriliiga? Who is the best player you have played with?

I remember we played Leicester City in a friendly the summer that they were relegated form the Premier League. They had Dion Dublin, Keith Gillespie, Matt Elliott etc so they were much faster and stronger than us but our players had more technical ability. This is something that the Estonian youth system is working on now. Towards the end of the 90s they took on the Dutch approach due to the national team boss [the national team had seven years of Dutch management under Arno Pijpers and Jelle Goes] but now their main focus is now on physically strong players.

The best player I’ve played with is tough.  I have been lucky to play with or against most of Estonia’s top players.

You’re involved in youth coaching at Levadia - are you optimistic about the future of Estonian football given the quality of players (and other coaches) you work with?

Absolutely. The potential is there and the results of the youth teams are getting better and better. The key for Estonia is to get young players out to top European clubs as soon as possible so they can experience as high a level as possible.

The Meistriliiga has some of the lowest attendances in Europe for a country’s top division  - can you see its profile being raised given the pull of moves abroad for the best players and the dominance of the Premier League/La Liga/Bundesliga in terms of viewing?

Estonia was home to the very last Soviet Union Basketball champions so football was always a secondary sport here but this has changed and attendances are rising. Nõmme Kalju and their approach was a breath of fresh air in 2008 with their concentrated focus on marketing and other clubs are working hard to catch up.  Other country's top teams generate revenue from TV deals and gate receipts and as both of these are low in Estonia nobody has the money to play top players big salaries.

Despite this, the amount of first team football young players get at top Estonian clubs can only be a good thing?

I agree to certain extent but the danger is they get used to that level and have very little exposure, especially when they leave the U21 team and don’t make the full Estonian team.

Henri Anier and Albert Prosa are both among the Meistriliiga top scorers at the age of 20 and have made their international debuts this season – do you have any other tips in terms of younger players to keep an eye on?

There are quite of lot of potentials but it wouldn’t be fair to label them too soon. In my U14 team I’ve had 6-7 players playing in the Estonian U15 team so I’ll be working hard to get them some exposure later this year.

The Estonian national team has done well in Euro 2012 qualifying (the Faroes game aside!), with a win in Serbia and two excellent wins against Slovenia and Northern Ireland - do you think this is a reflection of the improvement in standard of coaching of players from a young age in recent years?

I think there is definitely an improvement in coaching in Estonia. Urmas Kirs (former Estonian legend) heads up the coaching system here and there are several Pro Licence holders. But for the national team they have some great young guys as you mentioned but they need to have all their players fit to compete with other nations as there isn’t great depth in the squad.  I was lucky to play for Tarmo Rüütli at Levadia and he is by far the best coach in the country. His experience is key to all the positive results they have.

Flora or Kalju for the title? Or a late surge from Levadia?

I think Levadia are just too far away now. They have had a change of coach mid-season and I would say they miss a goal scorer.  My head says Flora but as neutral I want to see Kalju cause a surprise. Levadia play both teams again and it should go to the wire.

And lastly, what’s your favourite and least favourite thing about living in Estonia?

The best thing is the quality of life here in the capital. The worst is the darkness in winter.

Thanks Richard!

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