Jon Daly has thrown himself in at the deep end during his time in Finland — in a very literal sense.
“We went away for pre-season and our goalkeeping coach, Mikko, was telling us all about the ice swimming he does,” recalls Daly. “He was desperate to go down for a dip.”
Lake Ruostejarvi envelops the Eerikkila Sport and Outdoor Resort, 65 miles north of Helsinki, and although the crisp, serene water is a breathtaking spectacle, the freezing mist rising from its surface should serve as fair warning to anyone thinking of taking the plunge.
“We were there for three nights and we did it on the last two,” laughs Daly. “I enjoyed it and it was actually something I might do again. It’s certainly an experience I wouldn’t have ticked off in Scotland.”
That is the approach Daly has taken since agreeing to embark on a Scandinavian adventure with Turun Palloseura (TPS) last November, working as assistant manager to former Rangers, Hibernian and St Johnstone attacker Jonatan Johansson.
He has happily leapt aboard the Duolingo bandwagon in a bid to converse with players in their native tongue and has taken to exploring picturesque Turku, Finland’s oldest city and former capital, which sits on the mouth of the Aura River.
Daly is living a dream of sorts.
He tells The Courier how keen he was to experience playing abroad and laments a couple of opportunities which he allowed to slipped by prior to joining Raith Rovers in August 2015.
Coaching in a foreign land, he contends, is the next best thing.
“There are moments when the sporting director, Mika Laurikainen, and Jonatan [Johansson] are speaking Finnish and apologise, but I don’t feel like it’s necessary,” he continues.
“I’m the guest in their country and I need to bash on, learn what I can and pick up what is happening.
“It’s a really difficult language but I am picking up key words and phrases, which is helping me follow the conversation. I’ve downloaded Duolingo — that has been a life-saver.
“I’ll go in the next day and try out some things with the players and they’ll give me pointers. It’s mainly my pronunciation that is the problem. I don’t think the Finnish language and Dublin accent are happy bedfellows!
“However, you’ve got to try to get involved with the culture, the language and get to know the people.
“I’ve been able to explore on my days off. I went for a 22 kilometre walk, over the bridge and down to the beach the other day. That was a four-hour effort and my knees are still recovering!
“When my wife and kids come over, I’m really looking forward to them seeing the place and enjoying some of the experiences I have.”
— SPFL (@spfl) November 14, 2019
And for all he is embracing his new surroundings, Daly is counting the days until he can see his wife, Linda, and two daughters, Sophie and Shannon.
“This is probably the longest I’ve gone without them,” says Daly. “I maybe didn’t realise how tough that would be, and certainly didn’t know how long we’d be apart.
“It was actually Shannon’s birthday recently and although the video calling is great, it’s not the same as seeing them in person. They had their socially distant party, and I was working 1000 miles away. That was hard.”
Daly is effusive in his praise for Johansson, who has urged him to visit his family as soon as logistically possible. The empathy is understandable, given his own wife, TV presenter Jean, and son Jonatan Jr, are back in Scotland.
But for the moment, the pair, whose friendship was fostered working together on the UEFA ‘Pro’ Licence course, have their eyes on the prize.
TPS find themselves in the second tier of Finnish football, but remain one of the country’s most prestigious clubs (they have won eight top-flight titles and the national cup three times). As such, they will be expected to secure promotion when their 2021 campaign begins next Wednesday.
Daly will also manage the TPS Colts team, which participates in the third tier, and he is audibly excited by the prospect of developing and promoting young talent. He describes Jasper Jalonen, 16, as ‘one of the best young players I’ve seen’.
Remember the name, to quote Clive Tyldesley.
The former Dundee United cult hero sounds like a man refreshed in his maiden role since leaving Hearts in January 2020. To say he did not fit into the plans of incoming boss Daniel Stendel at that time would be something of an understatement.
Stendel publicly declared that Andy Kirk is ‘the only one I trust’ from the coaching team left behind by Craig Levein — also tacitly denigrating Austin MacPhee and Liam Fox — and Daly later described those comments as ‘embarrassing’. Messy stuff.
“When you step up to first-team level and put your head above the parapet, you open yourself up to criticism, comments or, ultimately, losing your job,” reflected Daly.
“That is the nature of the beast when a new manager comes in and you need to handle it and move on.
“After being a coach at Hearts for four years and never experienced a real set-back like that, it probably does knock your confidence and little bit.
“I was probably ready to leave Hearts; it was time to go and try something new. However, no-one was to know what was going to happen next. I left Hearts in January then by March, Covid had hit and football was stopped.
“Opportunities dwindle away and the roles out there become rare. The longer goes on, you do wonder if you’ll get another chance.
“But I always backed myself in terms of the way I conduct myself, my work ethic and the way I want to improve players.”
However, when one door closes, another opens. Daly used his time to visit a coaching convention in the U.S. and carried out several club visits (until Covid put paid to that), soaking up information and studying methods.
Mark Spalding, now Rangers’ youth development manager, put Daly in touch with ex-St Mirren legend Tommy Wilson and former Dundee and Dunfermline manager Iain Munro — both of whom are affiliated with Philadelphia Union — and he spent time with the MLS side.
“I have never claimed to know everything and I genuinely believe that we are not re-inventing the wheel,” added Daly. “If we can help each another — exchanging session plans, methods or techniques — collaboration can be really exciting.
“I’ve come across coaches in the past who are very closed and don’t want to share information. I’m the opposite and I noticed that at Philadelphia, they were open and that was really refreshing.
“That opened my eyes again that there are good people in the game.”
Football makes fools of anyone daft enough to plan too far ahead, as Daly well knows, but he is keeping an open mind regarding the future and would never rule out a return to Scottish football.
But working with Johansson — a man with a reputation across Scandinavia, and on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall — provides a tantalising platform.
Jon Daly hit 4 as Rangers strolled to a huge win over The Warriors back in September 2013! pic.twitter.com/4zKZxWgtvy
— SPFL (@spfl) February 16, 2017
“My family are still based in Scotland and I know the players and the league,” he added. “So, if any opportunities were to present themselves, then that would be a bridge to be crossed.
“But I’ve enjoyed working abroad and if circumstances were different — in terms of Covid restrictions — then it would have been easier.
“If Jonatan and I do well, then you never know what chances might open up. Scandinavia has some great leagues and big, big teams, so we’ll just wait and see.
“We are absolutely focused on this job and what we are doing here. Regardless of what the future brings, I am determined to use this spell to become a better coach, win promotion and help our players forge a good career.”