| Last updated
Mika Aaritalo looks down at the ground and laughs. The game that catapulted his name into the spotlight has become a main topic of conversation. "There is nothing in real life that came close to my stats on Football Manager," he says, almost dejectedly. "It is like a second identity."
From his home in Turku, Finland, the softy-spoken former Finnish international is opening up about his virtual status in a rare interview.
If you're familiar with the Football Manager series, then the name Aaritalo might ring a bell. Back in 2008, those behind the scenes spotted a clinical striker playing for his hometown club Turun Palloseura, or TPS, as they are more commonly known.
Players could sign this relatively unknown striker from Finland's first division for just £200,000 and, within the space of a few years, they would reap the rewards as he flourished into one of the world's best forwards, scoring 25 goals a season without fail.
The 36-year-old has fond yet odd memories of the game. "I played the early versions of Football Manager a lot," Aaritalo tells SPORTbible. "Every time I started a new save, I would buy myself but I never thought I would become a legend.
"And then I started to get Facebook messages from all over Europe. I was like 'what is going on?'. It wasn't too long ago that I got a message from someone. People ask for shirts. But I don't have that many! They just say you are a legend. It feels cool but also a bit weird."
You sense that Aaritalo feels slightly uneasy about his Football Manager legacy. In reality, things never quite reached those dizzying heights, especially after a two-year spell at Premier League side Aston Villa failed to live up to expectations.
Despite some major setbacks, the likeable Finn certainly has a story to tell. He became a target for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, including Manchester United and Arsenal, and was spotted by the great Graham Taylor as he played for his beloved TPS.
He also made six appearances for Finland and played alongside national treasure Jari Litmanen; so, in his words, what happened to one of Football Manager's greatest wonderkids?
Believe it or not, Mika Aaritalo was a commanding centre-back in the early stages of his career but all that changed at 14, when a youth coach decided to utilise his aerial ability and strength by throwing him into the centre-forward position.
It was here where scouts from the international scene noticed his goalscoring talent.
"I was 16-years-old when I got called up to Finland's youth team for the first time," Aaritalo tells us. "I was scoring goals and I got to play with the youth team. I scored 15 goals in 10 games or something like that. I was doing really well.
"They were good times. When you are 15-16-years-old, you start to think about other options. Things could have easily worked out differently. At that age, you start to do things that you are not so proud of but when I got called up to the youth national team for the first time, my mentality changed."
The teenager starred for his country at the U17 European Championships in Denmark, where he would come up against England and the highly-rated Wayne Rooney, who was "the big star" that summer. "I remember everyone was saying he played in the Premier League for Everton," he recalls.
Finland would score three goals in that tournament. Mika Aaritalo bagged them all.
A number of clubs followed his progress at the European Championships with interest, including Feyenoord, Bröndby IF and Charlton Athletic, who finished 12th in the Premier League that season. "I went there [Charlton] for two weeks and they offered me a youth contract," he recalls. "Jonatan Johansson was playing there, a fellow Finn."
There was also interest from some of Europe's big guns. After scoring 19 goals at youth team level for TPS Turku during the 2001/02 campaign, Manchester United and Arsenal were reportedly tracking Aaritalo's progress but after a special visit from a true gentleman of the game, another English club came out on top.
"I had many opportunities at that time but then Aston Villa made an approach and it was an easy choice."
Aaritalo was still playing for TPS Turku's youth team when Aston Villa's first-team manager Graham Taylor hopped on a flight from Birmingham to Finland to watch one of his games. After coming out of retirement in 2002, Taylor was keen to make the club more competitive.
"He [Taylor] watched from the sidelines that day," he says. "I didn't understand it at the time but it hit me later on - to have a manager with that type of reputation to come and watch you. There had to be some interest there. It showed they really wanted me at Villa.
"I didn't speak to Graham after the game but soon after, I flew to England to visit Birmingham."
It emerged later on that Finnish scout Dave Wilson became aware of Aaritalo's potential two years previously and, after charting his progress closely, Villa decided to offer the teenager a three-year contract in the summer of 2002.
Graham Taylor was delighted to get his man. "I am pleased to say we've been able to beat all the others for his signature," he said. "Normally when you sign boys of this age you do not get a lot of publicity but we have had to fight off some big competition for his signature.
"He is a very talented boy. He has things in his make-up that you are normally trying to teach to people at this age. I am talking about the runs he makes, his touch and his awareness. Normally you are spending time trying to install those things into 17-year-olds.
"He does a lot of those things naturally and he has a very good left foot."
I decided to read out that quote from Taylor during our chat over Zoom. "It feels good to hear that, knowing where those words came from," Aaritalo says. "I spoke with Graham a number of times. He was a gentleman. He was a really nice man."
Villa's new signing is the first to admit that he didn't know much about football in England at the time, but he was convinced by Taylor and the facilities on show.
He joined in January 2003 and two months later, after impressing in the youth team, he was promoted to first-team training.
"There was a big step up in quality," Aaritalo remembers. "Every training session was a battle. It was intense. You had so many knocks."
Unfortunately for the teenager, Villa were stuck in a gritty relegation battle, meaning he didn't get his chance to shine alongside the likes of Juan Pablo Angel, Olof Mellberg and Gareth Barry. It was their worst league campaign in eight years.
"I heard later on that if they had secured a place in the Premier League earlier, then I could have got a chance to play for the first team. But it came down to the last few weeks and there was a lot on the line."
Five months after arriving from Finland, Graham Taylor resigned as the manager of Aston Villa with immediate effect.
In a statement announcing his decision, he outlined his desire to give up and coming talent their chance. "I had always believed that last season was going to be one of transition, particularly in respect of emerging young players," he said.
"I would, however, point out that modern football, with its well-publicised financial pressures, involves much wider issues than mere playing matters and those are a major factor in my decision."
It was a bitter blow to Aaritalo. Under the Taylor regime, he was close to making a first-team appearance. Taylor ultimately wanted to give youngsters a platform to perform on the biggest stage. A month later, David O'Leary was appointed.
"It changed my circumstances," the 36-year-old says. "O'Leary didn't think we needed a youth academy. He wanted to buy 'ready-made' players, like he did at Leeds beforehand. And look what happened to them.
"I think for me, the first six months were easy. Everything was going well. I was playing and scoring goals, playing for the reserves and then training with the first team. We got to the youth team final against Blackburn, too.
"But when Taylor left, I started well but then picked up injuries. Then it got harder. I was far away from home and the homesickness kicked in."
After failing to make a senior appearance for the Premier League club, Aaritalo returned to hometown club TPS Turku in 2005.
When asked if he had any career regrets, he remembers this time in particular.
"I think the only thing I've thought about is; if I had stayed in England after leaving Villa, would I have made a career with another team? But then again, maybe I wasn't mentally ready to stay because the last few months before I came back to Finland weren't the best times of my life.
"Looking back, being alone in a different place became too much. I missed my family, too."
After leaving Villa Park in the summer, Aaritalo would go on to make 196 appearances for the Finnish club between 2005 and 2015, and once again, he would attract interest from European clubs after scoring 47 goals in all competitions.
He then decided to move to German side Holstein Kiel on a six-month loan, where things didn't exactly go to plan after being sent off on his debut.
For the third time in his career, Aaritalo returned to Finland. He played for FC Lahti, KuPS and for the third and final time, TPS Turku, where he retired last season in an emotional final game.
After a disappointing campaign, the club suffered relegated from Finland's top division on the final day but Aaritalo has great memories from his time at the Veritas stadium. "I love the club," he says. "It's my team. It was always the club I wanted to play for although it was not the happy ending we wanted."
It may not have been a fairytale ending but ultimately, the former centre forward still gets great satisfaction out of watching others do well.
"I still follow players like Steven Davis, who plays for Rangers, and Gary Cahill as well. It is so nice to see so many players from the youth ranks come through and play for top teams. It's great to say that I've played with that guy, and that guy."
And what would have happened if Graham Taylor had remained as Aston Villa manager?
"You never know," he says. "That's football. These things happen."
Featured Image Credit: Sports Interactive/Football Manager
Chosen for YouChosen for You
Most Read StoriesMost Read