Kuqi's love of Ipswich

THE look in Shekfi Kuqi's eyes tells you nothing.Green and unblinking they are the eyes of a man who has seen a lot but prefers to keep his counsel.Delving too deep into his childhood which saw his family flee his native Kosovo, brings polite but quiet resistance.

THE look in Shekfi Kuqi's eyes tells you nothing.

Green and unblinking they are the eyes of a man who has seen a lot but prefers to keep his counsel.

Delving too deep into his childhood which saw his family flee his native Kosovo, brings polite but quiet resistance.

The Kuqi family left during the Balkans War when Yugoslavia split so violently and Serbs went about their ethnic cleansing policy, which saw Albanian migrants flee neighbouring countries, including Kosovo.

It has been a long road from Kosovo to Suffolk, via Finland. In footballing terms an even longer journey. Kuqi said: "My parents left Kosovo during the war and moved to Finland, no particular reason why Finland, it was just a good country."

Arriving as a 12 or 13-year-old, Kuqi is not sure, the teenager took time to assimilate and it was a year before he went back to playing football as he had in his native country.

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He said: "I had played in Kosovo but when we moved to Finland I didn't play for a year because it took time to settle down and learn the language. I came through the young ranks and moved up through Second Division and made my Premier League debut at about 16 or 17."

Perhaps those early traumatic days are a clue to why Kuqi looks older than his stated 26 years of age. Not that his fitness or stamina can be questioned, unlike other imports we have seen in this country.

He has the physique of a light-heavyweight boxer and already in the two-and-a-half games he has played has shown an unstinting willingness to track back, make long runs, short runs, scavenge crossfield and be in the box to take the ball and score, as he did on his debut at Watford.

His naturally athletic build could have seen him choose one of Finland's more popular sports, ice hockey or field athletics, particularly javelin.

A smile almost breaks across his craggy features as Kuqi gives a slight shake of the head.

"Not long ago they were world champions. It is their national sport and they are very good at it.

"There is ice everywhere but it was not my sport. Nor is javelin. It is nice to try other sports but football takes up so much time and that is my first love. In Finland our pre-season starts four months before the season starts so you don't get time for much else."

England fans will not need reminding how dangerous Finland have become as a national force after forcing a 0-0 draw in Helsinki during the last World Cup qualifiers. European clubs are littered with their best players plying their trade abroad – Southampton keeper Antti Niemi, Mikael Forssell at Birmingham City, Liverpool's Sami Hyypia and Ajax's Jari Litmanen to mention a few.

It was inevitable that the country's player of the year four years ago should follow suit.

He said: "All the best players leave Finland to play abroad so the standard is not so high. But if you do well you can get a move.

"I had won the championship, the cup and was top goal-scorer so it was a natural step to come to England."

From FC Jokerit, his first step was a trial at Wolves. They offered him a six-month contract but he turned it down for Stockport County. That was three years ago and although there must be regret, Kuqi only looks forward.

He adds: "I'm happy to be with a club like Ipswich. Look at the facilities, the quality of the players, this team. I'm back in the First Division but I still want to play in the Premiership and I know I will.

"We have a great team here and it makes it easier for me to play. The quality has surprised me a bit as I have only come across Ipswich the once and that was at Sheffield Wednesday last season when we lost 1-0. All the Ipswich players looked so comfortable on the ball and were by far the best team we had played.

"I have been here a few days now and you can see in training how good certain individual players are and there is quality everywhere here."

There is no doubting his determination which matches his intelligence. With three languages under his belt, Kuqi is articulate and wise. Clever enough to set his priorities which is why he called Finland coach Antti Muurinen to ask if he could be excused Saturday's friendly in Tampere against Canada so he could play at Bradford for Town.

He said: "I spoke with the national team coach and asked if there was any chance of me being allowed to play for Ipswich rather than play in the friendly and he was understanding and told me to do my best at Ipswich in the three months I'm here."

With three languages spoken fluently and a smattering of another three or four and having adapted to three cultures, it is not surprising that Kuqi is not phased when asked to switch from a three or two up front.

He said: "It will take some time for me to get used to playing three up front. I have not played that too much in England although I did in Finland."

The striker knows he has to make an impact if he is to get a permanent contract at Town, who have agreed an undisclosed fee with Sheffield Wednesday if everyone is happy at the end of the three months.

Boss Joe Royle described him as a 6'2" Paul Dickov and added: "He works for the team and will chase lost causes, shadows, even waste paper across the pitch and you need that."

But Kuqi has seen enough not to get carried away.

"We will see what happens," he says almost enigmatically.

Like his eyes, he is giving nothing away.