Football is full of stories of players who made it against the odds, the young stars transforming potential into the real thing. But, there are even more players who never live up to that promise, who fall off the radar into a quiet and complete obscurity. Here’s the story of Lauri Dalla Valle.
Last month, our culture writer Srijandeep Das (indirectly) queried on Twitter: “Remember Lauri Dalla Valle, the next Robbie Fowler? Wonder what became of him.”
I felt surprised by the tweet, not least because it has been eight years since Dalla Valle left Liverpool. When the post popped up on my feed, I was in the middle of a writing project here in Finland. “Hey, I remember reading something about that guy not too long ago. Like he quit the game or something,” I thought. I halted what I was doing and performed a quick Google search. He had indeed retired in June, the same month the Russian hullabaloo preoccupied everyone’s minds.
I realised that for every Fábio Paím, there’s a Lauri Dalla Valle. A once-promising man (I presume), yet not promising enough to earn a mention or a follow once falling off the radar. Going unnoticed, unmarked and uneverything before retiring without a fuss.
A bag full of memories from the game’s backwaters and a thought experiment of how things could have been are the only things they can take away from their declining careers prior to taking on new challenges pronto.
This is the story of one such player. The story of Lauri Dalla Valle.
The story begins in 1980, at Piazza San Marco. 24-year-old drugs squad officer, Loreno Dalla Valle had travelled to Venice in order to shadow a suspected delinquent. Alas, he soon realized his cover was blown and backed off, hiding in plain sight by sitting down at a table already occupied by a Finnish student, Marketta.
The couple started talking, and with the evident chemistry between them, romance followed.
Loreno and Marketta moved to Northern Karelia, Finland, where the former started his own (successful) business as a penny bun distributor. They got married, and conceived two daughters, Zelia and Zara, as well as one son, Lauri. He was born on 14 September 1991.
Three years later, Loreno introduced his only son to calcio. Who would have known back then that the boy and the ball would be inextricably linked for years to come?
Young Lauri took the bait without objections, and soon enough, Loreno saw his son imitating the adults he saw performing, replicating their tricks and moves. All the while, some of the profits generated from the export of mushrooms, were allocated to the junior team of Joensuu-based side, Jippo, the team Loreno trained during his spare time.
Lauri joined the team, expeditiously establishing his reputation as the Cirque du Force amid peers and the parents alike. Dominating wherever he went, Dalla Valle was unanimously named the best player of the Finnish Nike Premier Cup in 2005, and the Pohjola Cup the year after. With his deeds catching fire, Urheilulehti, the second-oldest sports publication in the world, proceeded to label him as one of the most promising players to ever emerge from the nation.
No pressure on frail, fourteen-year-old shoulders.
Around that time, Jippo’s D-juniors travelled to a training camp in Italy to take part in a couple of tournaments there. Once again, Dalla Valle continued to do what he did best, guiding his team to small triumphs and hijacking the eyes of the audience in the process. With his line-folding passes and eye for the game highlighted on scouts’ creased sheets, Inter, Milan and Chievo wanted to have a closer look at the diamond in the (apparent) rough.
As it happened, Dalla Valle joined Inter’s academy at the humble age of fourteen. The idea was to stay in Milan and compose a career in Italy.
Unfortunately though, he faced great struggles in adapting to the Italian culture and local schools, the daily life too chaotic for his nature. Three months after the signing, Dalla Valle decided to return to Finland, where he would spend another year plying his trade for the senior side of Jippo. He was a welcome addition for a club competing in the highest league managed by the Football Association of Finland.
The player himself remained ambitious. Having returned to Joensuu, he lived in an apartment that was vibrantly described by Helsingin Sanomat as a “genuine training lodge”.
In late 2007, Dalla Valle’s career kicked into the next gear. “When we played in Ireland [with Finland youth national team] I scored three goals in two matches and set up a couple more. After that we started to get contacts from Italian and English clubs.” He went on to trial with the Reds in November, where he was coached by Kevin Keegan, and soon after, saw himself being pursued by both Chelsea and Liverpool.
Chelsea attempted to win the 16-year-old over by offering Dalla Valle a million pound cheque as a signing bonus for moving to London. The contract was meant to be for the next three and a half years. The Blues further proclaimed that they would pay double for every offer that arrived from Merseyside. However, with the chief executive Rick Parry closely involved in the negotiations, Liverpool remained confident and implicitly stated that Dalla Valle had already made up his mind.
“I saw him at the [under-17] European qualifiers this week, and I have to repeat myself when I say that Lauri is an unbelievable talent. I’m looking forward to his arrival. The transfer? I’m confident about it because Lauri is willing to move here,” Malcolm Elias, the head of talent recruitment at Liverpool at the time, told Karjalainen.
Eventually, Dalla Valle made his way to Liverpool, with the club committing themselves to making him a top player.
With the academy, he got off to a good start, grabbing a hat-trick in his debut and scoring twelve times in as many games. As a part of the Liverpool side that reached the FA Youth Cup Final at the end of the season, he scored eight goals, including two braces against Birmingham in the two-legged semi-final. In November, earlier that season, Veikkaaja had reported on Milan’s, Inter’s and especially Ajax’s attempts to inveigle the teenager into changing scenery.
“Lauri doesn’t want to leave, and Liverpool doesn’t want to sell. Liverpool have built a clear path for Lauri, all the way to the first team,” the player’s father economically told the magazine.
After such convincing showings, Dalla Valle was promoted to the Liverpool Reserves squad in June 2009, and therefore he started the 2009–10 season as a senior member of the reserves at Melwood. On 29 July 2010, seven days after his unofficial debut, “Laurie” played his first and last match for Liverpool Football Club by replacing Alberto Aquilani in the 83rd minute of the UEFA Europa League’s third qualifying round tie against FK Rabotnički. With thirteen players unavailable, Roy Hodgson had been forced to field a few rookies and Dalla Valle was one of them. He managed to touch the ball a few times but did nothing to write home about. Well, who could have? It was less than ten minutes, after all.
Hodgson’s comments and actions read like a motion of no confidence to Dalla Valle’s ears. Hence he decided, together with Malcolm Elias, to move on by taking a shortcut to the top through West London. Patience is a virtue that not everyone is blessed with.
Fulham had already tried to acquire Dalla Valle in the summer of 2009, offering Liverpool more than three and a half million pounds for his services — not once but twice. Back then, Rafael Benítez rejected both of these offers by setting a price tag of five million pounds and refusing to loan him, preparing to include a buy-back clause instead.
A year later, on 31 August 2010, Fulham finally pulled off the feat and signed Dalla Valle as well as Alex Kačanikli, in exchange for left-back Paul Konchesky. Seven months later, the club loaned him to Bournemouth, believing that his value would accrue as a result of this transaction.
The move proved out to be anything but fertile for the young gun, as Dalla Valle struggled to reach the water surface of the deep end of the pool. Once Fulham executives travelled to Bournemouth in order to take a closer look at their prospect, their eyes were hijacked by a much shinier jewel. That jewel being Danny Ings. And so, Dalla Valle had to settle for a place in his shadow.
All in all, Dalla Valle managed to amass just eight league appearances and two goals at Bournemouth.
Back at Fulham, he found himself bouncing from one place to another. Without a single appearance for his employers (bar few hopeful Europa League showings), he experienced the waves at Dundee United, Exeter City and Crewe Alexandra. For Dundee United he scored three goals in five starts, whereas League One side Crewe was provided with five goals from ten games; the stint at Exeter City was goalless. At Crewe, the name of “Laurie” often rang around the Gresty Road during cold winter afternoons. I bet he remembers this quite well.
It’s obvious that the Fulham stint didn’t do miracles to Dalla Valle’s career. The host teams he played for weren’t exactly enthusiastic to field him, given the fact that they didn’t have options to buy him. One got the feeling that it was here that he lost his love towards football.
Alas, it was all pure downhill from there on.
Dalla Valle tried to resurrect his career by moving to Molde on a permanent basis on 25 February 2013. It didn’t work out and, after going four matches without scoring, he was on the move again. He tried his luck at Belgian second division side Sint-Truiden, but after twenty-one league appearances, and no goals to show for his efforts, Sint-Truiden decided they had seen enough and released him after just the one season.
Having tried to impress Vicenza in front of 150 or so fans, Dalla Valle relapsed. He re-joined Crewe, the only senior side where he had felt loved, signing a contract until June 2016. This time around, however, everything was different. At first, he helped the Railwaymen to secure a place in the third tier, but the next season the striker fell out of favour as his team drowned to relegation. A few months long injury had not helped his case.
The boy once sought after by Milan, Inter, Chelsea, Liverpool and Ajax struggled to reach the bench in a team that was facing relegation to the fourth tier of English football.
Having faced one failure after another, Dalla Valle travelled to Spain to perform an audition for the newly promoted semi-professional Segunda División B side, San Fernando CD. Once again, no luck. In August 2017, it was time for him to take one last step in his somewhat tapered career, with the destination being FK Zemun of Serbian SuperLiga. Newly promoted of course. And once again, Dalla Valle failed to thrive in the demanding environment that was Serbian football at that time. After just three games, the man was out. This time for good. In June 2018, he briefly confirmed his retirement for Karjalainen. The local newspaper that had been covering his career ever since he left for Inter at thirteen years old.
Perhaps, Dalla Valle could’ve returned to Finland and forged a decent career as a pro. Perhaps, he could’ve tried to cling to life with the minimum wage at some Macedonian club. I don’t know why he made the decision he did. No one does, really, because he refused to talk about it. However, I must presume that moving constantly and sojourning alone in the middle of nowhere finally took its toll. Finding an employer when one is in their mid-20s is an ordeal.
Moreover, if one isn’t passionate to the core, football can easily become a dull thing to do. Fredrik Lassas — a footballing professional who at the humble age of twenty-one abruptly retired and went to study law instead — said earlier this year that if one is interested in any other topic outside of FIFA and clothes, it’s difficult to find anyone to talk to.
Dalla Valle was interested in photography and consultancy.
“… 23-year-old Lauri Dalla Valle scored two times for Crewe’s under 21-year-olds. Yay! …”
— Timo Innanen of MTV on Twitter, on 1 December 2014
Dalla Valle never faced any setbacks with academy sides. Everywhere, the fans were blessed with goals galore. Week in, week out. However, in football, like in life, the gap between boys and men is a big one. The things, to which the kings of playgrounds used to rely on, are to no avail when the daily grind takes over, separating the wheat from the chaff.
This begs the question: Was Dalla Valle too sure of himself? Thinking he could pull it off because he could pull it off amidst his peers? Like Buzz Gunderson in Rebel Without a Cause, he challenged himself with a bit of silly chickie run, eventually plunging to his demise due to insufficient preparation and possibly hubris.
“Laurie” was always considered to revel in physical challenges. Perhaps this aspect of his game turned obsolete after moving to Fulham, after the others caught him up. Perhaps he just lacked the final touch, like novelist and journalist, former CEO of FF Jaro Kristian Sundqvist suggested, in 2017.
Reading old news articles about Dalla Valle gave me a lump in my throat. It was just sad seeing everyone so excited about him, until he just kind of faded away.
When Dalla Valle first refused to return Markku Kanerva’s and Stuart Baxter’s calls in 2009, the Finns (myself included) felt devastated. We felt we were missing out on a soon-to-be one-man brand who could’ve done miracles for us with the current Norwich striker, Teemu Pukki. We felt we were missing out on the next Fernando Torres, because he opted to see if he could make it to La Azzurri.
“If Finland and Italy were equals in football, I’d play for Finland. […] But because I’m an ambitious player and I want to win as much trophies as possible during my career, everyone knows that there’s a difference whether you play with the Finnish or Italian national team. […] Of course it all depends on how good of a player I’m going to be, and what my opportunities will be like.”
— Dalla Valle in an interview with Urheilulehti, June 2010.
He also claimed that Italy national team had been in contact with him.
Of course, Dalla Valle must be kind of glad, thinking about all the experiences he had. From kicking a ball around behind a church to knocking on the gates of Anfield — all the way to the notorious branches of Serbian football professionalism. He’s done more in life than I probably ever will.
And now he can duly focus on his true passion, with all the time in the world ahead of him. Perhaps as a more mature and more prepared person than he was eight years ago when he moved to Fulham.