He’s the bellyflopping, club-hopping centre forward who Newcastle have signed to fill in for the departed Andy Carroll and the injured Shola Ameobi. And at 6ft 2in and 14 stone, Shefki Kuqi will certainly allow Alan Pardew to call upon a physical presence up front again.
The former Finland international, 34, who made his Newcastle debut against one his many former sides, Blackburn, as a late substitute last Saturday, is almost certainly only a stopgap option for the Magpies until they can dip into the £35m they raised from the sale of their former number nine and find a more long-term replacement in the summer. Nonetheless, the player for whom the phrase ‘burly front man’ could have been invented is a veteran of ten years’ almost unbroken service in British football whose big chance on Tyneside represents one of this season’s most heartening tales.
“I’m probably one of the happiest footballers in the world,” said the player with the famous goal celebration on his arrival last week.
Kuqi made Newcastle his ninth Football League club shortly after having his contract at Swansea City terminated by mutual consent, but he had given no indication in an interview just a day or so earlier that he was anticipating an offer from quite such a big club. Speaking to Mark Clemmit on the nPower Football League podcast last Tuesday, Kuqi spoke of “mixed feelings” about the way his release from the Liberty Stadium had come about and sounded like he was unsure what his next step would be.
Any footballer in his mid-thirties who finds himself without a club has a right to feel anxious about the future of his career. In Kuqi’s case, he had found himself out of favour under Brendan Rodgers at the beginning of this season and was loaned out to Derby County as a result. The striker only scored twice for the Rams in a three-month period but his spell with the club did coincide with a good run of form for Nigel Clough’s side. Nevertheless, the loan was not extended and Kuqi’s parent club decided to give him a free transfer on 26th January. It was a sad way for the player to end his twelve months in south Wales, which had brought him seven goals in 24 appearances.
Whatever his worries after leaving Swansea, however, Kuqi has overcome far greater obstacles in the past. The son of Kosovar Albanian parents who decided to leave Serbia at the end of the eighties, with the Balkans gearing up for war, Kuqi moved to Finland with his family when he was 12 years old.
“It was a huge change, going to live in another country and starting a new life,” he told the Independent in 2004. “It took a while to get used to it. I did very little in my first year in Finland. I didn’t speak the language and we didn’t know anybody. The Finnish language is hard to learn. My family eventually picked it up and they’re now OK with it, but it was very difficult for them at first. Fortunately when you’re a kid you pick the language up quite quickly and make friends. I started to go to school and play football. And getting into football was the best possible way for me to make my mark in a new country.”
It was Stockport County who brought Kuqi to Britain at the start of 2001 from the Finnish club FC Jokerit. In stark contrast to their current plight near the bottom of League Two, ten years ago Stockport were in what is now the Championship. They were battling against relegation when Kuqi joined at the turn of the year and the club’s website still credits the striker as being “regarded by many as the saviour of County’s season” after six goals in 18 games from their new signing helped them to stay up.
A £1m move to Sheffield Wednesday followed for Kuqi in January 2002 but while the size of the transfer fee and the opportunity to play at Hillsborough might have suggested that the forward’s career was on a steady upward trajectory, the Owls’ past was casting a shadow over the club’s present then just as it is now and his first full season in Yorkshire culminated in relegation to the third tier. Five goals in eight games at the start of 2003/04, however, hastened a loan move to Ipswich in the division above that was made permanent in November, Kuqi joining on a free. Ipswich made the play-offs twice during his time in Suffolk, being pipped to automatic promotion by Wigan in 2005 despite amassing 85 points.
Kuqi’s 20 goals that season convinced Mark Hughes to give him a go in the Premier League at Blackburn. Seven strikes in his only full season in the top flight represented a more than acceptable return on his manager’s investment, given that Kuqi had again moved on a free, but in August 2006 Crystal Palace waded in with a £2.5m bid for the striker, as the Eagles sought to use up some of the parachute payments they were receiving following relegation from the Premier League the year before, and the player was on the move yet again.
Three seasons in south London saw Kuqi score erratically and, in one instance at least, behave rashly too. The striker was fined two weeks’ wages and transfer listed by Neil Warnock in February 2008 after gesturing to Palace fans reacting to his substitution in a defeat to Wolves, shortly after he had returned from a loan spell with Fulham. Kuqi was then loaned back to Ipswich but he eventually regained his manager’s favour and his third season at the club ended up being his best. It was his last for Palace too, as his contract was up and the much-travelled player left for TuS Koblenz in the German second division.
After only six months on the continent, though, Kuqi returned to join Paulo Sousa’s Swansea in January 2010. Things went pretty well for him last season but, as is often the case, a new manager came in with his own plans and an established member of the side found himself a casualty of the new regime. Having answered Newcastle’s call though, Kuqi’s dying swan goal celebration might well be resurrected at Premier League grounds between now and May.