First published August 2016
Lapland might be best known as the home of Santa Claus, but it’s a 22-year-old English striker currently providing gifts to the people of the Finnish region – in the form of goals.
Yet while Billy Ions is a name now readily on Scandinavian lips, the mention of the Northumberland-born forward on UK shores evokes little more than a furrowed brow and a shrug of the shoulders.
Despite being under the radar in his homeland, and still very much in the formative stages of his career, Ions has already achieved, and suffered, enough to fill out the CV of a more experienced professional.
Currently in his fourth year at Finnish top-flight side Palloseura Kemi Kings, Ions has smashed an incredible 52 goals in 103 appearances, helping the club to two promotions along the way.
His journey to the Veikkausliiga – Finland’s premier league – is as impressive as his goal-scoring exploits and perhaps goes a long way to explaining the ease with which he has settled into – nay embraced – Lappish culture.
“I was brought up near Newcastle in a place called Blyth, where I lived with my dad, mum, younger brother and older sister,” Billy says. “My earliest memories of playing football are in the school yard of Blyth Plessey Road First School. As I was brought up near Newcastle, getting into football seemed the normal thing to do, as the football culture is massive there.
“Even playing in the school yard, I always took my football seriously and I was always better than the other kids. I also remember watching my childhood hero, Alan Shearer, back then. He made me want to play football even more.”
However, instead of taking a direct route to St James’ Park, young Ions found himself upping his Geordie roots and heading to the altogether warmer climes of the Canary Islands.
“My parents decided to move to Tenerife when I was six years old,” he says. “We had spent a few summer holidays there and my family enjoyed the place so much they thought it would be a nice place to live.
“My dad wanted me to continue with my football out there. Because we didn’t know much about football on the island, he asked around to find out the best place for me to go.”
Billy recalls he had a choice of two local clubs − UD Guargacho or CD Constancia.
“I chose Constancia because I thought the name sounded better,” Billy admits. “They were in the Spanish fourth tier. I just turned up, asked for trial and it was pretty straight forward from there.
“Growing up in Tenerife over the next 10 years, I played for five different youth teams − Constancia, Juan Miguel, Adeje, UD Ibarra and CD Tenerife. Tenerife was where I really hit my stride and I was the top goal scorer every season.
“When I turned 15 I was playing so well that Tenerife wanted to sign me as a professional. I was delighted. It was a fantastic club − the set-up they have there is the best I’ve ever been involved with. The weather, coaching and facilities are great and it really doesn’t get any better than that for a footballer. Hopefully one day I can return to experience the football and lifestyle again.”
Ions’ form for the Tenerife youth set-up had alerted clubs back in England and a year later events conspired to usher him home.
“At the time, my family wanted to move back to England due to family reasons,” says Ions. “Newcastle United was one of many clubs that wanted to sign me, so, naturally, with my family being from the area, it was an easy decision to make.”
Sadly, playing for his boyhood heroes didn’t work out.
“Signing for Newcastle United was meant to be the big start of my career,” Ions says. “When I signed, [former players] Kenny Wharton and Peter Beardsley ran the youth set-up. After my first two weeks of being there, Kenny left the club and Peter moved up to the reserve team. New management came in for the U-18 squad and this was led by [former Barnsley full back] Joe Joyce.
“Being at Newcastle United was probably the worst year of football in my career so far. I went from playing well all the time in Tenerife to not even being in the squad. As a 17-year-old, it really destroyed my confidence.”
When Ions heard Leeds United were interested in him, he decided to transfer to their youth set-up.
“Leeds signed me on a one-year-deal for the youth squad,” Ions recalls. “Neil Redfearn was the manager and I thought he was great. Unfortunately, I simply wasn’t good enough to make the cut for a professional contract, probably because of the rough time I had at Newcastle. I really didn’t get my confidence back and didn’t play the football I grew up with.”
It was then Ions turned to the Nike Academy as a way of rescuing his career. The academy, based at St George’s Park in Burton-upon-Trent and funded by Nike Inc, operates with the intention of helping unsigned players under the age of 20 find a professional club.
“Leaving Leeds, I was struggling to find a club and the Nike Academy was my only option,” Ions explains. “At the time it was run by [former Cardiff striker] Jimmy Gilligan with [former Bournemouth defender] Ryan Garry as his assistant.”
It was to be a friendly arranged against Lapland-based side Palloseura Kemi Kings that would get Ions’ professional ambition back on track.
“When we played against PS Kemi, they were on a pre-season trip to the UK,” Ions says. “I was injured quite a lot at the academy and had just recovered from a bad ankle sprain. Playing against Kemi was my first appearance in a long time. I played 30 minutes, scored two goals and we won.
“After the game I really didn’t think much about it, or Kemi, I was just happy I was finally getting some minutes on the pitch.
“About a month later, Ryan Garry sat me down and gave me the news that Kemi wanted to sign me. At the time they were managed by [former West Ham defender] Tommy Taylor.
“With no hesitation I said yes because I was desperate to get back into football. Next thing I know, I was on a flight to Kemi!”
There were a few differences for Ions to get used to once he arrived in Finland. For one, due to the harsh winters experienced by the country, professional football is usually played between April and October. Kemi isn’t your typical Lappish settlement, either. It’s an industrial town on the Gulf of Bothnia, dominated by pulp mills. The city of Rovaniemi and its world-famous Santa Claus Village is an 80-minute drive away.
“Kemi is a very small place,” Ions says. “There are only 22,000 people who live here. In the summer it’s very nice but in the winter it can get tough because of the low temperatures.
“Finland as a whole is a really nice country − clean and very relaxed. It seems like there’s no rush. Everyone goes at their own pace.”
Ions has been utilised to great effect as both a left winger and a striker during his time with Kemi Kings. When he first joined, the club was playing in Finland’s third tier, the Kakkonen. Within two seasons, Ions had helped propel the club to the second division, the Ykkonen, which Kemi Kings won at the first attempt and, with it, their first ever promotion to the top tier. Ions’ 17 goals and numerous assists during the campaign saw him voted the Ykkonen’s Players’ Player of the Year.
“PS Kemi is a small club if you compare it to the other clubs in the top division,” Ions says. “It’s improved massively since I first came here, though, and I think the only way is up now.
“The fans have been great over the past couple of seasons. They give us great support, no matter if the team is winning or losing. We have a fan group called the Kempton Royals who come and support us at all of our games around the country. I think that is fantastic!
“My team-mates are great, too. I couldn’t have asked for a better group of lads to be with – both on and off the pitch. There is a good mix of nationalities and cultures. Me, Ryan Gilligan [English], Christian Eissele [American], David Bitsindou [French] and Zeljko Savic [Serbian] spend a lot of time together off the pitch. Although the boys are from different parts of the world, we get on like best friends.”
Ions believes the standard of football in Finland is improving.
“If I had to put the Finnish premier league in a bracket in terms of the standard, I think the top teams in that division could play in England’s League One and do really well,” he says.
“Myself, I’ve been doing well scoring wise. I’ve been looking after myself a lot better than I used to over the past few years. Eating right, sleeping well, training hard and playing with confidence.
“The coaching is good here. It’s not on the level of other places I’ve been at, but it’s getting there. Everyone is full time and the money can be good depending on which club you go to.
“I would definitely recommend English players consider playing abroad. I think a lot of young players back in the UK think their career is over if they don’t manage to get a professional contract, but there are tons of opportunities abroad. Hopefully one day we will get to see a few more English lads outside the UK playing football.”
But would Ions ever consider having another crack at the English game?
“Yes of course,” he says. “If something right comes up and makes me happy, I would definitely consider it. My ultimate ambition is to play at the highest level possible and be happy − whether that’s playing in the UK or abroad somewhere.”
Photos: Teemu Kvist