He was born in Vucitrn, Kosovo, which was then part of Yugoslavia, a country that, during the late 1980s and early ’90s, would fragment in a series of bloody, devastating conflicts. Kuqi says, “I wasn’t really aware of what was going on. As a kid, you don’t really see the politics side of it. You just live your life. I grew up in a big family, and in our village, nearly everyone had the surname Kuqi. But at such a young age, we didn’t know what was really going on.”
“School life was amazing. An hour every day before school started, we would play a football match with Kosovans vs Serbians, and people passing our concrete pitch would always stop to watch. But you started to notice the change quite quickly, a sense that the atmosphere was taking a turn.”
The tension bubbling across the country reached boiling point, with the hostile environment coinciding with the collapse of the Republic. Aged 12, in 1989, Kuqi’s life as he knew it would change forever. He explains, “My dad lost his job, and my older brother was called up to the army. At this point, many of the soldiers who joined were being killed. My parents refused to let that happen to our family, and they decided it would be best for us to leave Kosovo.”
“One of the hardest things we had to do was to say goodbye to our family members who were staying in Kosovo.” With a catch in his throat, Kuqi says, “In a way, it was like a funeral, we had to leave everything behind, not knowing what lay ahead or if we would ever see our family again.”
In desperation, with little more than the clothes on their backs, Kuqi and his family fled his war-torn homeland as refugees in search of a better life. They set off on their gruelling journey to safety at 6am in the icy, pitch black of a winter morning, with the snow on the ground, still fresh from the night before. The journey required the Kosovan family to sneak undetected through Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. “When we reached Belgrade, we were told not to talk to anyone and to be quiet, hoping that nobody stopped us and recognised where we had come from.” He continues, “We were terrified in case they did find us and wanted to somehow send us back to Kosovo.”
After several hours of blending in with the crowds at Belgrade station, waiting anxiously for their next train to salvation, Kuqi and his family would finally navigate their way to Gdansk in Poland, where they would board a boat to Finland. Kuqi says, "It was a relief once we reached Gdansk, but I remember when we got onto the boat, it was one of the worst feelings, as we had to say goodbye to both uncles who had helped us get to Poland. It was also really tough, as for me, my brothers and sister had never been on a boat before.”
“I used to wonder ‘why’ a lot,” says Kuqi. “I was so young at the time when we were forced to escape. I had to leave my cousins, friends and the rest of my family and move to Finland, a place that I had never heard of before. It was like I was moving to the other side of the World. It was so hard for me, as I would find out what was happening via my family back in Kosovo and watching the TV, but I couldn’t do anything from where I was. I felt helpless.”
“I didn’t have anyone in the beginning.” Kuqi explains, “I needed someone to tell me how to train properly, what to do in certain situations and how I should prepare for a game. I had to do it all on my own. I used to take my older brother, who didn’t really like football, but he would ride his bike next to me while I ran. I would do press-ups, pull-ups and prepare myself for the next game. In my head, I needed to work harder than anyone else in the team.”
Kuqi’s endeavour, dedication and passionate love for football, dismissing the struggles he faced in his early life, would pay dividends. Aged 15, Kuqi would be playing alongside grown men in Finland’s fourth division for Mikki, where he was quickly snapped up by first division side, Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, or HJK for short.
By the time he was 18, Kuqi was playing in the Champions League group stages, taking the leading role in HJK’s European excursion, testing himself against Benfica and PSV Eindhoven on the greatest platform. His meteoric rise had even been recognised by his adopted nation, making his debut for Finland in a 4-3 victory over Belgium in 1999. But he wanted more; Kuqi’s insatiable appetite would require a bigger challenge. He needed the Premier League.
After a standout season for FC Jokerit, scoring 19 in 33 games, at the age of 23, Kuqi would embark on another journey, this time a solo one. He says, “I left my parents, brothers and sister in Finland because I had this burning desire to play in England and the Premier League. I remember my parents saying at the time, ‘Why do you need to leave?’ I was one of the highest-paid players in Finland, top scorer, league champion, and I had just been voted Players’ Player of the Year. But I felt like I had accomplished everything in Finland. I needed that next challenge.”
Stockport County’s hero
Kuqi’s first club in the country where he says he feels ‘most at home, was Stockport County. He would arrive in the January window, with the club second bottom of Division One, now the Championship, staring square in the face of the relegation.
Kuqi would carry Stockport comfortably to survival, scoring eight goals in the second half of the campaign and forming a formidable partnership with future Crystal Palace striker Aaron Wilbraham.
His ruthless style of play and tenacious mentality, intimidating his opposition defenders into submission, saw him adapt to English football seamlessly.
Kuqi’s inspired form at Stockport caught the attention of Blackburn Rovers manager Graeme Souness, who invited Kuqi for a week’s trial. The forward was seven days away from reaching the goal he had set himself all his professional career, the Premier League. All the sacrifice, hard work and arduous effort which he had put into training was days away from yielding the long-awaited reward of the top-flight.
The move would break down, with Stockport needing their leading man back in their fight for Championship survival. His unwavering determination meant that he refused to give in. Kuqi’s desire was so great, he knew he would make it to the promised land one day. He signed for Sheffield Wednesday but couldn’t save The Owls from relegation after financial problems caused the club to plummet down the league table, a move he insists was, “right club, wrong time.”
Kuqi would then achieve cult hero status at Ipswich Town, scoring 32 goals in 88 appearances, firing the club to within touching distance of the Premier League, agonisingly losing out in the playoffs twice. Kuqi would grow so attached to the Suffolk based side that during the latter stages of his career, he would turn down bitter rivals, Norwich City, multiple times, out of respect to the side he fell in love with.
A journey to south London, via the Premier League
The fiery forward would finally get his long-awaited, well-deserved move to the Premier League, joining Blackburn four years later and scoring vital goals to help Mark Hughes’ side to the Europa League.
After his invaluable contributions, Kuqi would be ignored by the Welsh manager, shunned from even having an impact off the bench, after Jason Roberts and Benni McCarthy pushed the forward further down the pecking order. “I had worked hard to get to the Premier League, but I wasn’t even making the bench, and I wasn’t the type of person who liked to be watching from the stands,” explains Kuqi. “Even from the bench, I always knew I could have an impact on the game. I knew I had to move on.”
Crystal Palace required a striker, someone who could be the authoritative figurehead in their charge to gain promotion back to the Premiership. Having failed at the playoff hurdle last season, Chairman, Simon Jordan, kept his promise by allowing the top scorer from the previous four years, Andy Johnson, to depart for Everton, for a then club record of £8.6 million.
There was a succession line in place. Palace had attempted to obtain Kuqi’s services before. His Championship experience and goal-scoring prowess were the missing pieces, carefully cultivated to finish off Peter Taylor’s jigsaw, which upon completion, would be a combination tailor-made for promotion.
A deal was finally agreed on deadline day, an hour after the window had slammed shut. Kuqi put pen-to-paper, but his first season at Selhurst Park, in his own words, “didn’t go to plan.”
"We had a great team and a really good spirit amongst the squad. I looked at the team before I joined, and I knew what we could have achieved. I always said that the reason why it didn’t work was down to Peter Taylor.” Kuqi continues, “We had a big squad with an abundance of experience. Taylor was the perfect gentleman, but I think he was lacking that nastiness and fire that was needed to get out of the Championship. As a manager, of course, you must be nice, but you need that other side. You can't just be a nice guy. That can only take you so far.”
After a lacklustre first season - under the man who would make David Beckham England captain during his time with the national set-up - Taylor’s unimaginative football would see the south Londoners finish 13th in his first campaign, with his stubborn, defensive mindset causing heated frustration from the fanbase.
Kuqi, too was disconnected from Taylor’s pedestrian style of play. He was desperate to feel inspired by the game, which offered him salvation from his nomadic childhood. The striker was granted another opportunity at Premier League football, signing on a short loan term deal with Fulham until January.
The Wolves game. The gesture. And the resurrection.
After a slow start to his second season, Taylor would be relieved of his duties, and with Palace firmly immersed in an early relegation battle, Simon Jordan called upon the expertise of Neil Warnock.
Kuqi returned from his loan spell at Fulham, reinvigorated by this appointment and intent on turning his Crystal Palace fortunes around. Kuqi knew he could become the centrepiece for Neil Warnock’s side, with Palace’s eyes fixed on promotion, inspired by the confidence and belief the new manager had instilled in the club.
“I was excited to be playing for Warnock and to show him that what I could do. I recall one game before he joined Palace, where he told his captain, ‘Your job today is to stop Shefki. If you stop Shefki, we will win the game. Whatever it takes for you to stop him, you must do it.’ We won 3-0, and I scored two of them."
He continues, "So, it’s such a big regret that he never gave me the opportunity that I felt I deserved. I wanted to show Warnock that I could do for him what I had been doing against his teams in the past.”
Into his fourth appearance under Warnock – a mid-table home clash against Wolves - an incident would occur with the Palace fans that Kuqi describes as, “one of my biggest regrets.”
He continues, “The next day, when I went to training, the team had a meeting, and I was kicked out of the changing room. I wasn’t allowed to be there. Two days later, a letter dropped through my door, and I had been placed on the transfer list and fined two weeks wages. I wasn’t even told why!”
Kuqi, never content with just picking up a wage, was convinced he could have an impact on this side. He felt that he could spearhead the attack and carry the club over that final hurdle, returning Palace and himself to the sweet and desirable nectar of Premier League football.
Kuqi recalls, “We went four games without scoring a goal or picking up a win, and Warnock called me back to the bench against Nottingham Forest. I remember it was 0-0 at halftime. I came on in the second half and scored to make it 1-0. We went on to win the game. The next game, I scored at home, and we won the game again, then I went on to score five in a row. After that, Warnock was my best friend and we never looked back. In that second season, we both understood what we wanted from each other.”
Kuqi’s rebirth was complete. The striker had swayed his biggest critic in Warnock, proving him wrong by becoming a true team player, channeling an inner fire to muscle his way into the squad.
Kuqi would become Palace’s talisman for the 2008/09 season, finishing the campaign as top scorer, becoming a fans’ favourite at Selhurst Park, with his charismatic figure resonating with the Eagles’ faithful.
Kuqi had become a crucial part of Warnock’s plans going forward, so much so that the striker was rewarded with a new contract to keep him in SE25. However, the contract offer was somewhat confusing, asking Kuqi to reduce his wages after his resurrection, but perhaps it was a very early sign of the financial problems on the horizon for the club and Simon Jordan.
“I was so disappointed we never made the playoffs at Palace,” says Kuqi. “I never really had a run of games in that first season to show Warnock what I could do. I always thought we could have won promotion together."
He adds, "I still love coming back to the club whenever I am in England. When I first came back, I got tickets to come to Palace vs Newcastle at Selhurst Park and when I got to the ground, Steve Parish welcomed me with open arms. I couldn’t have felt any better.”
A trip to Newcastle & a swansong at Oldham
Kuqi would close the chapter on his time at Palace, becoming etched in Eagles’ tradition and leaving as a cult hero. It would be the story of his remaining years in professional football. He would pick up a tag as a journeyman.
A surprise phone call from then Newcastle United manager, Alan Pardew, to replace the adored, prodigal son, Andy Carroll, who had recently joined Liverpool for £35 million, saw Kuqi have one last dance on the Premier League stage. Although Kuqi would only make six substitute appearances on Tyneside, he fell in love with the club.
“It’s only once you get to Newcastle you understand how big the club is,” says Kuqi. “You have to physically be there to understand how much the club means to those fans. It was tribal; we would be surrounded by black and white everywhere, whether the fans were outside the gates at the training ground or lining the streets on our way to the stadium. It was a big regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to score in front of those fans.”
Kuqi would see out his time in England at Oldham Athletic, another side where he showed his drive and ambition, even in the final stages of his professional career.
“I always had a great relationship with every striker I played alongside, we instantly had a connection, whether it was Aaron Wilbraham, James Scowcroft, Dougie Freedman, Darren Bent, or Paul Dickov.”
Kuqi explains, “I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do after leaving Newcastle, but I received a call from Dickie (Paul Dickov) and he said, ‘Partner, fancy coming over to Oldham?’ He really sold the club to me and I'm glad he did, because I had a fantastic season and time with the club. It was another team where I really fell in love with the fans.”
The past, present and future
“It’s the one thing I am really proud about,” says Kuqi. “After my long career, I'm welcome back at any club, whether it’s Palace, Fulham, Blackburn, Oldham or Newcastle. Everywhere I have been, the door is open for me. It’s something that means a lot to me, because the fans always gave me everything at every club.”
Kuqi’s wholehearted dedication to the game offered him an opportunity to put a difficult time in his childhood behind him. His captivating character, resolute work ethic and endearing personality saw him win over any fanbase. There is no doubt that his hardest journey was accomplished before his professional career.
Kuqi adds, “Because of what happened when I was a child, it has given me such a strong mindset. Most of my career was in the Championship and I only spent a few seasons in the Premier League. However, the Championship was much more of a challenge. In the Premier League, you have smarter players, they know how to play and use the ball. But in the Championship, you must have the passion, that aggression, power and energy. It’s the hardest league in the world. It’s not all been colourful and successful in my career. It’s only now that I realise how much it took for me to spend 13 years in the UK, because it's so tough.”
In 2013, Kuqi called time on his football adventure. After a rewarding 20-year journey, Kuqi ended his professional career with 62 appearances for the Finnish national side and he became the first Finnish player to score 100 goals in the UK, an achievement of which he is immensely proud.
Kuqi has unfinished business with the game; he wants to impart his wealth of experience to the next generation of footballers. He ventured into the world of management in 2014, throwing himself in at the deep end with Finnish Premier League side, FC Honka, where he kept the side in the top-flight at the first time of asking.
“I have always had it in the back of my mind to be a manager,” says Kuqi. “I will never be able to let go of the deep-rooted love I have for the game. Because of my journey, I have always wanted to help people and I know what it takes to play at the highest level. Everything I achieved was through hard work.”
He would then defy the odds with PK-35, where the financial situation saw Kuqi achieve promotion with one hand tied behind his back. Kuqi, would then assume the role of firefighter, saving FC Inter Turku from relegation.
“I had all sorts of managers during my career. Some were tough and based everything off training, some were more man managers. With Brendan Rodgers, everything was so organised and for him to have the success he’s having now, it doesn’t surprise me one bit." He continues, "Joe Royal at Ipswich was one of the best man managers; he would really motivate the players to better themselves. I learnt so much from Roy Hodgson, who I played for with Finland and a brief period at Fulham. I always said that if Roy had come a couple of years earlier to Finland, we would have qualified for a European Championship or a World Cup. It was unbelievable how well structured his teams were.”
Since 2017, Kuqi has been out of a job, although he has been close to managing in England on several occasions. He explains, “I had a couple of years in Finland as a coach. In my opinion, I think I did a good job, where I had to get sponsors for the side because I was told that the club was close to bankruptcy and points would be deducted, and I still managed to gain promotion. If I had done that in England, then I would have had my pick of teams to manage.”
Kuqi ends his interview with VAVEL UK buoyant about the future and what lies ahead for the now 44-year-old, “It’s so important to know who you are and what you want to be as a manager. I’m sure my time will come. I will be back soon.”