The Andrei Kanchelskis interview

The Andrei Kanchelskis interview

RECEIVING THE BALL in acres of space on the plush Hampden Park pitch, Andrei Kanchelskis looked up to assess his options. With Rangers already 3-0 up against a wasteful Ayr United and Kanchelskis himself on the scoresheet, there was little need for urgency, nor was there an obvious passing option. After a beautifully weighted return ball from Claudio Reyna found the Russian winger bursting into the box, the latter’s cross found a gleeful Billy Dodds to turn the ball in from a matter of inches.

As the Glasgow giants went on to thump their hapless victims 7-0, a tap-in may seem a fairly unimportant moment. It wasn’t the finish that made it noteworthy, however. Just before Kanchelskis played his pass to Reyna, he stood on the ball and balanced perfectly for a moment, raising his right hand to his forehead as if to survey the scene. The sheer impudence of the moment was remarkable, and completely overshadowed the fine wing play that laid two goals on a plate for Dodds in the game.

Now 48 years old, his life has a different focus, but the memory of that spark still brings a glint to his eye. “Oh yes, that was fun,” he chuckled as These Football Times reminded him of the inspired snapshot of an entertainer’s career. “It wasn’t planned, it just happened very, very quickly. I stood on the ball and looked forward … Anyway, we scored a goal.”

It is hard to overstate the sheer dominance Rangers enjoyed around the turn of the century. Following Kanchelskis’ showboating, they would go on to win the Scottish Cup having scored 15 goals and conceded just once from the quarter-final onwards. Their only realistic challengers of the time, bitter rivals Celtic, finished 21 points behind them in the league and were infamously knocked out of by second-tier Inverness Caledonian Thistle. That humiliating defeat even spawned one of the legendary headlines: ‘Super Caley Go Ballistic, Celtic Are Atrocious’.

Four-time Netherlands manager Dick Advocaat then spent the best part of £40 million that summer on star-studded recruits after clinching their 11th league title in 12 seasons. Fernando Ricksen and Barcelona’s Ronald de Boer joined fellow countrymen Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Artur Numan and Michael Mols to form a strong Dutch contingent, while goalkeeper Stefan Klos, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, was said to be one of the highest-paid players in world football at the time.

The show of such mastery of the ball and self-confidence was appreciated by the roar from the Hampden crowd, but the emotions weren’t shared by everyone in the ground that day. Was it arrogance to show such impudence in the face of a clearly inferior opponent, or was it a celebration of technical ability and momentary inspiration? Nicknamed ‘The Little General’, Advocaat was a well-known disciplinarian who fined players for being five minutes late for post-training lunches, and his admonishment of his winger after the match was a sign of a rapidly deteriorating relationship.

“I did it for me,” Kanchelskis explained. “We always played for the fans – they were supporting us, fighting for us. It was so quick, and people were so happy, but not Dick Advocaat. He said it was not good for the game. He was an arrogant person, you know.”

Arrogance is certainly not a word you could brand Kanchelskis with. This was a man who had served in the Soviet Army, left home at the age of 14 to attend a sports boarding school over 200km away, and spent endless hours improving his strength as a youngster just to have a chance of making it as a professional. Here, as a fully-grown man and championship-winning professional, he and his teammates faced instructions to wait until Advocaat entered the room before starting lunch, about what style of jumper to wear, and even what colour socks to have on.

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The following season, Martin O’Neill took over as Celtic manager and romped to the domestic treble in his debut season as their lavishly assembled rivals floundered. By January, Kanchelskis himself had been moved on to Manchester City on loan following a training ground scuffle the previous November with Fernando Ricksen. Although the incident had been sparked by the Dutchman’s full-blooded high tackle on Kanchelskis, Advocaat made a point of sending the Russian international and not his fellow Dutchman off to get changed.

He later demanded that Kanchelskis turn out for the reserves, an order the experienced winger flatly refused, and from that point on there was only one result. Despite the fractious relationship with Advocaat slightly souring his playing time in Scotland, he maintains a deep connection to Britain. He holds a British passport, his son Andrey is still a big Everton fan, while his daughter studies in London.

As Ryan Giggs wrote in the foreword to Kanchelskis’ autobiography Russian Winters about his arrival in Manchester, the then-unknown 22-year-old threw himself into life in an unknown culture with zero language skills, and emerged with the respect of his peers. Even his choice of drink in the Moscow coffee house where TFT met him – tea with milk, unlike most Russians – was a nod to his thrilling journey that wove from the north-west of England to Glasgow and back down to the south coast.

“In Great Britain, every place is nice,” he reminisced. “In Manchester I spent some great times. After playing at Goodison Park, after the game I would l still live in Manchester. Sometimes I see my friends in Liverpool. Now most of the time I stay in Liverpool; lots of meetings, sometimes television, sometimes newspapers. My son has many friends in Liverpool. It will be the first time back in Glasgow since I played there, but Scottish people are very friendly, more open people. Irish people too.”

The expressiveness of Scottish people, or one in particular, played a huge role in shaping Kanchelskis’ career. He was fortunate to have crossed paths with some hugely experienced managers in his time such as Valeriy Lobanovskyi at Dinamo Kyiv, Claudio Ranieri and, briefly, Giovanni Trapattoni at Fiorentina, but the impression made on him by Sir Alex Ferguson was as significant as any.

Although he had been drilled from a young age to pass the ball early and efficiently, the pure entertainer in him was released in explosive fashion in the early 1990s at Old Trafford as Giggs flew down one wing and he down the other. It was pure hedonism for the fans, and for the young man who’d left the Soviet Union, it was an eye-opening experience.

Paul Scholes was a great, great player. He has good vision, good passing, always playing more attacking. Roy Keane was more defensive, more aggressive, tackled more. It was a really attacking team, a really good time. The players like Paul Ince, [Brian] McClair, Mark Hughes, Andy Cole, [Eric] Cantona …”

The simple narrative could have read that it was a simple, smooth transition into a joyful team of dominant winners for the flying winger. The reality, however, was quite different. Nowadays it is fairly commonplace for players to be given a period of grace to bed in, especially if they are new to their surroundings, but Kanchelskis simply wanted to be unleashed.

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Often named on the bench while Giggs and Lee Sharpe enjoyed the early months of the Premier League boom, he was not even selected to play in the away leg in Moscow against Torpedo in the Lenin Stadium where he represented the largest country on earth with distinction.

The scale of his upheaval from his home country cannot be understated. In 1991, the summer he left, the influx of Soviet players to the west had only just begun in earnest, and it was a path fraught with misconceptions, stereotypes and adaptation. It was the joy shared between teammates he alludes to above that played such a huge part in Kanchelskis’ convoluted journey to stardom on English soil.

Kanchelskis could hardly be blamed for recently comparing that time favourably to José Mourinho’s modern-day incarnation. Forceful characters have been littered throughout the Russian’s career, and while Ferguson is one of the most obvious examples, his realisation of what made a team tick resonated.

It is hardly a revelation to say that the Scot left a divisive legacy, though. The awkward impasse that the legendary manager concocted between himself and the press; the shattered teacups and flying boots; the psychological barbs to contemporaries; all left a jarring impression upon those who crossed him.

While memories of the time Ferguson took his jaded United players away for a golf break and personally served his players drinks all evening impressed Kanchelskis, the lightning-quick explosions of fury astonished the newcomer. Even during the outbursts, though, the Scot’s brutal honesty drew admiration.

Upon winding down his playing career in his native country just over a decade ago, Kanchelskis embarked on an unusual and often frustrating managerial path. “There are stupid directors who say ‘it is my money’ and ask ‘why isn’t this player playing?’,” Kanchelskis said of his experience of Russian football management. “It is my problem [as a manager] if this player plays or doesn’t play, I work with them every day, with the team. ”

A few months after finally hanging up his boots, he was installed as the general director of a tiny second-tier Football National League (FNL) club called Nosta Novotroisk on the border with Kazakhstan by Alisher Usmanov, shortly before the Uzbek-born steel magnate bought a significant stake in Arsenal. After guiding them to a highly-creditable fifth-place finish, they were relegated the next season as they struggled to attract and retain players of sufficient calibre.

Kanchelskis then dropped down a level to manage Torpedo-Zil, and despite finishing second in their regional division, they missed out on promotion as only the divisional champions went up. A reprieve was dangled in front of them when Saturn Moscow, a club Kanchelskis himself had played for a few years earlier, folded. Their place in the top flight was taken by FC Krasnodar, whose FNL place in turn then became available.

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Instead of the FNL promoting Torpedo-Zil as the next highest team, applications were accepted from them and fourth-placed Fakel Voronezh, who had been banned from the third tier earlier that very season for attempted bribery. A significant financial incentive later, and it was Fakel – not Torpedo-Zil – who were accepted.

Torpedo-Zil’s owner Alexander Mamut, who also owns Waterstones bookstores, simply packed up the club in disgust, leaving Kanchelskis again on the move. The chairman and sporting director had shown no understanding of football, leaving a strained relationship with Kanchelskis, while at the same time fermenting his deep mistrust of football administrators. His next appointment would be even more unstable.

Ufa is a city in the Islamic Republic of Bashkortostan where ice hockey is the prevalent sport. Two previous attempts to establish a football club had failed, and Kanchelskis was the man chosen to lead the team upon its third incarnation by combustible sporting director Shamil Gazizov.

Since the club had been founded from scratch, trials were held for new players where the new manager was tasked with whittling down the hopefuls to a team capable of promotion. There was already an open, sweeping concrete bowl of a stadium, while the pitch itself was an ancient artificial surface. One half of the playing surface was even marked out longer than the other, a fact that had eluded the groundsman or any of the staff until Kanchelskis himself pointed it out.

By any rational judgement, it was impressive enough that they came within a point of achieving their stated aim, but that two of the original trialists hand-picked by Kanchelskis are still regular starters for Ufa in the Premier League is both a testament to his judgement and a source of great pride to the man himself. After the club were knocked out of the Russian Cup, however, Gazizov stormed into the dressing room armed with a baseball bat and threatened to sack Kanchelskis. Needless to say, neither party was interested in prolonging his one-year contract.

Gazizov was simply the latest in a long string of ill-qualified people holding positions of power and influence. While at Torpedo-Zil, the chairman had threatened Kanchelskis with the sack if he didn’t play former Premier League winner Denis Yevsikov in the next game, to which the manager replied by offering his boss to take training sessions.

At his last full managerial position in Russia in 2016 with Solyaris Moscow, the president, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, tasked Kanchelskis with earning promotion; not an unusual request on the face of it. Ovchinnikov’s dream of Solyaris – still in the third tier – playing in Monaco in the Champions League within three years, however, was “frightening”. Despite lifting the club up a place to second in their division, there was simply too much ground to make up to claim the single promotion place, and within three months of his appointment, Kanchelskis was sacked.

It is little wonder, then, that he has seemingly fallen out of love with the professional game. Only occasionally does he venture to live games, and given the cut-throat, senseless immediacy of Russian football, not to mention the crippling lack of stable youth development, the appeal of resuming a stop-start managerial career would appear to be receding.

Original Series  |  The Tsars

“Can you imagine the president of Bayern Munich saying to the coach ‘why isn’t this player playing?’,” exclaimed Kanchelskis. “This is a problem for Russian football. It’s why there is less interest in it for me, there fewer professionals than in Europe.”

Nowadays he works as a representative of a company that sells medical remedies for muscular injuries, but has not cut himself clear from the game. Instead of dealing with the meddlesome apparatchiks and wealthy but impatient outsiders, he has simply found a way to stay connected to the game without needing to deal with them. “When I have worked with the national team youth sides and college teams, I enjoy it. Not professionals, but it is a very important level of football. They are not bad players; for me it is interesting.”

Earlier this year he was also an ambassador for a youth tournament in Moscow, and he talked warmly about the enthusiasm of the students he coaches. At least it is a world apart from the treacherous waters of lower league management he navigated. “It’s better than when I was a Second Division manager,” he admitted. “They’re on a different level. They shouldn’t be sitting on the bench next to the manager asking these questions. Imagine; the Manchester United chairman comes to the bench and says to Mourinho: “Hey, he’s fucking terrible!” It’s impossible – why should they do it? It’s unbelievable.”

As he sipped the last drops of his English tea, it was becoming clear that his angst towards football – if indeed there is any left – could be attributed to more than just lousy officialdom, despite his hefty criticism of administrators. The conversation had begun by bemoaning the apparent lack of ambition of today’s crop of undoubtedly talented Russian players, and the lack of coherent coaching and facilities available to them.

The lack of transparency in the Russian game is another major bone of contention. “Sometimes people never say the truth,” said Kanchelskis, with more than a hint of exasperation. “If they say the truth, they are told they are not patriotic, that they don’t like Russia.” Mimicking the blind obedience towards running the sport, he adds: “Everything in Russia is ok, this is football … If you say the truth, a true story about what is happening now in Russian football, the second division is a very, very bad level. I remember when this level had some very good teams. Now, it is terrible; no good teams, no money, not many teams are ready for promotion to the Premier League.”

To a casual observer, losing a character with the broad experience he has accumulated would suggest an angry split from football. In Russian Winters he talks openly about his lack of time for those who either have no understanding of the game or no respect for other people. His opinion of Advocaat does not seem so removed from that of the myriad chairmen and sporting directors with ridiculous pipe dreams and non-existent manners.

“Teams play to win every game, and sometimes they win, sometimes lose, sometimes draw,” he said. “Chairmen come in and say ‘This is how to play, this is our plan’. This is a problem in football – there are too many plans. Too much money, too many agents.”

By engaging on a level free from pseudo-politics, however, Kanchelskis has found a way to tap into his footballing vision without needing to fight against the unnecessary pressures of modern football. What will football hold from here for one of the greatest players to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain though? Deconstructing football into a simplified process seems to be working so far; through all the tricks and adoration, transfer records and trophies, glory and history, perhaps that in itself is the ultimate reward 

By Andrew Flint  

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