Serhiy Rebrov: the Dynamo Kyiv legend overtaken by darkness, now charging into the light

Serhiy Rebrov: the Dynamo Kyiv legend overtaken by darkness, now charging into the light

Although of late there has been a trend for a single striker to be the norm at many of the bigger clubs – Kane, Drogba, Agüero, Costa, Torres and Lukaku immediately come to mind in the English game – back in the 1990s, pairs of strikers were very much the vogue; the likes of Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke for example.

Outside of the British game, though, perhaps the most dynamic of the era were the Ukrainian duo of Andriy Shevchenko and Serhiy Rebrov who not only ripped up the domestic league for Dynamo Kyiv, but also terrorised many a back line in Europe before big money persuaded the club to part with their prize assets. While Shevchenko went on to great things with AC Milan, when the time came for his partner to leave, Rebrov’s career post-Dynamo would be marked by the dark days of stumbles and unfulfilled promise.

Serhiy Stanislavovych Rebrov was born in the Ukrainian town of in the Horlivka in June 1974. An enthusiastic and progressive youth player, but still a callow youth of 17, he joined Shakhtar Donetsk in 1990, making his first-team debut the following year, scoring two goals in seven games in the top Soviet League, and three in 10 games across all competitions. By any measure, it was a decent start to a striker’s career, but the following season would reveal the true potential of Rebrov as a top goalscorer. 

With less than a full year’s experience behind him, the young striker revelled in the first team, netting no less than 10 goals in just 21 league games through the season. Remarkably, the teenager ended as the third top scorer in the league, and other clubs began to take an intense interest in the precocious talent that Rebrov was displaying. It was little surprise when Dynamo Kyiv swooped for his services in August 1992.

Initially the move appeared to be the sort of stumbling block that blighted many a promising career, as the young striker struggled to reproduce the best of form for his new club. In his first season in Kyiv, he played 31 games in all competitions, and a return of just seven goals was way below expectations. It looked like the gamble of taking the youngster to Dynamo may have been an error. Things hardly improved the following year: featuring in only 13 games for a number of reasons, he would score just three times. Although things were looking grim amidst talk of offloading the struggling player, things were about to take a rapid upswing.

At the same time, another young striker had been making his way through the lower teams at Dynamo, and in the 1993/94 season he scored 12 goals for the reserves, prompting a promotion to the first team. In November 1994, in an away game against Shakhtar, Andriy Shevchenko made his senior debut. It was the beginning of one of the most prolific partnerships in modern European football as Rebrov and Shevchenko fitted together like two neatly planned elements of a dovetailed joint. Over the next five years, both the club and its players would prosper enormously from the partnership.

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Across the following two seasons, Rebrov scored 10 goals in each, from 37 and 38 games respectively, but the 1996/97 season saw him net 20 times in just 35 games as the partnership flourished, blossoming into a bouquet of goals. It was at this time that the duo also began to display their form in European competition, reaching the Champions League semi-finals in 1999. In the following season, 36 games brought 29 goals domestically for Rebrov, with a further eight added in 14 European games. In 1998/99, he scored 22 goals in 41 games across all competitions, with Shevchenko grabbing 33 in 44.

Although that season was outstandingly prolific, it also saw the break-up of the partnership with Shevchenko, as Silvio Berlusconi broke the AC Milan transfer record, splashing out £25 million to take the striker to the San Siro where he would become a club legend and one of the top strikers on the continent, scoring 172 goals in seven seasons, before decamping to the Premier League for a much less successful time with Chelsea. It was an experience that his erstwhile strike partner would empathise with.

If many thought that Rebrov would struggle without his partner, he was to prove them wrong. In the only season he played for Dynamo after Shevchenko had left, he still managed 30 goals in 40 domestic games for the second-best return of his scoring exploits to date, and a career-high 10 goals in Europe, making him the continent’s joint top marksman of the season in the Champions League competition.

Dynamo now deemed it suitable to cash in on their other top striker. If, however, they assumed that gaining a similar amount of money as was the case with Shevchenko would be achievable, they were to be disappointed. Despite his former teammate’s striking prowess suggesting that the transfer from Ukrainian football to one of the top leagues in Europe was perfectly achievable, fewer clubs seemed keen to take a punt on Rebrov. When the deal was finally done, it was England’s Tottenham Hotspur that secured his services, for a reported fee of £11 million.

George Graham was managing the White Hart Lane club at the time, with David Pleat handling the recruitment of players, and for many pundits, consensus grew that the club had swung somewhat of a coup for a player who had notched 123 goals in 261 league games for Shaktar and Dynamo, and who also had established European pedigree. Proven goalscorers are a rare and precious commodity. Had Spurs picked up one of the best for a relatively small layout?

At the time, the BBC World Service interviewed top Ukrainian journalist Fidel Pavlenko about the move and the various merits of Rebrov and Shevchenko, looking forward to how things would play out for the new signing in north London. It initially sounded like a rousing endorsement of the striker’s qualities. “In Ukraine most people think Rebrov is a better goalscorer than Shevchenko,” the journalist related. “He’s scored more goals for Kyiv, more goals for the Ukrainian national side and more goals in the Champions League than Shevchenko.”

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He also went on to laud the player’s flexibility. “He is also not just a striker. He can play anywhere from midfielder to straight centre-forward, and although he is only a small man, he is great in the air. In fact, half his goals are from headers, and in Ukraine he is considered the best header of the ball in the League. He has two good feet too,” he added, comfortingly for Spurs fans.

Pavlenko was also at pains to explain that this was no playboy footballer, lured to London by the city’s bright lights who may fall prey to the various temptations befalling a young man far from home with a pocketful of money. “He was married last year and he has a son,” he said. “He’s not a drinker, he’s not a nightclubber and he isn’t a dancer. But he is very serious about football.”

There was, however, a hint of caution about how long any period of adaptation would take and, ultimately, whether it was the right move for the player. “I’m not sure whether he’ll be able to produce the goods straight away – it might take him a few months to settle. Take [Oleg] Luzhny at Arsenal, who found moving to England a huge cultural shock and failed to establish himself in the first team.”

The sting in the tail, though, was an assessment of the club Rebrov had now tied himself to. “Frankly it’s a step down,” Pavlenko asserted. “Back in Ukraine people think he deserved something bigger. He’s been involved in European football for the past seven or eight years and now he’s ended up at Spurs.”

So why had the player opted for north London? Pavlenko was clear. “Tottenham were persistent. Pleat travelled to Ukraine, brought him to the club and persuaded him they have ambition and it obviously did the trick. But the reputed £2 million signing-on fee and £24,000-a-week wages probably helped.” Of course, money is a key factor in any transfer, but the implication was that perhaps Rebrov’s wallet had overruled any better judgement about where he should move to. The future would bear out much of Pavlenko’s concerns.

Perhaps understandably, Rebrov’s first season in England was less than stellar. Nine goals in 29 games was nothing like a disastrous start, but neither was it the sort of return that Shevchenko had enjoyed in his first year in Serie A when he had scored 29 goals in 43 games across all competitions. Perhaps Pavlenko’s caution about it taking “a few months to settle” was being borne out. Rebrov’s integration was hardly helped when the manager who brought him to the club, George Graham, was dismissed in March 2001, less than 12 months after the Ukrainian had joined.

A new manager can often bring new ideas to a club and a different style of play from his predecessor. Some players flourish from such changes; others suffer. Rebrov fell squarely into the latter column. It quickly became clear that the new man in the White Hart Lane hot seat, Glenn Hoddle, was less than totally enamoured with the prospect of playing Rebrov, and first team opportunities dried up.

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A couple of seasons in the Turkish league with Fenerbahçe was hardly the answer and 38 games for the Istanbul club brought a paltry four goals. The result was very much suggestive that Hoddle had been correct in his assessment of the Ukrainian as a top marksman, but only if you ignore his pedigree before moving to England. Nevertheless, it was enough for Spurs to sanction a move to the Championship with West Ham, with Rebrov signing a one-year deal with the club.

He had played 60 games for the White Hart Lane club, scoring 10 goals. Advanced by the club as the player who could bridge the gap between Spurs and arch-rivals Arsenal, the gloss of the big money signing was quickly tarnished, as the Alchemist’s Stone process went into reverse, gold quickly fading to base metal.

A sign of the deterioration was that only one of those 10 strikes had come in his last 30 games for Spurs. It led a number of newspapers and pundits to label the striker as one of the worst acquisitions in Premier League transfer history. Whether fair or not, the figures were a damning indictment; be it a club that failed to nurture the talent, a manager who didn’t value him, or a player unable to adapt to the rigours of the English game. Either way, putting aside the money Rebrov earned from the move, all parties would surely have regretted the transfer.

It would have been a confidence-draining experience for Rebrov. Perceived as an expensive failure, a move to the second level of English football would hardly have been the balm for this troubled soul. Needless to say, it was a less than successful experience in the East End. Despite the club flourishing under Alan Pardew and achieving promotion to the Premier League via the playoffs, for the player it was another frustrating period. Twenty-seven league games brought just a single goal for the man who had been Europe’s top marksman a few short years previously.

In June 2005, despite West Ham now being back in the top echelon, Rebrov declined any potential opportunity to re-sign for the club and expressed his intention to leave English football. It was clear that he intended to move back to Ukraine. Sure enough, two days later a deal was finalised to take him back to Dynamo Kyiv on a two-year deal.

Had Rebrov become a poor player when travelling to England from his home country? Was there some mystery injury or illness that had incapacitated the player who had been one of the continent’s most feared front men, or had it merely been an incompatibility issue and a lack of ability by his managers to extract the talent that was indisputably there, but lay dormant and hidden from view? Whatever the case, once back in more familiar surroundings, the real Rebrov returned to the football field.

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In his first season back with Dynamo, despite playing in a deeper role, he still returned 13 goals, finishing as the top marksman for his club and just two strikes behind the league’s top scorers. His performances led to him being named as Player of the Season in the country. At 32, Rebrov was illustrating that his talent was undiminished by the experiences he had endured at the hands of English football.

He stayed at Dynamo until 2008, scoring 20 goals in just over half a century of games, of which in the latter end of his time, he wore the captain’s armband. The tally saw him being recognised as the highest scorer in the history of the Ukrainian top flight. In 2008, nearing his 34th birthday, a transfer to Rubin Kazan saw him leave Dynamo for the second time. Whilst many thought it would be a gentle run down towards retirement, that would hardly be the case as he played in 24 of 30 league games and his new club won the league title for the first time in their history.

In July of the following year, Rebrov announced his retirement from the playing side of the game, taking up the post of assistant manager with the reserves back at Dynamo. Across his career, the fallow period in England and Turkey notwithstanding, he had netted 145 club goals and 15 goals in 75 games for the national team.

His time as part of the backroom staff at Dynamo was an apprenticeship that would lead to a successful managerial career thus far, with the former striker displaying many of the skills he had learnt from his days playing under the great Valeriy Lobanovskyi. He took control of the Dynamo first team in 2014 and delivered a Ukrainian Cup victory in his first term, then a league and cup double the following year. Dynamo then retained the title in the 2015/16 season and lifted the Ukrainian Super Cup. In the same season, he also guided the club to the knockout stages of the Champions League. It was the first time Dynamo had reached that stage of Europe’s premier club competition for 15 years. His success led FourFourTwo to name him amongst their top 50 managers of the year twice in succession.

It seemed like Rebrov and Dynamo were set up for another successful period together, this time with the former as manager rather than player, but all good things come to an end and, in May of 2017, with his contract now completed, Rebrov opted instead to join Al-Ahli Saudi FC in Jeddah. To many, it appeared a strange career decision when there were surely more competitive options open to him. Money would have been a factor, but having perhaps made a poor decision apparently based on financial decisions in his playing days, it’s to be hoped that this move does not have similar consequences.

Still only in his mid-40s, and with notable successes already behind him, there is ample time for Serhiy Rebrov to prove himself worthy of a place amongst the top managers on the continent. For a player whose prime years were probably squandered by managers and systems that failed to exploit the very best of his talents, he will certainly have an empathy with players who may be struggling to deliver. If such experiences as those endured in his own playing days may have blighted his playing career, perhaps they may also be the very building blocks of his successful one in management.

By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze

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