Friday, 4 October 2013

Football cult heroes: Andrei Kanchelskis

Procrastination is a dangerous game. Several wars were probably born out of leaders’ inability to remain happy with their lot; their hedonistic pursuits inadequately placed in a world full of riches.

I’m easier pleased, and four days off work moved me to set my brother and I the task of writing a short self-indulgent piece on one player who has lit up our 20 or so years of supporting the club we love.

Evertonians haven’t been blessed with trophies in recent times. Indeed it is 18 years since we last won a piece of silverware. In that time, the club has flirted with relegation, meandered in mid-table mediocrity, and punched heavily against the proverbial ceiling separating ourselves from dining at the Premier League’s top table.

We have, as with most clubs, acquired heroes along the way. Despite Everton’s inability to create a credible indentation on the Premier League’s 21 title races, we remain one of seven clubs to have featured every year since its inception and therefore Ben and I have a relatively decent pool of players to choose from.

To the steel so evident in the ‘dogs of war’ side that lifted the FA Cup in 1995, to the midget gems of David Moyes’ 11-year tenure, there is no shortage of players who could feature in this piece.

Duncan Ferguson will forever be immortalised as Everton’s talisman in the grey days of the nineties, when relegation battles became as common place as a Steven Gerrard raking pass. But there was one player whose arrival was so timely and unexpected. His stay on Merseyside akin to a steamy love affair so sweet it lent itself to the short-lived fling it was. Andrei Kanchelskis, Evertonians’ very own summer romance.

His arrival was anything but expected, or straightforward. A dynamic winger integral to Manchester United’s cause, he hit 14 league goals in 1994/95 as United narrowly missed out on the league and lost in the FA Cup final, ironically to Everton.

Rather than ready himself for a season in which United would eventually wrestle back the title, Kanchelskis found himself on the wrong side of Sir Alex Ferguson, and ousted from the club.

Various schools of thought exist as to how he came about swapping Manchester red for Merseyside blue. Sir Alex claimed in his autobiography Kanchelskis was unhappy about being left out of the side during times of injury. Ferguson claims the decision to sell the then 26-year-old was made before he was verbally threatened by the player’s agent to sell his client, while Ferguson also revealed he turned down a £40,000 bung delivered in an ornate Russian tea urn to his office.

Once several weeks of transfer wrangling between Everton and United had been sorted out, with the latter eventually agreeing to take the £1.5m tab payable to the winger’s former club Shakhtar Donetsk, Kanchelskis arrived as Everton’s club -record signing at £5m.

As a young Evertonian in London, I had to contend with Gooners who had no shortage of icons to choose from. But I had two – Ferguson and Kanchelskis, and that was enough for me. Their impact on my burgeoning relationship with the beautiful game telling, as I turned up to Arsenal soccer schools with Ferguson 9 etched on my back, and our blue and black stripy home socks pulled right up to my knees a la Kanchelskis (thus probably accounting for the rather unfortunate shaping of my feet today).

In just 18 months at the club he managed to tick all the boxes a cult hero should. He scored twice in his first derby against Liverpool. At Anfield. In the Kop. Everton running out 2-1 winners; their first league win at the rivals’ home in 10 seasons.

His first season yielded 16 league goals from midfield, including a hat-trick in a 5-1 win at Sheffield Wednesday.

Kanchelskis' impact on Everton’s fortunes was remarkable. The sixth-place finish he inspired in his first and only full season with the club was Everton’s first top half finish in five years and our best points tally since 1988 when we were challenging for the title. Indeed, his impact was more evident in the three years following his sale, when the club struggled to surpass the 40 points traditionally needed to remain in the division.

It was by no means a love affair to the death; his sale to Fiorentina during the second half of 1996/97 a result of a dip in form from the player and fortunes for the club. Kanchelskis’ final game in a blue shirt was a disappointing cup exit at the hands of Bradford City at Goodison. His last act of note a misplaced pass finding Chris Waddle before a beautiful chip sailed over the stranded Neville Southall and into the net. Everton 2-1 down, and out.

Manager Joe Royle explained Kanchelskis wasn't right in the head and his behaviour was having a detrimental effect on the team. Rumours also suggest the Russian Mafia who intruded on the player’s life were seeking money from a potential sale. The uncomfortable air of inevitability saw Chairman Peter Johnson sanction his £8m release to Florence.

Royle has since lamented letting Kanchelskis go without a fight:

“He had a succession of niggling injuries and knew the Italians wanted him. I could see it was getting to the other players. In the end I felt it was really getting on top of him. In hindsight, if I was in the same position again I’d probably just send him on holiday for a few weeks.”

At the time a ten year old Evertonian was not privy to the finer nuances surrounding Kanchelskis’ final months in blue. He was left inconsolable and baffled by the sale of an icon. A cult figure whose dalliance with Everton will always be much more than a summer romance.


Anonymous said...

Fabulous piece of writing

Gracund said...

Good article and too bad we blues didn't see more of Andrei. Rumour has it he had a bit off a gambling problem. But a great player and the last one to score a winner for us away to the Boomers.

Gracund said...

Of course my response should have said "Gooners" not Boomers (thank you auto-correct!)