Monday, 13 December 2010

The thrills and skills of Andrei Kanchelskis

I used to love watching Andrei Kanchelskis play. At his best he was a genuinely exhilarating player. It is he more than almost anybody that epitomises my memories of the early years of Premier League football and Sky’s coverage. Here's why...

Any winger with the winning combination of searing pace and plenty of trickery will always be a favourite with the neutral. They’re the one you want to get on the ball during a drab game; you know that if anyone can make something happen, it’s the baggy-sleeved whippet on the wing.

But Andrei Kanchelskis’s sleeves weren’t as baggy as the archetypal touchline hugger. Surprisingly broad of shoulder for a winger, he’d often go past his man with a combination of pace, skill and the sort of strength that is best shown when going shoulder-to-shoulder with a fullback and gradually sending them off balance over the course of several paces. The marauding Ukrainian played the game how most of us like to see it – quick, on the deck, with precision and verve. I think the greatest compliment I could pay him would be that he made every pitch look like it was wet. The ball would glide along smoothly as he dribbled it. His crosses and shots would normally be fizzed in low like a well-skimmed pebble being thrown into water. He did everything with zip.

Of course, Kanchelskis played at the same time (and in the same team) as Eric Cantona, and so history perhaps does not remember him as a true United great. And even apart from the volatile-but-gifted Frenchman, he was playing alongside other world-class players in their pomp (Giggs, Schmeichel, Keane). But he still stood out as a real danger on many occasions during his four-year spell at United. During this time, he would make 145 appearances for the club, scoring an impressive 48 goals.

United's first 'proper' right winger since the early 1980s
I was lucky enough to see him play during his last full season at Old Trafford. It was 29 October 1994, and United were at home to Kevin Keegan’s table-topping Newcastle. The home side were convincing 2-0 winners, thanks to goals from Gary Pallister and Keith Gillespie (before the latter became a make-weight in the Andy Cole transfer between the clubs a couple of months later). But the real star of the show that day was Kanchelskis. People often talk about how thrilling it is to be stood or sat behind the goal towards which a flying winger is running. But for me, it was equally beguiling to sit behind him as he ran away, because then you got to enjoy watching the full-back squirm and contort before eventually falling over. He seemed so fast. And as he approached top speed he would jink and lurch in different directions – much like Gareth Bale does today, but at more acute angles. He loved to cut inside too, and was more than comfortable shooting with either foot. 

When United signed Kanchelskis from Shakhtar Donetsk in March 1991, they paid just £650,000 for his services. And they were urgently needed services too. No disrespect to Mike Phelan, Neil Webb and Clayton Blackmore, but United’s right-sided options weren’t exactly budding Usain Bolts. In fact, the new arrival was said to be United’s first 'proper' right-winger since Steve Coppell.

Like with so many of United’s best servants over the years, Kanchelskis departed after a fall-out with Sir Alex Ferguson could not be patched up. He left for Everton in a £5 million deal just weeks after Ferguson had sold Paul Ince and Mark Hughes – in retrospect, a clear-out that arguably accelerated the development of one David Beckham, not to mention the rest of “Fergie’s Fledglings”.

Many predicted that he’d flop on Merseyside. They assumed he must have an attitude problem to have fallen out with Ferguson. But whenever I saw him play for Everton he always looked a threat – and 20 goals from 52 Premier League games, including both goals in a 2-1 win away at Anfield – tell you all you need to know.

Kanchelskis nets the winner at Anfield in 1995
Having earned cult status with Toffees fans and cemented his reputation as one of the most feared wingers in British football, he was suddenly gone; sold to Fiorentina in the January of his second season at Goodison Park for £8 million. He was never quite the same player after that, and even when he joined Glasgow Rangers in the summer of 1998, he never quite hit the heights. His status in Glasgow was that of a player good at turning the screw once Rangers were ahead, but who couldn’t produce in the big games.

The flat-track bully tag was perhaps best evidenced in the fact that he began to showboat. Once, memorably, with Rangers several goals to the good against Ayr United in a Scottish Cup semi-final, Kanchelskis received a pass in space on the right flank. He stood on top of the ball with both feet and raised his hand to his brow as if surveying his options. A swift one-two with Claudio Reyna and Kanchelskis whipped the ball in for Billy Dodds to score. It was a memorable moment, replayed endlessly in the days that followed, but Ayr’s players and fans felt it was unnecessary to do it against a minnow already heading for a convincing defeat. They just wanted to enjoy their big day out at Hampden Park by that point, and Kanchelskis had rubbed their noses in it.

But if he got away with that one, signs that his powers were on the wane were more apparent in a game with Kilmarnock at Ibrox, when Kanchelskis performed an even more pointless trick, completing a 360-degree turn without touching the ball. His marker, who’d kept his eye on the ball, wasn’t even close to being fooled and the Ukrainian then failed to get his cross in. He did little of particular note in what remained of his career, as he drifted to Manchester City (loan), Southampton, Saudi Arabia and Russia before eventually retiring at 38.

It was not the end he would have wished for his career, but he will always be remembered by fans of United and Everton for the way he brought pace, goals and skill to the first half of the 1990s. He also provided a certain amount of exoticism as a foreign player. He was one of just 13 non-Brits to play in the Premier League’s opening weekend (the others were Schmeichel, Cantona, Jan Stejskal, Robert Warzycha, Roland Nilsson, Hans Segers, John Jensen, Anders Limpar, Gunnar Halle, Craig Forrest, Michel Vonk and Ronnie Rosenthal). How bizarre does such a statistic seem now? Today’s Premier League teams have, on average, 13 foreign players each.

Andrei Kanchelskis was unusual. He came from a place we knew little about, seemed to run differently, shoot differently, even celebrate differently – his arms outstretched, slightly bent at the elbows, hands turned in, as if ready to embrace the first person that could catch him.

The Cantonas, Bergkamps, Henrys and Beckhams are all rightly revered for the contributions they have made to football in this shiny Premier League era. But we should not forget that Andrei Kanchelskis more than did his bit too.

Gloria! Hosannah in Kanchelskis!
(Or, to use a less pretentious subhead, ‘Five Memorable Andrei Kanchelskis Moments’)

1) An absolute monster of a goal against Oldham in the 1994 FA Cup Semi Final. United are making rather heavy work of this fixture, and so Andrei decides to take matters into his own hands...

2) A stunning volley for Rangers away at Dunfermline – one of the few special moments of his time in Glasgow.

3) A terrific hat-trick for Everton against Sheffield Wednesday (you’ll notice a rare Daniel Amokachi goal in there too).

4) A decidedly scrappier hat-trick in the Manchester derby. But still, a hat-trick in the derby is something to savour, especially when you win 5-0. Kanchelskis is the only player in history to have scored in all three of the Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow derbies. Some feat.

5) A sublime goal against Forest in the 1994/95 season. It’s the first goal in this enjoyable compilation video. Watch for the view from inside the net to see just how well he picks his spot here. If Bergkamp had done that, it would have been Goal Of The Season in any season.


tikabooson said...

Great article.
Unfortunately I think Andrei fell victim to the cancer in football that is the football agent.
His swift departure from Man Utd and Everton would indicate this was to do with clubs washing their hands of him as quickly as possible following irregularities, but as this article suggests, I don't think it was ever Andrei's fault, indeed he always seemed to give 100% for Man Utd, Everton & Rangers winning trophies with Man utd and Rangers and helping a below average Everton team to 6th in the Premier League. I don't think there's a team his been at in the UK where the fans don't hold him in high regard.

Anonymous said...

Really well written, that was a rather pleasant trip down memory lane.

I'm not off to youtube to look for old clips of him flying down the wing.

Bruver said...

My favourite Andrei moment. Completley pointless, but sums up how much fun he had playing the game.

Well done Chris.

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