Giant chip off the old Bloc Baltacha Junior provides a tantalising twist in the Scottish tale featuring sons of famous fathers

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The Independent Online

LAST WEEKEND was just another chapter in the incredible success story of Andriy Shevchenko. The man who seems destined to inherit the title of the world's most valuable player was bringing Russia to its knees.

LAST WEEKEND was just another chapter in the incredible success story of Andriy Shevchenko. The man who seems destined to inherit the title of the world's most valuable player was bringing Russia to its knees.

The Milan striker's dramatic last-minute equaliser in Moscow sent Ukraine to Euro 2000 instead of their bitter rivals and plunged 100,000 fans in the Olympic Stadium into silence. Thousands of miles away across Europe, another boy from Kiev could appreciate the significance, if not the hush.

Sergei Baltacha was embracing the international stage too, though in the more humble setting of Firhill Stadium. The noise generated by the 2,000 spectators who braved the Glasgow rain last Friday night to watch Scotland's Under-21 side lose to Lithuania rarely threatened decibel levels, but it did raise a notch when the 6ft 5in Baltacha came on as a substitute.

Baltacha, though, was not performing for the former Soviet Union country. He wore the dark blue of Scotland. Craig Brown has often bemoaned that there is no transfer market for international managers to raid, yet not only had he acquired someone who began life a couple of years behind Shevchenko at Dynamo Kiev's famed football academy, but it had cost him nothing whereas Milan had to fork out £18m in the summer to get their Ukrainian.

The bizarre situation was brought home to young Baltacha just three days earlier, when he lined up last Tuesday to make his Scottish debut against Bosnia's Under-21s and had to smile blankly through "Flower of Scotland". "I don't know the words," he says sheepishly, "but then I don't know the Ukrainian national anthem either."

Craig Brown, it appears, is dabbling in the art of cloning: in that Under-21 side at Firhill were the names Dalglish, Strachan and Jordan (Paul, Gavin and Andrew), offspring of famous fathers in dark blue.

Baltacha's was equally famous. The dyed blond hair of the immensely tall young St Mirren player may have disguised the identity for a while from Kenny Dalglish, Gordon Strachan and Joe Jordan who were watching from the Firhill stand, but as soon as they saw the easy movement and comfort on the ball the penny will have dropped: Sergei Baltacha Snr was part of the Soviet Union side which ended the trio's World Cup finals in 1982.

"My dad scored against New Zealand in those finals," says young Sergei with a pride which ignores the irony that the Soviets advanced ahead of the Scots on goal difference but in a voice which betrays his nine years spent in Scotland. "I was only three when that World Cup took place. My mum went to Spain to watch the games but I saw it on television with my relatives."

As a member of the Dynamo Kiev side who virtually doubled as the Soviet national team in the 1980s, Baltacha Snr was away from his young family a lot. The sublime sweeper would return with medals - the Cup- Winners' Cup with his club in 1986 and European Championship runner-up with country in 1988 - and chewing gum. "Dad used to bring back bagloads of the stuff when he played abroad," recalls young Sergei, "and it was always much better than what you could get in the Soviet Union."

If material life undoubtedly improved for Baltacha and his family after he became one of the first Soviet players to be allowed to move abroad in 1988, when he joined Ipswich, his son has not stored up memories of hardship. "There were not a lot of poor people in Kiev," he insists. "Everyone was really just the same: average. We all all had the same-sized apartments, and every evening we would have games of football outside, with about 30 joining in a kickabout."

By the age of six, Baltacha Jnr had joined Dynamo's famous youth system, playing until his move to Britain at the age of nine, as well as enjoying the perks of his dad's job with some highly unofficial kickabouts with the former European Footballer of the Year, Oleg Blokhin. "The players' kids were allowed to go to this fabulous training camp Dynamo had and join in the practice games with players like Blokhin and Igor Belanov sometimes."

It is doubtful if even the eagle eye of Valery Lobanovsky, the veteran Dynamo star-maker who spotted Shevchenko - "he was my dad's manager too" points out Sergei - would recognise that same kid. Now the giant defender-midfielder looks down on his father, whose career wound down at Portman Road and finally St Johnstone, by five inches. The family - mother Olga and daughter Elena - settled in Perth where Sergei Jnr, despite interest from Spurs, completed his schooling.

Baltacha Snr had an unsuccessful stint in management at Inverness Caledonian Thistle but is now involved in trying to help Scottish football at grass-roots level as a community coach in Dumfries, although he may already have provided one talent for the future simply in recommending his son to St Mirren last year. The versatile 20-year-old only made his debut for the Scottish First Division leaders in August but two Under-21 appearances last week, against Bosnia and Lithuania, indicates his pedigree is coming through.

"I've definitely modelled myself on my dad and I hope I can be as good as he was. I can only try my best but time will tell. He came to watch me against Lithuania and he is proud I've been capped. I probably feel more Scottish than Ukrainian now, because I've spent most of my life here. But I would never forget my roots. I am proud when I see players like Shevchenko doing well at Milan, although it needs someone like Lobanovsky to spot that talent just as he did with my dad's team."

The quality streak, however, also extends to the female side of the sporting family Baltacha. Younger sister, Elena, 16, is one of Britain's best young tennis players and is ranked among the top 60 players under the age of 18 in the world. She is chaperoned around the circuit by her mother Olga, a former heptathlete whose chance of representing the Soviet Union in the Moscow Olympics in 1980 ended when she discovered she was pregnant with Sergei Jnr.

"We must have something in our blood," reflects the footballer of his family. Do his Under-21 colleagues mull over their bloodlines too? "No. It's obvious that the more famous your father is, the more pressure is on you but mine played for the Soviet Union. It would have been different for me if he'd been captain of Celtic or Rangers."

Baltacha Snr still has the collection of international shirts he swapped with opponents. "He's got Gary Lineker's England shirt and an Italian one worn by Vialli," says young Sergei. But he never got two from Scotland, did he?

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