Football: A winger's life on the outside: Simon O'Hagan meets the Ukrainian whose football future is clouded by doubt

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The Independent Online
THE LOOK of distress mingled with disbelief on Andrei Kanchelskis's face last Sunday as the Coca-Cola Cup final reached its climax will surely go down as one of the saddest sights of the sporting year. If, before the game, you had listed Manchester United's players in order of likely dismissal, there is no doubt who would have been at No 11: the 25-year-old Ukrainian with the pistons in his legs and, by all accounts, not an ounce of malice in his heart.

Kanchelskis had been booked only three times in nearly three seasons at United, and had never in his career been sent off. Yet there he was having to leave the Wembley pitch after his handball had given Aston Villa the penalty that wrapped up their 3-1 win. Nobody had given more to save the game for United. Indeed, it was a mark of Kanchelskis's industry that it was he - a right- winger - who was back on the goal-line and left to do what any player would have done as Dal

ian Atkinson's shot headed in.

In a bittersweet spell at United, that was one of the harder moments for Kanchel

skis to swallow. But there is a special challenge faced by foreigners in the English game, and as Peter Schmeichel and Eric Cantona have discovered, it perhaps helps to be a little larger than life. Kanchelskis's style - aggressive without being demonstrative - has made him much the least conspicuous of United's three Europeans, and an abiding uncertainty about his place in the team means we can expect to see him playing elsewhere next season.

Three days before the Coca-Cola final Kanchelskis said he was '70 per cent' certain he would leave United. It seemed an odd figure. In fact he had wanted to say '100 per cent certain', but 70 was the highest number he could think of in English.

Kanchelskis's adjustment to life here has been only partial, in spite of - or perhaps because of - the help given him by his interpreter George Scanlon, a retired academic who for more than 20 years has liaised for Manchester United and Liverpool on trips to eastern Europe. Captain of Cambridge University's Pegasus team in the late 1950s and a former manager of Marine, one of Merseyside's leading non- League clubs, Scanlon is fascinating in his own right. He was Head of Russian at Liverpool Polytechnic, then Head of Languages, and finally Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Studies, all the time using his linguistic skills in football. He interprets for Cantona as well as Kanchelskis, and translated the Frenchman's recently published autobiography.

Over lunch with Kanchel

skis and Scanlon in Kensington, west London - round the corner from the Russian Embassy where the player had just been to register the birth of his son - Kanchelskis recalled being told as a schoolboy how important it was to learn English. 'I thought, why do I need to learn English when I'm going to be a footballer?' The trouble was it was a school for gifted young players - in Kharkov, about 200 miles from Kanchelskis's home in Kirovograd - where the 15-year-old Andrei found it difficult to concentrate on academic subjects.

It was in football school, Kanchelskis said, that 'I learnt any good habits I have', but he was bitterly disappointed not to graduate from there to the local League team, Metallist Kharkov. He was also having to cope with the death of his father, a lorry driver, from a heart attack. At 17, Kanchelskis found himself back home with his mother and elder sister, playing football for Kirovograd.

'It was a way of earning some money for the family,' Kanchelskis says. 'My self-esteem was very badly hurt, having specialised in Kharkov and the town not taking me on. I decided to put everything I could into making people see that they were wrong.' You sense that the legacy of that experience - the pride and the pain - is still there behind a relaxed, gracious exterior.

Kanchelskis did prove them wrong, doing national service in Dynamo Kiev reserves before joining Shakhtyor Donetsk, a leading team in the old Soviet League, and earning his first international caps. Manchester United became aware of Kan

chelskis when he played for the Soviet Union against Scotland, and he moved to Old Trafford at the end of the 1990-91 season.

Since then his explosive pace, rasping shot, and - when they come - emphatic goals have added an extra dimension even to a team of such extravagant talents as United. But the English game took some getting used to. 'It's quite different here,' he says. 'You've no time to dwell on the ball. Once in a while in Russia you'd play a bad team and they'd have a defender you could beat once, beat twice, and still be able to stand around deciding what to do next. Here you might have three opponents pressurising you.' And then there was all that heading. 'I could see that English players were very good at this. But I just wasn't brought up to head the ball.' Whenever United have a corner, Kan

chelskis is stationed some 10 yards outside the penalty area.

Willie Morgan, a United right-winger from the days of Matt Busby's managership, thrills to the sight of Kan

chelskis in full cry. 'It's not that he's the greatest dribbler, but he puts defenders under pressure because he runs straight at them, and there aren't many in the modern game that do that. He's been brilliant. He grafts, he gets stuck in, he enjoys playing. You have to mark him, and that helps create space for Mark Hughes in the middle.'

Morgan singles out Kan

chelskis's sportsmanship, too. 'I don't think I've ever seen him go for anybody. He's just a very fair player.' That is something Kanchelskis admires in others. Asked to name the opponent he most respects, he cites Tony Dorigo, of Leeds. 'He's not trying to kick you up in the air all the time.' Describing Cantona, a player who, because of Scanlon, Kanchelskis knows as well as any at United, he talks of his 'courtesy' and 'how well brought up he is'.

For all Kanchelskis's skills, Alex Ferguson did not feel he needed him as a regular in last season's title-winning side, and in European matches it has been Kanchelskis who has been dropped when the foreigners rule has had to be applied. The doubt planted in Kanchelskis's mind has remained with him.

'I just couldn't understand why I wasn't in the team,' Kan

chelskis says. Relations with Ferguson did not improve when Kanchelskis refused to play in the reserves last season and the United manager fined him. In domestic competition this season Kanchelskis has had an extended run in the team, making the right wing his own. But as he doesn't need telling, it's coincided with the injury to Lee Sharpe. Now Sharpe is back and Kanchelskis must miss next Sunday's FA Cup semi-final through suspension. You can see the way he is thinking.

There is much, though, that Kanchelskis would miss about United; his comfortable home in Altrincham, where he lives with his wife Inna and baby son Andrei Andreivich; and the support of United's crowd and of his fellow players. Brian Mc

Clair, Kanchelskis's room-mate on away trips, has been very good to him, he says, and Brian Kidd is a 'magnificent' coach.

Kanchelskis's appreciation of others is noticeable - but equally so is his own need for appreciation. Let us hope there is enough of that about to keep him in the English game.

(Photograph omitted)