Football: FA Cup Final Countdown: Kharin rises above barriers: Trevor Haylett on Chelsea's last line of defence who is keeping up a long tradition at Stamford Bridge

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THEY have always liked a foreign goalkeeper at Stamford Bridge. It is why they took Peter Bonetti and Eddie Niedzwiecki to their hearts (at least they sounded as though they were from afar) and forgave the Yugoslav, Petar Borota, his worst eccentricities. Now, in a specialist position attracting more members from abroad, it is appropriate that one of the Premiership's best wears Chelsea blue.

The less than erudite international manager who used to give his favourite player the handle DK ('Well done son, you were DK out there, absolutely DK.' 'DK boss?' 'Yes, DK, you were different class.') would have had fun with Dimitri Kharin. Chelsea's DK is both different and classy, stylish and safe and a major influence behind their progress to the FA Cup final.

He will not worry that, at Wembley, he must shut out the most exciting attack in the country. Manchester United could not beat him in either League encounter this season and neither could Newcastle, who scored freely elsewhere. There is also the argument that it was his pair of excellent saves from Andy Cole at the Bridge in December that turned Chelsea's season away from impending doom to the guarantee of European qualification.

That the import from Moscow stayed at all in England after a disastrous introduction to the West is a tribute to a talent and a resolve that at 17 made him one of the youngest keepers in the old Soviet Supreme League.

Within an hour of receiving the keys to his new home he had been burgled, while a muscle injury curtailed his second appearance and denied him more than five outings last season. On top of that there was the dismissal of Ian Porterfield, the manager who bought him, and later his replacement, David Webb. It has been Glenn Hoddle's good fortune that the 'red' wearing blue was on a mission to prove himself, and would not be deflected.

After providing valuable service to three Moscow clubs - Torpedo, Dynamo and CSKA - Kharin was spotted by Gwyn Williams, a Chelsea assistant manager, playing for the Commonwealth of Independent States in the 1992 European Championship. He also came highly recommended to Porterfield from Graeme Souness, who had exacerbated Chelsea's goalkeeping problems by enticing David James to Liverpool when Chelsea thought they had secured a deal for him with Watford.

A favourable trial completed, Kharin arrived back at Heathrow in Christmas week 16 months ago to sign for Chelsea. This time he was not alone.

'When I picked him up there were two strangers with him at the airport,' Williams recalled. 'They looked as though they might be from the Russian military. When I took him to his hotel there were another two. Then the next day another two emerged. We sat round the table, me and all six of them to sort things out. It was interesting that I had not seen them before, but there they were when we were talking money.' Nevertheless, the deal was done and at pounds 400,000 it gave Chelsea good reason to be grateful for James's preference for Anfield.

With wife Lilla and son Igor, the new recruit moved into rented accommodation on Christmas Eve. A shopping trip gave Buckinghamshire's light-fingered a chance to strike. 'You had to feel sorry for him,' Williams said. 'There he was 2,000 miles from home, unable to speak the language, not knowing who to trust and immediately someone goes and robs him of his cash and jewellery.

'The players took to him straight away because he was so obviously dedicated about his training and now you'll find him joining in with the practical jokes. He was determined to be as independent as possible, quickly setting himself up with a car so he could follow me to training and learn the route for himself.'

With Igor happy at school and Lilla a receptive student of the language, the Kharin clan are enjoying their new life. There is much to look forward to because after Saturday, and his reunion with his great friend from the opposite corner, Andrei Kanchelskis, he must turn his attention to the World Cup with his country.

He has won admirers wherever Chelsea have gone this season. Hoddle says: 'It is difficult to gauge how difficult the save is, he makes everything look so easy,' while Peter Shreeves, the player-manager's assistant, believes he is up there with the other celebrated keepers he has worked with - Jennings, Clemence and Southall.

'Dimitri's biggest asset is his springability,' Shreeves says. 'The shot is heading for the corner, you think he is not going to get it but suddenly there he is pushing it around the post. His fitness levels and mobility are first-class, indeed he is almost balletic in his work on the training pitch. With him it is football, football, football and no diversions.'

(Photograph omitted)