Settled Djorkaeff key to Bolton's survival

Ultra-confident Frenchman settles into Lancashire life in pursuit of Premiership safety and a World Cup place
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The Independent Football

If you have an Armenian surname and live in the Manchester area, you may soon receive a call from a man with a French accent. He will explain that he, too, is Armenian, he is working in the area for a few months and would you like to meet up over a cup of coffee?

Do not hang up, especially not if you support Bolton Wanderers. He is not a crank but Youri Djorkaeff, the most famous player to represent the Trotters since Nat Lofthouse.

Although Djorkaeff's family left Armenia in 1915, and both he and his father have played with distinction for France, he remains very proud of his roots and always seeks to cultivate them. Already he has found an Armenian restaurant in Manchester and, he told me when we met on Thursday, he will soon seek out fellow Armenian émigrés.

"When I arrive in a country I take the phone book and look for Armenian names," he said. "In America, on vacations, too. I call, I say: 'Hello. I am a French person from Armenia here on holiday. Can we meet?' I meet some nice people because of this."

In America, I suggest, people do not know you are a famous footballer. "Not so," said Djorkaeff. "Even in America, Armenian people know me. At the beginning, when I call, I don't say: 'I'm Youri Djorkaeff'. But when we are drinking coffee she recognises me and goes crazy. She says: 'No, not you, it must be your brother'."

It is hard what to make of this revelation. Does it suggest Djorkaeff is free of ego, or overflowing with it? How many famous people go out of their way to meet their fans? But how many would be happy to share a coffee with them?

Djorkaeff does have a reputation for arrogance. When he joined from Kaiserslautern last month one ex-team-mate said: "The big ego has gone." Another added: "Now we can start training on time." In the past he has claimed he "invented" the system France, including Djorkaeff, played to win the 1998 World Cup. He also expressed very little doubt that, despite being omitted from the French squad last month, he will be back for the World Cup. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, yeah." Only after a pause does he add: "I hope." A French journalist agreed: "He will be in. It is a mafia and he is one of the dons," he said disparagingly.

Knowing this it is hard not to wonder, as you look around the the windswept training ground, what he really thought when he first arrived. Until a few weeks ago Bolton shared it with a social club and players would have lunch surrounded by men drinking pints. Though the decorators have made an impressive start, half of the pavilion remains untouched. There is a scratched dancefloor, ruptured polystyrene-tiled ceiling (with a refuse bin containing foul liquid under a leaking section) and ripped upholstery. It cannot have impressed a man who once used Internazionale's facilities.

But Djorkaeff appears unconcerned. There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance and professional sportsmen, who cannot perform successfully without the former, often cross it. In person Djorkaeff seems on the right side of the line. He is engaging company, happy to be interviewed in his improving English and patient on the few occasions his comprehension lets him down. To judge from his interaction with his new team-mates, as we sit over black coffee, he is popular in the dressing-room. A reported £50,000 a week has the potential to unsettle but most players do not begrudge team-mates such salaries if they feel it is earned.

To that end the jury is still out but Djorkaeff has made a promising start to his three-month loan. The football has been more frenetic than he expected but he has shown an appetite for the challenge.

It helps that his motivation extends beyond a desire to repay Bolton for their faith, and wages. To put it bluntly, he needs games. Who they are for is less important. Having fallen out with Andy Brehme, the Kaiserslautern coach, he has barely played in the last year. The message from Roger Lemerre, the French coach, was: "Find yourself a team".

Other countries having closed their transfer windows, it had to be England. Liverpool and Arsenal, obvious suspects given their Gallic connections, were said to be interested but Djorkaeff chose Bolton.

That was not as strange at it appeared. As the superb Reebok Stadium down the M61, the decorators inside, and the JCB preparing the ground for an artificial pitch outside, illustrate, Bolton are ambitious. Sam Allardyce, the manager, and Phil Gartside, the chairman, are progressive thinkers.

Said Djorkaeff: "I had offers from more famous clubs but what made the difference is the feeling I got from people here."

He has not been disappointed. "I am a happy man," he said. "My relations with the players is very good. My life in England is better than in Germany. The people in this area are very friendly. In Germany they were very closed. To meet people who have a passion for football, for their team, is very attractive. It is the same in Italy but in Italy you do not have a life. Here people have respect for the player. It is good for them and their families."

Although he is living in a Manchester hotel, Djorkaeff is settling quickly. "My family is with me, which is important, and I have found a school for my children. It is an English school. I am French but I am coming to England and I want to do everything to integrate into the culture. To talk English with English people, to drive my car on the other side of the road. That is my mentality."

The only problem is the results. The midfielder Per Frandsen said the 34-year-old's arrival had given everyone a lift as it showed the players the club was serious but, so far, Bolton have taken two points from Djorkaeff's three outings. Today they have a crucial match against Derby.

"Our games are not like Arsenal and Newcastle," Djorkaeff admitted. "They are playing to win the league, we are playing to stay in it. That is very different and you cannot expect Bolton to play very well in this position because the team does not have the same confidence."

Djorkaeff's job is to provide that. Next week Lemerre names the French squad to play Scotland but Djorkaeff stressed: "I am thinking of Derby, not Scotland. It is a big game. My aim is to go step by step. To do well for Bolton, then make a big World Cup."

And after that? Djorkaeff, who will be available on a free transfer at the end of the season, talks of staying in England. The irony is that if his performances keep Bolton up they may struggle to hold on to him. It is a problem they would love to have.