Shevchenko: Just one of the boys - at £30.8m

He thinks of himself as 'down to earth', but Shevchenko's talent makes him anything but
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The Independent Online

He describes himself as "down to earth", a difficult trick to pull off when you have a villa on Lake Como, a beautiful American model for a wife, two shops opened with Giorgio Armani and a reputation as one of the very best in the world at your chosen profession, with salary to match.

On the north bank of the Thames, that self-assessment and Andriy Shevchenko's patience are being tested by a four-hour session of photos and interviews to publicise a lucrative new contract with Reebok. Beautiful wife and 18-month-old son are waiting in an adjacent room.

Yet Chelsea's new £30.8 million striker, who will make his Premiership debut at home to Manchester City this afternoon, still manages a friendly handshake for the latest bunch of inquisitors, and a smile that broadens as he recalls the more humble days, when a new pair of football boots was a wondrous thing.

On his first visit to Britain, for a junior tournament at Aberystwyth as a 12-year-old, the precocious young Shevchenko of Dinamo Kiev was named player of the competition and received as his reward a brand-new pair of boots from Liverpool's Ian Rush.

They turned out to be too small, but, he says: "I did whatever I could to wear them, I was stitching them up because my toes were going through them. It was important. You have to put yourself in my shoes. When I was growing up in the USSR, you couldn't imagine playing with a Nike boot or something. It wasn't just a trophy, I wanted to play in them. I kept them as long as I could. Maybe my mother still has them; she keeps all my trophies, I don't keep any."

Mrs Shevchenko's collection must be an impressive one. Since that trip to Wales in the late 1980s, it has been swollen with medals as a champion of the Ukrainian League (for five successive seasons until his transfer to Milan in 1999), Ukrainian player of the year (five times), and winner of the Champions' League (2003 at Old Trafford), Serie A and European Footballer of the Year.

His scoring record at club level is 187 goals from 326 games, including seven years in defensively mean Italian football. In internationals it is 31 in 69 appearances for Ukraine, for whom he has often seemed a one-man team. "Ukraine," he says, "had a great World Cup. To be in the top eight was great and I'm very proud of that. It was one of the best months of my life."

After an emphatic defeat by Italy in the quarter-finals, there was a touching moment when he waved his farewells to the Italian supporters, many Milan fans among them. Some of those followers feel a touch of betrayal from a man who said in an interview last year that he would like to finish his career there and was then seen kissing his new blue shirt after scoring a typically well-taken goal for Chelsea in their Community Shield defeat last Sunday.

But the attractions of a move to London are clear. There are family reasons, with an English-speaking wife and son (a second child is on the way); Sergei Rebrov, once his scoring partner in the successful Dinamo team, enthused about life in the capital despite his own miserable fortunes with Tottenham and West Ham; and it is reasonable to assume that Roman Abramovich, whom Shevchenko and his wife had previously met, made the switch financially worthwhile.

There is also a sense that seven years amid the manic stresses of Italian football proved draining, even before the recent scandal that threatened Milan with relegation as well as their Champions' League place (they were forced to play in the final qualifying round, and have only a 1-0 lead from the home leg against Red Star). It was significant that during his interview Shevchenko suddenly volunteered: "I'd like to mention violence in the stadiums. There are people who cross the limits, which doesn't help the image of football."

As for the football itself in his latest adopted country, early impressions are as favourable as he had hoped: "I like the English way of playing. It is very different to Italy; more open, faster and more exciting. I was struck by the public and the respect they showed, and the atmosphere [in Cardiff] was great. The team have welcomed me very warmly. They are great professionals but also very down-to-earth, and that will help me."

Most foreign imports to the Premiership are shocked by the pace of the game and the leniency of the refereeing. Shevchenko is understandably unconvinced by the suggestion that he might find it all too physical: "Italian defenders are pretty tough, and I'm used to that. It always happened in Italy. Fitness levels are very important now in football, and I hope I'm at a level where I can give my best in that kind of game." He has done so before and has the scars to prove it, notably where a defender's elbow cracked his eye-socket, necessitating the insertion of five tiny titanium plates.

So, almost 20 years on from Aberystwyth, it is a good time to return to Britain for a new challenge, in a new country and with a new coach. Anyone who has worked under Fabio Capello and Kiev's late, revered Valeri Lobanovski would expect high standards from a manager.

Of Mourinho, he says: "I've seen the work he has done and it's very good the way he works for the group. The hardest thing is to make everybody work towards the same goal, and that's what Mourinho is very good at.

"There may be some who will play more than others but they have to understand it's important to keep the flexibility and change always to get the best results. If a great team want to win all the time they can't depend on a few individual players. I'm not here to prove anything to anybody, I'm here to find my role within the team and the way to help them to win."

Finding a pair of boots that fit should not be too much of a problem either.

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