The Rebrov route

Saving grace of Tottenham's Little Rescuer from Ukraine
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In Kiev Sergei Rebrov was known as "The Little Rescuer" because of the number of occasions on which he came up with a crucial goal in adversity. He lived up to that moniker on two different occasions at White Hart Lane last Tuesday, firstly when the half-time interval was looming with Tottenham two down against Everton and the natives in a state of advanced restlessness.

In Kiev Sergei Rebrov was known as "The Little Rescuer" because of the number of occasions on which he came up with a crucial goal in adversity. He lived up to that moniker on two different occasions at White Hart Lane last Tuesday, firstly when the half-time interval was looming with Tottenham two down against Everton and the natives in a state of advanced restlessness.

Sol Campbell's lunge at a free-kick from out on the right propelled the ball against a post, after which it was Rebrov who reacted quickest to drive in a first goal for the club since George Graham and Sir Alan Sugar bit the bullet and agreed to pay Dynamo Kiev £11m to secure his services.

His team-mates and manager had special cause to be grateful: so poor had the team's performance been up until that stage that even two minutes after giving the home fans a goal to celebrate, they walked off at the tea interval to isolated boos. Fifteen minutes into the second half, as an initially promising move slowly went further and further backwards and finished with the goalkeeper, Neil Sullivan, kicking into touch, a season's first chant of "We want Graham out" was heard on the far side of the ground.

The object of this derision affected not to have heard it, and was almost immediately vindicated by Campbell, who won a penalty, and The Little Rescuer, who cemented his popularity by calmly tapping it in. When Les Ferdinand - one of four strikers competing for two positions since the Ukrainian's arrival - struck a winning goal shortly afterwards, the mood of the night was transformed.

That mood will need to be maintained tomorrow when West Ham arrive for a local derby second only to those against Arsenal in emotional resonance. In such circumstances, the notoriously critical White Hart Lane crowd can usually be relied upon to get behind the team and stay there, rather like a family keeping internecine tensions under wraps when the neighbours come round.

The emergence of a new hero would help bind them together and Graham, rather uncharacteristically for such a strong proponent of the team ethic, has now gone public in putting Rebrov forward for that status. "I think he's going to take over David Ginola's role as the idol of White Hart Lane," the Spurs manager said.

That's the Ginola sold to Aston Villa in the close season, amid rancorous blasts and counter-blasts about the degree to which Tottenham wanted to keep him. It was a transfer that divided Spurs supporters as emphatically as the appointment of Graham, "the Arsenal man", who would appear slowly to be winning over a majority, but - as Tuesday's events showed - may have lost support by allowing the acknowledged fans' favourite to leave.

All the more important, then, that the amateur-radio enthusiast from Donetsk who cost the club almost twice as much as any previous signing should quickly tune into the right wavelength; all the more surprising that Graham should add to the pressure by appointing him hero-in-waiting.

"I feel the fans will be very excited knowing there's still more to come from Sergei," Graham said. "It's a lot to expect of him to switch on right away. But he is class and I think he'll be a big sensation. His control and basic technique are magic. I think he'll be helped playing in the Premiership because the level of defending is really poor - great to watch for the fans, but very poor."

Perhaps that was a selling point used on Rebrov by Graham and Tottenham's director of football, David Pleat, in persuading him to follow his former striking partner, Andrei Shevchenko, away from the Ukraine but to England rather than the claustrophobic world of Italian football. Shevchenko, the taller, younger, target-man, had left the previous summer, which in effect prevented Rebrov from moving to Arsenal, who had spoken to him after he scored in both Dynamo Kiev's Champions' League matches against them.

Shevchenko already had a pre-contract with Milan and Dynamo did not dare sell both at the same time, even for the £25m they could have demanded; as it was, once Shevchenko and Oleg Luzhny had left, one supporter threatened to blow up the stadium. Rebrov therefore stayed long enough to establish a new Ukrainian record of 103 goals in the domestic league that Dynamo have dominated since the break with Mother Russia, as well as helping them progress to the second stage of the Champions' League, where they were squeezed out by Real Madrid.

He had been there for six years, yet almost returned to his first club, Shakhtar Don- etsk, at the age of 17, impatience at sitting on the substitutes' bench illustrating his ambition and self-belief. Only when Valery Lobanovski, the godfather of football in the Ukraine, took over for his third spell at Dynamo did Rebrov prosper, soon winning promotion to the national team, in which he appeared alongside Shevchenko for the 2-0 defeat by England last May.

He says that, contrary to reports at the time, his good friend Luzhny did not make any serious attempt at luring him to the more successful of the two north London clubs. Now he is looking forward to their meeting in the first Spurs-Arsenal derby, for which tomorrow's encounter - West Ham against the radio ham - will be a useful rehearsal.

Comments