No talent for substitution

The face was contorted by emotion, the lips mouthed expletives at those around him, the shirt was off and the fist raised with…

The face was contorted by emotion, the lips mouthed expletives at those around him, the shirt was off and the fist raised with repeated upper-cut fury. A road-rage incident? No, Temuri Ketsbaia was "celebrating" his winner for Newcastle against Bolton in January.

It was one of the unforgettable moments of the season, but it played to our prejudices: somewhat enigmatic, highly-strung foreigner scores goal, takes ball home, has nervous breakdown - and it did Ketsbaia a disservice.

Yes, he does have anxious energy, as his bony-handed mangling of a rolled-up newspaper during our conversation displayed; and then there is the surprising self-consciousness about his premature baldness, as his initial refusal to remove his baseball cap for the photographer showed. But then, once settled, Ketsbaia was calm, intelligent and more articulate - in English - than some of his team-mates. Judging by the way those team-mates sang "Temuri, Temuri" each time they went by, and the way Kenny Dalglish sprang to his defence a few weeks ago, Ketsbaia is also extremely popular. The Bolton incident is forgiven; Ketsbaia would probably like it to be forgotten.

"At the time, we were not playing so well," he said. "We were in a bad situation. So it was an important goal for me and for the club. I was happy, I just wanted to show that I deserved to be playing."


He added: "It's normal." But it was not. Neither is the fact that such an obviously-talented footballer should feel the need to prove himself at the age of 30, but Ketsbaia does - to Dalglish, to colleagues, though not to the Toon Army, who cherish his flair. Then there is the admiration he craves most, from Georgia.

It is seven years since Ketsbaia left a country about to implode into brutal civil war. Although he has prospered professionally and financially since, there is a barely-concealed personal guilt about leaving his parents, brothers and sister in Abkhazia.

When he left for Cyprus, the rest of his family became refugees 250 miles away from home in Tbilisi. They are still there today.

"We are from Abkhazia, but we do not live there now. We lost everything. It would be dangerous for us to live there now, but some do because they cannot move; they have no job, no house, no nothing. But for my family, Tbilisi is okay. They are proud of me. When I used to go home it was not so good, but now, in Tbilisi there is stability."

Having signed for Dinamo Tbilisi as a teenager, Ketsbaia knew the city, but, when it was time to leave, political sensitivity saw him move to Cyprus. He also had offers from both Dynamo Moscow and Torpedo Moscow, but a switch to Russia, though "the best for football, would have brought problems for my family".

Instead, Ketsbaia joined Anorthosis Famagusta, met his wife and, after three seasons, was lured to AEK Athens. After playing against Paris Saint-Germain last March, he heard of Newcastle's interest. And when Georgia played England the following month in a World Cup qualifier, Dalglish was in the Wembley crowd.

A Bosman free-transfer to Tyneside seemed the move that would prove Ketsbaia's worth, but, even after impressing in a pre-season tournament at Everton and then scoring the dramatic equaliser in Zagreb that took Newcastle into the Champions League, he has been on the bench more often than he has started games.

The frustration has been immense, especially after Kaiserslautern of Germany not only wanted him, but guaranteed him a place in the team. Kaiserslautern are currently top of the Bundesliga.

"When I left my country and went to Cyprus, everybody said: `He's finished.' It was a logical thing to say, but I have been thinking all these years that it was not finished for me. So when I got the chance to come to a big football country like England, I was very happy and I have shown I deserve to play here, for this club.

"Where I played before, I was one of the best, people believed in me. Now it is unusual for me, I am a substitute - five minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour - but what can I do? I can just do my job."

He has two years left on his contract, but there is one thing Ketsbaia would not change, the English weather. The cold and rain, he said, are perfect for football. Old Trafford in Manchester appears to be the stage for which he has been waiting all his life. Provided he plays.

Michael Walker

Michael Walker

Michael Walker is a contributor to The Irish Times, specialising in soccer