IT IS little wonder that Efe Ambrose seems entirely unperturbed about Celtic’s trek to Kazakhstan this week.
To the Nigerian defender, the 4,000 miles to be covered to land Neil Lennon’s squad in the country’s capital Astana could feel like short haul. In 2013, the 24-year-old has clocked up more air miles than a Ryanair pilot fearful for his job.
This week alone, he exceeded 8,000 miles in travelling to and from South Africa to play in a friendly win for his country.
In the summer he was in Brazil – flight time from here, approximately 13 hours – to represent Nigeria in the Confederations Cup. Their place in that prestigious tournament was a reward for their February triumph in the Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa. Famously, Ambrose missed the celebrations for this momentous success because he took to the air immediately afterwards so he could play in Celtic’s Champions League last 16 tie against Juventus hours after touching down in Glasgow... with unhappy results. The defender was culpable as Neil Lennon’s side lost 3-0 at home. That episode aside, Ambrose is a felicitous frequent flier.
“Travelling is no problem for me. It is my job. I have to work. I never make excuses. I love playing football. I am very lucky. I just wait and see what plan the manager has for me and the rest of the players. This is a part of Europe I’ve never been to so we will have to prepare well,” he says.
Preparing well when he is strapped-in and ready for take off is doing what you or I would do to pass the hours among the clouds.
“I just sit back and watch a movie or sleep. It depends on your body. We are all different. Some people can cope, some can’t. I can do it. If you have a bad game, people start asking questions about the travelling. If you have a good game, nobody talks about the journey. All they do is praise you for what you did. I will always do my best. Even if I fly in on the day of the game and the manager wants me to play, I will do it. For the last few years, I have had to cope with the travelling. I am always flying and always playing.”
Ambrose will eschew excuses even if they might appear ready-made and that approach extends to having no issue with the fact that Tuesday’s tie against Shakhter Karagandy will be played on an artificial surface in the Astana Stadium.
“For me, I just enjoy playing football. We have similar pitches in Africa but they are not of the same quality as Europe. They are worse in Africa.”
Ambrose was straight on to YouTube as soon as the draw was made, and watched the highlights of Karagandy’s 5-3 aggregate win over Albanian side KS Skënderbeu in the last qualifying round. He doesn’t overstate the challenge facing Celtic to progress to the group stages. “Of the footage I watched, the opponents weren’t too strong, compared to Celtic. It will be a different ball game. They are strong and physical and their technique is good. They are like Russians. But I think we are a better team. I can see what kind of football they play. As a professional I want to know as much as possible about the opposition.”
Their style is reputedly long ball. That could appear problematic for Celtic in the wake of Ambrose losing his central defensive partner Kelvin Wilson, who has rejoined Nottingham Forest. Even if, it must be said, this pairing was hardly regaled despite four successive clean sheets in this year’s Champions League qualifiers.
As with all aspects of life, the Nigerian is philosophical about Wilson’s departure. “Well, for me, I think football is like a cycle,” he says. “I always believe that. It was time for Kelvin to go. Someone will now step into his shoes. I believe we have quality players that can do that. Personally, he was here for me and helped me settle down well when I first joined. For that, I have to thank him. But we have to move on.”
Ambrose seems to be permanently on the move.