A nomadic footballer who was once weighed down by the burden of expectation, Ben Sahar has had to return home to start living up to his potential.
The Hapoel Beer-Sheva striker, one of the players Celtic will need to watch closely at Parkhead this evening, scored nine goals in the club’s historic title winning campaign last season.
He has started living up to the hype that was first created when he became Chelsea’s youngest-ever international player. Sahar was just 17 when he made his debut for Israel while still a member of the youth ranks at Chelsea, where his progress was overseen by a certain Brendan Rodgers, the current Celtic manager.
Sahar was one of a raft of young prospects signed (from Hapoel Tel Aviv in his case) by Chelsea between 2005 and 2007 in the hope that despite the obvious competition for places, they would, eventually, graduate to the first-team. Another one of the bright young things was Scott Sinclair, now of course at Celtic and likely to line up against Sahar tonight in the Champions League play-off round tie. Of all the youngsters who sought to take the step up to regular first-team football, perhaps only John Obi Mikel could be said to have done so.
But Sahar was an exciting prospect at the time, perhaps the most exciting. He won the club’s Young Talent award in 2006/07 for the Academy player who had impressed the most. Rodgers, then reserve team manager, was one of those charged with selecting the player who deserved the accolade, along with head of youth development Frank Arnesen and Academy manager Neil Bath.
However, Sahar lost his way somewhat, with Jose Mourinho, who was manager when he first arrived, giving way to a quick succession of short-lived incumbents, including Avram Grant, Luiz Felipe Scolari and Guus Hiddink.
It was hard for players to make the breakthrough. Chelsea wasn’t a club where youngsters were given time to establish themselves, and still isn’t.
But there was a feeling of sadness when it became clear Sahar was unlikely to fulfill his potential at the club. Loan spells at QPR, Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday and Dutch club De Graafschap did not help ignite his Chelsea career, which had been the intention.
He ended up making only five first-team matches at Stamford Bridge before moving to Espanyol for £1m. He then moved on to Auxerre on a season-long loan. Via further stop-offs in Germany, Armenia and Holland Sahar is now back home.
But not at Hapoel Tel Aviv, the club where he began his career and where he returned for a loan spell in 2010/11.
Instead he joined the side that did a Leicester City last year by winning the Israeli Premier League against the odds. Unlike Leicester, Hapoel Beer-Sheva had won the title before, but not since the 1970s.
Sahar contributed considerably to the surprise success, confirmed with a last-day win over Sachnin at the club’s new home, the 16,000-capacity Turner stadium. The striker, still only 27, will now be desperate to sample the Champions League proper, just several years later and in a different colour of shirt than he might have imagined when one of Brendan Rodgers’ young guns.