AMONG the raft of continental stars who turned out for Dundee during that remarkable and, it turned out, very costly period in the early 2000s, it could be argued that Temuri Ketsbaia was one of the more successful acquisitions.
The Georgian international arrived at Dens Park in October 2001. By the end of the season he had, according to him, won every supporters’ club Player of the Year award, bar one. To this day he can remember who robbed him of the full set. “Milne got the other one,” the Georgia manager said yesterday, with reference to Steven Milne, the then young Dundee striker. “You see, I lost only one and I still remember who got it!”
Saturday’s Euro 2016 qualifier between Scotland and Georgia provided the perfect opportunity for Ketsbaia to return to Dens Park, where, a dozen years on, he was presented with his Player of the Year award for the 2001-02 season. “It’s never too late,” remarked director Bob Hynd. Ketsbaia spent almost three hours reminiscing with club officials yesterday.
He toured the stadium in bright autumn sunshine, the glare rebounding from his famously bald head. One after the other familiar faces popped up in front of him, including the now similarly smooth-headed groundsman Brian Robertson. “Same haircut,” smiled Robertson.
“Pack your boots?” he asked Ketsbaia, who, looking trim in a black polo neck sweater, still looks as though he could play. Such was the groundsman’s surprise to see such a famous former player again, he forgot to remonstrate with the small crew of reporters and photographers who followed Ketsbaia as he roamed around the immaculate-looking pitch, having ignored a “keep off the grass” sign.
There was no demand for anyone to refrain from booting the advertising signs, as Ketsbaia was once known to do. “I only kicked them as a player,” he said, trying hard to pretend he is not bored with that particular line of questioning.
He was happier reliving old memories. He made his debut for Dundee in a 2-1 win at Easter Road against Hibernian and then scored in a 3-1 win over Motherwell on his home debut. While there was a strong foreign flavour to the team, Ketsbaia, after being asked who he remembers from the dressing-room, answered: “Barry, our captain. Where is he now?”
On being informed Barry Smith is now in charge at Alloa Athletic, Ketsbaia nodded approvingly. “Ah, so he is a manager. Very good. He was a good character and also a very nice guy in the team – on the pitch and outside the pitch. I wish him all the best.”
Ketsbaia came with a reputation and managed to maintain his status as a skilful midfielder who packed a powerful shot; in 25 appearances for Dundee, he scored six times.
Scottish football fans could see why he had become one of the most recognisable faces of the English Premier League in the late 1990s, initially for Newcastle United, where, yes, he once lashed out at an advertising hoarding, and then at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Surprisingly, however, he reckons he played his best football at Dens Park.
“I really enjoyed my football here,” he said, with reference to Dundee. “I said earlier that I played football here in Britain for five years, and the best I played was here.
“Because I knew I was an important player for the club and I didn’t have the pressure of having to be the best player every week to play the next game – I knew I was an important player for this club and this helped me to play my best football. I scored six goals and I really enjoyed it.”
He would have stayed longer. However, a serious knee injury sustained while on international duty with Georgia ruled him out of the last few games of the season. It is why he was unable to collect his Player of the Season award at the time.
His short-term contract had now expired and not even Dundee, then in their most cavalier phase of spending, were prepared to pay good money for someone likely to miss a large part of the following season. Ketsbaia signed for the Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta, with whom he returned to Scotland in 2005 to play a Champions League qualifier against Rangers at Ibrox. It is here that he hopes to inspire his team to a result on Saturday.
Ketsbaia is a man operating under pressure. On a visit to Scotland with the Under 21s at the end of last year, he says that he was amused to hear an SFA official tell him that Gordon Strachan had helped inspire Scotland to a good campaign. “I said to him: ‘Georgia also finished fourth in the last qualification group and I am not sure if they are going to keep me as manager or not!’ While you might say fourth position is quite good in Georgia, it is not very good.”
Zurab Khizanishvili, with whom he played at Dundee, has recently opened fire on Ketsbaia. The defender insists he will not play for the manager again after judging recent criticism to have been too fierce. Not true, said Ketsbaia, who is prepared to turn to youth to re-ignite Georgia’s football fortunes and hopefully set others down the path to the rewarding career he enjoyed.
“Football in Georgia is not like it was 15-20 years ago, when we had players who played in the Premier League, in the Bundesliga and in Spain, everywhere!” he said.
“Unfortunately now most of our players now play in Georgia, in Russia and in Ukraine, where there is a war and obviously they do not think about football any more.”
However, don’t write Georgia off, he warns. “We have shown in previous games we can get good results against teams that are better than Scotland,” he said.
With that, he was off up the tunnel, to taste more Dundee hospitality. He only left when he did because there was the little matter of a training session to attend to last night at New St Mirren Park, as he continues preparations ahead of Saturday’s game.
As he departed, he recalled living across the river in Tayport, and being frustrated on those days when the Tay road bridge was closed due to high winds. He hopes his young team will be the ones whipping up a storm this weekend at Ibrox, where the combatant former midfielder will clearly relish being back in the thick of things again.