EARLY ON Tuesday evening Artur Boruc strolled into the residents bar of an Algarve hotel with his Poland teammate Michal Zewlakow – the one footballer he says he can confide in – and ordered coffee.
In Portugal for a warm-weather friendly with Wales the following night, Boruc and Zewlakow had their catch-up interrupted by the arrival of their manager, Leo Beenhakker. The Dutchman smiled and threw his hands to the air when he saw Boruc, embraced him warmly, told him, for reasons we are not sure of, that he was proud of him, oh so proud of him, and then asked his two players if they would like another shot of caffeine.
Boruc looked at his watch, theatrically. "Time for a proper drink?" he asked, with the cheekiest of smiles. The self-mocking humour was not lost on Beenhakker, who laughed loudest of the three. Remembering the unauthorised boozing session that Boruc was a part of after a friendly in Ukraine last August – the goalkeeper was headline news at home for his misdemeanour – Beenhakker replied that no, 24 hours before a game was not the best time for a gargle. "I'm keeping my eye on you, Artur," he snorted.
The following day, Beenhakker did indeed keep an eye on Boruc. It wasn't hard to for when the friendly with the Welsh kicked off, Boruc was sitting on the substitutes' bench alongside his manager. It's likely that Beenhakker was only ever going to use Boruc for 45 minutes but why the second 45 and not the first? For the opening half, the Arsenal reserve Lukasz Fabianski kept goal. Fabianski has his supporters in the Polish set-up. Poland have two goalkeeping coaches, Franz Hoek and Andrej Dawidziuk, and both of them are believed to favour Fabianski over Boruc. They feel the Arsenal player is more dominant in the penalty area, that he is quick off his line and can act as an extra defender when danger arises.
Beenhakker prefers Boruc – for now. But Beenhakker is troubled by the things he's seen and heard of late. "Artur is like everyone else and is only human," he told us last week. "There is no discussion about the quality of Artur. When he is in good shape he is in the top five in Europe. Most clubs would love to have him. But what happens in life is that when other things dominate, sometimes it can distract you. Automatically you drop a little down from your level. That happens with all sportsmen. When that happens in your life and career you have to recover. It's not easy to switch off at times but he is a professional and will do so. Is he a troubled character at the moment? I wouldn't say so. He just needs time. He will come through the bad spell."
The veteran manager doesn't think Boruc is "cracking up", as one crass headline put it last week, but he thinks he's got issues in his head that he has to deal with, personal problems (his eight-month-old son that he hardly ever sees, for starters) that have rather diminished him as a man and a footballer. There has been plenty of pop psychology about the Celtic goalkeeper in recent times, all of us reaching for reasons why he has made the mistakes he's made, on the field and off, but there is one undeniable truth amid all the speculation, perhaps only one.
It is this: Boruc had an audacity to him in his early years with Celtic that hasn't been there this season. He had a bluster and a bravado that was unmistakable. He was the SPL's most irritating and most effective wind-up merchant and he revelled in the controversy. The tee-shirt of the Pope, the champions flag at Ibrox, the snubbed handshakes, the gestures, all of it was designed to aggravate people, to get him to centre stage because there was nothing Boruc preferred more than to be in at the heart of everything. Being The Man was important to him. Being The Man kept him focused, kept him great.
No doubt, for Boruc, the sweetest thing was that more often than not he got away with his gamesmanship without much in the way of punishment. Oh, there was plenty of indignation from the football world but he enjoyed that. The Man, remember. What there wasn't were suspensions and swingeing fines. Boruc smiled his way through it all.
But for the Teflon goalie, things have got sticky. It's not just the errors in goal, it's many things. This season he's been suspended by Poland and fined by Celtic, once and possibly twice. He's been found guilty of improper conduct in the first Old Firm match of the season and has got himself in terrible trouble for punching a team-mate. He has left his wife and son, allegedly canoodling with the other woman at Euro 2008 while Kasia was giving birth to little Alex. He has become a hunted and somewhat haunted figure. In Poland, he gets no peace from the paparazzi but home must seem like a holiday camp compared with the press he gets here. There are some who can live happily in the goldfish bowl and some who can't. More and more, Boruc looks like a man who is bored and unhappy and who wants out of Scotland.
You suspect that he thought he'd already be out. After his stellar performance in Euro 2008 where he single-handedly saved a rank Poland team from utter humiliation he must have fancied his chances of getting a move to a moneyed club in a glamorous league but it hasn't happened. It should have, because he's clearly good enough when his mind is on it, but there have been no takers. Has the absence of an offer confused him, frustrated him, demoralised him? Does he feel he's at journey's end with Celtic? No more roads to travel or mountains to conquer except the same roads and the same mountains he's already seen so many times already.
All we have are his enigmatic words – less and less of them – and none of them give the impression of a man who's into the challenge right now. "Why do people love football so much? I have no idea," he said in November. "Twenty-two boys running around? It does look strange. To be honest, I believe I've got a stupid job."
It wasn't the only time in the last year that Boruc has spoken this way, not the only time he has given the impression of an isolated man. A Celtic player said last month that Boruc's life is obviously not right at the moment, "but I'm not sure if anybody at the club knows exactly why. All I know is that he is a world class goalkeeper who's playing well below his best."
It would be wrong to overstate the faults in his game, as some have done. It's just that he set extraordinary standards in the past that he is, at the moment, not close to meeting. This is a player, remember, who by rights should be worth 10m in the open market. He is, on his best days, one of the elite goalkeepers of world football.
If a tired and troubled mind doesn't explain the scraps and the slip-ups of this season, then what does? How else can we get our heads round the images of the hero of Parkhead and Poland charging from his goal and kicking fresh-air against Dundee or failing to deal with a shot from 40 yards against Hibs or dropping a ball at the feet of an opponent against Rangers? If the old maxim of 'you don't become a bad player overnight' is true then you have to think that it's Boruc's focus that is lacking rather than his ability.
His thoughts have drifted these past seven months. Maybe all of him will drift in the summer, up and away and out of Scotland for good. But until the inevitable happens and he finds a fresh test somewhere else Gordon Strachan could really do with him living in the moment, as hard as that may be.
HERE COMES TROUBLE
AUGUST 2006: Reprimanded by Strathclyde Police after making three offensive hand gestures towards Rangers fans. Although not caught on video, the charge was based on police and witness statements.
MAY 2007: Provoked Rangers fans by running across the pitch at Ibrox wearing a flag which proclaimed Celtic as SPL champions.
OCTOBER 2007: Refused to shake hands with Rangers players after the 3-0 Old Firm defeat, as he did not wish to shake hands with enemies.
APRIL 2008: Was accused of 'irresponsible behaviour' after wearing a T-shirt with Pope John Paul II on the front in celebration of 3-2 victory over Rangers.
AUGUST 2008: Banned from the Polish national squad following the breaking of a curfew and misbehaviour while under the influence of alcohol after a friendly against Ukraine.
AUGUST 2008: Fined 50,000 after breaking strict 'no alcohol' rules during Celtic's pre-season training in Holland.
NOVEMBER 2008: Was photographed drinking alcohol and smoking cigars when home in Poland recovering from knee surgery.
NOVEMBER 2008: Boruc and wife separate after reports of his alleged infidelity.
FEBRUARY 2009: Punched team-mate Aiden McGeady in dressing room after a training-ground bust-up.