Andrei is no-one's pawn

ANDREI Kanchelskis plays a mean game of chess. As a half-decent player myself, I thought I could take him the distance. My confidence turned out to be ill-judged. As he shredded my defence in double quick time, I started to sympathise with all those lumbering full-backs who, over the years, were subjected to a Russian roasting down the right wing.

In a three-match series, the score was a pretty conclusive Kanchelskis 3, Brennan 0. But then he has had a lot of practice recently - mainly against the Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. And the prince came out even worse than me. During a recent sojourn in Saudi, Kanchelskis inflicted a 5-0 drubbing, leaving Abdullah so desperate for revenge that he even offered him a US$50,000 bet to play him again, an offer Kanchelskis refused, the oil sheikh being president of Al-Hilal, the club for whom the winger has just completed a three-month contract.

At the risk of stretching the chess metaphor too far, Kanchelskis has been something of a wandering knight (eight clubs in more than 15 years at the top level) whose career has been, well, checkered. That said, the highs far outweigh the lows.

The Ukranian-born player’s part in Manchester United’s rise and subsequent monopoly of success in the Nineties after being signed from Shakhtar Donetsk in 1991, provide him with his happiest memories.

"When I was on the plane I tried to guess who I was signing for, whether it was Leeds, Newcastle, Liverpool and even when we started to land in Manchester I still had no idea whether it was United or City. That was an incredible team: Cantona, Schmeichel, Hughes, Keane, Ince, and the young guys coming through. I am absolutely certain that we would beat the current Manchester United side - with or without Beckham."

The wide-eyed youngster though was to grow up to the politics of football on and off the pitch during his time at Old Trafford when he was offloaded mysteriously in 1995.

Sir Alex Ferguson added to the intrigue with a passage in his autobiography when he revealed that he had been subjected to "pressure" by the player’s agent, who in certain quarters was accused of links with the Russian Mafia.

Kanchelskis now relates his take on events: "Unfortunately we didn’t part on good terms. In spring of 1995 my relationship with Alex Ferguson took a sharp turn for the worst. I didn’t understand what plans he had for me and he never bothered to explain them. Actually, he didn’t speak to me for five months which left me feeling very upset because I don’t like being kept in the dark about my future.

"It’ll always be a mystery as to what actually happened. I don’t think the Boss wanted to let me go. He said that he was forced to sell me because of pressure from my agent."

If Kanchelskis had imagined he had left such political machinations aside on his return to Britain after the spell in Florence which followed a short stint at Everton, he was to get a rude awakening.

The waning of his star at Ibrox, where David Murray had enticed him, coincided with the arrival of Dick Advocaat (whom Kanchelskis refers to with no little irony as "my Dutch uncle") and his attempts to create a "Dutch colony".

"According to the dictionary," he explains "a Dutch uncle is someone who judges and criticises others harshly, even if their intentions are good. The term describes our relationship pretty well.

"The crisis at Rangers in the 2000/01 season had its roots in the season before. When we won the treble, David Murray was so pleased he gave Advocaat free rein to run the club as he chose. I don’t claim that my demotion was the reason for the club’s lack of success in my last two seasons there, it was definitely one of several links in the chain.

"Advocaat started to sign lots of Dutch players. I think he was trying to copy Van Gaal at Barcelona, who basically imported the entire Ajax team.

"The best Dutch players were all beyond Rangers’ budget. Numan and Van Bronckhorst were reasonably high-profile stars with international pedigree, but you couldn’t say the same about Michael Mols, Fernando Ricksen or Bert Konterman. Then there was Ronald de Boer. In his day he was undoubtedly a world- class talent. But that day had passed and he couldn’t get into the Barca side.

"Advocaat tried playing him up front, but he only managed one goal in seven. Then he tried him behind the front two, and finally he took my place on the right wing. In short, various players served their time on the bench, but De Boer always played. Gabriel Amato - an absolutely superb forward - played only three games, and sat out the rest of his time in Glasgow as a sub. He must have asked himself why he bothered leaving sunny Mallorca.

"We ended up with no less than 10 Dutchmen at Ibrox - six players and then various people behind the scenes. It became more usual to hear Dutch in the dressing room than English, and inevitably we ended up with a clan culture. Advocaat even brought his own doctor from Holland. This guy had never worked in football before and the number of injuries suddenly rocketed. Advocaat blamed the pitch and said the groundsmen were to blame. But Ibrox was one of the best pitches I ever played on."

At one point, Kanchelskis’ discontent with the Dutch colony flared up in an outbreak of fisticuffs with Ricksen on the training ground. Even then, he says, it was one rule for the Dutch, another for the rest: "I was sent home, while Advocaat said nothing to Fernando whatsoever."

For Kanchelskis, the signing of De Boer was final proof of the "double Dutch" standards being pursued by Advocaat. "Rangers originally wanted to sign John Hartson. Our doctor looked at him and said that the situation with his knees was hopeless. OK, he did have temporary problems with his knees at the time. But just look how well he’s done for Celtic and Wales since. So we signed De Boer instead, when everyone under the sun knew that he had a long-term and serious problem with one of his knees.

"I’m absolutely convinced that the fact he was Dutch was more important than the state of his limbs."

Since leaving Ibrox, Kanchelskis has played out his career away from the limelight. A brief and unhappy dalliance with Southampton on a pay-as-you-play deal saw Gordon Strachan hand him Matt Le Tissier’s totemic No.7, but then leave him out in the cold (he made just two appearances from the bench in five months). The short-term deal with Al Hilal came about after a chance meeting with Saudi-based agent Sandor Varga, who represents Kanchelskis’ friend, Oleg Luzhny.

However, the man who, in the Nineties, was among the most feared widemen in these isles, remains convinced that now his initial contract with Al-Hilal has ended , he can still do a turn in British football.

"I’ve got a week to go before I give Al-Hilal a decision. My agent is in the UK at the moment so hopefully he’ll have some news for me in the next few days."

If not it will be future Saudi King takes Russian Knight.