20 hour trip home from Azerbaijan was worth it for Graeme Smith

IT INVOLVED a three-hour car drive at one end, an overnight stay, a 2550-mile flight and another 180 minutes on the road at the other end, with the prospect of doing it all over again in the other direction two days later.

But for former Hibs goalkeeper Graeme Smith, the gruelling journey was worth it to spend just a precious couple of days with his family, left behind as he pursued his career in the footballing outback of Azerbaijan.

While he describes playing for Gabala in the Premier Liqasi as “a great experience”, the 29-year-old admits being parted from his wife Cheryl and three-year-old daughter Mia was tough to take. And so he grabbed every available opportunity to dash home to Edinburgh only to have to tear himself away all too soon again.

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Now back in the Capital and seeking a new club, the former Rangers, Motherwell and Brighton star insisted he was glad he’d taken the chance offered to him a year ago by former Arsenal and England star Tony Adams, then the manager of Gabala.

One of 12 first-team regulars released by Hibs manager Colin Calderwood last summer, Smith accepted an offer to train with the Azerbaijan outfit as they prepared for last season in England, his name having been put forward by Adams’ assistant Gary Stevens, who had seen him play for Brighton.

He admits the thought of playing in far-flung Azerbaijan had never crossed his mind until that point. In fact, like most he’d have been hard pushed even to place the country on a map bounded as it is by Russia to the north, Armenia and Georgia to the west, Iraq to the south and the Caspian Sea to the east.

But as a free agent Smith found himself open to all offers, well aware the market place was awash with players in the same position as himself. He said: “The years of two or three players being released at the end of a season are gone, now it’s seven, eight, nine or even more as clubs continue to trim their squads.

“It would have been wrong of me to simply reject Gabala’s approach without considering it. It was a great experience, a different kind of football, a different culture, a different way of life and a test of myself living so far away from home.”

The presence of Adams – although he quit for family reasons in November – and Stevens, along with former Reading, Portsmouth, Derby County, Sheffield Wednesday and Charlton Athletic striker Deon Burton and a willingness by his new team-mates to speak English helped Smith settle in.

He said: “Language wasn’t a barrier. There’s a common football language on the pitch but off it, apart from the coaching staff and Deon there were five or six who spoke English and a lot wanted to learn it.”

Smith was forced to wait for his chance under Adams but, ironically, it wasn’t until after the big Englishman left that he got a regular place in the team under his replacement, Turkish coach Fatih Kavlak. He said: “Like any new manager he had his own style and you have to respect that. I ended up playing ten games and we finished fifth in the league although at the start of the season Europe had been the objective.”

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Smith – or Qerm Smit as he was named locally – realised just how different life was going to be while walking in the street wearing shorts, a no-no as far as the locals were concerned. He said: “No-one came up to me to say I couldn’t do it but you became aware it was frowned upon.

“There were lots of little things, as you would expect going into a new country and way of life, but the longer I was there the more I learned and it was easy enough to adapt. All told, I am glad I gave it a go and experienced it.”

As a professional football player, Smith was able to immerse himself in training and match-days, but admitted time away from the game could hang heavily on his hands with Gabala, the ancient capital of Azerbaijan, no more than a small town despite being a popular tourist destination.

Smith said: “There wasn’t much of a social life, when we had a day off the squad would tend to disappear to Baku because there was nothing to do in Gabala so being away from the family was most definitely the hardest thing to take but it was something I had to do. However, when there was an international break I’d get myself home. It was a bit of a trek, a three-hour car drive from Gabala, which is up in the mountains, to Baku about 140 miles away and usually an overnight stay there before I could get a flight to Aberdeen.

“It sounds strange, but Azerbaijan is an oil-rich nation so there is a direct flight to Aberdeen although it takes about five-and-a-half hours. Then I’d have someone pick me up and drive me home to Edinburgh.

“All in, it would take about 20 hours to complete the journey from Gabala to home and the same again going back. I’d have two days with the family but even if it had just been one day I’d have done it.

“A bonus was a two-week break at Christmas which you normally don’t get here in Scotland because there are so many games over the festive period to it was great to have that for once.”

A free agent again, Smith is once more open-minded as to what the future might hold. He said: “I’m hoping something will come across my path – or it may just be a case of spinning the globe and pointing a finger.”