The only British footballer to play in former Soviet state tells Scotland what to expect
The trouble with adventures is they have to end sometime. Stuart Duff became a pioneer when he arrived in Kazakhstan seven years ago – the first and to date last British footballer to ply his trade in the country.
Now he is preparing to wind up a career that once took such an unexpected turn. His roving instincts were conspicuous only so far as moving between Dundee United, his hometown club Aberdeen and Inverness Caledonian Thistle prior to feeling this belated urge to explore.
A spell in Malta at Qormi whetted the midfielder’s appetite. His agent phoned with the surprising news there was interest from FC Kairat when he was already in discussions about signing for a Scottish top-flight club. Suddenly Duff was criss-crossing the ninth largest country on earth. “Every away game felt like a European match,” he recalled. The team flew to every away fixture with the longest flight clocking in at four hours.
Aged 37, and now playing at Inverurie Locos, Duff is contemplating The End. A career that deposited him near the China border – FC Kairat are based in former capital Almaty, in Kazakhstan’s mountainous south-east region – will conclude when the final whistle sounds in the Highland League fixture between Locos and Rothes next month.
“I was saying to my fiancée Kate that one of my first games for Dundee United as a young guy was actually a summer pre-season game and it was up against Rothes, so they are first and last!” he said. “I think there will be mixed emotions. It’s quite a big thing. It’s been the majority of my life and that chapter is closing.”
There are few regrets other than never making the step up from Under-21 Scotland player to full international. He certainly does not rue moving to Kazakhstan in 2012 even if there were times, such as feeling his 14th floor apartment shake, when he would rather have been anywhere else. He initially assumed it was the washing machine. Then he remembered he had not turned it on.
Otherwise, he has only fond memories. He might still be there were it not for a rule change that meant foreign players over the age of 30 had to have won at least one cap for their country in the previous two years to be eligible to sign for a club. The enforced departure was made to seem especially cruel when Aberdeen were drawn against Kairat Almaty in the Europa League the year after Duff had been red taped out of the country.
“Funnily enough it [the rule] was changed a couple of years after I left so it was disappointing,” he said. “I would quite happily have stayed, either stayed at Kairat or found another team. There were opportunities. It was one of those things.
“Looking back now it’s quite frustrating. However, I made good friends, from the president all the way down to the kit guy. It is a very welcoming club. When Kairat were drawn against Aberdeen in the Europa league, you could not make it up.”
Kairat flew Duff over as a guest and brought him out on to the pitch to a huge reception from the fans. “I was over for six or seven days. Then for the return leg they got in touch with me to arrange their hotel. I had to go round all the hotels and get prices and eventually I got them sorted at the Ardoe House hotel.
“In Almaty they took me out on to the pitch and there were some good photo opportunities for me to keep and treasure.”
He was torn over who he wanted to win. Aberdeen were his boyhood team who he also played for. But the memories of his time in Almaty were still so fresh. He describes the move as a life-changing episode.
“I played the majority of games there for two seasons, I got a couple of goals,” he explained. “Not too many. You were playing with some excellent players so you give the ball to the flair players and they go and win the games.
“But I really enjoyed it and played a lot of games. It brought me on as a player and a person.”
He has helped Scotland ahead of Thursday’s Euro 2020 qualifier more by accident than by design. He bumped into Scotland coach James McFadden at an Aberdeen v Motherwell youth game recently.
“I was coaching the Aberdeen Under-14s and his son plays for Motherwell, so I stood with him during the game. We obviously spoke about Kazakhstan in some depth,” he recalled.
“It sounded to me like they had done their homework there – it is part of the game now.
“The naivety of people from a few years ago looking down on Kazakhstan does not apply now. Scotland is an established football country but Kazakhstan are getting better year by year. You can see that in Europe, where they have teams in the Champions League. Not just that but they are getting through to the knockout stages. They are progressing as a league.”
Duff identifies midfielder Bauyrzhan Islamkhan as one of the main dangers to Scotland’s hopes of securing a win. “He plays for Kairat,” he said. “He either plays off the left or just off the front and if I remember his goal versus Aberdeen – he hit it from about 30 yards out. He is a terrific player. Scotland will need to be wary of him.”
Duff will watch the game abroad – in Berlin rather than Astana. He is on a stag do, though not his own one – yet. Then it’s back to play those last two games. The applause from his nearest and dearest as he walks off the pitch one last time might be heard all the way in Almaty.