ISLAM Feruz will go from the Theatre of Dreams to more humble surroundings in Ayr, Dumbarton and Greenock when he ends his 12-month absence from the Scottish international set-up next week.
The teenager will play in the highest-profile match of his career for Chelsea at Old Trafford tonight, the first leg of the FA Youth Cup semi-final against Manchester United, which is being televised live on ITV4.
Feruz, who controversially left Celtic to join the Chelsea youth academy after his 16th birthday in September, will then join the Scotland Under-17 squad for their Uefa European Championship Elite Round matches against Lithuania, Iceland and Denmark.
Somerset Park, Dumbarton’s Strathclyde Homes Stadium and Cappielow are the venues for Scotland’s three fixtures, on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday next week, with the group winners progressing to the finals in Slovenia in May.
Somalia-born Feruz has not played for Scotland since their unsuccessful 2011 qualifying bid last March and there has been speculation over his commitment to his adopted nation. But Ricky Sbragia, who replaced Ross Mathie as Scotland’s Under-17 coach last August, is relishing the prospect of working with Feruz for the first time.
“He is definitely coming up,” said Sbragia. “He is coming after the game at Old Trafford. I haven’t had any personal contact with Islam. I speak to the people at Chelsea and leave it to them.Our performance director Mark Wotte has spoken to Islam and there has been a lot of dialogue.
“I went down to watch him last month, when Chelsea played Nottingham Forest at the City Ground in the last round of the FA Youth Cup. They came back from 3-0 down to win 4-3, Islam scored twice and played very well up front on his own. I could have had the opportunity to speak to him before that game if I’d wanted but I felt, if I was a young player I wouldn’t want people speaking to me about this and that. I wanted him to be able to focus totally on the game. I’ll be able to talk to him when he joins up with the squad.”
Feruz first attracted headlines when the late Tommy Burns, having recruited him to Celtic, successfully campaigned against his asylum-seeking family being deported back to their war-torn homeland. Feruz made a first team appearance for Celtic aged just 14 in the tribute match to Burns but left the dismayed Parkhead club last year to sign a lucrative professional contract at Chelsea.
Eligible to play for Scotland as he spent five years being educated in the country, Feruz has scored seven goals in 15 appearances for the under-17 side.
“I knew of him when I was working in England,” added former Sunderland manager Sbragia.
“His name was well known in coaching circles, so many people spoke about him. People would say to me ‘there is an exceptional young player at Celtic’. I didn’t know about the situation between Celtic and Chelsea. I try not to get involved in that side of things. Chelsea feel they have an exceptionally talented player, Celtic will wish they could have held onto him. But, when a young player makes up his mind he wants to go, there’s not much you can do about it.
“He is an exceptional young player with a big club in England. He has got something, there’s no doubt about it. He’s got a long career ahead of him, as have all the lads in our squad. It’s about what they do with the time in front of them and how professional they become.”
Sbragia is encouraged by the talent at his disposal in the under-17 squad which he led to success in their first qualifying round group against Turkey, Macedonia and San Marino last October. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised,” he said. “All of the clubs up here try and play football at their academies, it’s not about route one or anything like that. The squad have been a pleasure to work with since I took this job.
“We have won three and drawn three of our last six games and we are certainly harder to beat now.
“Adding Islam to the squad will give us a little bit more on the attacking side. That’s an area where we feel we need to improve.
“It’s a big opportunity next week for the lads to reach a finals tournament. Denmark seem to be the outstanding team in our group but we’ve also had good reports on Lithuania and Iceland, so it’s going to be tough. The big game for us is the first one against Lithuania on Tuesday. It’s important to try and win that one, or at least not lose it.”
• Admision to all three of Scotland’s under-17 qualifiers is £5, with free entry for under-16s.