There are many ways for a player to reach the top of Scottish football. Some dazzle us with their speed and power, blowing away the opposition in a Blitzkrieg of frightening wingplay. Others, like the oft-maligned Kris Boyd, bury their critics under a mountain of goals. Occasionally, we are even lucky enough to witness an all-rounder, a player of the highest class who pitches up on these shores, usually on the way up or down a steep career trajectory.
However, in recent memory only one man has conquered Scottish football through sheer lethargic magic alone. Step forward, Alexei Eremenko Junior.
Kilmarnock fans had just about had enough when Mixu Paateleinen took the manager’s job in the summer of 2010. After years of budget cuts and on-field asset stripping, there was a feeling around Scottish football that the Ayrshire club was due a relegation, not helped by their last day survival the season before.
Paateleinen’s arrival at Rugby Park, however, heralded a brief but wonderful new dawn, with the club cutting a dash through the SPL, qualifying for the top six and playing a brand of passing football not seen in those parts for some time. Signing his fellow Finn on loan from Metalist Kharkiv was undoubtedly the single biggest contributing factor to that success.
Eremenko was a pretty bizarre signing. At the time, Scottish football fans were split between those who thought he was far too good for Killie (football hipsters who remembered Zdenek Zeman’s exciting young Lecce team of the mid-2000s) and those who had no idea who he was (everyone else).
Eremenko’s willingness to join Killie reputedly came from a desire to work with the manager, a close friend of his father’s. Paateleinen had previous for using his personal connections to secure star players, having famously signed both of his own brothers for Cowdenbeath. Accounts at the time suggested Killie were only paying a small fraction of Eremenko’s reported £20,000 weekly wage. However the deal came about, it provided a year to remember for both parties.
Eremenko hit the ground running with a debut goal against St Mirren, his free kick proving to be the winner. He never looked back after that, establishing himself as the attacking pivot around which an exciting Killie team ran amok.
To see Eremenko play that season was to be enchanted: his touch was perfect, his balance belied his solid physique and his calmness on the ball was almost other worldly. In the sometimes hurly burly environment of Scottish football, he always looked like he had all the time in the world.
If there were weaknesses in Eremenko’s game (a reluctance to track back, a penchant for indiscipline) they were marginal and forgivable. This was a man who clearly belonged on a bigger stage than that which 4,000 Kilmarnockians provided, and everybody knew it. Fans who were raised on a diet of solid plodders such as James Fowler and Jamie Hamill could do nothing but enjoy it while it lasted.
Eremenko’s team mates also benefited from what was arguably his strongest attribute: his passing. Connor Sammon’s fortunes were transformed from back up striker to £1m English Premiership forward by half a season of Eremenko’s service. It is no exaggeration to suggest the big Irishman, now back at Kilmarnock, would have had a very different career path but for the Finn. Craig Bryson, Liam Kelly and Mehdi Taouil also enjoyed standout seasons that year, as Killie crafted a midfield that could rival anything outside the Old Firm.
Season 2010-11 delivered a 5th placed finish and lots of special moments for Killie fans. Paatelainen won the Manager of the Season award and a dream move to take over his national side, while several other players showed the promise that would boost the team’s performances, and coffers, over the coming seasons. However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Eremenko, who was nominated for the Player of the Season award.
The romance was always likely to be fleeting, however, with Eremenko’s wage packet meaning a permanent deal was never likely. In moving on, the maverick playmaker once again followed family lines by joining his brother Roman at Rubin Kazan.
Amazingly, after a few lucrative but injury-hit seasons in Eastern Europe, Eremenko resurfaced at Killie in January 2014 for a second spell. The club he rejoined was an unhappy one, with chairman Michael Johnston at odds with the fans and prize assets such as Bryson and Kelly long since sold.
Still, Eremenko’s character and flair immediately shone through before he’d even kicked a ball, with the Finn aspiring to do for Kris Boyd what he had once done for Sammon: “I think me being here is good news for Kris. He is a little bit like Conor Sammon and you saw what happened to him.” Eremenko also made no secret of the fact that he had earned plenty of money in his sojourn behind the old Iron Curtain, and was therefore happy to take the low wages on offer in Ayrshire in a bid to enjoy his football again.
While Eremenko’s return to Scottish football would not quite yield the same thrilling results as his first spell, there were certainly plenty of memorable moments and no shortage of free kicks. Having enrolled his son in the Killie youth set up and spoken of how much he loved life at the club, it seemed that Eremenko might lay down roots in Scotland.
But, if his time in Scottish football seemed strange and novel, the manner of his departure was depressingly familiar. The famous Rugby Park cost-cutting led to an “unacceptable” contract offer which, according to the player, would have meant he had to “find another job besides football”.
So it was that Scottish football lost one of its most enigmatic and naturally gifted players of recent years. Those who saw him play will never forget the splash of colour that this graceful entertainer brought to our game.