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McGeady furthers his footballing education

WITH glib certainty they claimed he'd never go through with it. His heart wasn't in it, they said. Didn't have the bottle. And yet even if a lucrative contract with a fallen Russian giant wasn't what Aiden McGeady would have termed his dream move, he showed that his heart was in it at least. He would become the first Ireland international to play in Russia's top division. He had the nerve to go through with it after all.

Maybe, in the end, it wasn't as tough a decision as we imagined. McGeady seemed to have two options facing him -- accept Spartak Moscow's offer or remain at Celtic -- and the choice could really only come down one way. There were reasons why he should stay in Glasgow but they were far outnumbered by those urging him to board the plane for Moscow. Over nine million of them to be precise.

For McGeady, leaving Celtic was the imperative. At 24, he was regarded as the biggest talent in Scotland but in a league of diminishing status and quality, that wasn't as big an accolade as it once might have been. His true status was better measured by the fact that he had become a bit-part player in the climax of Ireland's doomed World Cup qualifying campaign. Overlooked for players with only a fraction of his ability. A young McGeady once spoke of the exhilaration he felt on great Champions League and Old Firm derby days at Parkhead. Times change, however. The Champions League nights are thinner on the ground now and the Old Firm clashes, while still thunderous, don't seem as vital as they once were. The young dreamer who thought there was nothing to life beyond his boyhood club and its storied ground grew up and realised he was mistaken.

And maybe he thought of former Celtic legends like Kenny Dalglish and Charlie Nicholas who had moved to big clubs down south and reckoned he too could follow in their path. Why wouldn't he believe that ambitious English clubs wouldn't queue up to fight for his signature? Hadn't Liam Miller secured a move to Old Trafford after a handful of games in the Celtic colours? With Robbie Keane's agent on board, nothing is left to chance.

But the game has changed since Miller was regarded as a prospect. None of the big clubs seemed moved by McGeady's availability and those who expressed interest were deterred by Celtic's strict valuation. Of those he was linked with, Birmingham seemed the most plausible and could have offered McGeady a comparable salary to Celtic and the thrilling prospect of a fight for mid-table respectability. He has done well to escape that fate.

He is bound instead for one of Europe's great cities and there's no reason to believe he cannot settle there. Before he signed, McGeady had travelled to Moscow and over lunch with Valeri Karpin, Spartak's coach, it was explained how highly the club rated him. Three years ago, Spartak and Celtic had met in the European Cup and McGeady's technical proficiency had caught their eye. That's how long they had been tracking him.

It didn't take the player long to realise he wasn't travelling to some far distant outpost of the world where he would be pining for Glasgow by the end of his first week. Moscow was less than four hours by plane to the UK and they spoke better English there than he would have encountered had he signed for a club in, say, Spain or Italy. "Very like London," he said chirpily after his first visit but, then, how well does he know the English capital anyway?

There was a faint hint of defiance there, too, because McGeady was aware of the doubts people had about the move and of the ridiculous stories that were filtering through the papers. It was claimed, for example, that he had demanded his own chef and driver and that Spartak fans, peeved at the player's wage demands, had already taken against him. None of it, McGeady claimed, with even a semblance of truth. What is interesting, though, is why such stories were allowed to circulate freely for so long without any serious questioning of their authenticity. They unfairly portrayed McGeady as a greedy, overblown superstar and Russia as a dark place, still chained to its communist past and where no right-thinking footballer would go to seek to advance his career, whatever the rewards on offer. Little Englander mentality at its worst.

Everywhere he turned, McGeady heard the voices of those telling him to tread warily. It's doubtful he spoke to Giovanni Trapattoni as the Ireland manager was sceptical. Trapattoni saw merit in the idea of Shay Given, out of favour at Manchester City, moving to Italy, but not of McGeady going to Moscow. "I think Russia is too far and the championship is not easy," the Italian said. "I wish to ask him if he is ready psychologically, because McGeady is a very sensitive man and he is very young."

Trapattoni is a shrewd and knowledgeable football man but all of this is worth challenging. Six years a Celtic professional, living in the Glasgow goldfish bowl, is a testament, surely, to McGeady's strength of mind. Is it not better, too, to make such a move at a critical time of your career rather than wait for the twilight years when it only remains to cash in? And if the championship isn't easy, well all the better for it. The pitfalls have been well signposted. Midway through the season, Spartak are struggling in seventh place and, in Karpin, they are under their seventh manager in as many seasons. Then there's the plastic surface of the

Luzhniki Stadium to worry about. Yet turmoil isn't an alien state to even the most successful English clubs and a player as technically sound as McGeady shouldn't have much to fear from an artificial pitch.

He is joining a league on a sound financial footing and ambitious to build on the UEFA Cup victories of Zenit St Petersburg and CSKA Moscow in recent years. It is nine years since Spartak last won the title but the club remains celebrated for its attacking style and, in Karpin, McGeady will work with a coach who has 72 caps and 10 years playing in Spain to his name. If it works, there is so much to gain.

It is a place too where foreigners are coming in ever increasing numbers and thriving. Keisuke Honda at CKSA. Kevin Kuranyi and Andriy Voronin at Dynamo. Bruno Alves at Zenit. The army of Brazilians McGeady will encounter at Spartak. He could do worse too than getting to know Luke Wilkshire, the Australian full-back who arrived at Dynamo Moscow in 2008 and recently signed a three-year contract extension.

In 2006, Wilkshire had been languishing in the English second division with Bristol City when Guus Hiddink, then Australia manager, spotted him and engineered a move to FC Twente in Holland. From there Wilkshire moved to Moscow and the experience has clearly matured him and developed him as a key player for his national team. "I'm seeing a lot of things other people haven't," he has said of his experience, "and it opens your eyes."

It isn't ideal for McGeady that he has no pre-season to feel his way in, but he will have to cope. His first away trip next Saturday takes him to Terek Grozny, into the heart of what the UN describes as the "world's most destroyed city" and it is surely no bad thing if he savours the off-field experiences as much as those that happen inside the confines of a football pitch.

And yet if he had signed for Birmingham -- no hope of challenging for medals, no prospect of Champions League football -- few would have batted an eyelid in the way they did when he agreed terms with Spartak. Strange thing indeed.

Sunday Independent