Saturday, September 02, 2006

Macedonia’s man of steel

Goce Sedloski may not have made an impact during his time in Sheffield but he is set to lead Macedonia when they face England on Wednesday
The player “made his mark in history”, according to Uefa. That there has been no rush of acclaim in his direction was due partly to the “feat” in question, scoring the first goal of the Euro 2008 qualifying competition, a landmark sufficiently contrived to bring to mind those small towns in the US whose road signs trumpet “Home to the World’s Largest Paperclip” or some such.

The obscurity of the player was also a factor. Goce Sedloski? No, me neither.

Yet the name means something to certain people. “Ah, you’ll be phoning about Sedloski,” said Steve Chu, the communications manager at Sheffield Wednesday, as soon as I uttered the word “Macedonia”. The Sedloski who was captain and scorer in Macedonia’s 1-0 victory over Estonia last month is the same Sedloski who signed for Wednesday in 1998, to be billed by Ron Atkinson as the Balkan Tony Adams. His transfer cost £750,000, with Wednesday agreeing to pay Hadjuk Split a further £1m once he had gone on to make 100 appearances.

In the event he made a mere four. The centre-half was released just 10 months after his arrival, having failed to get his work permit renewed. Atkinson, in his second stint as Wednesday manager, was already showing barmy tendencies back then and nicknamed Sedloski “Big Bear”.

“He’s a big, affable lad who is always throwing his arms around you,” Atkinson explained.

The other notable facts about Sedloski’s time in South Yorkshire are that despite the shortness of his stay he managed to sustain a pelvic problem, a groin strain and a broken nose; and that he was taught English by his compatriot, the infamous Georgi Hristov, of Wednesday’s local rivals Barnsley. “Barnsley must win,” was the first phrase Hristov coached him to say.

Trevor Braithwait, the editor of the Wednesday fanzine Out of the Blue, said: “To be honest most Wednesday fans have forgotten him. From what I recall he was a talented defender, a cultured player who struggled with the physical demands of the English game and life in England generally.

“He was typical of the European-based players Ron brought in. If you’d heard of them it was a bonus.” Sedloski, now 32 and with the Austrian Bundesliga club SV Mattersburg, is the most experienced of the 18-man squad Macedonia have named for Wednesday’s meeting with England.

The odd story of his brief Premiership career also makes him his side’s best source for pub-conversation trivia — apart for the unbeatable fact regarding one of their goalkeepers, whose first name is Jane.

Artim Sakiri, the former West Brom player whose goal direct from a corner kick ended David Seaman’s international career when the sides met at Southampton’s St Mary’s stadium in a European Championship qualifying tie in 2002, is also still around. Macedonia earned a famous 2-2 draw that day and another reason for England to show caution is the form of their top player, Goran Pandev, a young striker who scored 11 goals in Serie A for Lazio last season, drawing interest from Juventus.

Wednesday’s game in Skopje comes three years to the day since England and Macedonia last faced one another, also in the Macedonian capital. Then, fervour caused by Macedonia’s shock result away from home caused Dragan Kanatlarovski, their manager at the time, to proclaim the fixture the “match of the century”. Bad blood was engendered by what Macedonians perceived as insults about their country in the English press prompting their supporters to set fire to a giant Union flag during the national anthems.

Outside the ground, billboards for a radio station lampooned Seaman, bearing the words “An English goalkeeping masterclass”. It got worse. Macedonia, beginning confidently, were 1-0 up and held their lead against a fairly shambolic England until half-time. England coach Sven-Göran Eriksson was sufficiently desperate to replace Frank Lampard with Emile Heskey and go three up front. Heskey set up an equaliser for the 17-year-old Wayne Rooney, whose volleyed strike made him the youngest scorer for England in an international.

Rooney is suspended from the game on Wednesday and David Beckham, who converted a penalty to give England a 2-1 win which proved priceless in qualification for Euro 2004, is yesterday’s saviour. Only Lampard, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Owen Hargreaves remain from the side that started in Skopje in 2003, and Steve McClaren’s nascent team will be tested not only by the venue but the opposition. Since 1993, when they played their first international following independence, Macedonia have been a curious side, as suggested by the fact that they drew twice against Holland yet lost to Andorra in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, but they tend to start qualifying campaigns well.

The win versus Estonia was their third in a row and third in four games under new coach Srecko Katanec.

Katanec is Macedonia’s second foreign coach and is already proving a better appointment than their first one, the Serb Slobodan Santrac, who lasted just two matches.

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