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Little and Large

This weekend's top-table encounter between Deportivo and Real Sociedad (2-1) could count on the presence of La Liga's three top scorers.

Roy Makaay, Darko Kovacevic and Nihat have scored no less than 48 league goals between them so far this season and the odds were understandably short on at least one of them appearing on the evening's score-sheet.

As it turned out, the little Turk Nihat Kahveci carried on where he left off in the Stadium of Light last week, terrifying the ageing Deportivo back-line in the same way as he had been ruffling Sol Campbell and Rio Ferdinand's feathers in the game against England.

Nihat scored, Kovacevic smacked a penalty against the face of the bar and Makaay had a bit of an off-day, but the Galicians move up into second place courtesy of a deflected second-half effort from Fran.

Kovacevic and Nihat have proved themselves to be a formidable double act this season, in a sort of little and large, Keegan and Toshack sort of way. The rumour mill has it that Valencia want the taller of the two for next season, and that Man Utd are interested in the other half of the marriage.

Valencia will have to pull their socks up a bit and improve on their stuttering league record - five games now without a win, if they really fancy their chances of prising the Serb away from San Sebastián, a city in which he has already said that he is happy to play out the rest of his days.

One of the 'pasta or paella' merchants from this column a fortnight ago, he knows what it's like to be warming the bench of a big 'un, and his Italian experience has probably told him that it's better the devil you know.

Nihat, on the other hand, might come in handy at Old Trafford if Giggs and Beckham really are thinking of pastures new for the season to come. He's not the same type of player, but as Europe's most explosive newcomer this season he would be an interesting addition to any of the continent's luxury squads.

I was having a chat recently with one of Real Sociedad's senior scouts, and some of the things he told me shine an interesting light on the destinies of the game's top players, and how fate can intervene in the oddest of ways. Some of the things he told me will have to remain between me, him and the wall, but he had no objection to my relating the following couple of tales about Kovacevic and Nihat. So in order of size, the biggest one first.

Nihat Kahveci: Bagged a brace
Nihat Kahveci: Bagged a brace

Darko - great name for a mean centre-forward - was playing for Red Star Belgrade when he was spotted by then Premier League Sheffield Wednesday, for whom he signed in December 1995. By March he'd played ten games and scored four goals, but was rumoured to be unhappy in England. Real Sociedad were tipped off, and my scout informer (and colleague) were dispatched to Sheffield to have a butchers.

'We flew to London and caught a train up to Sheffield on the Saturday morning. It was raining and it was bloody freezing. We sat behind one of the goals and got soaked. We bought a programme and to cap a perfect day Kovacevic was one of the subs. They'd dropped him! All that way for nothing. But we decided to sit it out anyway. You never know what you might see, and there was always a chance he might come on. I think they were playing Aston Villa because I remember that Milosevic was playing for them. We fancied him as well, but he was too expensive.

'Anyway, the first half was awful - with no goals, which actually suited us fine, because there was more chance of Darko coming on. Then, just as my mate came back with some horrible drink (Bovril?) Darko walked on with another of the subs for a kick-about. Luckily, they came over to our half of the pitch, and started on this routine. They were about 35 yards from goal, and the idea was that one of them would stand with his back to the goal, and the other would toss the ball up to him at about head height.

'The player had to swivel and hit the ball first time, and see how close he got to the target. Kovacevic went first. The other sub threw up six balls for him, one after the other, and every time he hit the net. Bang! Bang! He never missed. He looked a big awkward bugger, but he was spot-on every time. When it was the English guy's turn, he was nowhere near as good. He only scored three out of six.

'Next they knocked in crosses to each other, and the basic idea was to hit the ball first time with whichever part of the body that got in the way. There was no 'keeper, but it's not necessarily that easy. Again, our man hit the target every time. Head, knee, foot, arse - whatever. He stuck it in the net like his life depended on it. He couldn't have known we were watching, but he looked hungry. You could tell there and then. The other guy was nowhere near as good.'

I asked if he came on later. 'Yeh - but only for the last minute. Sheffield were winning 2-0 by then and it was just to give some other geezer a rest. He never got a touch.'

I asked in all innocence if the two of them had therefore returned a fortnight later, to try to see him in action again. 'You must be joking!' he laughed. 'We made the club an offer two days later, and he signed terms a couple of weeks after to join us the same summer.'

I expressed surprise that they had signed him without seeing him play competitively. 'Ah loads of clubs do that now. Or they watch a few video clips. It's cheaper. Anyway, call it instinct. We just liked the look of him. And we were right'.

Since that day, when our two heroes were sipping their Bovril in the Yorkshire rain, Kovacevic has been involved in something approaching 20 million quidsworth of transfers, at least half of which has spilled in and out of Real Sociedad's coffers. And yet they never saw him play.

Had he not come out for that practice he might have stayed in Sheffield and gone on to swim or sink in the English scene. Who knows? But now he is enjoying a telepathic-type relationship with Nihat Kahveci, another beneficiary of good instinct, albeit of a rather different type.

The scout again: 'Nihat never shuts up. He's got an opinion on everything. Clever little bloke - bright as a button. He told me that when he first went to Besiktas he was just 17, and the club was full of established stars who were making a thing out of just ignoring him. Toshack was manager and he hadn't taken much notice of him either. He was feeling a bit down when at the end of a morning training session Toshack suddenly came over to him and pointed at his watch - meaning that he wasn't going home just yet.

A rarity - the sight of Kovacevic in an Owls shirt. Looked better in his training kit apparently.
A rarity - the sight of Kovacevic in an Owls shirt. Looked better in his training kit apparently.

'Toshack threw him a net of balls and gestured for him to follow, around the back of the stadium where there's this big flat wall. He had a piece of chalk, and he drew a circle about 7 feet up on the wall, with the circle a little bit bigger than a real ball.

'Then he gestured for Nihat to hit the circle with the ball as many times as possible, at first from quite close, then progressively further back, like a marksman training in the army. Nihat said that he hit the circle nearly every time, but that he was doing it for about half an hour. He kept waiting for the routine to change, but Toshack never said a thing - just kept drawing a new line with the chalk for Nihat to shoot from.

'After a while, Toshack told him that he could go, but said nothing about whether he was happy or otherwise with the Turk's exam performance. The same weekend, he was suddenly on the team-sheet. He scored, and never looked back.'

Five years later, with the Welshman in his third spell with Real Sociedad, Nihat rejoined his guru and master, and doesn't seem to have suffered unduly from his brusque departure last season.

Apparently, Nihat, emboldened by his new status and the obvious fact that Toshack rated him, asked him last year why he had forced him to do the notorious wall exercise back in 1997. Was it to see how accurately he could hit a ball? 'No' replied Toshack. 'It was to see how long it would take you to tell me to f*** off'.'

Phil's book on Real Madrid, White Storm, can be bought via the internet. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.

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