When a pass from skipper Andrey Arshavin evaded Alexander Kerzhakov, the striker turned towards his captain and cut a scathing look in the direction of the mercurial playmaker. When a roar went up behind him, Kerzhakov had to perform a double-take to realise what he had initially missed; that Arshavin's weighted through ball was not seeking the Zenit Saint Petersburg striker, but his on-rushing team-mate Roman Shirokov, who with a luxurious flick of his right boot, chipped the ball over a sprawling Petr Cech and into the back of the net. Kerzhakov hadn't seen the midfielder, nor had the Czech Republic defence. Indeed many outside of Russia hadn't until now. But those who follow Russian football will know that Roman Shirokov has never been one to stay under the radar for too long.

There are ever-fewer players in top-level European football who are truly late-bloomers anymore. Players are spotted at increasingly young ages, before being whisked away by academies to be nurtured and polished, in the hope that they make the first-team breakthrough. If there's one thing that Roman Shirokov isn't, it's polished.

Lazy interpretations of the 30-year-old would have you believe Shirokov is a Russian Joey Barton, mainly due to his forthright views and his love of Twitter. Others would have you believe that he's more Adrian Mutu, thanks to his apparent disregard for his own career and a habit of staying out late drinking and gambling. Additionally there have been countless other episodes, including, but not limited to, a falsified story concerning having a broken leg and insults directed at managers and fans alike. But, Roman Shirokov is nothing if not unique.

Born in Dedovsk, 40 km west of Moscow, in 1981, Shirokov spent his formative years as part of the CSKA Moscow youth academy and appeared as a regular for the reserve side between 1998-2000 making 54 appearances in the old Russian third division. In 2001, the Army club decided Shirokov needed first-team exposure at a higher level and loaned him to Torpedo-ZIL, who had just been promoted to the Russian Premier League. Shirokov made one first team appearance, but that did not tell the whole story.

One day during his loan spell, the 20 year-old went to a barbeque with friends and failed to return for two months. When he did, he appeared with a cast on his leg and a made up story about it being broken, rather than owning up to his own ill-discipline. Shirokov was sent back to CSKA, where he was forced to train once more with the reserves, but for whom his main duties were digging trenches and painting walls in the club colours. More military servant, than footballing prospect.

On the verge of throwing his career away, Shirokov's cult of personality showed no sign of changing and his downward spiral continued. He joined Istra, a small amateur side from just outside Moscow, and spent his nights drinking and gambling. At 22, Roman Shirokov was washed up, nothing more than a cautionary tale.

Then came the turning point. In 2004 Shirokov met his future-wife Katya and began to change his ways, chancing his arm at a professional career once more, spending a season at third division Vidnoye. After just 20 appearances, Shirokov returned to the top-flight with Saturn and 18 appearances later moved to Rubin Kazan.  However, the move didn't work out and Shirokov made a mere four starts for the club. To say that he didn't see eye-to-eye with Kurban Berdyev - the club’s manager - would be an understatement. Berdyev, who sits on the bench clutching rosary beads during matches, is often portrayed as a methodical, deeply-religious figure. However, the outspoken Shirokov didn't see it as such: "The only god he recognises is Mr Franklin from the hundred dollar note."

Still considered by the Russian elite to be nothing more than troublesome, ill-disciplined, underproductive and now aged 26, Shirokov made a 2007 transfer to Khimki, a modest club making their debut in the Russian Premier League. Shirokov top-scored for the unfancied side, netting seven times in 27 matches, subsequently earning a close season move to the newly-crowned champions Zenit.  Nevertheless, the move was somewhat surprising as Zenit boss Dick Advocaat - now Shirokov's national team manager - needed a centre-half, having sold Martin Skrtel to Liverpool. With Shirokov looking unlikely to win a place in the club's ultra-competitive midfield, Advocaat took pre-season to try out his newest charge in defence. Immediately, he looked at home, and with Zenit riding high in the league and doing well in the Uefa Cup, Advocaat announced: "One day Roman Shirokov could become the best defender in the country." The player's response was churlish at best; "Defender? I don't want to be a defender. I hope to become the best Russian midfielder."  Nonetheless, his performances continued to impress - Zenit went on to win the Uefa Cup, destroying German powerhouse Bayern Munich in the semi-final, before a 2-0 win over Rangers in the Manchester final - and having made his international debut in March against Romania, he was named in the squad for Euro 2008. Whilst many would impress for Guus Hiddink's side, Shirokov would not be one of them.

Before the tournament got underway, Shirokov was asked his opinions on Russia's first opponents Spain: "Spain are nothing. They keep the possession but can't really create chances." Strike One.

During the match, Shirokov struggled, incapable of keeping pace with the razor-sharp David Villa - who netted a hat-trick - and he was blamed for two of the goals. Strike Two.

However, rather than returning to camp with his tail between his legs, a man who has never been short of a word or two, told journalists post-match: "We didn't even expect David Villa  to start against us". Strike Three.

After a disastrous 90 minutes, and two equally damaging soundbites, Shirokov's tournament was over, banished to the bench as Russia reached the semi-finals (whilst Hiddink would never call on Shirokov again). His international career appeared over after just three months, with the Russian press vilifying Shirokov as nothing more than the village idiot. Furthermore, those international struggles followed Shirokov back to the Petrovsky Stadium and he spent much of the 2009 campaign on the substitutes bench, making only nine league starts.  Nevertheless, 2010 was the beginning of a staggering upturn in fortunes for Shirokov, as he became a vital component both for club and country.
 
Ukrainian midfielder Anatoly Tymoschuk's transfer to Bayern saw Igor Denisov drop into the anchor role in midfield, thus enabling Shirokov to push into an offensive midfield role and despite initial strained relations with the new manager Luciano Spalletti, the combination of constant improvement and a strong training ground work-ethic, which had long been lacking, saw Shirokov's career begin to blossom, whilst he returned to the national squad under his former Zenit boss Dick Advocaat.

Playing as part of the fluid Zenit midfield, Shirokov's technique, match intelligence and ability to score goals, arriving late in the penalty area from deep, marked him as one of the league's standout performers, whilst 2011/12's 'transitional' Russian season - as the Russian league looks to align itself with the majority of Europe - proved even better, a coming-of-age for the now 30 year-old, who also made his mark in the Champions League, equalling the all-time Russian record for most goals in a Champions League season, scoring five goals to align himself with Valery Karpin and Yuri Nikiforov. At international level he also made a remarkable improvement, in what is effectively an amalgamation of the two strongest sides in Russian football (Zenit and CSKA Moscow), which has seen him net seven goals in the last 20 months, including the second against the Czech Republic in his nation's Euro 2012 opener. It isn't too strong to now proclaim him as his country's best midfielder.

And yet, whilst on the surface he may appear reformed, the same outspoken individual still remains. There is no Russian footballer who tweets as much, who argues with authority - he has hit out at officials in his home country over affairs ranging from the state of pitches, to their use of advertising - and who fronts up to his own supporters - Shirokov called his own supporters "morons" after they fired flares and almost caused the abandonment of a Champions League match.

Shirokov has irritated many down the years, whether it be due to his approach to the game, or his flaws as a person. He continues to irritate those at the head of the Russian game with his outspoken views, but where Roman Shirokov no longer frustrates is on the field of play, and that won't irritate anyone.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @aa_richards

Posted
AuthorAlex Richards