Monday, 5 May 2014

Sergei's wee sister

In Italy, football is "il calcio". THE game.

And so it is in Scotland. Tabloid newspapers are claimed to have sports pages. In reality they have football pages. Virtually every other sport is irrelevant.

It might be ridiculous; it is ridiculous. But it is, let's be honest, the truth.

We are pleased when Chris Hoy wins an Olympic Medal, or Sandy Lyle wins the Masters but within days it is back to who might be, improbably, the "Scottish Messi" or, less meretriciously, which footballer might have sung an inappropriate song at a supporters' night out.

But sometimes something breaks through our obsession with football and yet enlists the fanatical support the game provokes.

When St Mirren won the First Division in the 1999-2000 season we had a young midfield player called Sergei Baltacha. He was then regarded as a great prospect. Indeed he was a great prospect. When we played Dunfermline away towards the end of  that campaign he produced as great a box to box ninety minutes as I have seen from any Saints midfielder in approaching fifty years watching the club. At around the same time as he won three under 21 caps for Scotland.

But somehow Sergei didn't press on. Eventually he left the club and his career ended in obscurity. Who knows why that happens. Anybody who follows a minor football club knows that it nonetheless does. Those who saw Kenny Dalglish playing as a boy for Cumbernauld United might have thought him a potentially great player but the older heads among them would have thought of so many others, potentially great, who were never to be heard of again.

However, towards the end of Sergei's time with the Saints we became aware that he had a wee sister who was a bit of a tennis player. What did we care about tennis? It was a snob's game. But, on the other hand, this was Sergei's wee sister. So we wished her well.

And even after Sergei had long left the club we held her in a special affection.

So, even if she didn't know it herself, when she got to the third round at Wimbledon, when she played for Great Britain, when she met the Queen, we felt she was also playing for Paisley. For St Mirren.

And when she got to the top fifty in the world? We knew by then she was a better tennis player than, as a footballer, her big brother would ever have been. Even if he did have that one outstanding game against Dunfermline.

Thus, long after Sergei had gone, we still followed his wee sister. Whose name might finally be chanted on our terraces this coming Saturday. As it should have been chanted long before.

Today, when Stewart Gilmour, our Chairman but also, in an uniquely Paisley way, our leader, said that the whole St Mirren family mourned for her loss, we all knew what he meant. For she was the one tennis player we are ever, as an entire football club, likely to support. At least in my lifetime.

She was Sergei's wee sister. And she was taken long before her time.

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