Football is a funny old game. One minute you’re on top of the world, invincible and carefree. The next, you’re wondering about your fall from grace. Sergei Rebrov has experienced both. He’s partnered Andriy Shevchenko upfront for both club and county, creating one of the most feared strike forces in the world at the time and represented his country in their first World Cup competition. But he’s also been branded a flop after a dismal two years at Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Premier League, a swell as failing to impress in a brief stint at Fenerbahçe of the Turkish Süper Lig.
Serhiy Stanislavovych Rebrov was born on 3rd June 1974 in the city of Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine. Situated approximately 900km’s southeast of infamous city of Chernobyl, Horlivka is a small mining community, home to around 250,000 people.
Rebrov joined local side Shakhtar Donestk in 1990, the same year that Ukraine declared its sovereignty from the USSR. Despite only being 17 years old, Rebrov was good enough to make seven appearances and net twice. Although still relatively young, his performances were enough to attract the attention of bigger teams. Dynamo Kyiv, based in the countries capital, were one of those clubs.
Kyiv at this time were competing in the Soviet Top League and had already won the championship 13 times. Keen to develop local talent, Rebrov joined the team in 1992, in time for the inaugural season of the Vyscha Liha, which literally translates to the Ukranian Higher League. Rebrov scored ten times in the competition, including a hat trick in a 6-1 demolition of his old club, Shakhtar Donestk. Despite this success, Kyiv came runners up in the league, losing 1-0 to SC Tavriya Simferopol in the championship playoff final.
The following year, Kyiv won the league but Rebrov hardly played a part. 13 appearances in all competitions saw a meagre return of just three goals. However, the striker had a medal around his neck, the first of 20 honours in his career.
Over the next two seasons, Rebrov became a mainstay of the Kyiv team, scoring ten goals in each campaign. It wasn’t until the 1996-97 season that his output started to increase. He made 30 league appearances that year, scoring 20 goals. The following season, he had his best year in front of goal. He finished top scorer in the league with 22 goals from 29 league appearances. Overall, he made 48 appearances scoring 37 times, including 8 times in the UEFA Champions League. Strike partner Shevchenko weighed in with 19 goals of his own, propelling Kyiv to another league championship.
By now, with Kyiv playing regular football, clubs were being alerted by this new partnership. Both Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur were linked with the striker as well as some interest from Italian clubs, but Rebrov had to wait a further two years before he got his move. In those two seasons, he added a further 52 goals from 81 appearances across all competitions. Whilst no one could argue with his contribution, it became clear that Shevchenko was becoming the main man at the club. In contrast, he scored 65 goals in 85 matches in the same two seasons as Rebrov.
At the turn of the millennium, Tottenham Hotspur were a classic mid table side. They were never going to be considered as relegation fodder, but equally were unlikely to trouble the elite clubs in the FA Premier League. George Graham, the manager at the time, had wanted to bolster his squad with a marquee signing. Strikers Chris Armstrong and Steffen Iversen had scored 14 times each in the league, but Graham wanted a player who could regularly score 25 goals a season. He hoped that such a player could propel his side to challenge with teams like Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United. The Scot called for financial backing after winning the Worthington Cup in his first season and wanted to follow up that success with a sustained campaign in the UEFA Cup.
Spurs weren’t known as a side that would splash the cash. In fact, since 1998 they’d only spent £23 million on players. Alan Sugar, chairman at the time, had a considered approach to business and wasn’t one to take a risk. On 17th May 2000, he shocked pundits and fans alike by announcing that a deal had been struck to buy Rebrov. Not only that, but the fee was reported to be £11 million, which was a then-record for the North London club, dwarfing the previous record of £6 million for Les Ferdinand. Whilst some commentators in the media had questioned whether Rebrov would stand up to the pace of football in England, it was hard to look beyond his goalscoring record.
The signing was something of a coup for Spurs, having beaten off competition for the Ukrainian’s signature from Glasgow Rangers and Arsenal. European Football was coming back to White Hart Lane and with a star striker installed at the club, fans of the North London side would’ve been forgiven for thinking that the “Glory Days” were about to return to N17.
The season started off promisingly with a 3-1 win over Ipswich Town. Rebrov started and came close to scoring on his debut, smashing a shot off the bar with the outside of his foot. It was just a glimpse of the magic he possessed. He opened his account on 5th September 2000 against Everton with two strikes, one from the penalty spot which completed a 3-2 comeback. He netted twice more in the 4-3 loss away to Leeds and once in the following game against Coventry City.
An eight-game drought could’ve caused alarm bells to ring had it not been for the relative good form of the team. Rebrov finally scored again on the 10th December 2000 in the North London derby, a diving header from a rebound sending the home crowd into raptures. In the next 11 games though, he only managed to add two goals to his tally.
In February 2001, ENIC bought the club from Sugar but any hope of stability was quashed a month later. On 16th February 2001, Graham was sacked as manager due to repeated “breaches of contract”. The effect this would have on Sergei Rebrov’s time at the club would be huge, although not immediately apparent. The following day, with David Pleat as caretaker manager, Spurs took on Coventry in front of the 35,606 fans packed into White Hart Lane. The Lilywhites ran out 3-0 winners with Rebrov scoring the third. It would be his final goal of the season.
Club idol Glenn Hoddle was appointed manager in April and took charge of the last seven league games, picking up 10 points from a possible 21. Spurs finished a disappointing 12th in the league with Rebrov finishing as top scorer across all competitions with 12 strikes. It wasn’t a bad return for a striker, his first year in a different country whilst getting used to the new league. His manager had other ideas.
Hoddle clearly wasn’t a fan of the Ukrainian, who admitted that he had struggled with the pace of the Premier League and living in England. Teddy Sheringham had just become a free agent after his contract had expired at Manchester United and was subsequently signed on a two-year deal, returning to Spurs for a second time. Rebrov was now one of five first-team strikers and must have known his stock with Hoddle was beginning to falter.
The 2001-02 season saw Rebrov start just nine league games, whilst coming off the bench a further 21 times. It was clear that Hoddle preferred the combination of Ferdinand and Sheringham upfront and opportunities for the Ukrainian would be limited. He only managed to score once in the league and three times in cup competitions as Spurs finished ninth in the FA Premier League and lost in the League Cup final to Blackburn Rovers.
By now, Rebrov knew his time was up. He didn’t make a single appearance in the 2002/03 season and had fallen further down the pecking order after the £7 million arrival of Irish starlet Robbie Keane. The trigger was finally pulled on his time at Spurs when Turkish giants Fenerbahçe offered him an unlikely escape route. Fulham’s admiration of the Ukrainian was well documented but the lure of European football was enough for him to sign on an 18-month loan for the Istanbul based team.
Determined to prove his worth after having seen his career get bogged down in English football, the striker found life in Turkey just as hard. Whilst his ex-teammate Shevchenko was busy winning the UEFA Champions League with AC Milan and enhancing his reputation on the worldwide football stage, Rebrov was toiling away trying to save his own. During this loan spell, he made 43 appearances and returned a measly five goals. Ironically, he did actually add to his personal honours as Fenerbahçe won the Süper Lig in 2004.
A permanent deal wasn’t forthcoming and so he returned to North London where he was given a free transfer. Perhaps looking around at his options and knowing his reputation had been tarnished whilst at Spurs, Rebrov signed a contract with West Ham United, who were playing in the Championship. He helped the Hammers gain promotion back to the FA Premier League but his personal contribution of one goal in 27 league appearances effectively ended his time in England. He’d made a total of 108 appearances in all competitions whilst only scoring 17 goals.
Now labelled as a “flop” and knowing that he couldn’t cut it at the top level of English football, West Ham’s board saw fit to move him on. In 2005 he travelled back to his native Ukraine, signing on a free transfer for his old club Dynamo Kyiv. His fortunes turned overnight as if a voodoo hex had been lifted, and he finished the season as the club’s top scorer with 13 league goals. Now as a 30-year-old, his output started to decrease as his age began to catch up with his body. He left Kyiv on 1st March 2008, sold to Russian side Rubin Kazan for £630k. He stayed at the Russian Premier League side for two years, scoring five goals from 33 appearances. On 20th July 2009, Rebrov officially retired from playing. He’s since forged out a career as a manager, leading his old team Kyiv to back to back title wins and three cup wins.
Can Sergei Rebrov really be classed as a flop? Or has he been miscast as the pantomime villain because of an indifferent season in England? Tottenham Hotspur at the time were looking for an all out goalscorer when they bought him. They’d watched him play alongside Shevchenko, who was undoubtedly the more natural finisher of the two. Rebrov was a different player to what they wanted though. He was the grand strategist behind Shevchenko’s impressive tally, the maestro who dictated the play and allowed his strike partner the glory of scoring many goals. Subsequently, when Spurs came knocking, he was shoehorned into a system where he was the main goalscorer, a role to which he was unfamiliar with – especially in a superior league to what he was used to.
Many players have come to these shores boasting incredible scoring records, only to struggle in the frenetic pace of the Premier League. Notable alumni like Roberto Soldado, Radamel Falcao, Diego Forlan and Álvaro Morata all toiled in England, despite being deadly on the continent. There’s no shame in that at all.
In an 18 year career, Rebrov had made 580 appearances and scored an impressive 204 goals. He’d won 20 medals with the clubs he played for and even won the Ukrainian Player of The Year in 1996 and 1998. You don’t receive those kinds of accolades for being lucky. He represented his country 75 times, scoring 15 goals and played in a World Cup, achievements that only top players reach.