Oleksandr Zinchenko: The journey

The Ukraine and City star who fought to make his dream a reality...

Oleksandr Zinchenko’s journey from the humble beginnings of his local football academy to the summit of English football - and of late Euro 2020 -has been far from straightforward.

From day one, things have never really transpired as the Ukrainian might have expected.

The boys at his local football academy didn’t pass to him, for a start, and his first steps in the senior game were delayed by 18 months after a contract dispute between two clubs.

He didn’t play as often as he would have liked during a loan spell at PSV Eindhoven, either, and you would guess he might not have expected to play left-back in Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City team.

But five years on from his arrival at City the 24-year-old has built a particularly impressive medal collection for a man of his age.

That he has done so is a credit to his determination and dedication throughout an arduous journey, littered with potholes and wrong turns, that far outweighed the difficulties most players encounter when trying to earn a career in the professional ranks.

It’s a journey that began 18 years ago in a small town in northern Ukraine.

Oleks was six when his mother, Irina, took him to a trial at the local football academy in Radomyshl, but that first experience of the game he would come to excel at delivered a harsh lesson.

Younger and smaller than others, Zinchenko struggled to make an impression and was unsuccessful, but, undeterred, he returned a year later, stronger and determined to have more of an impact.

Only, his return did not work out as planned.

Oleks saw little of the ball and he headed home to complain to his mother that the other boys weren’t passing to him.

His frustrations were met with a firm response from Irina, who told him, “If they won’t pass to you, go and win the ball!”

After that early setback his first experience of organised football turned out to be a great learning curve and much like his City career, he made a gradual impression, before eventually establishing himself as a regular and captaining the side.

It became clear Zinchenko was destined for greater things and within five years of that ill-fated trial his services were being courted by bigger clubs.

Monolith, a team from the Odessa region of Ukraine, was his next destination, after the 11-year-old caught the eye of a passing scout and it was a transfer which introduced him to someone who would have a profound impact on both his career and life in general.

Victor, the man Oleks now calls his stepfather, was his first coach at Monolith.

He had years of experience developing young players and knew talent when he saw it, which was exactly what he identified in his future stepson, despite the poor facilities in which he had previously honed his game.

“I knew the conditions he was training in at his first academy in Radomyshl,” Victor explains.

“Frankly, they were not conditions for professional football players. That’s why I can say that he developed his skills on the street. He grew up playing street football. 

“I took him to Monolith and turned my attention to his touch. He wanted to learn quickly. He was a creative football player.”

Just like the present day Oleks, it was his eagerness to improve and his composed, intelligent use of the ball which stood out and back then, it set him apart from his peers.

“Many people said that it would be difficult to work with him,” adds Victor. “ In some moments he was a bit stubborn. But I’m a strict coach!

“Since childhood his composure has allowed him to excel. He was dedicated to his work. If he lost the ball, it happened not because of his mistake.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing for the young Zinchenko, who moved out of the family home in order to play for Monolith.

For all his talent, of which there was plenty, it was a tough environment and one which demanded you perform both on and off the field.

“He played at Monolith for a year and a half,” says Irina.

“Nothing was easy. The trainers were strict and expected discipline, cleanliness and order. At the same time Oleks had to learn at school.

“At 8am he went to school, and before his classes he did gymnastics, then went to training and did homework. It was very hard.”

Zinchenko, however, has never been shy of hard work.

“1% talent, 99% hard work,” is what he says you need to be a professional footballer.

That’s something which has been evident throughout the past four seasons and when mixed with talent it’s a potent combination.

It is why his stay at Monolith lasted only 18 months. His ability had become increasingly evident and Ukraine’s biggest clubs were circling.

Dynamo Kiev came first and then it was Shakhtar Donetsk.

After advice from trusted coaches and friends in the game, Zinchenko settled on the latter, and he joined their academy, in a move which left him more than 500 miles from his home in Radomshyl.

It mattered not, and the teenager continued to shine in a more illustrious and competitive environment.

“I left my home for 500 kilometres, you know, and I was living alone, just with my team, no parents, no one," recalled Oleks.

“So why should I drop it? For what reason? Of course everyone has tough periods, a lot of injuries or something like this, or any problems, but you cannot drop it because that’s the commitment that you have to have.”

He went on to captain Shakhtar’s U19 team, playing in the No.10 role or on the left flank as he established himself as an important attacking outlet.

“It was a great team,” he recalled before City faced the Ukrainians in October 2018.

“I had a great coach. The time I spent in Shakhtar was one of the best times of my life.

“I respect them. I have never said something bad about them because the things they have done for me are unbelievable. I really appreciate that.”       

It was during this period that the dedication which has characterised Zinchenko’s career came to the fore.

So determined was he to make a success of his football career, the youngster dedicated himself to training even when time off afforded him rare trips home.

Admittedly, with a little prompting from his mother.

“Once he came home on vacation and like any child Oleks wanted to sleep and spend time with his friends,” says Irina.

“But I knew that if you want to achieve something, you need to work hard. So, everyday he got up at 7am and he did morning exercise, in the evenings he went to practice. He did not have days off. He practised every day.

“He was very responsible. I think if a person wants to achieve something, then you need to sacrifice something. I told him, ‘you will have what your peers will not have’.”

Irina’s prophecy soon turned out to be true, but not in the way she would have hoped, because what Oleks ended up with, was no club.

In April 2014, two months after he and Shakhtar had bowed out of the UEFA Youth League to Arsenal, war broke out in Ukraine and at the end the end of that season the whole family were forced to leave the country.

A testing time not only in football, but in life, it led to a prolonged period of uncertainty.

Having fled to Russia, he trained alone in what is another example of the young Zinchenko’s unwavering commitment to his craft and his willingness to meet any challenges head on.

“That period was the toughest but you cannot lose your dream,” he told ITV News.

“For a long time I didn't speak about that period, you know, that was really tough to remember as well because, yeah, I couldn't even say to you right now everything.

“But it’s made me stronger that situation. Since I was a kid I couldn’t even dream that one day I would play in a Champions League final, but everything is possible.”

Eventually his agent put him in touch with Rubin Kazan, but with Shakhtar refusing to release him from his contract, he was unable to play for the Russians.

It was a dispute which stopped him playing for 18 months before the versatile midfielder moved to another Russian outfit, FC Ufa and finally his professional career could begin.

He played 33 times across two seasons, showcasing his talents across midfield, but also played several games at left-back, which is why for him, Pep’s decision to deploy him there has never been as surprising as it has been to others.

It was at Ufa where his senior international career began, too. Having represented Ukraine at the 2013 U17 European Championships and the 2015 U19 competition, he made his full debut against Spain in October 2015.

Six months later he netted his first goal in a 4-3 win over Romania and in doing so became Ukraine’s youngest goal scorer at 19 years and 165 days, breaking his hero, Andriy Shevchenko’s 20-year record.

A move to City, in July 2016, followed.

He was signed the day after Guardiola’s official unveiling but was sent on loan to PSV Eindhoven one month later in order to gain more first-team experience.

It was still very much a fledgling career, but given all he’d faced prior to joining, Zinchenko could have been forgiven for toasting his arrival in Manchester.

He’d twice left home as teenager, fled from war and been unable to play for a year and half, but here he was at one of England’s top teams, playing for a man many regard as the best coach in the world.

But the challenges were far from over and he was loaned out to PSV Eindhoven for the 2016/17 campaign.

Zinchenko has always been forced to do things the hard way, which is how it turned out in the Netherlands. He made 17 appearances for PSV, but started only six times and endured a seven-game spell with the U21s that yielded nine assists.

That was not part of the plan.

“I'm not happy here,” he declared to the media.

“That makes sense when you play no minutes for seven games in a row. I do not understand why I am the one that is never used.

“It is simply the choice of the coach and it is not to discuss. I will not be sorry. It is a strange experience, but I'm sure it's good for me. ”

With hindsight Zinchenko has referred to his spell in Holland as ‘maybe the most important time in my life’, but there was no doubt a sense of relief when he returned to the City Football Academy for pre-season training in July 2017.

In fact, if what had gone before had been marred by difficulties, what came next was tinged with optimism.

Nevertheless, it was a slow start for the Ukrainian.

He came off the bench in three of the five warm-up games that summer, but with City firing on all cylinders in the opening months of the season, he was made to wait until October for his debut.

It was a period long enough to prompt doubt in a player, but the youngster was unmoved, convinced the Etihad Stadium was the best place for him.

“My first goal is to stay here – this is my home and I want to play for City,” he said at the time.

“It won’t be easy to break into this team, but I’m working hard towards my goal and I want to be a positive influence at the Club, on the training ground and in the dressing room and contribute in whichever way I can.”

It was against Wolves in the Carabao Cup fourth round in which he made his first real contribution on the pitch. His selection at left-back raised eyebrows amongst the media and fans alike, though much of the post-match talk centred on Claudio Bravo’s penalty shootout heroics.

However, it was a small but significant step for a player who was becoming increasingly popular around the CFA.

His Instagram account was often a source of amusement as it became evident Zinchenko was very much a team player and one contributing to the positive collective spirit.

Not only that, but he was displaying a faultless work-ethic and his exemplary attitude had not gone unnoticed.

“We arrived back from Huddersfield on Sunday night after the game and he stayed to train in the gym alone,” said Guardiola in November 2017.

"That means a lot to me, because sooner or later he knows we are going to need him.

“He is a talented player, so clear, so clean. The way he plays, his decisions are always perfect. As a young player I hope in the future he will help us.

“He is going to stay for the whole season with us because I have the feeling we are going to use him."

Zinchenko’s unseen work made headlines, with many impressed by his diligence.

But, it came as no surprise to his mother, whose tales of her young son reveal the extent to which a work ethic and a desire to succeed were engrained in him.

“I noticed his strong character when he was a child,” adds Irina.

“I remember when he was eight-years-old and I wanted to punish him for something. I told him that he would not go to training.

“He got up and said: ‘You can stop me from going outside, watching TV or playing computer games, but don’t punish me by stopping me from training.’

“I thought, can I take the air from my son?

“Since then, I was sure that he would become a professional football player. He deserves it. It is what he’s always been working for and continuing to work for.”

Guardiola rewarded his efforts with a full Premier League debut against Newcastle in January 2018, which signalled the start of his first run in the side.

City won 3-1 that night, and the manager was particularly pleased with the Ukrainian’s display and again took the chance to praise his attitude.

“In the first half he was outstanding,” he said. “He is a talented player - we insisted he was aggressive in the duels.

“Look how he defended. He has his chance with [Benjamin] Mendy and [Fabian] Delph out. He is loved because he is very nice, he always had a smile in bad moments and works and works.”

He ended 2017/18 with 14 appearances to his name and with Premier League and Carabao Cup medals around his neck, won with a team some believed to be the finest England had ever seen.

The young boy who trudged home rejected from the Radomshyl football academy had come a long way.

And it was only going to get better.

2018/19 was Zinchenko’s breakout year, but it so nearly didn’t happen.

With Mendy fit again, it was unclear what the new campaign would hold for the Ukrainian and several clubs were linked with him. Wolves came closest, agreeing a deal with City, but Zinchenko chose to stay in Manchester and fight for his place.

It was a brave decision, but in many ways typical of a player who has always fought against the odds.

Again, he was made to wait to play and didn’t feature until the end of September, but he bided his time, remained focused and took his opportunity when it arose.

It came in the midst of the Premier League’s most exciting title race.

Having been left out of the squad for five consecutive games, Zinchenko produced a fine display on his return in February, providing two assists as City swept Chelsea aside with a 6-0 victory.

It was the catalyst for his best run in the side yet, missing only one game due to injury during the run-in and playing the whole match in both the Carabao Cup and FA Cup final wins.

In the former, Zinchenko was magnificent as City eclipsed Chelsea on penalties and afterwards Guardiola was effusive with his praise for a player he knew had not featured as much as he would have liked.

"Incredible is the only thing I can say," said the Catalan.

"Oleks has showed me again what I thought before; the importance and the value of being a good guy, a good lad.

"And the fact he's a guy who was making a transfer - at the beginning of the season was close to going… there was six, seven or eight fixtures he didn't play one minute.

"But I never saw him in the period we were together with one bad face, one bad training session. I can only say thank you. More than the way he plays, it's his approach. Everybody can learn from Oleks. Everybody."

To borrow an old cliché, nice guys are supposed to finish last.

But that couldn’t be further from the truth where Zinchenko is concerned. The good guy who never gave up and to which good things came.

Ahead of the 2019 FA Cup final, he signalled his appreciation for the position he found himself in.

He told The Guardian: “I don’t know how other players think about it but for me it’s like this…

“I would dream of playing at a high level, I didn’t realise that I would be here and getting ready for an FA Cup final.

“It’s a dream.”

City won that day, scoring six goals without reply to record a famous Wembley victory and book our place in the history books as the first English team to win a domestic treble.

Later, he was voted the Ukrainian Footballer of the Year with a nation of more than 41million immensely proud of his achievements.

It meant the dream came true for Oleks, who penned a three-year contract extension that summer with an exciting future lying ahead of him.

Over the next two seasons, Zinchenko would feature regularly for Guardiola's side, clocking up a further 57 appearances.

He established himself as a reliable and trusted first team member, and was paid the ultimate compliment by his manager when he was named in the starting XI against Chelsea in the Champions League final.

The sight of the inconsolable Ukrainian lying flat on the grass, face down in floods of tears at the end would have stirred emotions in even the most hardened football supporter.

But he never lies down for long.

His country needed him and as ever, he answered the call.

Ukraine went into Euro 2020 with hope, but expectation levels were low and after losing two of their three group games, it looked as though Zinchenko would become the first City player to exit the tournament.

But Ukraine qualified as the last of the best-placed third teams, progressing by the skin of their teeth to fight another day and will now take on Sweden in the Round of 16.

Oleksandr has captained his country, won nine major trophies with City and, to steal a line from a well-known song, when he gets knocked down, he gets up again. And again.

But what’s behind him will always be important. The sacrifice, the frustration, and the effort, all of which paved the way for the success.

It’s been some journey