Saturday Spotlight: Sunderland new-boy desperate to grab his Premier League chance (From The Northern Echo)
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Saturday Spotlight: Sunderland new-boy desperate to grab his Premier League chance
When Ondrej Celustka became Paolo Di Canio's latest signing earlier this week, few Sunderland fans had heard of the club's new right-back. Chief football writer Paul Fraser met the man from the Czech Republic to hear about the player's Premier League wish
OVER in the south-east corner of the Czech Republic, not far from the Slovakian border, lies Zlin. With a population of around 80,000 people – smaller than Hartlepool – the small city has never been renowned for producing international footballers.
Many of Zlin's most famous exports have been ice-hockey players. Roman Cechmanek, Karel Rachunek and Roman Hamrlik are among those to have ventured over to the United States' lucrative NHL. Donald Trump's ex-wife, Ivana, has even raised the profile of the place more than any footballer has ever done.
This could be the year that changes. Ondrej Celustka, already well known in his hometown, has seized the opportunity to move to the Premier League – a championship he always dreamed of playing in as a schoolboy.
With the exception of Jan Zakopal, who played just once for the Czech Under-21s and three times for Sparta Prague before retiring five years ago, Zlin has never had a footballer with much of a profile.
Even Sunderland's latest recruit toyed with the idea of pursuing a career hitting a puck rather than kicking a ball.
“I like many sports, tennis, ice hockey ... in my country we have very good ice hockey players, so I used to play that when I was younger,” said Celustka. “I tried hard on the ice, but then I chose football, that was the path I decided to take.
“I was not bad at ice-hockey (smiling) and a lot of players from my country go to America to play. Maybe I could have done. I don't know if I could have gone on to play in the NHL … it's too late now! I'm too old. I chose football and I'm happy. I concentrate on that every day, trying to improve all of the time.”
Celustka's love-affair with English football started in the late 90s, when the Premier League was shown regularly on his family television. “I liked Manchester United, but I don't think I should say that now!” said the 24-year-old, in his first interview with an English newspaper since joining Sunderland on a season-long loan last Monday.
Why Manchester United? He said: “It was the 1999 team, when they were in the Champions League final. I remember that was so special to watch and it was around that time when I really started to enjoy the Premier League for what it is. It was always a dream to play in the Premier League, now it is a reality. I will do my maximum to make it work.”
Celustka was ten when Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored two injury-time goals at Camp Nou to cancel out Mario Basler's opening goal to defeat Bayern Munich. That was also the year Sunderland won the old First Division under Peter Reid.
The road he has been on since then has been a long one, with many turns. After leaving school he got his break with hometown club Tescoma Zlin before leaving in 2009 for Sparta Prague. The defensively-minded right-back had a short spell with Palermo before a two-year stay in Turkey with Trabzonspor.
Throughout his time travelling Europe, he always wondered whether his childhood ambition of playing in England would come true. Despite chances to head for Russia to join Lokomotiv Moscow or Germany with Mainz this summer, his wish has come true.
“Now I'm here, I hope I can stay I want to stay here next season, it will depend on me and how I do, how I enjoy it,” said Celustka, who had been expected to head for Moscow for £2.5m.
“When I was young I watched the English Premier League all of the time. I know every club, I know all about them, so Sunderland is a club I know about. Manchester United, Chelsea and all of the top clubs in Europe I know more. But I know Sunderland also. I feel right now that this is a big step for me and I have big motivation to do well here.”
When he left Zlin for Prague in 2009 things looked promising. He was a regular for the Czech Under-21s, who he played 18 times for, and had Italian clubs interested in taking him to Serie A.
Palermo eventually took the gamble on the rising right-back. He said: “I only played one game for Palermo, it just didn't work out. I did not have much experience, I was only young when I went there.
“It was all different for me, different players, so to be that young playing in Italy, the tactics were all different to what I was used to. I had three players in my area ahead of me playing for the national team. I needed them to get injured to have a chance. That never happened.”
He went back to Slavia Prague and in that summer he completed a €900,000 move to Trabzonspor, where he signed a five-year contract, and things initially went well.
“Trabzonspor is one of the best four best clubs in Turkey,” he said. “We played Champions League in the first year, we did well and finished third in our group, one point behind CSKA Moscow.
“In the second year it was much worse because we didn't make any cup. I wanted to leave after the second year. Now it's a good opportunity for me here at Sunderland. I'm happy to have had this move.”
Despite being a key component of the Trabzonspor team, playing 55 league games in two years and appearing in the club's four Europa League qualifiers this summer , it was ironically the unsuccessful stint in Italy which has ultimately led to his Sunderland switch.
He only played one match for Palermo, but he thinks his six month stint spell on the island of Sicily has primed him for his time at the Stadium of Light, where this summer has seen a number of different nationalities arrive.
“The coach (Paolo Di Canio) has told me know Delio Rossi (the former Palermo boss), who had me there,” said Celustka, who has not been allowed to return to Trabzon for his belongings this week because he was needed on Wearside to work on team shape.
“They will have similar opinions in tactics. I won't be asked too often to go forward. It will depend if we are at home or away. First thing for me is to be a defender. When there is an option to go forward, I will help.
“It's also good for me to be able to talk with the coach in Italian because I was there before. I can also speak Italian with some of my team-mates, so it has been easy so far here.
“But English is the first language we all need to speak and I began to learn English two years ago. I have slowly done that. I will need to improve more now but I'm sure I can.
“I started to learn English because I had to understand what my translator told me in Turkey, everything was done through a translator. At that time it was about learning English to understand others, but now it's good for me coming here to the Premier League.”
Celustka's appearances in the Champions League and other domestic European leagues have given him a good grounding, but he has been impressed by what he has experienced in the North-East before his debut against Fulham today.
“I was very happy straight away,” he said. “I have never seen facilities like this in Italy, Turkey or at home before. It's a shame I didn't see the stadium this week because everybody is telling me it is a great place, with 40,000 fans every game. I will soon see it!”
If he performs well at the Stadium of Light over the course of the next nine months, the Premier League could prove to be the stage which propels him to an even higher level.
“I hope this move helps me get in to the national team,” said Celustka, hoping to join Chelsea's Petr Cech and Arsenal's Tomas Rosicky in the Czech squad. “I've been waiting for that for three years now. I did play for the Under-21s but never been in the A-team.
“I have been in the squad, but never played. I'm still waiting. I can't say if I have enough time to make it to the World Cup next summer, it would be perfect, but we will see.”
If he does then Sunderland will have helped Zlin's first Premier League footballer to the greatest footballing stage of them all.
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