From the Reebok to Rio - Switzerland international Blerim Dzemaili is the Bolton Wanderers 'misfit' who hit the Serie A heights
HERALDED on their arrival but quickly forgotten after their departure – Wanderers’ history books are filled with players whose time at the club just didn’t work out.
In the first of a series of features on misfits from the past, we put the spotlight on Blerim Dzemaili – a member of Switzerland’s World Cup squad in Brazil – and his blink-and-you’d-miss-it Reebok career
BILLED as “one of the most promising defensive midfielders in Europe” by Sam Allardyce on the day he signed and heir apparent to the great Gary Speed, big things were expected of Blerim Dzemaili.
Aged just 20 when he signed a preliminary agreement with Wanderers to join at the start of the 2007/8 season, the highly-rated midfielder had already captained his club FC Zurich and forced his way into Switzerland’s senior international squad.
"Blerim is a fantastic player who has played for the best team in Switzerland for the past three years. For someone so young, he has a wealth of experience,” enthused Big Sam, who had reportedly stolen a march on Juventus and Inter Milan to capture his signature and who clearly had an eye for a future international regular, who will be attending to World Cup business in Rio starting this weekend.
His signing was announced, rather ominously, with another player whose Bolton career did not work out as planned, a certain Gerald Cid. The French defender’s brief time at the Reebok would prove so disastrous, his name continues to be a byword for poor defensive signings to this day, but unlike Dzemaili, at least the former Bordeaux man saw some time on the pitch.
Plenty changed before Swiss star Dzemaili got a chance to pull on a Wanderers shirt, as just two months later he ruptured his cruciate knee ligament in a training ground accident.
The Whites were quick to confirm they had committed to the deal and that they would be sending Dzemaili to see Colorado knee specialist Dr Richard Steadman, the man who had helped Ricardo Gardner battle back from the same injury on three occasions.
In the meantime, the club were rocked by Allardyce’s shock resignation, two games before the end of the season.
A massive exodus of backroom staff ensued and by the time Sammy Lee had seen his short spell in charge terminated the following season, Dzemaili was largely a forgotten man around the club.
Gary Megson arrived with one goal in mind, to prevent relegation. His pragmatic style of football did not always go down well with the fans – and as Dzemaili neared fitness towards the end of 2008, it looked unlikely his more continental style would earn him a place in the side ahead of more rugged types, like Danny Guthrie, Gavin McCann or Joey O’Brien.
The Macedonia-born midfielder’s long-awaited debut came in an FA Cup third round tie against Sheffield United, replacing right-back Nicky Hunt, who had only recently returned from a foot injury. But a week later he was once again nowhere to be seen.
Back in the days of just five substitute spots, Dzemaili failed to make the bench again that season, even in the much-maligned UEFA Cup exit at Sporting Lisbon.
It has long-since been thought that fitness problems had prevented him from getting back into the reckoning under Megson, but Nick Worth, Wanderers’ physio at the time, recalls no significant problems with his recovery.
“Knee-wise, he trained almost every day I was there with him,” he told The Bolton News. “Sometimes players can lack confidence going back into training after that type of injury.
“As I didn’t do his rehab, I don’t really know what psychological support he was given. It’s the kind of thing that happens much more these days.
“It is often tricky with a cruciate repair as many people say ‘six to eight months’, which is an average timescale, but it can often take around a year to regain the confidence in it.
“Many top teams like (Manchester) United and Arsenal allow a year as standard. Clubs the size of Bolton don’t carry the squads to allow this to happen, unfortunately. People are expected to return to ‘the cause’ as soon as possible.”
An encouraging display in a pre-season defeat at Macclesfield Town saw the midfielder briefly raise hopes of a return for the 2008/9 campaign but a few months later he had agreed to sign for Torino on a year-long loan, with a view to a permanent deal.
Dzemaili showed class on his exit, refusing to complain about his lack of opportunities.
“A few years ago it was my dream to play in the Premier League and Bolton showed they really wanted to bring me there,” he said.
“I don’t think I wasted time in England, as I got to learn a new language and face off against a very different style of play than I was accustomed to.”
Since leaving the Reebok, things have definitely looked up for Dzemaili, who excelled in Turin despite the club’s relegation from Serie A and earned a move thought to be worth around £1million.
His reputation in Italy quickly blossomed and in three years he had moved on to Napoli, via Parma, for fees approaching £8million.
He helped the Naples side to two Copa Italias and also played in the Champions League, impressing alongside Marek Hamsik in one of the most exciting young sides in Europe.
This summer Dzemaili is again being linked with a move back to Premier League with Liverpool and Tottenham interested parties.
Still only 28, it’s a safe bet he will make a better fist of his second shot at English football.