It's Been a Long, Hard Road and I Just Pray It's about to Lead Me Back to Paradise; RODDY THOMSON Finds Rudi Vata Ready to Set off on the Last Leg of His Magical Mystery Tour

Article excerpt

Byline: RODDY THOMSON

RUDI VATA is on the final leg of an incredible journey - one which would do justice to the most far-fetched of film scripts. From growing up under the dark shadow of communism in Albania to his desperate dash for freedom after an international game in Paris, Vata's life story inspires and enthrals in equal measure.

All that's needed now is for him to pen one last chapter and end his fantastic odyssey back in Paradise.

Now plying his trade with First Division promotion-chasers St Johnstone, who face tabletoppers Clyde today in a make-or-break battle, Vata likes nothing better on a quiet day off than to trot along to Celtic Park and just sit, for a few moments, in the empty main stand.

His thoughts drift to the memories of his time as a Celtic player from 1992 to 1996 marked by a Cup-winning performance against Airdrie. And they return to the possibility that next season he could play there again should his McDiarmid Park employers make the step up.

In the week in which the wartime tale of derring do which inspired The Great Escape celebrates its 60th anniversary, Vata's incredible tale has added resonance. Just 22 years old, and playing for communist-controlled Albania at the Parc des Princes in Paris, he made a dash for freedom at fulltime, losing himself in the crowd heading for the nearest Paris Metro station.

After a struggle trying to find gainful employment in France as an asylum- seeking footballer, he was snapped up by Liam Brady following an international match against Ireland in Dublin a year later. Remarkably, Vata still turned out for Albania, although only in away games. Today, as he savours the thought of a place in the SPL and an emotional playing return to Parkhead, the time spent in tears lying awake at night in Paris inspires his every move.

'I knew the door was open that night in Paris and I wasn't going to let it slam shut in my face,' he told Sportsmail. 'God only knows when, or if, it would ever open again. I was a young man with 60 or 70 dollars in my pockets and a pair of football boots - that was it. I was looking for a chance in life, which I wasn't getting in my country, and that was enough to set off with. I was sure a second chance in life might never come, so I made sure I grabbed it with both hands.

'There were difficult times. I was alone in the middle of Paris.

Maybe I cried in the middle of the night, but you need to be brave. There was no way back for me, so I had to convince myself I would get there, with patience and determination.

'I went through an experience that, hopefully, very few people will have to face now. It was an accident of birth and now everything is different.

Albania was the land that time forgot back then.

We had been closed to the outside world for 50 years under a brutal dictatorship.

'People were trying to run away, taking the boats. 15 years ago, I was one of the first to make a name as an Albanian footballer in Europe, which has helped the younger generation, many of whom can play in Germany or France, for example. I'm proud of my career, because I achieved what I did the hard way.'

Ask Vata of his dream of a return to Celtic Park with St Johnstone next season, and you are met with a wistful sigh.

'Celtic Park... oh, how I would love to play there again next season,' he said. 'It's an exceptionally difficult place for an opposition team to play in, as they have great players and great team spirit.

'But the promotion race is getting very interesting now. We are winning, we've had very good results in very difficult weeks recently. We showed great spirit, fighting to the very last minute at St Mirren this week to get a good away point which cut the gap behind the leaders.

'It's not done yet and, after every win, the next game becomes even more important.

But there's nothing better in life than winning and we mustn't let this chance slip away, because it's there for us all right. …