It's Monday night football, Russian style. Spartak Nalchik are hosting Spartak Moscow and Aiden McGeady is being, well, Aiden McGeady. He's already skied a cross over the bar from the right, been shown a yellow card for kicking the ball away to stop the home side taking a quick free-kick and almost got sent off for a tackle on Nalchik full-back Viktor Vasin, where the 24-year-old showed a stud or two as he stretched for the ball. That's the
reason why, with 12 minutes left on the clock and Spartak Moscow a goal to the good, McGeady is being booed by the home support as he receives the ball out on the right wing, 30 yards from goal. Not that the jeers bother him as he pushes the ball past Vasin and whips a cross in towards the penalty spot where Ari, Spartak's Brazilian striker, stoops to head the ball to the net. Two-nil, game over. Not long after, the electronic board goes up and the Irish international, number 64, is called ashore. He receives a firm handshake from Valery Karpin, his new manager, and sits down on the bench a contented man. Job done.
So far, after a month in Moscow, it looks as though McGeady – or Makgidi as they now spell his name to help Spartak's fans out phonetically – is settling in nicely. True, he has only played a handful of games, and the cultural differences may eventually drag him down, but right now Russian football seems to suit him. On his debut against Saturn Moscow, the club from the capital's outskirts, he set up Welliton, another Brazilian striker at the club, for both his and Spartak's second goal with a perfectly-weighted through ball. After that contribution, his efforts in Monday's game and his first goal in Friday night's 2-2 draw with Amkar Perm, the winger must feel there's little about Russian football that should scare him. In a physical sense, it's nowhere near as robust as the Scottish Premier League. Getting on the ball won't be a problem for McGeady in Russia: full-backs tend to allow you take possession before attempting to get it off you. The pace of the football is also a little slower, allowing technique, which McGeady is practically spoiled with, to shine through. The instruction he has received from Karpin, the former Russian international who played for Celta Vigo, Valencia and Real Sociedad, also appears to suit him. From watching his opening league appearances, it's clear that McGeady has been told to stick to the right touchline, take on the opposing full-back when he gets the ball and put the ball into the penalty area once he's round him. A frustrating player to watch at the best of times, particularly when he tries to beat a defender again and again, it's just possible that in asking McGeady to do the simple thing, Karpin can get more from him.
It will be fascinating to see how the player progresses from here. Speaking before his transfer, Giovanni Trapattoni suggested that McGeady was too gentle a soul to adapt to the wider complications of the Russian game. Those complications? For a start, the travelling. Monday's game in Nalchik involved a flight of two-and-a-half-hours and a 100km drive from the airport to the ground. Elsewhere, Grozny is three hours away by air. A trip to Novosibirsk takes four. The away fixtures to St Petersburg, Makhachkala, Vladikavkaz and Perm all involve flights of between one and two hours. On the ground, meanwhile, the Moscow traffic often means that the 12-mile trip from the city centre to Spartak's training ground can take three hours. Then there are the pitches. Most grounds in the 16-team Premier League either have surfaces of poor quality, or of the artificial variety. Added to that, the crowds are generally small. Spartak average around 15,000 spectators at the 84,000-seater Luzhniki Stadium, which leads to an eerie ambience. That figure rises to 60,000 when they play one of their Moscow neighbours, or a team like Zenit St Petersburg, but still, it's not exactly an atmospheric, full-to-capacity Celtic Park on a fortnightly basis.
Perhaps McGeady's settling in so well because, just as he's a strange sort of character – a confident and expressive footballer on the pitch but something of an oddball off it – Spartak Moscow are a strange kind of club. Traditionally, they are the only Moscow club who weren't directly linked to the communist regime. CSKA were the army club, Torpedo the team of the state car manufacturer, Lokomotiv the club of railway workers, Dynamo the team of the police and security services but Spartak were founded by the trade unions and are known as the people's club. They stand, as their supporters will tell you, for "truth and fairness". One famous example of this is worth repeating. It involved the deciding match in the 1983 Soviet Championship between Spartak and Dnepr of the Ukraine. Spartak needed to win to claim the title but with the scores level, the Dnepr centre forward went clean through on goal with the Moscow side's defender, Sergei Bazulev, right behind him. Bazulev had a clear opportunity to haul the player down but he refused and Dnepr scored to secure the title. After the game, Bazulev was tormented over his decision not to commit the professional foul but was told by his manager and teammates that he had done precisely the right thing. Over time, with new money coming into the club from the pockets of less principled owners, this kind of honourable stand has become less and less obvious but Spartak's supporters still mark it out as the difference between their club and others in Russian football.
McGeady doesn't exactly come across as a football romantic but if anything attracted him to Moscow, it was Spartak's participation in the Champions League, a competition the player has a real taste for. In his time at Celtic, he played in the group stages of the competition on four separate occasions, losing two round-of-16 ties to Barcelona and Milan. As an Irish international, that makes him a bit special. In the current squad, Shay Given, Damien Duff, Cillian Sheridan, Darren O'Dea, John O'Shea, Darron Gibson and Robbie Keane are the only players to have experienced Champions League football, with the latter three and McGeady the only ones now playing in the competition. O'Shea aside, McGeady has amassed more appearances, 29, than any of the others, a tally he has added to this season after Spartak's Group F game against Marseille, where the visitors to the Stade Velodrome earned an unexpected 1-0 win.
That result puts Karpin's side in a strong position in a group that also contains MSK Zilina of Slovakia and Chelsea. The Slovaks, beaten so comprehensively in their first encounter against the English champions, visit the Luzhniki Stadium on Tuesday. If Spartak win, as they really should do against a side who appear well out of their depth in this competition, and Chelsea account for Marseille at Stamford Bridge the same night, both sides will sit atop the group, six points ahead of the other two sides. From that position, both should qualify for the round of 16, or else an under-pressure Karpin – whose side are nine points off a Champions League spot next year with 10 games to go – will really be in trouble.
As for McGeady, or Makgidi, he's still being looked upon as something of a curiosity in Russian football. A recent interview on the Spartak website gave the impression that those asking the questions believed he was from another planet, not another part of Europe. Apart from issues with his first name, they also quizzed him as to whether he had asked for a cook and two bodyguards before he signed on the dotted line. "That's complete nonsense," responded McGeady. "Even if they had proposed that to me I would have refused. The only thing I have asked for is a driver until I get used to driving on the other side of the road."
On the pitch so far, he has needed no such assistance.