x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Life in the fast lane suits Stoch

Marcotti's man This Slovakian winger lacks size, but his speed, power and dazzling runs will soon take him to football's biggest stage.

FC Twente's Miroslav Stoch combines blinding speed with outstanding ball control.
FC Twente's Miroslav Stoch combines blinding speed with outstanding ball control.

You have heard the story a million times. Boy gets football at the age of 5. Boy sleeps with football, goes to school with football, eats breakfast with football. He finds a way to go up three flights of stairs, always with the football, no hands. It is the first thing he sees in the morning, the last thing he sees at night. At eight, he watches Ronaldo's famous goal - the original one - for Barcelona against Compostela and insists on re-enacting it, enlisting older boys to play the opposing defenders. And he beats them. Every time.

When Miroslav Stoch's parents filled out forms for him to join the youth academy at FC Nitra, his hometown club in Slovakia, the coaches were a bit concerned; he was so small. But when they saw him on the pitch all doubt vanished. Yes, he was tiny with short legs, but he was built squat and low, a relative powerhouse. And, when he took off into space, he had the ability to accelerate away from opponents. Over the first five yards, other players might take five steps, he took twice as many, motoring away like a shot.

So it wasn't a surprise that, year after year, he played with the older age groups and more than held his own. At 15, Nitra wanted him to make his debut in the first team, but Slovakian league rules meant he had to wait for his 16th birthday. He played for only a minute on his debut - at home, against Spartak Trnava - but it was enough time for him to conjure up a mesmerising dribbling run followed by a shot which cannoned off the post.

By this point he was being invited for trials abroad and Nitra knew better than to stand in his way. In fact, he spent most of the latter half of the 2005-06 campaign going for trials. It came down to the French club Nice - whose chief scout had first seen him as a 14-year-old - and Chelsea from the English Premier League, relative latecomers in the chase for Stoch. He opted for Stamford Bridge, partly because of the diminutive superstar who played there before him: Gianfranco Zola.

His first two seasons in West London were, effectively, a long apprenticeship in which he hit every milestone along the way. In his first year, he starred in the youth team, ending the season as top goalscorer, despite being deployed on the wing. He followed that up by moving into the reserves without missing a beat and, by the end of the year, he was on the verge of making his debut under Avram Grant. He duly broke into the first-team in 2008-09 and impressed early in the season, though, after Guus Hiddink took over in February, his playing time diminished. But it was a blip, nothing more. And plenty of teams had seen what he had to offer.

Chelsea signed him to a long-term contract and loaned him to Twente. What better place to refine his game than in the attack-minded, technically solid Dutch Eredivisie, for a side that played a pure 4-3-3? Steve McClaren, the club's English manager, told Voetbal International that he expected Stoch to be a game-changer off the bench and an occasional starter. But that view changed very quickly. He fit seamlessly into Twente's system, forming a devastating partnership with Bryan Ruiz on the opposite wing. It was enough to take Twente to the brink of their first league title since 1926: they can clinch it tomorrow away at NAC Breda by equalling or bettering Ajax's result.

There will be mixed emotions, regardless of what happens tomorrow. Even if Twente triumph, this team will be broken up. Bryan Ruiz has plenty of suitors, Blaise Nkufo has already signed for Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders and Stoch will be heading back to the Premier League. He does not yet know whether he will be back at Chelsea or whether they will give him another year on loan at another English club. But he has time to worry about that. After the final whistle today, he'll have one thought on his mind: carrying Slovakia as far as they can go in the World Cup. Because, in the meantime, this season also marked his development into a key figure in Vladimir Weiss's national team, surprise qualifiers for South Africa 2010.

When he made his debut back in February 2009, he had yet to start a game at club level. But since then he has become a crucial foil for the Napoli player Marek Hamsik's runs from midfield and, this summer, will test himself against the best. And if he closes his eyes, he might just imagine himself recreating that Ronaldo goal on the biggest stage of them all. sports@thenational.ae NAC Breda v FC Twente, Aljazeera Sport + 6 & NEC Nijmegen v Ajax, Aljazeera Sport + 10, both at 4.30pm tomorrow