Bilyaletdinov: Part Of My Heart Will Always Be At Goodison Park

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov left his mark on Everton with a series of thunderbolt strikes after joining from Lokomotiv Moscow in August 2009. And, as the Russian explained in an interview with the Club's matchday programme last year, Everton made an enduring impression on on him, too. 

Diniyar Bilyaletdinov is a bubbly type, one of those who radiates optimism and warmth and is grateful for the hand life has dealt him.

Even so, as he surveys his future – from a professional perspective, at least – the former Everton winger’s words drift towards the melancholic.

“Now I’m 34 years old,” he says, “and it is time for me to think about what to do after my career. I cannot imagine myself outside football.”

Bilyaletdinov’s desire to wring every drop from his career was such that an offer to play for obscure Lithuanian team FK Trakai 18 months ago counted as an irresistible opportunity.

His “feud” with Rubin Kazan coupled with a serious muscle injury had condemned Bilyaletdinov to an inactive 12 months and driven him stir crazy.

“I had to do something, so I decided to leave Russia for another league,” he says.

“To see if I could adapt to another mindset.“

"A Russian coach, Oleg Vasilenko, invited me to Lithuania. I could not imagine they even had a league!

“Immediately I began to score.”

Bilyaletdinov has the statistics down pat.

“Thirty-three games,” he starts, “13 goals and seven assists.

“I loved it.”

Bilyaletdinov is steeped in football. Dad Rinat managed a handful of Russian clubs – he signed his son when boss of Rubin Kazan – after a playing career which included more than 100 games for Lokomotiv Moscow.

The pair’s manager-player relationship was brief but evoked memories of Bilyaletdinov’s formative years.

He enrolled in Moscow’s distinguished Chertanovo Sport and Education Centre aged five-and-a-half in summer 1990.

“My father was a dad and a coach in one person,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“I grew up in a football family and I don’t know how it can be otherwise.

“At the first opportunity, my father took me and my brother Marat outside and did extra work with us.

“My brother is one year older and I played with him in a team where I was younger than everyone, which helped speed up my development.

”Bilyaletdinov refers to his first appearance for Lokomotiv Moscow in March 2004 as his “debut in big football”.

“I managed to score a goal, to spend the whole match on the field,” he says of a 1-1 draw with fellow Moscow team Torpedo.

“Then it all started, the coach began to trust me, to bet on me in games more often.”

Modesty precludes Bilyaletdinov from reaching for a superlative beyond “successful” to sum up his debut campaign – Russia’s season operates from March to December – which ended with Lokomotiv winning the title by one point from bitter rivals CSKA Moscow.

A dyed-in-the-wool Lokomotiv boy, who joined the club’s school – which combines football and education – around the time of his 16th birthday early in 2001, the circumstances around Bilyaletdinov’s switch to Spartak Moscow following two-and-a-half years with Everton were, he concedes, “not easy”.

“Not all fans approved,” says Bilyaletdinov.“But that’s life, that’s football.”

Bilyaletdinov’s father was head of the Lokomotiv school when Diniyar signed up for the senior year.

Their Lokomotiv side finished runners-up to CSKA in the Moscow junior championship and the player was promoted to the club’s second team in very quick order.

Strong ties to Lokomotiv notwithstanding, Bilyaletdinov was crushed when his mooted transfer to Everton was torpedoed in January 2009.

“Everton wanted to take me for six months, then in the summer make the deal permanent,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“But my coach at Lokomotiv would not allow me to leave. To be honest, I thought my opportunity to play for Everton had gone.”

Everton were in a good spot, en route to an FA Cup final and top-five Premier League finish.

It made sense, then, that the Club was pursuing one of European football’s hottest talents.

Russia had upset the continent’s established order when they surgically dismantled Holland in a spellbinding 2008 European Championship quarter-final.

Bilyaletdinov was one of the chief support acts in a team headlined by Andrey Arshavin and Roman Pavlyuchenko.

“The whole team were heroes, especially after our victory over the Dutch,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“That is the most memorable football story for many people in Russia.

“Our coach, Guus Hiddink, advised everyone to move to England.

“Ultimately four of the team went to the Premier League: Arshavin, Pavlyuchenko, Yuri Zhirkov – and me. It was a great honour.”

Striker Pavlyuchenko was a Tottenham Hotspur player within three months of Russia losing their semi-final to eventual champions Spain.

The mercurial Arshavin joined Arsenal early in 2009 and Chelsea got Zhirkov through the door later that year.

For Bilyaletdinov, it was second time lucky when Everton revived their interest at the back end of the summer 2009 window.

“It really was a dream come true,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“To play for a club as big as Everton, in the Premier League? Amazing.

“I did not have an English visa, so I met Club officials in a hotel in Hamburg.

“The physical [medical] and the signing took a day, everything was quick and professional.

“After five days, I flew to Liverpool for a match with Wigan Athletic.”

Bilyaletdinov’s overriding memories of that game with Wigan, when he replaced Steven Pienaar 60 seconds before Leighton Baines struck a 90th-minute winner from the penalty spot, are of his “huge excitement before going on the field”, of his “warm welcome” from Evertonians.

And, above all, of walking wide-eyed into Goodison Park’s compact home dressing room for the first time.

“There wasn’t enough space,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“All the players were sitting very close to each other.

“I found a spot, then looked around. It was star left, star right. Everywhere stars.”

Bilyaletdinov pauses and laughs.

“It was a bit awkward.”

Bilyaletdinov has only two “bad memories” of his time on Merseyside.

He was sent off against Aston Villa two months after arriving – in a game when he also scored – and red carded again for a challenge on West Bromwich Albion’s James Morrison in May 2011.

“Being suspended and not able to play football was so frustrating,” says Bilyaletdinov.“In the Premier League, every match is gold.”

Bilyaletdinov owned a jackhammer of a left foot, completely at odds with his willowy frame. His clean-shaven features and neat trim masked the player’s forceful personality.

He was captain of Lokomotiv Moscow aged 22.

“Veterans of the team gradually left,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“Our results were average and the coach and president were both replaced.

“There was a vote to select the new captain and the players chose me.

"It was a difficult time, so to be entrusted with the captain’s armband when I was so young was a big deal.”

The shot which exploded off Bilyaletdinov’s left boot and motored like a tracer bullet past Manchester United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar claimed the Club’s 2009-10 Goal-of-the-Season honours.

Its nearest rival came in the form of an instinctive first-time 30-yarder from the same player, this one bent into the top corner against Portsmouth.

Bilyaletdinov treasures those individual moments but it is talk of the collective which really gets his juices flowing.

In addition to his blockbuster role in Everton’s February 2010 3-1 success against United, Bilyaletdinov featured in victories over Chelsea, Manchester City and – in October 2010 – Liverpool.

“We had some brilliant matches against the big teams,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“And most importantly, we beat them.

"We knew it was hard for any side to face us at Goodison Park.

“Playing in the Merseyside derby was an unforgettable experience.

“It is a great derby with so much history. The match is an important part of the life of the city and the league.

“It meant so much to the supporters and winning that game was a wonderful feeling.”

Bilyaletdinov was primarily employed wide on the left by David Moyes.

He revisits those goalscoring figures at his most recent club and laughs.

“I was playing in the attack,” he exclaims of his time in Lithuania, knowing his point will be understood.

Bilyaletdinov’s respect for his old Everton manager Moyes nevertheless survived any frustration at not getting a run up front.

“I am very proud to have worked under David Moyes’ leadership,” he says.

“I liked working with him. He was a very emotional and active person who gave himself completely to football.”

Bilyaletdinov left for Spartak in January 2012 after nine goals in 77 Everton appearances, 48 of them starts.

Unai Emery, most recently in charge at Arsenal, was subsequently appointed Spartak boss but lasted only six months before being fired and embarking on a decorated spell with Sevilla.

“Emery was a great coach,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“He really wanted us to play in a Spanish style, it was good football but we needed time to adapt.

"Unfortunately, it did not turn out as we hoped.”

Spartak, by Bilyaletdinov’s reckoning, are “the biggest club in Russia”.

Accordingly, the capital team provided the player’s first taste of Champions League group-stage football, Spartak drawn with former European champion trio Barcelona, Benfica and Celtic in the 2012-13 competition.

He emphatically enunciates the name of each club. “Can you imagine?” says Bilyaletdinov.

European football provided a canvas for the player to illustrate his talents weeks after landing in England.

The forward created three of Everton’s four goals in a Europa League drubbing of AEK Athens.

“There was no stopping us,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“It was a good game and a beautiful victory.

“I managed to make three assists and it was a very significant match for me.

"I had to justify the trust of the coach and the fans.

“To show I could contribute so early in my Everton career was very important.”

Bilyaletdinov’s two boys, seven-year-old Timur and Marsel, who is five, are both in the academy at CSKA Moscow.

They also share a burgeoning passion for Everton, inherited from their father, who retains enormous affection for the Club.

So much so, he was back in town for the Anfield derby last season.

“I went in with the Evertonians,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“I wanted to feel the atmosphere and it was fantastic.

"I was out taking pictures and the fans remembered me, which gave me a very good feeling.

“My future wife Maria came with me to live in Liverpool. Our relatives and friends would come to visit and arrange tours of the city.

“They all loved Goodison Park, especially. Also the city centre and Beatles Museum.”

Bilyaletdinov had loan spells with Anzhi Makhachkala and Torpedo Moscow before being signed by dad Rinat at Rubin Kazan in summer 2015.

In an echo of Emery’s abortive Spartak Moscow tenure, Rinat was removed from his position shortly after buying his son.

“For the first time since childhood, I had the opportunity to work under the guidance of my father,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“Not everything turned out as we wanted. But it was certainly a great experience and a great responsibility!

“When the new management came, it wasn’t the best of times for me. The feud started – and then I had the injury and needed surgery.”

Enthusiasm for football in Russia was rekindled, says Bilyaletdinov, by the national team’s exploits in reaching the quarter-finals at their home World Cup in 2018.

“We have new heroes now and everyone began to respect Russian football again,” he says.

“There is a huge love in the country for our national team.”

Bilyaletdinov’s love for the game is enduring. Whatever it has in store for him next, he will continue to hold Everton close.

“I have great memories and had brilliant experiences at Everton,” says Bilyaletdinov.

“I will always follow the Club and part of my heart will always be at Goodison Park.

“I am proud to say I was part of a club as great as Everton.”