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Football: DIDIER'S SPINE CHILLER; Celtic star feared back injury could ruin career.

Byline: HUGH KEEVINS

CELTIC V AJAX

BBC1, Wednesday 7.45pm

DIDIER AGATHE revealed last night that he feared a spinal injury would wreck his career.

That's why the bargain buy from Hibs regards Celtic's clash against Ajax on Wednesday as the biggest night of his life.

He is only too aware that instead of playing in front of 60,000 fans for the prize of a Champions League place he could have been invalided out and left to regret what might have been.

Agathe's time in Scotland has seen him rocket from Raith Rovers to a new five-year contract at Parkhead.

Only the Hibs fans he left behind after a short stay at Easter Road resent his success and Didier remains shocked by the treatment he gets from the Edinburgh club's supporters.

But his close brush with premature retirement has left him a master of positive thinking. And with the help of a Thai therapist trained by monks Agathe has never felt stronger, mentally or physically.

Didier scored the second goal in the 3-1 first-leg win at the Amsterdam Arena and it was a million miles removed from his darkest days.

He said: "When I was at Montpellier in France I picked up a muscle injury resulting from spinal damage.

"The Champions League was far from my mind then. At one stage I was close to going home to my family on the Indian Ocean island of La Reunion because I couldn't find a club.

"Then one day I went into a sports shop and bought a ball so I could run about on my own. I proved to myself it was still possible for me to play.

"I had a kick-about every day for three weeks and refound my confidence. Then I got the chance to go on trial with Raith and my life changed.

"I appreciate everything that's happened in Scotland because I know how close I was to losing my career.

"Now I visit my therapist Ken Anderson two days before every game and he takes me through a series of special stretching exercises he picked up from monks in Thailand.

"In my heart I knew I'd move on from Rovers but I didn't think it would be to a club as big as Celtic."

Hibs' mistake was to fix up Agathe on a short-term contract to cover what was effectively a three-month trial period to see if he could hack it in the SPL.

Celtic boss Martin O'Neill's good fortune was that Didier became a free agent at the end of it.

Agathe said: "When I go back to Edinburgh some people ask me to return to Hibs. But that would be a backward step for me now.

"I did my best for Hibs and it's not my fault that I was only signed on a short-term contract.

"Now I feel attached emotionally to Celtic and the club's supporters. They have changed my life and affected my family in La Reunion.

"When I went home in the summer I was constantly asked for my autograph because the newspaper there writes articles about my progress at the club.

"Now I'm looking forward to the papers reporting on the biggest experience of my life.

"I want to beat Ajax because my dream is for my family to come on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to see me play in the Champions League."

But boss O'Neill knows how sweet dreams can become nightmares.

The Parkhead gaffer is well aware of how defeat can become an aggregate win in the away leg - because he's done it himself.

Nottingham Forest beat Dynamo Berlin 3-2 on aggregate in the quarter-finals on their way to lifting the European Cup in 1980.

Yet they had lost the first leg at home against the tricky Germans.

So O'Neill is first to stamp on any euphoria among fans who assume the job against Ajax was started and finished in Amsterdam. The Irishman said: "The mood in the dressing-room is that the tie is not yet over.

"We startled the Dutch by the way we started against them on their own ground. That is the way they will approach the second leg.

"Ajax will go at us from the kick-off which will be unusual for a team coming to Celtic Park.

"But that will give us room and, anyway, sitting back isn't in our nature.

"We are capable of scoring against them in front of our own fans."

The Dutch domestic season begins today and Ajax have a home game against Rhoda which will be watched by a Celtic representative.

O'Neill takes no encouragement from the fact that Ajax will have played more European matches than league games by Wednesday night.

He added: "You can gain confidence from friendlies against Liverpool and AC Milan. And they won't be found wanting when it comes to fitness."

Meanwhile, O'Neill has called for a worldwide review of "meaningless" international friendlies after losing Bobby Petta for the Ajax clash. Petta was injured in training with his Holland side before the Dutch beat England in midweek.

The Football Association has had to pay West Ham pounds 1million compensation after keeper David James was injured in the same game and will now miss the rest of the Premiership season.

Celtic will ask the Dutch authorities for a payment to cover the loss of Petta, who is expected to spend up to six weeks on the sidelines, but O'Neill wants long-term action to reduce the risk of needless accidents.

He said: "Craig Brown deserves credit for not taking on an unimportantant match for Scotland on Wednesday when SPL clubs are involved in European ties.

"If the national associations had to pay the wages of the players injured when with their country then I think we'd see fewer friendlies.

"I can't stop players from going on international duty and injuries are a hazard of the job for managers.

"But we've lost an important player at a precarious time because of a game that wasn't important enough.

"I have to think about compensation. I'm not sure of the rules but we will be looking into it."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Sunday Mail (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 19, 2001
Words:1018
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