From KGB and livestock to fillet steak ...

Neill Rimmer (right) in his playing days linking up with Roberto Martinez (on the ball)
Neill Rimmer (right) in his playing days linking up with Roberto Martinez (on the ball)

WHEN Latics legend Neill Rimmer arrived in Kazan yesterday in his role as club ambassador, he could have been forgiven for reflecting on just how far his old club have come since he wore the captain’s armband.

The chartered flight carrying the FA Cup holders arrived in Russia for tomorrow’s Europa League clash with Rubin Kazan was a far cry from the pre-season visit to Russia that Rimmer and Latics made some 23 years ago.

Arranged through the contacts of then-boss Bryan Hamilton, Latics flew in for a week-long tour that it’s safe to say will never be forgotten by any of the Wigan delegation.

“For us to go anywhere at that time was amazing – we’d be lucky to go to Ainsdale at the time,” Rimmer told the Evening Post.

“It came totally out of the blue and it was the chance of a lifetime for us – one we’d never forget. When we got there it took us ages to get through the airport – they were checking everything, and there were troops following us everywhere.

“It was quite intimidating to be honest. When we cleared customs we were met by a group of KGB guys.

“And I mean proper, big guys, like you’d see in Red Heat with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“The KGB stayed with us until the end, and by that time we were getting on really well – but it was daunting to begin with.”

After a tiring flight, the nightmare had only just begun.

“We then got on an overnight train that was about 10 hours – it just went on and on and on,” Rimmer continued.

“There was livestock with us on this train – it was incredible.

“We were given a brown paper bag each at meal times, and when we opened it to see what was inside the stench was just horrendous.

“It was terrible, just awful. But that was what we ate until we got to Brest, which is where we played. Our preparation was so bad, we just didn’t see the ball in the game, we were running around like idiots.

“The second game we were there was even worse. We hadn’t slept, we hadn’t eaten and it showed.”

It’s a far cry from the scene in the plush lounge at Kazan’s magnifient Hotel Shalyapin, where Rimmer has just hosted a welcome reception for the assembled guests and dignitaries that have accompanied Latics for their historic trip.

The ex-Latics skipper pauses to read a text message - which reminds him of another change in circumstances from his previous trip.

“Communications went down at one point, and nobody was able to contact anyone back home for a while. It’s not like now when you can call or text. There was none of that, and I believe it was in the papers that we had gone missing!”

“Where are Wigan Athletic?” was the headline, which of course we knew nothing about. When we got home everyone was so pleased to see us, and we didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

“We were only there a week, but it was an amazing journey – and unforgettable at the same time.

“It just shows how far the club has come in such a short space of time.

“We’re here again, with Wigan Athletic, but the experience is so different.

“It’s no different coming to Russia now than it would be to go to any big city in any major European country.

“We’re here as sporting guests and equals, which at one point would have been unthinkable.

“It’s an amazing country - the people are so welcoming, there’s so much to see and it’s great to be back.”