Nashat Akram: Talent deserves the Premiership stage

Did he choose too soon? Or had Premiership interest dried up?

Did he choose too soon? Or had Premiership interest dried up?

That's the question fans of Nashat Akram are now asking after the Iraq midfielder chose Al Ain over a potential move to England this month.

Only weeks earlier, Akram was upbeat about his chances of breaking ground for Iraqi footballers: "I have offers from the English Premier League�s Sunderland, Egypt�s Zamalek and two other clubs.

"Roy Keane was my favourite player, my hero. I watched him when I was young.

"He is the most special player and I would be delighted to join his team and learn from him."

The interest from Sunderland arrived before the Asia Cup, where Akram led Iraq to an emotional victory and emerged as the tournament's outstanding player.

While Premiership clubs have worked hard to extend their global scouting network into developing football nations, the Middle East appears untapped. Concerns persist over the quality of football and player that competed in last month's Asia Cup, but Akram's stunning performance against the Australians, which featured many long-time Premiership names, should have ended any doubts about his ability to cope with top-flight life in England.

As an audition, it was five-star. Akram, at an imposing 186cm, showed off an array of midfield weapons. The game's pace was played through him, it was he who would decide when to slow the tempo, or quicken it. He'd regularly find ways of passing through Australia's rearguard and his nimble feet would consistently prove too quick for tackles. It was a superb, complete midfield performance and the only mystery was why it wasn't enough to have Premiership representatives pushing contracts under his hotel door.

After his performance against Australia, speculation had Newcastle United boss Sam Allardyce joining Sunderland in their interest. But nothing came of it and as comparatively modest Australian talent was plucked from the A-League by Premiership and Championship clubs, it was clear that despite the quality, the experience and being just 22, Akram would have to pursue his career in Asia - for at least another season.

Not that he is complaining. Starting as a rookie in the Premiership would have meant a pay-cut for Akram, whose one-year deal with the UAE's Al Ain is said to be worth a cool US$1 million. His signing was a personal project for Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum - and how can you turn down someone who is the Prime Minister and vice-president of UAE - and ruler of Dubai?

For his part, Akram and his representatives are known to drive a hard-bargain. Soon after his move to Al Ain was confirmed, Egypt's Zamalek complained about his personal demands, while his release from Saudi Arabia's Al Shabab came amid contract wrangles.

Now armed with a bumper 12-month deal at Al Ain, at 22 Akram still has enough time to win a move to the Premiership. But he and his representatives may have to accept that getting a foot in the door is more important than any million pound contract.

But the cards may fall in Akram's favour over the next year. Allardyce took a chance on Iran international Andranik Teymourian at Bolton Wanderers last summer and more is expected from the midfielder this term. A strong showing from Teymourian will convince Premiership clubs to take more interest in the Middle Eastern game, where Akram is regarded as a genuine superstar.

Playing for Al Ain and having Sheikh Mohammed championing your cause is also sure to help. The Sheikh came close to taking over Liverpool last year and has also been paired with Arsenal. His Premiership links are strong and chairman won't need much convincing that taking a player of Akram's star profile will lift their club's name across the region.

And managers won't need much convincing either - if they're willing to widen their transfer net. It may mean having to trial, but the rewards for the player, Iraq and Middle Eastern football will be worth the dent to Akram's pride.

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