WHEN Manchester United’s latest recruit, Henrikh Mkhitaryan came off the bench in the UEFA Champions League qualifier against Derry City almost a decade ago, Barry Molloy was convinced the skilful playmaker was destined for the top!
The 27 year-old Armenian international who netted 23 goals in 52 games from an attacking midfield role in the Bundesliga with Dortmund last year, is tipped to be one of the shrewdest buys of the summer transfer window as he’s set to complete his £26 million move to Old Trafford this week and join Jose Mourinho’s revolution.
And former Derry City midfielder, Molloy, who remembers the Armenian international from that two legged first round tie in July 2007, isn’t surprised he’s developed into one of Europe’s biggest prospects.
Mkhitaryan, playing for his first senior club FC Pyunik Yerevan, came on as a substitute at Brandywell for the final 30 minutes as Derry held the Armenians to a scoreless draw.
And he was one of the creative sparks in the second leg as the searing heat and poor conditions at the Hanrapetakan Stadium proved too much for the ‘Candy Stripes’ as they lost 2-0 on aggregate.
While there were several Pyunik players who stood out during those Champions League ties, Molloy remembers signalling Mkhitaryan out as being destined for bigger things.
“I played against him when he was at Pyunik,” recalled Molloy, who now plys his trade at Finn Harps. “I remember him well from the game out there in Armenia. You could tell back then he was going to be a good player.
“We didn’t really know too much about him beforehand but I remember when he came on he was very good. He then got the move to Shakhtar Donetsk from there but we did well to keep him quiet on the night.
“He’s obviously done very well since then, going to Dortmund where he was excellent and now he’s going to United,” added the former Derry and Crusaders man. “He’s already had a great career but that’s going to go to another level now he’s at Man United.
“I think he came off the bench at the Brandywell in the first leg as well. We did really well in that game, it finished 0-0 and they were lucky because we had a great chance and didn’t take it.”
I remember him well from the game out there in Armenia. You could tell back then he was going to be a good player.Barry Molloy
Mkhitaryan wasn’t the only Pyunik player in July 2007 with a bright future as goalscorer in the second leg, Gevorg Ghazaryan went on to play for Olympiacos in Greece while right back, Sargis Hovsepyan had an excellent game and was the long time captain of the Armenian national team. In total there were SEVEN internationals in the squad and while it was a step too far for then City boss, John Robertson’s men, it proved a memorable experience.
“They were all very good players. I remember there were seven internationals and Mkhitaryan was one of them. He was probably head and shoulders above the rest of the boys and you could tell he was a different class.
“Now he’s made the move to Man United I suppose it’s a good thing for Derry City and the players that played against him in those games.
“It was a horrendous night out there in Armenia,” continued Molloy. “We were warming up and it was 40 degrees and the boys were drained even before we got started.
“The pitch wasn’t in great condition either which worked into their hands because we tired very easily and they were a better team on the day.
“It was a great experience playing in the Champions League but it was one of those times when we were just glad to get back to Ireland.
“At the Brandywell it was a good game and we were unlucky not to take a 1-0 lead over there. But in Armenia it was a different story altogether and they used the conditions to their advantage. They moved the ball very fast and we couldn’t get near them.
“I remember Ken Oman had a great game but a lot of the other boys just couldn’t get to grips with the conditions and they were too good.
Obviously playing against boys like Mkhitaryan and a few other internationals was going to be tough. I remember their right back was top drawer as well so it was a tough ask. But it just shows you the calibre of player we played against with Mkhitaryan going on to play for Dortmund and United.”