Rais M'Bolhi: The former Hearts goalkeeper aiming for third World Cup, Manchester United trial and Craig Gordon praise

Name the 11 January window signings made by Hearts in the 2005/06 season? It is one of the great pub-quiz questions for supporters of the Tynecastle Park side.

Rais M'Bolhi was goalkeeper of the tournament as Algeria won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
Rais M'Bolhi was goalkeeper of the tournament as Algeria won the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)

Bruno Aguiar, Jose Goncalves, Mirsad Beslija and Juho Makela. Then Martin Petras, Neil McCann and Lee Johnson. It begins to get a bit trickier. Chris Hackett and Ludek Straceny. Surely there was an addition from Lithuania? Nerijus Barasa. That’s ten.

The 11th? He didn’t play a single minute for Hearts. In fact, his most memorable involvement was being sent off in a Reserve League game against Celtic in April 2006.

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A goalkeeper who would go on to win the Africa Cup of Nations and represent Algeria in two World Cups.

Rais M'Bolhi was sent off in a reserve game against v Celtic. Picture: SNS

Adi Raïs Cobos Adrien Ouahab M'Bolhi. Or simply, Raïs M'Bolhi.

At 35, he is still Algeria’s No.1, still a key player alongside Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez.

International distinction

Last week, he was between the sticks for the country’s 8-0 win over Djibouti in a World Cup qualifier.

With Craig Gordon set to win his 60th cap for Scotland against Austria on Tuesday night as the national team aim to reach their first World Cup since 1998, the same night will see M’Bolhi hit the 80-cap mark against Burkina Faso as he aims to feature in his third World Cup.

When the pair were diving around at Riccarton with Steve Banks all those years ago, if there was any suggestion that there were 140 international caps worth amongst the goalkeepers the expectation would be that Gordon surpassed Kenny Dalglish’s 102 Scotland record.

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M’Bolhi had signed a six-month deal with an option for a further four years after impressing on trial alongside fellow trialist Jose Goncalves.

With reported interest from Metz and Sochaux in France and Greek giants Panathinaikos and AEK Athens, his agent Alex McLaughlin labelled him as “one of the most highly-rated young keepers in France”, arriving from Marseille.

"He's one for the future and not likely to put any immediate pressure on Craig Gordon and Steve Banks yet," then assistant coach John McGlynn told BBC Scotland.

‘Great potential’

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Understandably, having not featured for the first team, he didn't leave a lasting impact on the vast majority of fans. Or Robbie Neilson.

“I am told that was the time there was a bunch of guys brought in during the January transfer window," the current Hearts boss said in 2014. “I don’t remember seeing or speaking to him.

“I could never have told you then that he was going to be a keeper of repute."

Craig Gordon, however, trained with him day in, day out for around six months. He saw first-hand that there was something there, that there was a method to his addition as part of that mass arrival in January.

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"He came in as a relative unknown," the Hearts No.1 told the Evening News. “He had great potential, he would make some amazing saves. He had an incredible spring and athleticism.

“He was here at a strange time when there were so many players and a lot going on. He was quite quiet, didn’t say much, maybe didn’t have the grasp of the language back then but he was very good in the group, trained really well and it’s great to see him go on and do as well as he did.

"He was still very young when he came here, still developing as a goalkeeper.”

Nomadic career but no Lithuania move

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M’Bolhi left after a period of uncertainty in the summer of 2006. Despite discussions over an extended deal, the goalkeeper didn’t want to go on loan to FBK Kaunas, one of the clubs in Vladimir Romanov’s stable at the time.

"They felt they were well covered with Craig Gordon and Steve Banks and thought Rais would benefit from playing first-team football in Lithuania,” his agent said at the time.

"I discussed the situation with Rais and he made it clear he had absolutely no intention of heading to Kaunas.

"Rais is ready to play first-team football and has now decided that his best option is to leave Hearts and to seek a new challenge elsewhere."

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Challenges followed in Greece, Japan, Bulgaria, Russia, back to Bulgaria, France, Bulgaria once more, the US, Turkey, France again and Saudi Arabia where he currently plays for Al Ettifaq.

He's been down to the Greek third tier and Japanese fourth division, he’s had a trial at Manchester United and scaled the heights of World Cups and continental success. He not just existed at that level but thrived.

Algerian powers

The Algeria shirt acting as some sort of elixir. Giving him extra powers. He becomes bigger and better.

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He was the hero in a penalty shootout win over Ivory Coast in the quarter-final 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. The Desert Foxes won the tournament, conceding just two goals in seven games, as the M’Bolhi was named goalkeeper of the tournament.

He starred at the 2010 World Cup against USA and kept a clean sheet against England before putting in a fine performance against Germany four years later in a 2-1 extra-time defeat, with both Thomas Mueller and Philip Lahm both left with their hands on their head after being denied by brilliant goalkeeping.

“It’s the international stage where’s probably been most well known, playing World Cups,” Gordon said. “He’s done better than most of us in that regard.

"He is a very competent goalkeeper. As the years went on he really grew into it and I remember him having great games in the World Cup, playing against England.

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"He’s done really, really well on the international scene.”

Fifteen years after leaving Hearts, it’s a scene where he still thrives, still belongs and in a year’s time, don’t be surprised to see one goalkeeper connected with Hearts at the World Cup in Qatar.

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