Sunday, September 03, 2017

Darius Vassell on his time in Turkey and at Ankaragucu!

The Guardian today printed an extract from former Ankaragucu star Darius Vassell's new book "The Road to Persia" which has just recently gone on sale.

I didn’t want to become a journeyman footballer. Aston Villa was the only club I’d ever wanted to play for and I’d grown to love Manchester City, but I just didn’t want to go through all of that again in England; I wanted something new, something completely different. I knew that there was nothing right for me in England and I told my agent that a move abroad was the only option. I was capable of living abroad, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture, so I felt like it was a great opportunity. I had been learning French and I wanted to play there, but we just weren’t able to find the right club. My agent came to me with the option of joining a club in Turkey. He said that a Super Lig club called Ankaraspor were interested in me. I asked if he was sure it was them and he corrected himself and said it was actually Ankaragucu who wanted me. They were even more obscure! ‘I had my whole body tested, my eyes, even my hair was inspected.’ FacebookTwitterPinterest ‘I had my whole body tested, my eyes, even my hair was inspected.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Their club website didn’t seem to be official and I felt I must have been looking at the wrong page, but no matter how much I searched for something else, it was their site all right. I got my head around everything and decided it was worth flying out to meet them and take a look. I travelled on 1 July, 2009, but I simply wasn’t ready for the welcome I received at Ankara Esenboga Airport. There were thousands of supporters there to greet me, with flags, shirts and they made such a noise; I was totally taken aback, I’d never experienced anything like this before. There were people holding up welcome banners, flares were set off and every television camera available seemed to be pointed at me. I must have looked like a rabbit in headlights when I walked out of the airport doors and into the madness. People were bouncing up and down, chanting: “Dar-ee-us Varr-sell, Dar-ee-us Varr-sell, Olé, Olé, Olé!” As I made my way through the crowds, I was given a club scarf to wear and then another couple of scarves and a shirt was draped over me. A young woman handed me a blue and yellow bouquet of flowers, the club’s colours, and it soon became a real scrum to get to the waiting cars, with people pushing their way through to get close to me. It was the kind of reception you would have expected for a world leader, someone like Nelson Mandela, or a rock star, not an English footballer visiting a Turkish football club. We eventually made it to the sanctuary of our cars, although many fans then jumped into their cars and followed us out of the airport. I said to the agents this unbelievable reaction seemed very strange to me. I reminded my agent that I wasn’t signing, I was just there to look at the club. My agent and I had an honest conversation and we both spoke along the same lines about trying to make this work. I returned to Ankara to sign the agreement on 21 July and then there was the most thorough of medical tests I’ve ever been through. I had my whole body tested, my eyes, even my hair was inspected. I knew my signing was big for them, but it really hit home at this point how serious this was for them. Put it this way, I felt like I was in a film being prepped to go to space. The Recap: sign up for the best of the Guardian's sport coverage Read more This was a chance for a fresh start for me and a chance to grow up again. Unfortunately, there was no real time to settle. I had to fly to Austria for the club’s pre-season training camp. At my first dinner with my new team-mates, I was immediately made to feel comfortable by Barbaros, a midfielder who could speak English and had come through the ranks at Bayern Munich. I noticed that no one could eat until the captain arrived, and no one could leave the table until the captain said so. There was huge importance placed on respect and I loved that. I shook everyone’s hand and I was nervous of the reaction I would receive. We went to sleep and the next day was the first training session for me. That day, after dinner in the evening we all went to a little bar at the camp with some music on. Our coach, Hikmet Karaman, was there with us, too. Obviously there was no alcohol given the culture and religions, but everyone was up dancing to Turkish music and then suddenly I can hear the group clapping together to the beat of the music, and one by one people are going into the middle and dancing. I could see it coming round to me, exactly the kind of attention that I didn’t want. I was dreading it. Shit, shit, shit! I just took a deep breath and jumped in, danced and suddenly they all welcomed me and were patting me on the back. I was one of them now. Hikmet was quite a thinker and I felt as if he’d set this up as a small test and was watching for my reaction. He needed me to show I was comfortable as there was pressure on him as he was responsible for bringing me to the club. I hated that feeling of having eyes on me, but it was something I’d had to get used to over the years. Hikmet got that awkwardness out of the way in the space of a few minutes and I thank him here for that. Darius Vassel in action against Aydin Toscali of Kayserispor. FacebookTwitterPinterest Darius Vassell in action against Aydin Toscali of Kayserispor. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images The next day the trainer had given me a bike to ride, but it had brakes on the opposite sides. I didn’t release until I was forced to emergency brake going downhill on a mountain; I went flying over the handlebars and into the bushes. The trainer was mortified. He had a look like ‘how am I going to explain this?’ It was just the two of us sent to do some light fitness work in the mountains, while the rest of the team trained at the stadium. He certainly didn’t want to be the man responsible for my absence through injury after the almighty effort it had taken to get me signed, and I hadn’t even kicked a ball yet. Luckily, I was fine. I brushed the bushes out of my hair and carried on with a lot of caution. In the meantime, we started to sense an ongoing vibe around the club, something was happening behind the scenes. Schedules would change last minute and staff members and players started to appear aggravated. There were electricity cuts, players leaving suddenly with no explanations and stories of supporter group unrest. The toilet in the dressing rooms was just a hole in the ground, and I was concerned that I might fall in For example, on one occasion early in my time there, I was told that after we had finished training, the bus would drop me into town and I would be picked up by a driver to take me home, but no driver came and I rang Volkan Demir and he confirmed no one was scheduled to pick me up. Staff had gone home by then and the team bus had already left and I was stranded, sweating, with nothing but my boots slung over my shoulder and my mobile phone in my bag. The training facility was locked up so I was outside in the middle of town totally alone but fully kitted out. I contacted my agent and explained what was going on and that nothing had been organised contract-wise yet. I was supposed to have a driver “at all times” and they said I would always have someone with me until I knew my way around. I was quite agitated, tired from training too and I was taking it out on my agent I guess. He got back to me and was clearly frustrated as he remembered that the club assured us what wouldn’t happen just as much as what would. My agent said that I should expect teething problems and he couldn’t do much given that he was in the UK at the time. I was so angry by now and that was my last interaction with my agent. It was clear my agent could do nothing, if he could then I’m sure that he would have already. I was months into my contract and they hadn’t yet arranged a thing. The fact we spent hours negotiating seemed to hold no importance. My agent emailed me many months later to apologise for how things ended up in Turkey, but I had no response. I was still trying to work through it all at the time. After that initial response from my agent I knew I was on my own in Ankara. I made my debut for the club on 8 August as a substitute against Diyarbakirspor in a 2-2 away draw. I can’t remember much from the game, but I can remember a lot from the place and the atmosphere. Barbaros had warned me that Diyarbakir was a very different place. It is on the south-east side of the country towards Syria and Iraq. It was culturally far removed from Ankara, with the city and stadium both very old too. I had a stomach ache all that day and let’s just say that when I needed to go to the toilet in the dressing rooms it was just a hole in the ground, and I was concerned that I might fall in. There was no flush or anything. It was another world, but one I had to get used to. The last thing I wanted to do was to complain about Turkey as this was now my home. On a previous visit, the Ankaragucu players were warned by locals at their hotel door that there would be trouble if they won; they had even had bottles of piss thrown at them when they’d come out on to the pitch, but Barbaros had just told me to ignore any intimidation. I was a little nervous and wary of it all, to say the least. Darius Vassell celebrates scoring against Manisaspor. FacebookTwitterPinterest Darius Vassell celebrates scoring against Manisaspor. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images If I thought that was different, it was nothing compared to a home game later in the season. We travelled to the ground on the team coach and stopped outside our stadium for a goat to be sacrificed before the game. It was just the staff and players around. I felt like the goat looked at me just before and as I’d said at the time, via my blog, it was the point in time when I realised that I was most definitely an animal lover. I know I’m being dramatic but I’ve seen a lot from the seat of a coach during the years but this was certainly new. Some players then smeared the blood on their boots and head for good luck. I didn’t want to disrespect them at all, as it was part of their culture so I just watched. I wasn’t asked to join in but the players made sure I was OK after, which was very respectful and not needed. They had no idea my family back home in Jamaica would find this quite normal too. I changed iPod album from Tupac to Bob Marley, and got myself ready. My second game for the club, and my home debut, was against Manisaspor a week later, where I managed to grab a last-minute equaliser to seal a 1-1 draw. I’d realised by this stage that we were a decent side, but not good enough to be in the top six, so every game was going to be difficult. A week later and I was at it again, scoring my second goal for the club in a 2-2 home draw against Istanbul Basaksehir. That was three draws in three games and I’d scored twice. Barbaros was telling everyone who would listen that I was going to be the top scorer and there was a real buzz in the dressing room about the impact I’d had, not just by scoring but by work rate also. I was labelled the “Black Bull” by supporter groups and my confidence was sky high. Despite that, we didn’t win our first game until 26th September, 3-1 away at Gaziantepspor, so we were nearly two months without that win. That month, Volkan was sacked from his role at the club, which was one of many warning signs that things weren’t right at Ankaragucu. Hikmet was under huge pressure from the club to finish in the top eight and the less-than-impressive start didn’t help with the mood, so he knew he wouldn’t last the season with the uncertainty above him and changes at ownership and management level off the field. He was sacked on 12 November. I was staying at the Crowne Plaza at the time and just a day after Hikmet was fired I was sat in my room, when I received a call from the hotel manager. He was a nice guy and he had looked after me well during my stay, always trying to help if I needed anything. The tone of this call was different though. He spoke English well and was suddenly very blunt and explained that I had to leave the hotel by the end of the day. It was around 7pm, and he informed me that he’d met with the club and said that I needed to speak to them about the situation. I was thinking, “surely the club should come to me and tell me what’s going on? I mean, it’s the evening and I’m being kicked out of my hotel.” It just didn’t make any sense. I should have been given some notice or something. I didn’t know who to ring at the club as there were new people in charge and I didn’t feel comfortable with it all, so I rang the team secretary, Osman, who had heard about it already. He told me not to worry and said he would come to the hotel and speak with me. When he arrived, he turned to me and said, “It’s starting now,” a reference to everything he had been telling me over the previous weeks about changes in management and the structure of the club. He felt that they were trying to create an issue for me and portray me in a bad light. I loved my off the field time in the country and the people were fantastic to me They needed the hardcore supporters on their side not mine. Representatives of the club’s new regime were apparently spreading rumours about me having an active nightlife, with people in my room and wild late-night parties. My problem with this is that the hotel was the best judge of this surely? The new regime had also tried to influence Hikmet in this way. He knew it was rubbish. All this just to get rid of me? Osman turned to me and said to let me make a call. I was packing frantically and getting everything together. He was trying to find another hotel for me to stay in, and he knew someone at the Rixos Grand Hotel in Ankara. I managed to haul all my possessions down to the lobby, where I was greeted by reporters and photographers. I thought to myself, “how do they know I’m being evicted already?” Someone had leaked this story to them. It got to the stage where if we didn’t win, score or draw a game, the staff wouldn’t get anything and it felt good to be a part of rectifying that. It kept the team closer through times like when our team bus got repossessed or whenever the power was cut. At meal times before and after training the staff would fill our dinner plates. I was growing closer to my team in the background of everything and slowly our frustrations would be shared and their English response was, “this is Ankaragucu, it’s normal.” We all laughed together. They really were so humble. The next thing I knew we had a new manager, Roger Lemerre, who had won Euro 2000 with France, and we were signing the likes of Geremi, who had played for Real Madrid and Chelsea, and Jérôme Rothen who came in on loan from Paris Saint-Germain. Robert Vittek, an international striker from Slovakia, was promptly signed too. I scored my final goal for the club away to Gençlerbirligi in a 1-0 win on 28th February 2010. It was such a release for me. I was in bits and all my emotions came out. I had to fight back the tears, and it took me five minutes or so to compose myself. It may have seemed strange for me to cry after something so joyous as scoring, but scoring was what I wanted to do every week for them. All of those meetings at the notary that took hours to process, all the missed payments, the travelling back and forth from England, the sackings and sad faces, the accusations, the disappointments and above all the loneliness; it all came out and the tears streamed down my face. I can picture this day like it was yesterday, and it was so symbolic of a lot of my time in Ankara. Football shouldn’t feel like this. I really didn’t like it. A warm welcome for Darius Vassell at Ankaragucu FacebookTwitterPinterest Darius Vassell arrives at Ankaragucu. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images My last appearance for the club was in the final home game of the season, a 3-0 defeat to Fenerbahce on 9 May. Looking back on the season, there were some very talented players in Turkey, such as Harry Kewell, Milan Baros, Elano and Roberto Carlos, so the standard was good. There were some amazing Turkish players such as Alper Potuk, Canir Erkin, Arda Turan, Emre and our very own Ceyhun Eris and I felt like I could do well in Turkish football. I loved my off-the-field time in the country though, experiencing the great food, like mouth-watering kebabs and lovely fresh fish and wine, and the people were fantastic to me. I had to leave the money on the table to pay, as they didn’t want to take it. They couldn’t have been more welcoming. I often spent meal times with supporters or my lawyer Cem Papila, Volkan or Osman. It was great to see the look on supporters’ faces when we arranged to meet up and enjoy the fine food Ankara had to offer. Darius Vassell: the blogging footballer Read more I had Turkish cutthroat shaves, that rivalled those of my English barbers, George and Theo. I received gifts from supporters, got to know hotel staff by their first name, learned a little about Ataturk and slowly started to familiarise myself with roads and shortcuts to some tranquil places to dine out. Even when I returned to Ankara in 2015, people stopped me in the street and would recognise me, shake my hand and make me feel like I was returning home. Who knows, if things had worked out differently, perhaps I would have stayed there? The Road to Persia, by Darius Vassell, written with co-author Dean Eldredge, was self-published by Darius’s company Inama Enterprise Ltd andis available to purchase here priced at £15 plus p&p


  1. Fantastic story from Darius of his time here in Ankara. Of course, not all plain sailing, but these were difficult days for the Club and especially the foreign players. However, Darius knows that he will always be made welcome back here and i hope he continues to read our Blog and hopefully contribute from time to time.

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