He may have failed to make a career in his native north London, but the Arsenal reject is riding high in the land of his forefathers, writes Gavin Willacy
Like many a mid-ranking European club who hope to snatch a UEFA Cup place come spring, Turkey’s Denizlispor have pinned their hopes on a combination of local talent and a handful of obscure foreigners, including a Slovakian defender, Czech, Finnish and South African midfielders, and a German striker – none of whom you will have heard of. And only the most ardent Arsenal fans will remember the English guy playing up front. After all, Omer Riza played only once for Arsenal – a few minutes as a sub for a second-string Gunners side in a League Cup win at Derby six years ago. Among his team-mates that night were current internationals Freddie Ljungberg, Alex Manninger and Matthew Upson, while a very young Ashley Cole was left on the bench.
From then on it was downhill. In 1999, Arsène Wenger sent Riza out to Holland on loan to Den Haag. In December that year, Riza was allowed to leave Highbury to sign for West Ham. Surely this was a better Premiership opportunity for the boy from Edmonton? Not so. Another year of reserve-team football passed before Riza, then approaching 21, was allowed to spend three months on loan at Third Division Barnet. It was clear he was not going to make it in the big time. Or so it seemed.
Cambridge asked to take him on loan next and the short trip up the A10 from home brought its rewards: two months of regular first-team football at the tail end of the season. But, come the summer and John Beck’s bizarre resurrection from selling chicken burgers at rock festivals to becoming Cambridge manager again, Riza, not surprisingly, was sent back to the second string at West Ham. Another year drifted by until his Hammers contract mercifully ended. He would have to do without the Premiership money but at 22 and with the same number of English League games under his belt, it was now or never for Riza.
A prolific pre-season on trial back at Cambridge saw the Us snap him up on a one-season deal. This was his final chance to show that the gifted, skilful attacking midfielder could hack it in the lower reaches of the Football League. It was the turning point of his career. Able to play up front or out wide, Riza was involved in almost every game, scoring a dozen goals in a season that made him as a professional footballer. He was hardly a household name – in fact, most of north London’s huge Turkish community would have had no idea who he was – but Riza had salvaged his career.
Not at the Abbey Stadium, however – he was released at the end of his one-year deal. Riza’s dad and agent, Josh, then started to tout him around Turkish clubs, knowing his son had talent and now had a track record to prove it. His speed and skill had caused damage in Division Three, but his slight physique was not best suited to the rigours of the English game. Offered a trial by Denizlispor, he convinced them he was worth a two-year contract. This was a club that had just finished mid-table in Turkey’s top flight and reached the fourth round of the UEFA Cup, only to lose to eventual winners Porto. It was the equivalent of joining Middlesbrough or Aston Villa. Meanwhile, West Ham, the club who rejected him, were preparing for life in the Football League.
Riza had a fine first season in Turkey, adapting to the style of play and finding he could express his talent much better in a style based on accurate passing and quick counter-attacks. Now a regular in Denizli’s green and black, he started this season in fine style, scoring in the first three games, including against Besiktas at the Ataturk Stadium.
At time of writing, Denizlispor are fourth in the table, nicely placed behind the mighty trio of European veterans Fenerbahce, Trabzonspor and Galatasaray. Riza is having to get used to life as a minor celebrity in Denizli, but the only English newspaper he has been in lately is the East Herts Herald, presenting prizes at his old school. Riza could yet become the symbol of London Turkish pride in the heart of the Turkey national team that Muzzy Izzet threatened – but failed – to be. That would certainly highlight to young professionals sliding down the food chain of the British league system that perhaps they might just be better suited to a style of football played elsewhere.
From WSC 215 January 2005. What was happening this month