Ömer Riza: One man's journey from Youth Academy to Managerial hot-seat
He went from The Arsenal to Turkey and back again, faced a year long ban and travelled the length and breadth of the English Football leagues as well as finding himself coaching and then managing, a team on the brink of liquidation. But Ömer Riza is still standing and he's definitely got tales to tell of his escapades in the Footballing world. I managed to catch up with him and was lucky enough that he took time out of his busy schedule to talk to me, this past week.
Dean Batchelor: Firstly, I'd like to say thank you ever so much Ömer for giving me the opportunity to conduct this interview it's not every day you get given this chance. Before we began, we spoke briefly about the adventures you've had in football but I suppose my first question is, where a lot of players join academies at 8-9 years old, I've read in some places you joined the Arsenal when you were sixteen, so was becoming a Footballer your first choice of career?
Ömer Riza: I joined Arsenal when I was 10 actually, I was full time at 16 as both youth and professional at the club, so I spent 10 years with Arsenal in all. I don’t see anything wrong with young lads being in academies, they need to be in order to be the best they can be, as long as it doesn’t take their childhood away and that is down to the management of the clubs and parents respectively.
DB: See now that makes a lot more sense as I felt school leaving age was a little on the late side! You mentioned children still being children, whilst being part of something like the Arsenal, was that ever a problem for you growing up?
OR: Not at all, it was all I ever wanted, it was a great feeling being part of something every kid dreams of. I had a good school education and I was always well respected by team mates and friends alike. I was still able to play for my school, district and county so I had the chance to play with other friends as well. This isn’t the case now as academies don’t allow or prefer the boys to only play for them.
DB: Yes that is definitely something that has changed over the years for sure, things seemed to be a little more lenient back then in that respect. Were there any lads who you were friends with who you still speak to or meet up with now?
OR: I try to stay in contact with a lot of my old team mates and we catch up at charity matches or as rivals possibly as coaches now. As for school, I have always been close with David Livermore, he is like a brother, we grew up together at school and at Arsenal, we still meet as much as Work allows. I still talk with the majority of my Arsenal youth team mates, once you're in my circle you stay, unless you do something seriously wrong. I will do anything for my close friends.
DB: Definitely the kind of person you want on the pitch or even terraces with you haha! Now Ömer, whilst you were playing at U19 level you were doing exceptionally well and scoring an abundance of goals, but for some reason or another you weren't able to break into the first team. Were you ever given any indication at the time why that was? As you must have been impressing with the reserves & youth.
OR: I thought I was progressing nicely, I was scoring and creating goals both at U19s and in the reserves, training with the first team and impressing my senior team mates. I was offered another year which would’ve been my second year as a pro but I rejected it, I felt that players were being pushed in front of me that shouldn’t have been, I didn’t see the opportunity being given to me so I decided with a very heavy heart to leave. I never wanted to leave but I felt that I was pushed into the decision I made.
DB: But before that decision came, you did make your debut for Arsenal in what was to be a 2-1 win over Derby County in the League Cup. You replaced Christopher Wreh in the dying minutes of that game. What, despite the lack of time and fact it was at Pride Park rather than Highbury, was that like? Coming out, getting your boots muddy for Arsenal?
OR: It was a dream come true and all I ever wanted, I loved it and I wanted more and should’ve had more appearances at the club. Maybe I should have been more patient but after everything that I heard and saw I felt I needed to leave. It was great being involved with the first team and playing and training, plus travelling to all our games and being part of all the successful times, to be on the bus going to the town hall and having all the fans chanting was something that is part of my history and can never be taken away.
DB: And as a fan, I can tell you those feelings are echoed here as well. Now, after your debut and as you mentioned, stints traveling with the club including to Greece and the Ukraine in the Champion's League, you took the opportunity in the latter half of the 99 season to join ADO Den Haag in the Eerste Divisie (or Jupiler League) of Holland. You were 20 years old and travelling to another country to play Football, how was that for you?
OR: It was tough at first as I wanted to stay at my club but Wenger said go and play, do well and come back ready for pre-season, so I went played 10 games and scored 5 goals and did well, maybe could’ve scored more goals though. I was offered a 3 year deal to stay in Holland but all I wanted to do was return and do what myself and the Gaffa initially spoke about, and that was to come back and start the new season with Arsenal.
DB: Yes I was going to say you contributed to a number of goals whilst out there for Den Haag and clearly with that offer on the table you impressed them. But you then came back to England which after initial mixed signals I assume is when as you say, you rejected an extension with Arsenal and they then in turn, accepted an offer for you from West Ham. But is it safe to say your time with the Hammers, was unfortunately as disappointing as the time in the senior squad at Arsenal, if not more-so?
OR: After moving to West Ham and being basically on the fringe of playing, even being on the bench at Highbury Vs. Arsenal it got to the point where again I was top goal scorer two years on the spin in the reserves and endless travelling with the first team squad, I lost faith in the system if you like. I would’ve signed an extension to my contract if I had signed for the agency the manager wanted me to, but I declined this as I have always acted with integrity, this probably being to my detriment, it was time to move on. I spent time at Barnet scoring 5 in 10 on loan and then Cambridge in League 1 scoring 3 in 12 .
(Razor sharp Riza! - Cambridge United.)
DB: It is understandable given everything going on, you may have felt to make moves that you'd generally have been against but you stuck to your guns and continued on. The time you mentioned with Cambridge prompted a permanent move to the club however where you scored another 12 league goals as well as other appearances and goals for the club and this was when you were spotted by clubs both at home and abroad, namely Denizlispor in Turkey, in 2003. Did it take much convincing to make the jump or is it something you felt the need to do at that stage?
OR: I had a full season at Cambridge scoring 18 goals in all competitions, two fourth rounds in the FA Cup and League Cup plus semi final of Windscreens, we had a great season that year. At the end of that season obviously Cambridge wanted me to stay but I wanted to play higher, I had a couple of offers from League One but I had bigger aspirations. I took the plunge and moved abroad, something I could’ve done the previous year at Austria Vienna and St. Mirren wanted to sign me but West Ham didn’t allow the move, but this season after Cambridge it happened, I moved and had 7 seasons in Turkey.
DB: Indeed, you had quite a whirlwind in Turkey, spending a few seasons at Denizlispor, before a financial situation at the club saw you move to Trabzonspor. You've said before you loved your time in Trabzon but do you think you'd have left Denizli had the situation not arose?
("You want some?!" - Trabzonspor Vs. Osasuna UEFA Cup: 06/07)
OR: I loved my time at Denizli, we were very successful over 2 seasons finishing 4th both seasons, I made quite an impact at the club and the fans were great. I had become the clubs biggest asset which in turn, turned the heads of the bigger clubs. The move to Trabzon happened and the fans there are very passionate, they were great. I spent 3 season there as well, players like Anelka and Rigobert Song were also out there at the time so that was nice as we all played together at Arsenal and West Ham. I was playing against top class players and teams and I was in Europe so I was getting to the standard that I knew was my level.
DB: Always good when you find that foothold I expect as not all players are able to do it. However whilst at Trabzonspor you played under a few managers, including former Turkish national team boss, Ersun Yanal. I'd read previously you'd had issues at Trabzonspor when he arrived, was this because of Ersun or something else at the time?
OR: Unfortunately my time at Trabzon started well but finished inamicably. The club mistreated me, I'd received no wages for months on end and I was in at 7am and leaving at 10pm at night, left out of squads and treated like a criminal in my own home, board members knocking on my door to see if I was home to making me train on my own from dusk till dawn. It was down to the club itself and the manager at the time Ersun Yanal. The club had broken so many clauses in my contract and I gave them ample time to make good, in the end as I said at the start of the interview, I got to the point of no choice and left with integrity. I was punished heavily by the club and the Turkish federation which was all wrong and poor treatment towards me, resulting in a global ban, which I feel damaged my career thereafter.
DB: The issue with the wages was going to be my next question, I had heard the stories but not to this extent by any means. The TFF gave you a six month ban and it took a further six months with all the legal ramblings so in total over a year. At thirty years old now this had to have been a massive bombshell for you? How did you cope with not being able to play for that period?
OR: This was the toughest part of my career to date. I was fined massively and banned globally for six months, and this ban would not start until someone signed me, making me unsignable. I was back in the UK and running every day and trying to find as much football as possible to tick over. Arsenal wouldn’t let me train for what they classed as insurance reasons, which was disheartening, I was gutted but I had to stay strong. I trained at a few clubs and had a trial at Sheffield United, funny thing there was I was training with Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton and [John] Stead for a week. I trained very well, went with the first team for a couple of days, but [manager at the time, Kevin] Blackwell didn’t even acknowledge me. The nice thing is I was training very well and these lads went onto have great careers. I eventually went to Shrewsbury and trained for months at my own expense including renting somewhere whilst I left the wife and kids back in London. I eventually had the ban overturned by FIFA and was able to play, it was all a bit too late but I tried to find my feet again.
DB: It sounds like a horrid time but as you say you did try to find your feet, although you mentioned just now you felt that this had ruined your career. Once you came back home and the TFF decision was finally overturned, two months after signing for Shrewsbury Town you went on a bit of an, excuse the phrase as it's definitely not one to describe yourself, Journeyman's tour with Aldershot, Histon, Boreham Wood, Chelmsford and finally ending up as Player-Manager at Cheshunt. Do you feel you may have stayed in Turkey had the ban not occurred, or perhaps came back to England and tried your hand here with a more steady ship?
OR: In all honesty, I probably would’ve either returned to England for a fee to a club or have seen out my career in Turkey and progressed as a coach around about now, it didn’t happen due to the mistreatment and the TFF made it virtually impossible for me to work with all the fines and bans implemented on me. When I got back to the UK and signed for Shrews, we went to Wembley and lost to Gillingham in the playoff final. I stayed one more year then left, went to Histon with Dave Livermore and the coaching journey started really, slowly but surely.
DB: So the coaching roles really began at Histon, before you arrived at Cheshunt. Was your signing there in 2013 initially to be Player-Manager or one or the other?
(Managing Leyton Orient.)
OR: My coaching started at Histon and when I went to Cheshunt in 2013, I was initially player/coach, the following season I was player/manager. So I had fallen from grace, playing elite level football and in the space of 4 seasons I had played Conference Prem/South and Ryman Football. It was tough to take but now I had a new focus to become a good coach with aspirations to be an elite manager.
DB: You took a negative and turned it into a positive effectively. However, you played for the Arsenal Masters squad whilst with Cheshunt and ruptured your Cruciate whilst doing so. I've read that the club wanted you to take a paycut and got rid of you when you refused and I never understood why. Was this because you'd only be doing managerial duties at that stage or was there something else behind it?
OR: Unfortunately whilst playing for Arsenal in a charity match I ruptured my Cruciate ligament, the club owners felt that, where I wasn’t able to play and only manage they would cut my wage, this was of course totally unacceptable. After starting the season with a new team and many changes that needed bedding in, I was relieved of my services, I feel that after my injury and not agreeing on a pay cut this was the result. Unfortunately I wasn’t protected as you would be in the professional leagues.
(Arsenal Masters Vs. Liverpool Masters in Singapore.)
DB: Indeed, it's not. And since that time you went on to coach at, become the assistant and then manager of, Leyton Orient. Most people are aware of the situation at the O's with Francesco Becchetti and the non payment of wages (something you could relate to no doubt?) But there's also been talk of the way Orient have been in regards to yourself since your time as manager has finished... You've also had similar treatment so to speak from hierarchy at Arsenal whilst coaching at the Academy. These are the clubs you started at and finished at. Would you say the treatment at Arsenal was down to Arsène Wenger? And would you consider attempting to apply at either club with new and refreshed staff there? Or what will your next step be now?
OR: I went into Orient as U16's coach in 2015 and I said I'd be Manager in 5 years, it happened in 2, albeit not the greatest environment due to the circumstances, but I loved every minute of my time at the O's. The fans, the players I helped produce and the accolades of winning with the youth and the performances achieved whilst at the helm, I learned so much about my job and about people, it's an experience that 10 years wouldn't achieve. I don't believe my treatment was down to Arsène Wenger at Arsenal but probably more the fact I was in between and still under the rule of the academy superiors at the time. I love Arsenal and I will do anything for the club, as long as I know I have always offered myself in any way I am happy. It's all been interesting and I could literally write a book. Watch this space!! [laughs] I will continue to study the game and be the best I can be as a manager, I'm just waiting for the opportunity. I will reach for the stars and if I land on the moon, I will be happy!
DB: I'm sure you will be on the touchlines again soon! And I'll be waiting with baited breath for your book that's for sure. You've given me a very insightful look at your history Ömer and I'm humbled, but before we go I did want to ask you. Growing up Arsenal as you have and loving and supporting the club as you do, what is your take on everything that's going on at the club now with Arsène Wenger? And where do you stand on his position right now?
OR: I feel for Arsene in a big way, no matter what he earns and how long he’s been at the club, he doesn’t deserve the insults that have been aimed at him, granted things have been disastrous lately and the team don’t seem to be responding to anything at the moment. What I feel and what I would like to see, is Wenger go on to the international stage and achieve great things, he will always be held in high regard at the club. It might just be time for change as it was at United with [Sir Alex] Ferguson. The club need another idea and start to invest in players even more if we really do want to challenge, the nature of the industry is now to spend big to win trophies, that’s what I feel.
DB: And I believe that echoes sentiments from a lot of people. Once again Ömer, thank you so much for taking the time to do this and giving me the opportunity to speak with you so candidly! Good luck with wherever your path takes you next!