Speaking to Holly Hunt, current Bristol Rovers playmaker Erhun Oztumer reflects on his “worst season in football” with Bolton Wanderers, coping with rejection as a youngster and a fresh start in the South West for the midfielder.
From taking growth hormone injections and moving across the continent to pursue his dream of becoming a professional footballer, to court cases and mass player protests, Erhun Oztumer’s career has seen its fair share of ups and downs.Embed from Getty Images
The Bristol Rovers midfielder, now 29, is somewhat of an expert in bouncing back from adversity, having overcome several setbacks that have made him the resilient player he is today.
Although, his most turbulent spell undoubtedly came at Bolton Wanderers. Oztumer’s career was at its peak in 2018 – he boasted an impressive CV, having been named in the League One team of the year two seasons on the bounce. However, he opted to sign for Wanderers in June of that year, despite being touted by a number of other Championship suitors.
“Bolton are a massive club with a lot of history and a huge fan base,” he explained. “It’s appealing to a lot of players. I just couldn’t turn it down.”
It turned out to be a decision he’d later regret.
The Trotters, who were already facing money troubles, ran into further financial difficulties and when their wages failed to materialise, Oztumer and his team-mates refused to play for the club.
“It was my worst season in football,” he said without hesitation. “Five months without getting paid – no matter how much you’re on – affects you mentally.
“My performances went down and morale went down. I was going home upset. I have a supportive family so if I needed money, they helped me out.
“We went on strike for five days to raise awareness. The cleaners and security guards weren’t on as much money as we were. There were food banks for staff and players.”
With just one victory in 21 league games between October 2018 and February 2019, Bolton faced the drop and it was back to League One for Oztumer.Embed from Getty Images
Wanderers were firmly in the red and the off-field issues continued. The club was on the brink of extinction, having plummeted into administration, and supporters slowly lost patience.
“We got a lot of stick from fans saying they’d play for free but that’s a lie. If it was another job and your wages were late, you wouldn’t go in. We were travelling across the country and paying out of our own pockets. Some fans understood but the majority didn’t.”
It wasn’t long before he handed in his notice.
“It got rejected by the club and it went to a court case. That was done with the PFA and the EFL and I had to get a lawyer. I’ve never been to court before and I felt like a criminal. It was scary.
“Mentally, I needed to get out. Normally, I don’t like to bring work home but I was. The decision went in my favour and I could leave and enjoy football again.”
His exit paved a pathway out of Greater Manchester with many of his team-mates following suit, and Bolton were left with just five senior players remaining on the books.
“I got a lot of abuse for leaving,” Oztumer said. “I stayed away from social media when that happened. I don’t feel like I’m a bad person for doing what I did but the fans made me feel like I betrayed them. At the end of the day, I needed to think about myself.”
The appeal went to court, which ruled that he was free to leave.
His career was revived when he signed for Charlton Athletic last year. Manager Lee Bowyer had shown an interest in taking him on loan earlier, in January, but he was refused permission to make the move. Luckily, Bowyer’s persistence paid off and the Addicks boss landed his man in the summer.
The diminutive midfielder still remembers being told that he was “too short” to make it as a professional footballer and play for the Addicks’ academy aged 16 – the same sense of rejection shared by the likes of Lionel Messi, Antoine Griezmann and, surprisingly, Harry Kane, who’s now a towering 6 feet 2 inches.
“It was sudden and upsetting. It was the stage where they were deciding whether to offer scholarships or not and they said I wasn’t in their plans. The main reason was my height so I had to move on.
“I felt like I was good enough to play at that level but it’s made me stronger. My career has had its ups and downs and I’ve had my doubts but I’m lucky to be where I am today.”
He’s been called all manner of names, from a hobbit to the Turkish Messi, and standing just 160 centimetres (5 feet and 3 inches) above the ground, Oztumer has more in common with Ballon d’Or winner Messi than a silky, left peg; they were both subject to medical testing as kids.
“When I was younger my parents took me to the hospital to see if I could get growth hormones,” he recalled.
“There are capsules in your bones and if they’re shut you can’t grow anymore. Mine were basically shut so since I was 16 I haven’t grown. I was just too late.”
He had to go the long way around to get back to where he knew he belonged, having made the 5,000-mile-round trip to Turkey to sign for Süper Lig side Sivasspor in 2009 after failing to make the grade at Charlton as a youth.Embed from Getty Images
However, the culture shock was a lot to comprehend; it seemed his culinary skills weren’t as up to scratch as his ability to whip in a cross.
“It was tough,” he shrugged. “I didn’t know the language, and the food and weather were different. Not to mention I’d never cooked before in my life!
“We all lived together in a big house so I went from living at home with my family and having my mum and dad there to 20 lads in the same building trying to get along.
“I got kicked around a few times. In training and games, the style of football is very different. They’re very strong, tough and physical but it taught me to become a man.”
Oztumer never quite settled overseas and, after four years of plying his trade in Turkey, he returned to the UK in 2012, although his parents weren’t best pleased.
“When I called my dad that was the toughest phone call I’ve ever had. He didn’t want me to come back because he felt my career would be over. I was going to have to take the risk and work my way up through non-league to become a professional again so he took some convincing.
“I got off the plane, straight away got a train to Dulwich and got there three hours later to meet Gavin Rose, Dulwich Hamlet’s manager. He invited me to training the day after so it went from there.”
Oztumer made a name for himself in the lower echelons of the football pyramid and his impressive form caught the eye of Peterborough United.
“It wasn’t a good feeling [dropping into non-league] but I put my mind to it. It felt good getting noticed by so many clubs. I always knew I was good enough to play in the league but I had to prove it.”
He netted 60 goals across two campaigns for Dulwich and the Posh chairman Darragh MacAnthony decided to take a chance on the midfielder.
Oztumer spent two fruitful years at London Road before making a switch to Walsall. There, he became one of the most highly-rated playmakers in the third tier.
A wry smile stretches across his lips as he muses about nodding in the leveller at the Valley against Charlton in January 2018, taking great pleasure in getting one over on the team that released him as a teenager in 2007.
“It was a good day for me,” he grinned. “I enjoyed the goal. Scoring a header is obviously rare for me as well so it was a special day!”Embed from Getty Images
That mojo is something he’s seeking to rediscover. In mid-October, the attacker headed out on loan from Charlton, joining League One outfit Bristol Rovers.
Paul Tisdale’s side haven’t had the smoothest start to the season but nonetheless, Oztumer expressed his “delight” at a being presented with a new beginning, given the upheaval he has endured during recent years.
“I think I can get back to my best here and do what I did for Walsall,” he remarked with confidence. “It’s a fresh start for me. Bristol have got a great project going on with the new training ground and I wanted to be a part of it all.”