Erhun Oztumer: Too Small For Football?

Picture: Mike Urban (Brixton Buzz)

“I remember my Dad taking me to a hospital when I was 16 to get growth hormones – like Messi had.” They said, “You’re too late.” There are capsules in your bones, and if they’re shut that’s it – and mine were basically shut. They said the most I was going to grow is one or two centimetres, and I didn’t even grow that.”

Erhun Oztumer is 5ft 3in and scored 60 goals in two seasons for Dulwich Hamlet. In a glorious spell with the South London side, he won the Ryman Division One South in 2013 and missed out on a play-off place in the Ryman Premier on the final day of last season. Such astonishing output established him as a non-league player of rare quality, a number 10 with an exquisite left foot, elegant touch and graceful poise, so much so that League One club Peterborough United came calling last summer. But, having finally convinced a professional club of his talents, he is now out of favour again. He has not played a game for the Posh since the departure of former manager Darren Ferguson.

It has been a long and convoluted route up to this point, with years of upheaval and self-doubt, via the backwaters of Turkish football and the depths of the English football pyramid.

The simple fact that he stands only little more than a metre and a half off the ground has dictated his career path in football. He was so evidently the outstanding player on the pitch at Dulwich, but that he resembled a smurf in a land of giants was inescapable. Too short for Charlton Athletic, where he spent seven years in their academy, and too short for the wealth of scouts that watched him during his non-league days at Champion Hill in South London.

This stigma, something which has confounded those that have worked with him and watched him play, has dogged him since Charlton released him as a 16 year-old. Such rejection would have floored many young footballers, but Oztumer is remarkably stoic about it – in fact it has driven him on.

“It’s something I’ve had to deal with. Just because I haven’t got great height doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be a footballer. Because I haven’t got that, I’ve had to improve – quicker feet, be stronger on the ball and think quicker so I don’t get barged off the ball. It’s no problem for me.”

Oztumer has certainly risen to the challenge, but his former manager at Dulwich Hamlet, Gavin Rose, vocalised his frustrations at his star player’s misfortune to me last year.

“It’s quite clear to see that he’s an exceptional talent. Every time I speak to professional clubs they say he’s too small. It’s an interesting one that, and it’s an insular thought. Too small? It’s about effectiveness. He puts a fair bit of graft in, he’s not a luxury player who waits for the ball, he works hard.

“The question is “why should we change for someone so small?” That’s what the mindset is. But the height of a player doesn’t matter, if he’s effective – which he clearly is – he should at least be given the minimum of an opportunity. He’s shown on the poor standards of pitches in this league that he can do it.”

Last season a Football League club finally took up the chance on Oztumer, the 23 year-old Englishman of Turkish-Cypriot descent. He had trialled at Burnley, while Luton Town, Gillingham, AFC Wimbledon, Crystal Palace and Bournemouth were all interested, but when Peterborough United came calling his mind was made up.

The Posh’s track-record of nurturing young talent was the main attraction: “You’ve got Dwight Gayle at Palace, Aaron McClean who came from non-league and went to Hull City, Craig Mackail-Smith. Players like that you look up to. That is Peterborough’s philosophy, get players from lower leagues and work them up.”

Sixty goals in two seasons – his favourite of which has been immortalised on Youtube – on non-league mud baths attracted the League One club to his talent. Those two seasons in  South London – “happiness” as he referred to them – finally brought Oztumer’s eye-catching quality to the fore.

His rejection from Charlton took him to Gavin Rose’s ASPIRE academy, on a recommendation from friend and former Dulwich player Gary Gonnella: “It was somewhere I could play football and express myself. I loved it. It helped get me back on my feet.”

After six months of college and training, it was his father who moved to get him back into the professional game, via Turkey, and an old friend of his at then Super League club Manisaspor. Only 17 at the time, it was a move fraught with difficulties for the teenage Oztumer, but one he withstood for four years, taking him from the sunny climes of Ismir to the snowy mountains of Sivas and the cultural metropolis of Istanbul.

It remains a difficult topic for the self-confessed shy kid: “I don’t like talking about Turkey. I don’t feel like it was a good experience. It’s helped me a lot, don’t get me wrong, as a man on and off the pitch. I learned a lot of stuff, but I didn’t have a great time. I was expecting better, to just concentrate on football everyday. But it wasn’t like it was at Charlton.

“Everything was different, the food, the weather and the style of football. I had to adapt and grow up. I wasn’t homesick but it was just different staying away. I had always been with my parents.”

It was a necessary experience though – “friends aren’t going to make you a professional footballer” – he says.

The football itself was up and down. At Manisaspor his pathway to the first-team was blocked by a familiar old-age mentality; the preference of experience over youth as the club attempted, unsuccessfully, to fight off relegation and then win back promotion. The style was different too: “It was more aggressive, not very technical, more route one. That was hard, whereas at academy level they tell you to pass out from the keeper. You’re told to win the game, whereas in England – let’s play, develop players for the first team.”

After two years he made the move to Sivasspor, where once again first-team football was but a dream and self-doubt crept in after the manager who took him there was sacked. His final year in Turkey was spent at their feeder club, Istanbul based Üsküdar Anadolu SK: “It was just long ball, basically non-league. It wasn’t for me but I just wanted to play first-team football, play in front of crowds.”

The club went through three managers that year, but by the end of the season he was awarded an extended stay in the team, resulting in a run of seven goals in nine games under a coach who played his way. As the campaign came to an end Oztumer knew it was time to go, with Anadolu searching for its fourth manager in a year: “I thought I need to get out of there, the next manager might not like me and I can’t afford to waste another year really. So I made the decision to come back, which my parents weren’t happy about.”

It was not just his family and friends which brought him back to England, though, but football reasons: “When I left Turkey I wouldn’t have gone anywhere else. Even if a Conference side wanted me I still would have gone to Dulwich because of Gavin Rose. I knew Gavin when I was 16. I knew how he played, that he likes to play it from the back and for players to express themselves in the final third. That’s me really. He used to encourage, he was disciplined, a professional in everything he did. I look up to him, and it helped me become who I am.”

The very day he returned to England in 2012 he landed at three o’clock and made it to training with Dulwich at three and a half hours later. But the move was complicated; Oztumer still had a few years left on his contract at Sivasspor.

His father, owner of a dry cleaning shop, flew out to Turkey to beg the club to let him leave. They asked him for £100k to cancel the contract, but eventually he persuaded them down to £10k. His family have been constant supporters on his journey through football – “This is their dream as much as it is mine”. They were regular fixtures at Champion Hill and have continued following him now into League One. Would he have made it without them?

“I don’t know. I probably wouldn’t have, to be fair. I’m a strong minded person, but their help made me stronger and more driven.” They were a comfort blanket, filling up the petrol in his car and letting him stay at home as he attracted a score of scouts to watch him plunder goals week in, week out to realise his dream of becoming a professional footballer in England.

Moving from the seventh tier of English football to the third is an enormous step to make in one go. But he feels it has been the right one – not too high, not too low – and after initial acclimatising he remains ready to kick on.

“When I first came and was training every day I used to get home and sleep. I was so tired. It took me three or four months for my body to adapt to it every day. Now I’m starting to get the rhythm, but it did take a long time to adapt. I’ve put on a bit more weight, more muscle. At a professional club you’re always going to feel better and play better when you’re around good things, better pitches and eating better food.

“The pitches are better in this league, if you’re good enough you can play on any pitch. I played on mud baths at Dulwich, still battled and played well. Playing on them pitches helped me play on better pitches. On the training pitch there are no bobbles, you don’t need to take an extra touch. It’s natural, just get it out of your feet and play.”

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it is the tempo of league football that has demanded the most adjustment for the 23 year-old: “The game hardly stops in the Football League, you don’t get a breather. Obviously the quality is better, the opponents keep the ball more so you’ve got to run more. At Dulwich I was always praised for my hard work, running and closing down – I felt I was the fittest in the league. Coming on for my debut in the last 10-15 minutes felt like a 90 minute game. It was just non-stop running. When you’ve got the ball you’ve got to make space for yourself, when they’ve got the ball you’ve got to close the space.”

On his first start for his new club in December came his first goal, a trademark free-kick, the winning strike in a 2-1 defeat of Leyton Orient. Yet such is his luck that since we spoke the man who took him to League One, Darren Ferguson, has departed. Oztumer spoke with reverence of his former manager, who called Peterborough his “home”, and there was a time when you would fear for the player whose height has caused a number of his coaches in the past to distrust him.

He believes his destiny lies in his own hands now: “My confidence is up there now, I know I can play at this level. I just want to play to the best that I can. I want to play in the Premier League. People might say that’s unrealistic at the moment, but I want to play at the highest of my ability. I think it’s going to take time, this year is about proving myself. But I’ll be proud of where I get as I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Caretaker boss Dave Robertson has registered three straight wins since Ferguson’s sacking, but Oztumer has yet to feature under him. Defender Gabriel Zakuani told BBC Sport that the new manager, “Just wants us to express ourselves a little bit more. It feels like a few shackles have been taken off.”

This is a playing environment in which Oztumer would thrive, but deja vu and the glass ceiling of English football’s insularity may have struck once again for the 5’3” maestro.

You can follow James Dutton on Twitter at (@JRGDutton)

Erhun Oztumer: Too Small For Football?
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