ON 24 MAY 2009, Ewood Park was awash with a colour not normally associated with Blackburn Rovers. Instead of the traditional blue and white associated with the Lancashire club, the supporters had packed into the ground wearing the red and white of Turkey in honour of Tugay Kerimoğlu, the cult hero who bid them farewell after eight years with the club.
Following the match against West Brom – which saw the Baggies bow out of the Premier League after a dismal campaign – Tugay emerged from the tunnel to thunderous acclaim. In all four corners of the stadium, signs and banners were unfurled thanking the Turkish dynamo for his faithful service.
Taking his daughter by the hand as he walked over Ewood’s turf once last time, Tugay offered a wave of acknowledgement as ‘Tugay, you are my Turkish delight’ bellowed down from the terraces. Continuing his lap of honour, he cracked that trademark smile while fighting the tears. Even for a man who had established himself as one of English football’s toughest midfielders, tears were acceptable – it was an emotional day for all.
Tugay, over 270 appearances, had given his heart and soul to Blackburn Rovers, and the supporters appreciated that. When looking back at his time in the Premier League, there is always a tinge of sadness that we perhaps did not get to see him in his exuberant youth. When Blackburn signed him from Rangers in 2001, he was already 30 and, while fans remain eternally grateful for the memories Tugay provided, it’s a pity he wasn’t 25 when he arrived on these shores, purely for the fact that there would have been more to enjoy.
Blackburn fans remain grateful to Graeme Souness for many things: he earned promotion back to the top-flight after they were relegated in 1999 under Brian Kidd, helped the development of talented youth prospects such as Damien Duff and David Dunn, and led the club to a top-six finish during the 2002-03 season. However, perhaps his greatest legacy was having signed Tugay from Rangers.
The Scot had worked with the midfielder at Galatasaray and identified him as an ideal candidate to bolster Blackburn’s midfield in the summer of 2001. Souness didn’t always get it right in the transfer market – Ali Dia and Corrado Grabbi spring to mind – but capturing Tugay for £1.3 million proved to be a stroke of genius.
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For Blackburn, signing Tugay was still a leap of faith. He forged a remarkable career in his home country with Galatasaray, winning six Turkish league titles and four cups, also becoming the club’s youngest-ever captain in the 1992-93 season, wearing the armband for the Istanbul giants aged just 22.
However, although he developed a knack for scoring in Turkey, Tugay struggled at Ibrox. Inconsistent form meant he was in and out of Dick Advocaat’s first-team and, after growing disillusioned with a lack of football in Scotland, he received a call from Souness. Luckily for Blackburn fans, Souness had seen Tugay play, unlike Dia when he threw the con artist on for his Premier League debut. In fact, he had seen him play well and decided his former captain could be a real asset for Blackburn, who were top-flight-bound having achieved promotion.
Tugay’s parting shot to Rangers was to publicly reveal dressing room discord at the Glasgow club. A squad tainted by in-fighting and ill-feeling prompted Tugay to seek pastures new, but fortunately, he was greeted with a much more gregarious atmosphere at Ewood Park. Tugay made his first appearance as a late substitute in a 1-0 win over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, and it wasn’t long before he cemented his status as a fan favourite.
A month later, the Turk offered Blackburn fans the first glimpse of his extraordinary goal-scoring ability. Tugay was not a prolific marksman by any stretch, rather he had the extraordinary ability to conjure up goals worth remembering time and time again. His first entry into a beautiful individual portfolio of strikes came in a 7-1 thrashing of West Ham at Ewood.
By the time Tugay received the ball on the edge of the area in the 80th minute, Blackburn had already pummelled West Ham. Glenn Roeder looked on hopelessly from his technical area as Shaka Hislop’s back-four grew horribly misshapen by Blackburn’s style and invention. Tugay had been central to the Hammers’ demise that afternoon, but sympathy did not figure in his mind as he floated a brilliantly-judged effort into the top-corner. Reacting to their Turkish talisman’s maiden strike, Ewood erupted with noise. Tugay peeled away in celebration, cheekily sticking out his tongue as if to say ‘that’s nothing – wait until you see what else I have in store’.
In the weeks after he acted as chief architect in West Ham’s capitulation, Tugay began to feel like part of the Blackburn family. Once supporters began chanting his name, he began to feel settled, accepted, even adored, something that, through no fault of his own, was missing from his time at Rangers.
At Galatasaray, he had been idolised as he built a decorated career in his home country. The decision to sign for Rangers and embrace an entirely different culture was a brave one, and it would have been understandable for him to seek a move back to Turkey after leaving Rangers. However, Souness was convinced that Tugay could play an integral role in his Blackburn system. As a deep-lying midfielder with playmaking and goalscoring abilities, Tugay offered a lot, but his qualities were obscured at Rangers by their own rising star, Barry Ferguson, who had been appointed captain aged 22.
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As Tugay had also been tasked with such a responsibility at a tender age, he appreciated that Ferguson – a similar player – and himself could not gel seamlessly in the same starting line-up. As Ferguson was a graduate of Rangers’ youth academy, Tugay was sacrificed. However, his hunger to build a career beyond his home country remained undimmed and deciding to accept Souness’s offer proved to be arguably the greatest decision of his career.
That first season, Tugay became an honorary Lancastrian. He was almost ever-present in Rovers’ midfield and helped the club reach the League Cup final. Unfortunately, he missed the showpiece final at the Millennium Stadium through suspension but continued to express himself in the league, where Blackburn finished 10th in his first season.
In the following campaign, things got better for Blackburn, with Souness guiding the club to a sixth-place finish, a position unlikely to be surpassed by any Blackburn side in the near future. Tugay and Dunn acted as the spine in a tremendously balanced team that had the odd sprinkle of flair and magic dotted throughout it. Brad Friedel was immense between the sticks, while Lucas Neill, Nils-Eric Johansson, Martin Taylor and Craig Short provided a sturdy defence. Tugay and Dunn were flanked by Damien Duff and Gary Flitcroft, two wingers who added electric pace and cutting edge creativity to the ranks while, up front, Souness had reunited Manchester United’s treble-winning strike partnership in the form of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
For Blackburn fans, it was the most exhilarating run they had witnessed since the club won the Premier League under Kenny Dalglish in 1995. While the side eight years on didn’t quite possess title-winning credentials, it was still brimming with quality and character typified by Tugay. The Turk brought a variety and freedom of spirit to Blackburn that belied the stereotype that Blackburn were one of the Premier League’s uglier sides. Newspapermen would quip that they were the least likely to become a second cousin to the Maracanã but, considering the artistry of Tugay’s striking of ball, you would have been forgiven for thinking it was Brazil, not Blackburn.
Through the years, Tugay remained an essential quarterback-type for Blackburn, acting as a vital cog under Mark Hughes, Souness’s successor. His technique and vision did not go unnoticed either. After United beat Blackburn 1-0 at Ewood Park in November 2006, Sir Alex Ferguson was moved enough by the Turk’s performance to suggest that, were he 10 years younger, he would have been an ideal player at Old Trafford, an illuminating indication of the esteem in which he was held among his peers. A week after Ferguson’s fulsome praise, Tugay lashed home an unstoppable 25-yard volley against Spurs. Somewhere, in the more cosmopolitan corner of Manchester, Fergie spat out his whisky watching Match of the Day.
Tugay often attracted lofty praise from onlookers, but he continually backed it up with demonstrations of his flawless technique. Take that strike against Spurs, for example. Pause a video clip right as the ball is dropping onto Tugay’s boot and you will see a portrait of technique, balance and unerring execution. One of the most difficult ways to strike a ball purely is when it’s dropping from the heavens, but such was Tugay’s confidence in his own ability that he would attempt such a shot. That thunderbolt against Spurs is the kind of explosive action young strikers long to produce, but few achieve. Tugay seemed to do it time and time again.
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In eight years at Blackburn, he fashioned a reputation as being one of the most astute midfielders in possession. Beyond his penchant for spectacular goals, Tugay possessed the vision to play a raking, 50-yard pass, while also holding that metronomic capacity that allowed him to dictate the tempo of games. His skill-set was such that Mark Hughes had the following to say in 2006: “People say to me, ‘don’t you wish he was 10 years younger?’ My answer is no, because if he was he would be at Barcelona.”
Of course, Tugay’s influence extended beyond his club career. He went on to make 94 appearances for his country and was an important senior member of the squad when Şenol Güneş led the nation to third place at the 2002 World Cup. At 31, only Tayfur Havutçu was older than Tugay, but the Blackburn dynamo’s stature amongst the players was undeniable. It was he and Hakan Şükür – the team’s other elder statesman – who the younger players looked up to, even when there were reports of a religious divide in the dressing room between the Muslim players and their more Westernised team-mates.
Religion was a deeply personal and individual matter. Tugay understood and appreciated that, which helped make him such a popular figure in the dressing room. He told The Telegraph in an interview in 2003: “As a senior player I try to set an example to the younger players and give them every chance of succeeding, playing well and being a unit in the team. I’m a Muslim, that’s something which is in my heart and I don’t need to express that to other people.”
In Japan and South Korea, Turkey were an emerging force during the World Cup of shocks. For Tugay and his team-mates it was an exhilarating experience, from Şükür scoring after just 10.8 seconds against South Korea to İlhan Mansiz’s golden goal that knocked Senegal out and booked Turkey a place in the semi-final against eventual winners Brazil, where only a piece of typical ingenuity and craft from Ronaldo was enough to separate the sides. When Tugay returned to Ewood Park, he was treated to a hero’s welcome as no Blackburn player had ever achieved third place in the World Cup.
Seven years had passed by the time Tugay finally hung up his boots and bid an emotional farewell to the Ewood Park crowd. The maestro is often mentioned in the same breath as Alan Shearer as the club’s greatest ever player, to which he said with characteristic humility and grace: “It’s great to be honoured with this. But it’s not only for me. It’s for the club, the people who work at the club, the fans – we were all part of it. Everything was in the right place and that’s why I’m thankful for my time here. Blackburn Rovers is in my heart and in my mind and it will never leave me.”
It is words like these – humble, thoughtful and conscientious – that made Tugay such an immensely popular figure during his career. It wasn’t just Blackburn fans that loved to worship their stylish midfielder. Rather, his flair and craft and collar-length hair made him a fashionable character liked by all, mostly because of his ability to score goals of scarcely believable skill and technique, and pass the ball better than most in Premier League history. He will forever be immortalised in goal of the season videos, and he’ll forever be cherished as one of the Premier League’s most estimable midfield technicians.
By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11