How Bursaspor, against the odds, defied Turkey’s big three to lift the 2009/10 Süper Lig title

How Bursaspor, against the odds, defied Turkey’s big three to lift the 2009/10 Süper Lig title

Football is an astonishingly straightforward game. Goals win matches, with those who score on a regular basis revered in the highest sense. The names of Frank Lampard, Ian Rush and Thierry Henry are unanimously considered amongst the best to ever pull on their respective team’s shirts, standing as true club icons. The same, however, cannot be said of Wayne Rooney.

Despite registering 253 goals for Manchester United and securing every honour possible across a decorated 12-year spell, Rooney is not held in anywhere near the regard of the aforementioned trio. Be it his Liverpudlian roots, unhealthy lifestyle or failed attempts to move away, there is a feeling of antipathy when his name is brought up amongst supporters, including some sections of Old Trafford.

He registered a hat-trick in a 6-2 thrashing of Fenerbahçe on his debut, with this start only serving to heighten the excitement surrounding the youngster. Six years later, another Turkish club were the opponents, but the perception of Rooney was completely different. Seen to be seeking a transfer away, fans descended on Old Trafford armed with angry banners, whilst Cheshire police had to be on hand to protect his house.

With all this off-field drama, one could perhaps forgive the overlooking of the visit of Bursaspor on that October night in 2010. It is not overstating things to call their presence in the Champions League one of the competition’s great shocks, a claim that becomes justifiable with context.

By far the richest and most supported clubs in the country, the Süper Lig is massively skewed in favour of Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray. Save for a period of disruption in the late 1970s by Trabzonspor, going into the 2009/10 season, no other side had claimed the title since. For any club to even come close to matching the Istanbul giants is a rarity, especially one that only four years previously had been in the second tier.

Based in the ancient city of Bursa, a former capital of the Ottoman Empire and an industrial heartland of modern Turkey, Bursaspor were founded in 1963. Until 2010 they had only ever finished as high as fourth in the league, with their sole major honour coming in the 1986 Türkiye Kupası. Upon their return to the top flight in 2006 they consolidated well, but were in no position to be considered title challengers.

Bursaspor went into the 2009/10 season off the back of narrowly missing out on Europe, with pre-season focus instead placed on the usual suspects. Galatasaray had spent big, forking out £8m each on Elano and Abdul Kader Keïta, alongside recruiting Giovani Dos Santos, Jô and Lucas Neill. Meanwhile, Beşiktaş had secured the homecoming of 2002 World Cup hero Nihat from Villarreal and Italian international defender Matteo Ferrari.

Bursaspor’s dealings, by contrast, were unfashionable free agents and loanees. The two standout names were the combative midfielder Ivan Ergić from Basel, alongside Deportivo Cali’s creative, goalscoring Argentine, Pablo Batalla. Another arrival of note was Czech defender Tomáš Zápotočný, cleared out on loan by Beşiktaş to make room for Ferrari.

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Then there was manager Ertuğrul Sağlam, recruited in January 2009 as Bursaspor’s third boss that season. He came in as damaged goods, having famously lost 8-0 to Liverpool as part of his previous employment with Beşiktaş. Despite this, he went on to steer the club to just two defeats in the second half of the 2008/09 season as Bursaspor ended in sixth place.

The new season, however, started indifferently, with a 2-1 opening day win over Kasımpaşa followed by a 3-2 loss to Eskişehirspor, alongside a 1-1 draw in Trabzon and a loss to Fenerbahçe. Immediately following this came a five-game winning streak from mid-September to the end of October. This featured a 3-1 win at previous year’s runners-up Sivasspor, alongside 4-0 and 6-0 thrashings of Diyarbakirspor and Istanbul BB, indicating more promise.

Central to this was Sağlam’s favouring of a 4-5-1 formation, with Ergić and fellow summer signing Hüseyin Çimşir, an arrival from Trabzonspor, filling the midfield engine room. This complemented the mercurial Batalla, allowing him to create for the front three. The main attacking threat of Sağlam’s system was utilising speed on the break to catch teams off guard.

Right winger Volkan Şen and striker Sercan Yıldırım, both products of Bursaspor’s renowned youth system, were key exponents of this. Volkan possessed great technique and the ability to use both feet, netting six times from the right flank, whilst Sercan was renowned for his pace and trickiness further forward. On the other flank was Ozan İpek, signed in January 2009 from third-tier Bucaspor, who would go on to score eight times over the season.

The end of November brought another landmark result, with Volkan smashing home the only goal of the game from the edge of the area in a dominant 1-0 win over Galatasaray. Despite being followed up by a 3-0 loss to Kayserispor, Bursaspor got back on the right track by narrowly edging out the defending champions Beşiktaş in a thriller at the İnönü.

Ozan opened the scoring with a fine diving header, connecting to a delivery from the opposite flank courtesy of Volkan. Unfortunately, a Mert Nobre equaliser was quickly followed by a Bobô penalty, and with five minutes left, Bursaspor were staring at defeat. This was until Ergić equalised, taking the ball down on his chest before volleying in from the edge of the box. It was a goal of real quality, and four minutes later came the true statement of intent.

With just a minute of regular time left, Bursaspor were awarded a free-kick. Right back Ali Tandoğan swung it in, and amidst a ruck of players, Ozan latched onto the failed clearance, finding some room on the left-hand side. Floating the ball into the box, he found the unmarked Zápotočný, who duly headed home against his parent club to secure the win. It meant that with half the season gone Bursaspor sat in third, only two points behind Fenerbahçe.

From the resuming of the season in late January, Bursaspor went unbeaten in nine league matches through to the end of March. The highlight was undoubtedly coming from two goals down at the Şükrü Saracoğlu where, yet again, with five minutes left a traditional power looked set for a 2-1 win and the three points. This was until a free-kick from Ozan looped in off wildly off Fenerbahçe’s Cristian.

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The aftermath of that goal epitomises Bursaspor’s story. Ozan ran across the pitch to celebrate with his teammates, and perhaps most importantly, his manager. Buoyed by the motivation of Ertuğrul Sağlam, Ozan would go on to score again, coolly slotting underneath Volkan Demirel after a three-on-one break. Sağlam had paid special attention to the character of players when assembling his squad, and it showed.

In the delirious scenes following that winner, the unified force of players performed their trademark ‘crocodile walk’ celebration. Something introduced to the club in the 1990s by Ugandan striker Majid Mususi, it consists of players kneeling down in a line and crawling along in a motion akin to the reptile. A fearsome human train, from here it was clear it would take something special to stop Bursaspor.

A hint of fortune resulted in a 3-0 win at Diyarbakirspor, with the game abandoned after 15 minutes owing to the actions of home supporters. No such luck brought about another impressive win over Sivasspor, or the 2-0 victories against Kasımpaşa and Manisaspor. A loss to İstanbul BB put the brakes on, however, and with six games left, Bursaspor sat just three points ahead of Fenerbahçe.

Matters weren’t helped by goalless draws at Gençlerbirliği and Galatasaray, which handed the initiative to Fenerbahçe with just three matches remaining. A tricky tie with Kayserispor and their free -coring Portuguese striker Ariza Makukula was overcome in a 2-0 victory, with Dimitar Ivankov getting on the scoresheet against his former club. In circumstances befitting the absurdity of Bursaspor challenging for the title, the goalkeeper was first choice penalty taker, notching as many in the season as key striker Sercan.

Owing to the expulsion of Ankaraspor from the Süper Lig for fraud, the penultimate game was also awarded by default to Bursaspor. It meant that going into the final day they still had a mathematical chance of the title – but the odds weren’t great. Faced with the difficult visit of Beşiktaş, Bursaspor were also reliant on results elsewhere, with Trabzonspor needing to prevent Fenerbahçe winning in their own stadium.

Things started badly as Dani Güiza put Fener ahead after 14 minutes, although with it still 0-0 in Bursa, this was irrelevant. Firstly, the Green Crocodiles had to score. Just after the half-hour mark, Beşiktaş keeper Rüştü Reçber went on a bizarre charge out of his goal. Batalla took full advantage, finishing high into the open net. Shortly after, Burak Yılmaz levelled proceedings in Istanbul to facilitate the perfect scenario. As it stood, Bursaspor were champions.

A phrase that seems incomprehensible, it got real when İbrahim Toraman put through his own net to make it 2-0 to Bursaspor. For the impossible to become reality, however, Trabzonspor had to hang on at Fenerbahçe. Uğur İnceman got a goal back with four minutes left to play, and then in a moment that would define the season, Beşiktaş equalised.

It was announced to the Fenerbahçe crowd, triggering wild celebrations among fans and an easing off from their players. Fans descended onto the pitch upon the final whistle, eager to join in with the title-winning pandemonium. Some went directly to congratulate the players, whilst others chose to perform the crocodile walk”in a blatant mocking of Bursaspor. 

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All was not as it seemed, though. Somehow the PA announcer at the Şükrü Saracoğlu had got wind of a Beşiktaş equaliser, although no such thing had occurred. In reality it had finished 2-1, and Bursaspor were in fact champions. So incensed were Fenerbahçe supporters, in retaliation they set the stadium alight and ripped out areas of seating. The players had to be escorted out of the stadium under police protection, while a water cannon was required to disperse angry crowds.

Across the Sea of Marmara, however, were scenes few ever expected. For the first time in over a quarter of a decade, the Süper Lig trophy was to leave Istanbul and make the two-hour ferry journey south to Bursa. To put this achievement into perspective, Bursaspor’s budget was less than a tenth of the estimated £125m utilised by Galatasaray.

The main factor in overcoming this barrier was Ertuğrul Sağlam, with all players from the squad dedicating their success to the man in charge. Star striker Sercan was glowing in his praise, telling “His motto was we have nothing to lose and everything to gain”. Captain and all-action defender Ömer Erdogan paid tribute to the humane side of the coach: “He is very understanding. We can share our troubles with him and he tells us his experiences and guides us”.

This collective ethos is something that Ertuğrul carried forward into the following season. Whereas the temptation was arguably there to upgrade the squad, he instead retained the entirety of his miracle workers, the return of Zápotočný to Beşiktaş aside. Former Boca Juniors midfielder Federico Insúa and Fenerbahçe left back Gökçek Vederson were the only big-name additions, as Bursaspor started their title defence well but fell off somewhat to end in third.

The club also failed to make their mark in Europe, with their maiden Champions League campaign proving nothing short of a disaster. The opener with Valencia provided a stark reality check, with the Spaniards leaving Bursa with a 4-0 victory. This was followed by an unlucky 1-0 loss in Glasgow to Rangers and another noble performance in the aforementioned loss at Old Trafford.

Batalla did record some history, however, with his consolation in the 6-1 thrashing at the Mestalla being the first Champions League goal for a club outside of Istanbul. The final game with Rangers brought a first and so far only ever point, with a late Sercan strike salvaging a draw against the Scots. After gradually returning to earth, it is unlikely that solitary draw will ever be added to.

Ertuğrul left in 2013, becoming something of a journeyman coach with Eskişehirspor, Yeni Malatyaspor and Iranian outfit Tractor Sazi. The entirety of the squad have also failed to kick on, with Sercan enjoying a fruitless five-year stint with Galatasaray before returning to Bursaspor in 2015. Back home he failed to rediscover his early promise, being released in 2018 at the age of 28. Volkan also failed with his big break at Fenerbahçe and is also a free agent. Meanwhile Ozan, still just 31, finds himself at fourth division Kemerspor.

Today the club they left behind are also looking down rather than up. A worrying campaign last year ended just six points from relegation, and another poor start sees them once more flirting with the drop. The heights of winning the league are long gone, but Bursaspor remain alone as the only club to successfully break the H of Turkish football.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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