With a strike rate of 52 goals in 265 Premier League appearances, former Aston Villa and Man City striker Darius Vassell is probably best remembered for missing the final penalty in England’s shootout loss to Portugal at Euro 2004, which was his last of 22 caps for his country.
Nowadays he is somebody who is likely to come up when reminiscing on the Premier League at the turn of the millennium but Vassell is one of the few English players that actually took a chance and explored options further afield in his playing career, as when he left Man City in 2009 he turned a few heads by heading for Turkey.
This is because it wasn’t Galatasaray, Fenerbache, or Besitkas he was signing for like many players who played in England have done, but Ankaragücü, a club he had never heard of before. Vassell has a book coming out which has had an expert featured in The Guardian, an in it we learn just how bizarre his arrival in Ankara was.
The club he was signing for didn’t even have an official website, but word got out to the fans that he was arriving to play for them, and he was welcomed like a global superstar.
My agent came to me with the option of joining a club in Turkey. He said that a Süper Lig club called Ankaraspor were interested in me. I asked if he was sure it was them and he corrected himself and said it was actually Ankaragücü who wanted me. They were even more obscure!
Their club website didn’t seem to be official and I felt I must have been looking at the wrong page, but no matter how much I searched for something else, it was their site all right. I got my head around everything and decided that it was worth flying out to meet them and take a look.
I travelled on 1 July, 2009, but I simply wasn’t ready for the welcome I received at Ankara Esenboğa Airport. There were thousands of supporters there to greet me, with flags, shirts and they made such a noise; I was totally taken aback, I’d never experienced anything like this before. There were people holding up welcome banners, flares were set off and every television camera available seemed to be pointed at me.
I must have looked like a rabbit in headlights when I walked out of the airport doors and in to the madness. People were bouncing up and down, chanting “Dar-ee-us Varr-sell, Dar-ee-us Varr-sell, Olé, Olé, Olé!” As I made my way through the crowds, I was given an Ankaragücü club scarf to wear and then another couple of scarves and a shirt was draped over me.
A young woman handed me a blue and yellow bouquet of flowers, the club’s colours, and it soon became a real scrum to get to the waiting cars, with people pushing their way through to get close to me. It was the kind of reception you would have expected for a world leader, someone like Nelson Mandela, or a rock star, not an English footballer visiting a Turkish football club.
We eventually made it to the sanctuary of our cars, although many fans then jumped in to their cars and followed us out of the airport. I said to the agents that this unbelievable reaction seemed very strange to me. I reminded my agent that I wasn’t signing, I was just there to look at the club.
My agent and I had an honest conversation and we both spoke along the same lines about trying to make this work. I returned to Ankara to sign the agreement on 21 July and then there was the most thorough of medical tests I’ve ever been through.
I had my whole body tested, my eyes, even my hair was inspected. I knew my signing was big for them, but it really hit home at this point how serious this was for them. Put it this way, I felt like I was in a film being prepped to go to space.
At that point, Vassell had yet to sign for the club. He was only over to have a look and hold discussions about a move, but clearly the supporters thought the deal was further down the line.
Still, the England international agreed to move and went about trying to adjust to life in a very different culture and environment.
Vassell recalls a moment before a big game where the team pulled over on the way to a match to sacrifice a goat for good luck, something that had a lasting impact on the bewildered foreigner.
On a previous visit, the Ankaragücü players were warned by locals at their hotel door that there would be trouble if they won; they had even had bottles of piss thrown at them when they’d come out on to the pitch, but Barbaros [Vassell’s teammate] had just told me to ignore any intimidation. I was a little nervous and wary of it all to say the least.
If I thought that was different, it was nothing compared to a home game later in the season. We travelled to the ground on the team coach and stopped outside our stadium for a goat to be sacrificed before the game. It was just the staff and players around. I felt like the goat looked at me just before and as I’d said at the time, via my blog, it was the point in time when I realised that I was most definitely an animal lover.
I know I’m being dramatic but I’ve seen a lot from the seat of a coach during the years but this was certainly new. Some players then smeared the blood on their boots and head for good luck. I didn’t want to disrespect them at all, as it was part of their culture so I just watched. I wasn’t asked to join in but the players made sure I was ok after, which was very respectful and not needed. They had no idea that my family back home in Jamaica would find this quite normal too. I changed iPod album from Tupac to Bob Marley, and got myself ready.
You’d feel bad for Vassell, as it sounds very much like is agent talked him in to a move that had not been fully thought through. He played one season in Turkey, scoring four goals in 22 games before returning to join Leicester City, where we can only hope no animals were sacrificed for the benefit of the team.
Vassell’s career should make for an interesting read, and before its release you can read more about the striker’s time in Turkey over on The Guardian.