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Imagine being told at 16, after almost a decade in a club’s youth set-up, that you were too small to play professional football. Height is not something you can work on, no amount of training will make you taller; cliches about hard graft, clean living and round-the-clock dedication aren’t going to reverse a genetic twist of fate.
That is essentially what happened to Erhun Oztumer at the end of a nine-year spell with Charlton which culminated with his release in 2007. “I started through the School of Excellence and worked my way through to the academy until I was 16, and then you get to a choice where they either offer you a scholarship or not,” Oztumer tells i. “They said ‘no’, so that was quite heartbreaking.
“The main reason was, you know, I am short. They knew I probably wasn’t going to grow any more because my parents are short as well.” Standing at just under 5’3, conventional wisdom suggested Oztumer would be bullied in the midfield by bigger and stronger opponents. “I’ve always know I’ve got the ability. At that age, I probably was getting pushed around a bit,” Oztumer says. At 13 he was taken to a specialist over the possibility of using growth hormones, but was told it was too late for the treatment to be effective. “I knew I wasn’t going to grow anymore, so it was a bit gutting,” he says, before adding with a laugh: “I still wish I could be taller.”
Given Oztumer’s career trajectory over the next few years, few would have guessed he would soon be earning comparisons to Lionel Messi. Where Messi successfully received growth hormone treatment as a youngster and went on to tear a fleet-footed swathe through La Masia, Oztumer slogged through a season with Fisher Athletic before spending several years in Turkey with Manisaspor, Sivasspor and lower-league Anadolu Uskudar. Coming from Turkish heritage but having grown up in south-east London, the move overseas was a culture shock.
Offered the opportunity by a coach who was friends with his dad, Oztumer took an enormous leap while still at an awkward age as a teenager. “At first I wasn’t too keen on it, but I’d been on so many trials in England,” he says. “Some of them I did good in, but it was the same reason [for rejection] in that I was too small. Some of them, obviously you only get a day or two to show your talent and I didn’t show it at the time.
“I think it was about four or five months of trials, and [moving to Turkey] was the only option I had really. So I went out there at the age of 16, didn’t really speak the language – I speak mainly Turkish with my mum, but it still weren’t great – so there was a language barrier out there, the food was very different and I’d say the coaching methods were probably five or 10 years behind. The facilities weren’t great, but it was a chance for me to get back on the ladder. It was an experience – I wouldn’t say that it was good or bad – but it was an experience I had to go through to get where I am today.”
Oztumer played reserve football at Manisaspor and Sivasspor, earning a reputation as a nifty No 10 though still held back somewhat by his small stature. Having failed to make his breakthrough into first-team football, he moved on to Anadolu Uskudar where he made 35 senior appearances and scored five goals. Then his career took another unusual turn, winding its way back to England. Oztumer joined non-league Dulwich Hamlet, who at this time were still competing in the Ryman League South.
“I came back and I just felt like, you know: ‘This is my last chance, I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got.’ The coaches at Dulwich Hamlet had played professionally and it was like a professional atmosphere, obviously just without the facilities – sometimes we didn’t have cones and stuff, that’s how bad it was. It was an opportunity though, I took it and it was a great two years I had there. We won the league the first season, I think I scored 28 goals and it got my name out there really. Many clubs started asking whether I could do it at the next level up.”
After two seasons at Champion Hill, Oztumer had scored 61 times from the midfield and started to show the livewire dynamism which has since propelled him up the league pyramid. With his tight close control, low centre of gravity and penchant for spectacular lobs, chips, dinks and free-kicks, he earned the nickname ‘the non-league Messi’ from Hamlet fans and it has stuck in one form or another ever since. Likewise, with his burgeoning set of skills, he was always likely to catch the eye of scouts and clubs higher up. “It was such a privilege to watch Erhun at Dulwich and he’s honestly one of the most exciting players I’ve ever seen in the flesh,” says Hugo Greenhalgh, one half of the Forward The Hamlet podcast.
“You always knew he was destined to play at a higher level and we were lucky to hold onto him for as long as we did. I’ll always remember chatting to him in our clubhouse after his final game for the club and him saying: ‘Dulwich Hamlet will always be in my heart.’ He got what it meant to play for Dulwich and he’s never forgotten his time there, nor have we.”
“Dulwich Hamlet is the reason I’m a professional today, so I’m really grateful to the coaches and the club,” says Oztumer. “I’ve been to a few games [since I left], and the fans – ” He leaves the sentence hanging, but there is deep affection in his voice. “I think for my first game there was only about 60 fans there. By the time I left I think we were averaging about 1,500. It’s a great club.”
Oztumer has come a long way since then, even if he still remembers his time at Dulwich Hamlet with great fondness. Now 27, hair cropped much shorter but still sporting his trademark beard, he speaks softly about his ascent to the Championship as we sit in one of the side rooms at the University of Bolton Stadium. Compared to his life in non-league – training twice a week, scraping by on limited wages, helped out financially by his parents – life as a professional footballer must feel especially surreal. Oztumer was not too small to make it, as it turns out, and having moved to Bolton Wanderers from Walsall in the summer is now acclimatising to the rigorous demands of the second tier.
Oztumer is used to leapfrogging up the leagues and adapting to football at a higher level. When he left Dulwich Hamlet in 2014, it was for Peterborough United in League One. Asked what struck him as the biggest difference between non-league level and the Football League, he says: “I think the main thing was the tempo, the tempo of the game. It was much quicker. You’re playing against better players but you’re playing with better players as well, so that makes it easier in a sense.
“I came and I knew my ability was good enough, it was just proving it and getting used to the league,” he says. Having picked up an injury in his first pre-season with Peterborough, Oztumer had to overcome an early scare in his professional career. “That set me back a few months, so the first year was kind of a waste,” he admits. “In the second year I kicked on and did well. It took time, but it was a learning curve.”
With six goals in 35 appearances over the course of his second and final campaign with the Posh, Oztumer earned himself a move to Walsall. That resulted in one of the most impressive spells of his career to date as Oztumer scored 30 goals in League One over the next two seasons. With fans now calling him ‘the Turkish Messi’, an upgrade on his non-league moniker, he established himself as one of the most impressive players in the third division. He doesn’t put too much store in his nickname, however. “There’s no comparison,” he laughs. “I enjoy watching Messi, I think he’s the best player in the world. It’s a great nickname, but there’s nothing to it.”
Oztumer has been welcomed with open arms at Bolton, where the club staff already call him ‘Ozzy’. One of 17 new players to join the club in the summer, he is not the only one finding his feet. Having made six appearances so far – scoring on his debut against Leeds in the League Cup – he has made a good start at the club even if he feels there is plenty of room for improvement. “I’m working hard, just trying to get more game time,” he says. “I need to prove myself in this league and in this squad as well.”
Despite his initial rejections and being told he would struggle to play professionally, Oztumer is not embittered by his experiences as a youngster. “When I was in non-league, it was all I thought about. My aim was just to prove people wrong at that time. After playing in League One for four years, when I knew I had the ability to step up, I was playing for myself. I knew that I was good enough, the gaffer here has given me an opportunity, so I don’t really think about what’s happened in the past. I’m just looking in the future now, trying to improve and bet on myself.”
Given his remarkable career path and the circuitous route he had to take to get to where he is now, what advice would Oztumer give to another player trying to make a breakthrough like his? “Get your name out there,” he says, his voice uncommonly serious. “Lots of players get released at 16 or 18 from professional clubs, Premier League clubs, and they can’t find new clubs because they haven’t played men’s football.
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