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FeatureTerim In The Toon

What if Fatih Terim took control of the St. James' Park, as Sir Bobby Robson recommended to Newcastle United after Euro 2008?

*Published in May 2015 issue.

Having been lucky enough to be granted an audience with Fatih Terim at Florya in May 2013, on the day of Galatasaray’s final game of the season against Trabzonspor, there were a number of things that struck me about him. His commitment to positivity and his confidence stayed with me, along with his thorough and imaginative preparation techniques.

What was less expected was his trust in delegating tasks to others. When one thinks about men who are obsessional about the game, who breathe it out of every pore and sinew, one assumes that they think that the only way of not leaving anything to chance is by doing everything themselves.

Terim’s not like that. The staff he had around him during that last spell at Galatasaray – Ümit Davala, Hasan Şaş, Taffarel – were his most trusted deputies, handpicked stalwarts of the 2000 UEFA Cup-winning side. They were people he knew he could trust, which is why he never called a team camp before a home game in 1999-2000, as he told me in our interview. Instead, players and staff met 90 minutes before the game at Ali Sami Yen. “They knew me,” he said. “And I knew who they were.”

Galatasaray - Trabzonspor Türkiye Spor Toto Süper Lig
Terim celebrating 2012-13 Turkish League championship during his last spell at Galatasaray with his coaching staff – Hasan Şaş, Ümit Davala and Claudio Taffarel. | Photo: Depo Photos

So Terim has never been an island, despite his extraordinary faith in his convictions. Even his playing career had been a collaborative process, with Don Howe and then (more permanently) Malcolm Allison moving Terim back from an attacking midfield position into the libero role, where he would also star for Turkey’s national side.

It is in these English roots to his career, as he presented them on that sunny afternoon, that we arrive at the basis for this story. Terim is a listener as well as a talker, frequently asking your own interpretation of events, but was only taken aback at one point in our conversation – when asked about the tale that Sir Bobby Robson recommended him for the Newcastle United job that had once been his.

It had clearly never reached Terim’s ears as a rumour, let alone a concrete proposition. Or, if it had, the poker face he employed in reacting to it could have made him a king in Las Vegas as well as in Istanbul.

The following account, therefore, is a fictional one. What would it have been like had Terim – as Sir Bobby had recommended – taken over as Newcastle head coach following Euro 2008? You wouldn’t have bet too much of your own money on it being for a long time. The north-east giants provide passion in spades, but are notoriously combustible. Needless to say, it would have been wonderful. And Terim would have loved it while it lasted.

On the sunny August morning that Fatih Terim arrived to take command of Newcastle United for the first time, he didn’t arrive. At least, not immediately. As he drove down the Whitley Road section of the A191 into Benton, he missed the turning for the club’s Darsley Park training complex.

Terim stepped out of his BMW, the courtesy car granted him by the club. “No, Mr Terim – it’s next door,” said the man in the Barbour jacket behind the lawnmower, pointing over the hedges. Like hundreds of visitors before – coaches, players and journalists alike – Terim had mistakenly pulled into Blue Flames, the community sports club next door. Even a man known as Imparator in his home country was never going to avoid this booby trap.

When he pulled up for the second time, he knew he was in the right place, because he was greeted by a friendly face. “Good morning Mister,” Terim said as he got out of his car. “I should be saying that to you!” the tracksuited figure grinned back to him.

Terim was glad Arthur Cox had stayed at the club. He had known him for over 30 years, ever since the now-68-year-old had assisted Malcolm Allison at Galatasaray when he was a player there. Cox had been the steady counterpoint to Allison in Istanbul, bringing calm to the club at moments when it seemed like Big Mal was driving president Selahattin Beyazit to distraction.

Cox had been close to Terim’s predecessor Kevin Keegan, having first brought him to St James’s Park as a player when he himself was the manager back in the 1980s. Keegan later had the senior man as his assistant when occupying management posts – he had unsuccessfully tried to persuade the FA to allow Cox to join his coaching staff when he was England boss – and lured him out of retirement to aid him again in his second spell at Newcastle, when he arrived in January 2008.

St. James' Park

When Keegan left again in July, after a dispute over transfer policy with owner Mike Ashley, it seemed like Cox would follow, settling back into life on the sidelines. Terim persuaded him to stay in a lengthy phonecall – before he had formally signed his contract to take over at St James’s, in fact – and hung up with some relief when the response was positive.

Terim needed men around him that he could trust, but Cox was more than that. He was directly connected to Newcastle’s lineage, not just as a former manager but as someone who really felt the game behind that composed exterior. In his spell in charge of the club, Cox had brought Peter Beardsley and a young Chris Waddle into the team, as well as Keegan. He knew what really fired passions in the city’s supporters – and he stayed because he knew Terim was on the same page, and that he could give them what they wanted.

It was exactly the same thought process that Sir Bobby Robson had followed when he put forward Terim’s name for the job through an intermediary. Ashley was not easy to persuade, having come so far in the sports retail business through following his instincts and simply ignoring dissenting voices, but the euphoria that had greeted Keegan’s second coming told him he needed to pull a rabbit out of the hat to appease the locals – and to preserve his own popularity, built with a common touch that saw him drinking pints with fans at away matches, dressed in a replica shirt.

Ashley told his people to set up a meeting, and Terim impressed him. The Turkish man’s charisma filled the vast room when they met over lunch at the imposing Dorchester Hotel, on London’s Park Lane. As for the coach, he knew what he was facing. His fresh status as a Euro 2008 semi-finalist with Turkey would mean little to Ashley, who had a nose for value but was hardly a refined connoisseur of the game. This was, of course, exactly why he had opted to bring in the layered football management structure, including former Chelsea midfielder Dennis Wise as executive director, that so put Keegan’s nose out of joint.

The meeting had not been an interview – the interest was already past that stage on both sides – but was a mutual opportunity to find the most practical way ahead. Terim immediately got Wise onside, charming a potentially prickly character with a wry reference to his only international goal, a scrambled winner for England in a Euro 92 qualifying match against Turkey in Izmir back in 1991. Ideally, Terim would have preferred to have the more urbane Manuel Rui Costa – the centrepiece of his magnificent Fiorentina team – at his disposal, but the Portuguese had accepted the technical director’s job at Benfica the day after his playing retirement in May. Besides, there would be no shifting Wise as far as Ashley was concerned.

Terim knew the owner would be a tricky customer, but he had dealt with worse, he thought. Vittorio Cecchi Gori, the president whose inability to deal frankly with Terim had forced him out of a dream job at Fiorentina, was one. That perspective, and thoughts of Florence were rarely far from Terim’s mind as he settled into his temporary home, a penthouse hotel suite in the Malmaison at Newcastle’s Quayside, overlooking the River Tyne towards Gateshead.

The poor relationship between Terim and then-Fiorentina president Vittorio Cecchi Gori ended the days of Terim in Florence. | Photo: AP Images

The backdrop was different but the passion was similar. When he took early morning strolls along the Tyne to clear his head, dipping into newsagents to buy the daily newspapers which he browsed in an attempt to speed up his progress in English, the locals were forthright – friendly, optimistic and well-wishing, even if their words and their scurrying accents were hard to understand.

Quite simply, the fire for the game burned in so many of their eyes. He could feel that they had been hurt by Keegan’s second exit. It was similar to the residue in Florence when he arrived to begin work, shortly after Gabriel Batistuta had been sold to Roma, to much local anguish. He talked to Cox about it one night over dinner, and his assistant compared it to the occasion in Keegan’s first spell when he was required to placate befuddled fans on the stadium steps after Andy Cole was transferred to Manchester United in January 1995. Batistuta had gone onto lift the Scudetto with Roma in his first season in the capital. At least Keegan wouldn’t be doing something similar, Terim though to himself.

Problems, both political and sporting, were contingent to any job though, and not to be unduly worried about. Gazing down the fixture list, Terim felt an excitement similar to when Turkey arrived in England for Euro 96 bristling down his neck. An opening day visit to Old Trafford to face champions United would be followed by visits to Arsenal and West Ham, and their two historic stadiums, in the first month.

Elsewhere, home games against Bolton, Blackburn and promoted Hull encouraged Terim that he would be able to persuade his new players to fully embrace his trademark, ambitious style from the off. He felt he had the tools to get an effective 4-3-1-2 off the ground fairly quickly.

The initial plan had been to use Damien Duff in the free role behind a pair of strikers, ideally Michael Owen and Obafemi Martins – or Alan Smith. Terim still greatly admired Smith from being part of the Leeds team that Galatasaray met in ultimately tragic circumstances in the run to the 2000 UEFA Cup final, despite his failure to score a league goal during his debut season in the north-east.

Yet a stress fracture of the ankle for Smith, which eventually facilitated an extended layoff, prevented him from getting too involved. Terim was frustrated to lose him, especially with Mark Viduka – an even more important piece of David O’Leary’s Leeds as they continued their progress to reach the Champions League semi-final in 2001 – out with an Achilles injury.

Terim had been enchanted by the energy of O’Leary’s side, and thought something similar would help adapt his own avowedly attacking methods to the Premier League. This plan is what ultimately cost Duff his role in the pecking order, having already been pencilled into the first choice XI.

Having followed Leeds’ progress since that European encounter, Terim had watched the progress of James Milner with interest since he made his debut for the Yorkshire club as a 16-year-old in 2002. Having been pleasantly surprised to discover Milner at close quarters in the early days at Darsley Park, he had been impressed by the winger’s studiousness and athleticism.

Milner, thought Terim, was wasted as a winger. His brain and energy should be running the game, so he tucked him in behind the front two, and gave him licence to run the game. It was the responsibility that Milner had always craved. With the support of Geremi, Nicky Butt and new arrival Jonás Gutierrez behind him, Milner shone on the opening day, a creditable 1-1 draw in a frenetic encounter with United.

The day after the game at Old Trafford, a Monday, there were 14 days to go until the closure of the transfer window. Terim had been pleasantly surprised by the business conducted by Wise and his co-director Tony Jimenez so far. The arrival of central defender Fabrizio Coloccini from Deportivo La Coruña was reassuring, and young Sebastien Bassong looked a shrewd pick-up, coming from Metz. Speculation in the English media had suggested that a few players from Turkey’s successful squad from Switzerland and Austria could arrive, with the names of Mehmet Aurélio and marauding full-back Sabri recurring in the gossip columns.

But Terim had not brought any of his countrymen with him to Florence on his first assignment outside of Turkey, and he was keen to follow suit here. He wanted to stand on his own merits, regardless of nationality, and avoid even the perception of cliques and favouritism.

Besides, he was beginning to form a real bond with some of his players. The improved left-back José Enriqué was a voracious learner from Terim’s personalised video sessions, and the coach was already growing close to Milner, who had been devastated when Sir Bobby left the club in 2004, only months after his arrival.

The midfielder felt a similar sense of authority and experience from Terim, and his doubts over his future at the club had been assuaged by the coach’s arrival. So much so, in fact, that when the club agreed a £12m fee for him with Aston Villa on August 28, he went into Terim’s office at the training ground to tell him.

The coach took the opportunity to reiterate to Milner that he wanted him to stay, before setting up a meeting with Ashley in which he outlined in no uncertain terms that he was not willing to countenance the sale. Ashley and Wise told Terim he would have to do without the new number 9 that was lined up, but the coach could live with that, and the plug was pulled on the move. Terim had always been on his guard since arriving, and this was a reminder that had been right to be so.

It was an allegory for how the season would unfold up to Christmas. The atmosphere at the club was more positive than it had been in a while, with regular crowds of over 50,000 filling the stadium and responding to their team’s upbeat approach, fired by Milner’s fine form. Terim earned significant credit with a dramatic late comeback in the Tyne-Wear derby at Sunderland in October, not only avoiding a first defeat to the old enemy in eight years but grabbing a late winner through Duff, pushed up front as Newcastle ended up with four forwards on the pitch. The images of the coach frantically windmilling his arms on the touchline, exhorting his jubilant players to get back behind the ball, were greeted with loud cheers in the teeming pubs of Percy Street back in the city.

Duff had become more and more useful, although not in the role that Terim had originally intended. Instead, he often ended up replacing Owen when the England striker was unfit. Terim saw something of Arif, who had been so reliable for him at Galatasaray, in Duff – and he felt the mobile Irishman could get him more goals than he had previously managed in his career. Duff felt the same, following up that strike with a sublime free-kick to settle a Carling Cup tie with Liverpool at St James’s and put Newcastle in the quarter-finals.

Damien Duff | Photo: AP Images

Now moved into a sprawling property in the Darras Hall estate in Ponteland – not far from the home of Toon legend Alan Shearer – Terim’s walks alone the Tyne were a thing of the past. When he wrapped in a generous winter coat and scarf for a constitutional around the estate, though, Owen was often in his thoughts. He was out of contract at the end of the campaign and cagey about signing a new one, while Ashley was not especially keen to reprise the high wages bequeathed him by predecessor Freddie Shepherd.

When firing, though, Owen was more than useful and moreover, he gave Newcastle international renown. Projecting forward to next season, this would be important. The team was doing well, absorbing Terim’s ideas and in the top six, but perhaps too much of a work-in-progress to nail Champions League qualification this season, and the squad certainly needed more depth. Owen was the sort of name to put Newcastle back on the map, and make better players consider coming.

It came as a blow, then, when it was leaked to the press that Owen had rejected an extension to his deal in mid-December, between wins over Portsmouth and Tottenham (Owen scored in the former, and Duff hit the winner in the latter). Ashley had offered Owen a restructured deal, matching his current salary of around £110,000 per week. The pill was sweetened with the offer of a £15,000 bonus for each goal scored and a generous signing-on fee, but Owen wasn’t biting, for now at least.

This continued to cast a shadow over the club as they prepared for the Carling Cup semi-final against second-tier Burnley. It was big, and Terim knew it. It was the earliest – and easiest – possible route into Europe, and would crystallise his burgeoning status in the eyes of the fans into something near legend. Newcastle, after all, had won nothing since the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1969.

Owen Coyle’s side were a dangerous but, in many ways, ideal opponent. Riding high in the Championship, Burnley played on the front foot, so would leave space behind – so Terim went with a 4-3-3 shape for the first leg at home, using Duff wide on the left, Owen in the middle and springing a surprise by picking teenager Kazenga Lua Lua on the left. It worked perfectly, with Duff scoring twice and his fellow forward one apiece, sweeping Newcastle to a 4-0 win. The second leg was negotiated with control, with Joey Barton coming into midfield and closing out a goalless return leg to progress to a Wembley meeting with Manchester United in February.

Already, though, Terim was experiencing déjà vu. In addition to the Owen situation – Terim strongly suspected Ashley’s camp of leaking the player’s rejection of the initial offer in an attempt to force his hand – it had been a disappointing winter window. There was still the sense that Newcastle needed more firepower, and they missed out on the chance to sign Emile Heskey just before deadline, when Ashley refused to pay £3.5m for a player moving into the last six months of his contract. Villa snapped him up instead. Kevin Nolan arrived from Bolton, but Terim wondered how he would fit him into the midfield with Milner, given that Nolan had little pace but the need to play in an advanced role. Wise suggested that Milner should be moved out wide again. Terim chose to leave Nolan on the bench, and began to consider his future.

Cox was doing the same. He wondered if he was becoming peripheral, with Terim already conducting his own dialogue with the fans, both in his improving English in press conferences and interviews and with his expressive football. It was not quite the dizzy heights of Keegan’s first spell – too much ground had been lost in the meantime – but it was better than anything since Sir Bobby.

Terim shared his own doubts with Cox. The executive board were already planning post-Owen, and all of next season’s signings it seemed, without him. He could understand not being the sole decision maker, but he could not accept having no power of attorney. His requests to develop the training centre, meanwhile – creating a movie theatre to prepare intensive analysis sessions with the players, the building of living quarters so he could sleep at the complex – were rebuffed.

Rumours began to surface in the local media that Ashley was planning a coup, sounding out potential replacements for the head coach’s role for next season. Clubs from Germany had already been in touch with Terim’s agent to sound out his availability, although Terim made it very clear he was under contract. The two men made a pact. They would enjoy the final – missing Fiorentina’s Coppa Italia final had hurt – and then re-assess.

There was never any chance that they wouldn’t enjoy it. Terim’s Newcastle, noisily back by the travelling Geordie nation, were their aggressive selves. Full-backs Habib Beye and Enriqué, always so involved in attack, made the most of the wide Wembley pitch. With Owen unavailable, Duff and Martins composed the front line, but they were mainly restricted to counter-attacking opportunities as United pressed hard. Terim, seeing that Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani were bypassing a narrow midfield, moved the indefatigable Milner out wide and introduced the fit-again Viduka as a practical out-ball. Shay Given, steeled by so many previous disappointments at the club, was nevertheless required to produce a man-of-the-match display in goal, which took the final to penalties.

With the cacophony of The Blaydon Races cascading from the stands, Terim gathered his team in a huddle. There was no general’s speech, however. You know what this means, and you know what you have to do. He trusted them, like he tended to do. Players stood up straight, and nerves were kept. Given saved from carlos Tevez and Anderson. When Beye swept home the fourth kick, Newcastle finally had their trophy.

Wembley erupted with black-and-white striped joy. As the players exulted, Terim hugged Cox, shook Sir Alex Ferguson’s hand, and discreetly walked down the tunnel. He sat, gathered his thoughts and changed into the spare short that his wife had ironed for him that morning. He went out to watch his players celebrate, and to wave to those fans that he had formed such a special bond with. The following morning, he called Ashley to tender his resignation. Later that week, his near-neighbour Shearer was appointed to the end of the season.

It was not just Terim’s football that charmed at St James’ Park but his warmth and honesty. Just as he had become a son of Florence during mere months in Tuscany, he was on his way to becoming an adopted Geordie by fans who identified with his immersion in the game. In the press room, his framed picture had already found its place next to long-serving tea lady Kath’s kettle, just as those of Alan Shearer, Jackie Milburn and – of course – Sir Bobby did.

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