As a Rovers fan who experienced the rise under Jack Walker’s ownership culminating in the title win in 1995, it would be easy to pick Alan Shearer, however, I don’t think I fully appreciated how good he was at the time.
When I was a Rovers supporter as a child I had only known, and remembered, David Speedie, Mike Newell, and Alan Shearer – I just thought that was the standard for strikers; I now know it isn’t.
My hero, who I was fortunate enough to meet, has to be Tugay.
The Turk was signed from Glasgow Rangers by Graeme Souness in 2001 as Rovers prepared for their return to the Premier League. Aged 31, he went on to play 270 games for Rovers, scoring 13 goals – 90% of which were absolute screamers.
I remember when we signed Tugay there was some controversy/unrest as Rovers had brought in Eyal Berkovic on loan from Celtic to help Rovers get over the promotion line, and he’d made a decent contribution, but I recall we weren’t willing to pay what Celtic wanted for him. Instead Souness looked across the city of Glasgow to Rangers and signed Tugay for £1.3m (Berkovic went to Manchester City for £1.5m).
I wasn’t sure how he would fit or work in to our system, especially under Souness, as he had never had pace and the Premier League was at the time becoming the fast paced league it is now, but was also still very physical – Tugay stood at 5 foot 9 inches, and we played a traditional 4-4-2 system. Even without the protection of a defensive midfielder or an extra man in a midfield 5, you never noticed his lack of height or pace, but when he picked up the ball, he lit up the pitch. Tugay was the gold standard of not needing lightning pace to have an impact upon a game.
Tugay was a Rolls Royce of a player. I was lucky enough to see him spend 8 years at Ewood. He made beating a man with the drop of the shoulder and either pinging a 70-yard cross-field ball on to someone’s boot or slotting a ball between to defenders look effortless. If you want a perfect example of his class, search for the game against Liverpool on Boxing Day 2006 at Ewood: a 36-year-old Tugay picks up the ball about 30 yards out from goal towards the centre of the pitch with a 26-year-old Steven Gerrard approaching to close him down; Tugay drops a shoulder and two step-overs later Gerrard has gone one way and the Turkish maestro is passed him, and as he next squares up to Sami Hyypia, Pedersen out wide on the left is only just coming in to view, but Tugay knows exactly where the ball needs to go – between Steve Finnan and Daniel Agger knowing that Nonda will leave it for Pederson to run on to and play the final ball for McCarthy to slot home. It’s one of my favourite Rovers goals and demonstrates Tugay’s brilliant ability with the ball at his feet and his footballing brain to beat a man and then play the killer ball.
I used to watch Tugay during the pre-game warm-up and as the other players jogged down the tunnel he would stand in the six-yard box and caress balls into a bag next to the tunnel, immaculate control and technique.
What contributed to Tugay being my hero even more was that he did it when I was at university. Sharing a house with two Manchester United fans (both from Reading, obviously) and a Sunderland fan, whilst studying in Sunderland, to have a player like Tugay to look forward to watching on Match of the Day every Saturday, knowing he’d be oozing class made me proud to say I was a Rovers fan. He contributed to so many wins and was up for goal of the month numerous times throughout the years – living in a house with fans of other teams would have been unbearable if we hadn’t been winning.
During his playing time at Ewood, Tugay was loved by the fans for his quality on the pitch and also his rapport with the fans off the pitch. The stories of him sneaking a smoke in before games and at half-time only add to his legendary status. There aren’t many players who will leave the pitch at Ewood Park to over 25,000 people wearing a mask of their face.
Whilst manager of Rovers, Mark Hughes summed up Tugay’s brilliance in a quote when asked if he wished Tugay was 10 years younger, his response was: “no, because if he was, he’d be playing in a Barcelona shirt”.
Tugay scored 13 goals for Rovers and there is a great video on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51Gu7eq5A1E) which has ranked a Top 10 of these – all of them from outside of the box. Any youngsters wanting to improve their game can learn a lot from each of the ten: Tugay’s ability to strike a ball differently but perfectly for each scenario; his ability to let the ball do the work; and the deception and trickery he causes with the ball at his feet to create more time and space. You will struggle to find a better 10 goals from another player.
Tugay, our Turkish Delight. Thanks for reading.