Billy Mehmet: From breaking my back at West Ham to facing a mob in Turkey

Billy Mehmet has faced a baying mob at Galatasaray, was turned down by a club in New Zealand after he travelled to the other side of the world for a trial and has spent the past four years playing in a league which is not recognised by FIFA – and the former West Ham youngster would not have it any other way.

Having spent the past decade away from British shores in countries as diverse as Turkey, Australia and Malaysia, it is a long way from Mehmet’s early years at West Ham’s famed academy, where his contemporaries included Anton Ferdinand and Glen Johnson.

A broken back suffered during a youth-team game put paid to his Premier League ambitions with the Hammers, but that injury set in motion a long career filled with trials and tribulations.

“The opportunities I had at West Ham disappeared, but I have experienced so many different places, which I look back on and really do appreciate,” Mehmet says.

Now 36, Mehmet is currently plying his trade with Merit Alsancak Yesilova, in Northern Cyprus. But he has not played competitive football for seven months, as the state’s top division, the Super Ligi, has still not been resumed, having been postponed in September due to coronavirus.

To add to the childhood Manchester United supporter’s frustrations, he has not seen his London-based family for a long while.

“We had a pre-season and a training camp, but then we suddenly got sent home from the hotel. Since then, I’ve had lots of calls from Scotland and Turkey regarding signing me, but it is difficult to get out of my contract,” he says.

“It is frustrating because I have played football my whole life, and it has also been very hard not seeing my family, waking up every morning to do the same routine.”

Mehmet, who lives in the city of Kyrenia, was raised in London, the son of an English mother of Irish descent and a Turkish-Cypriot father. Snapped up by West Ham’s academy when he was eight, the striker spent more than a decade there, progressing through the ranks.

But by the time he was invited to first-team training under then-manager Harry Redknapp, he knew he faced a fierce battle to establish himself, with such names as Paolo Di Canio, Jermain Defoe and Frederic Kanoute well ahead of him in the pecking order.

“I did play a few pre-season games and in a few testimonials, and it was great being a kid at West Ham,” Mehmet says. “I felt so much pressure when I trained with the first-team boys, simply because I didn’t want to muck up their training exercises.

“The good thing was, though, that they always encouraged us youngsters. I loved Harry, too – I remember once, I was injured and he came into the physios’ room, chucked me his keys and told me to go and clean his car.

“If he told you to do something, then you did it – and you understood why afterwards. It was a great learning curve for us because these days, the youngsters don’t have to do anything around the training ground.”

Disaster struck, however, during an Under-19s game against Everton.

“I went up for a header and I landed head first. I’d ended up going over the other player and then he landed on top of me.

“I actually carried on playing for five minutes, not realising I had broken anything before I felt a massive surge of pain, which was when I knew something was really not right.”

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Mehmet spent a year out of the game, during which time Redknapp was sacked by West Ham. Once he had returned to training, he did not get a chance under Redknapp’s successor Glenn Roeder. Months later, he was released by the club.

“I was devastated,” he says. “I am not one to live with regrets, but I do wish I had never broken my back. It is something I think about a lot.”

He was snapped up by Scottish side Dunfermline – despite “not having a clue where it was” – before dropping down a division to play for St Mirren.

With The Buddies, he enjoyed the happiest time of his career, helping them gain promotion to the Scottish Premier League and becoming their top goalscorer in three successive seasons, as well as appearing in a League Cup final against Rangers.

“Soon after I joined St Mirren, I caught the mumps, so I didn’t play for a long time. I ended up looking like a character from Bo’ Selecta!

“Some clubs don’t stick by you, but they did and I had a real connection with the club and the fans. Scottish people are great and I get on really well with them.”

After spending five years in Scotland, and with Turkish scouts watching him, Mehmet knew that it was time to make the step up.

Mehmet signed for Genclerbirligi in 2010, in the Turkish capital Ankara, where he thrived under manager Thomas Doll, the former Germany forward.

“It was brilliant to train under him,” Mehmet says. “It wasn’t too much of a culture shock, either, because of my dad’s background, and Michael Stewart, Mile Jedinak and Shane Smeltz were also in the squad, so I could speak English with them.”

He also had the opportunity to play against Turkey’s big three in Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas, including when Genclerbirligi met Galatasaray in one of the final games at the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, in 2011.

“We actually won 2-0 and it went crazy,” Mehmet says. “The Galatasaray fans were ripping out the seats and throwing everything on to the pitch – I didn’t know what was going on.

“The supporters in Scotland are brilliant, but football is life and death in Turkey.”

After a season in Ankara, he dropped down a division to join Samsunspor, whom he helped to promotion under future Lazio and Switzerland national team manager Vladimir Petkovic, but a wage dispute saw him head Down Under.

He took part in a trial fixture with Wellington Phoenix, but jetlag meant he put in a sub-par performance, which put him in the firing line of manager Ricki Herbert.

“He never even talked to me, but I later found out he had been saying bad things about me behind my back. If he had come up to me and been honest – because I know I wasn’t great in that game – then fine. It is about respect.”

He soon linked up with fellow A-League side Perth Glory – and promptly scored a sweet winner against Wellington.

“I ran past the bench and screamed at Herbert. To be fair, he apologised to me after the game.”

Mehmet’s nomadic travails continued after he departed Perth at the beginning of January 2013. Short spells followed with Bangkok Glass, Indian club Dempo, Malaysians Kedah and Sarawak, Tampines Rovers in Singapore, and a three-month stay with Brunei DPMM.

He returned to his paternal roots in Northern Cyprus in the summer of 2017, despite having the chance to re-join St Mirren.

“An agent contacted my brother about Merit Alsancak Yesilova, who I knew nothing about. Lomana LuaLua was there at the time, so I thought they couldn’t be a bad team, plus my dad was buzzing because I signed for a club in Northern Cyprus.

“It felt like I was giving a little something back to my family.”

Northern Cyprus is a member of CONIFA, the international governing body for football teams not associated with FIFA.

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Mehmet received a call up to the national side three years ago when he took part in the CONIFA World Football Cup, scoring on his debut against Karpatalja, an administrative region in Ukraine.

He scored four goals as Northern Cyprus finished runners-up after Karpatalja beat them via a penalty shoot-out.

As Mehmet reaches the tail-end of an eventful career, he is helping to develop the next generation of footballers with his Ballers Academy.

Co-founded with his brother, Jamie, and based in south-east London, the award-winning academy has already produced the likes of Watford defender Jeremy Ngakia, Arsenal’s Joseph Oluwu and Abraham Odoh, who plays for Rochdale.

“There is so much talent in that area, so if we can bring through more, that will be brilliant.

“Football is – and has always been – my passion, so it is about me giving something back to the game.”

By Simon Yaffe

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