Ömer Riza on his one Arsenal game, ‘wasted’ time at West Ham & more

From playing for Arsenal to playing abroad, being banned from football and managing a club facing a winding-up order, Ömer Riza has got one hell of a story to tell.

Most footballers’ careers are littered with regrets, but Riza suffered more setbacks and disappointments than most during his.

Devastated at being let go by his beloved Arsenal, he failed to make a first-team appearance for his next club, West Ham United, was banned from football for a year following a contractual dispute with his club in Turkey, and later managed Leyton Orient during arguably the most tumultuous period of their history.

It is all a long way from the Londoner’s early years at Arsenal, a club he joined at the age of nine.

He worked his way through the ranks to appear for the first team in a 2-1 League Cup win at Derby County in October 1998, but Riza left Highbury without ever adding to that one appearance, frustrated that players he thought of a lesser ability were being given a chance over him.

“I was training well and was top goalscorer in the Premier League-under 19 league and in the reserves,” he says.

“Everything was going well and, on a few occasions, I thought I was going to get the nod for the first team, but it didn’t happen.

“I know Nicolas Anelka, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp were in the first team, but there were also players like Kaba Diawara, Fabian Caballero and Christopher Wreh ahead of me when I don’t think they should have been.”

It was Wreh who Riza replaced in the 90th minute against Derby, a game Arsenal won 2-1.

“I kept looking at the gaffer (Arsene Wenger) the whole game, thinking, ‘When is he going to bring me on?’” Riza says.

“I got my chance, but Pat Rice, who was the assistant manager, told me just to run the ball into the corners as it was nearly full-time and we were winning.

“Someone actually played me in and I had a shot, but their keeper saved it.”

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Riza was later named on the bench for Champions League trips to Panathinaikos and Dynamo Kiev but was not called upon.

He was given the chance to move on loan to Holland, with Den Haag, and took it, thinking it would not do his Arsenal chances any harm.

After scoring four times in 11 games, he returned to Arsenal at the end of the 1998-99 season but was being sent what he thought were mixed messages.

“I was given the impression that I could have another year at Arsenal, if I wanted it,” he says.

“Wenger told me to be ready for the following season, but then I was told there were calls coming in for me from lots of clubs.

“If Arsenal wanted me to stay, why were they telling me about all these calls? I was being told different things, so I was confused.”

Wasted time

Riza received his clarifcation soon enough as Arsenal accepted an offer for him from West Ham.

Frank Lampard senior, who was West Ham’s assistant manager at the time, had spotted Riza in a reserve game, and the young striker decided to make the move, believing it would increase his first-team chances.

“It was difficult because I didn’t want to leave, but I also wanted to prove myself as I had become disillusioned,” Riza says.

“I was chomping at the bit to become a regular at Arsenal and, even after I left, I felt there were players being given an opportunity who didn’t have as much ability as me.”

Unfortunately for Riza, he found his path just as blocked at West Ham as it had been at Arsenal, with talented forwards such as Paolo Di Canio, Paulo Wanchope and Freddie Kanoute all ahead of him in the pecking order.

He mainly played reserve team football, where his regular partner up front was a young Jermain Defoe, and two spells on loan at Barnet and Cambridge United prompted the latter to secure his services ahead of the 2002-2003 campaign.

“I felt like I wasted two-and-a-half years of my career at West Ham,” Riza says.

Time in Turkey

Twenty goals in Riza’s solitary season at the Abbey Stadium attracted the attention of various clubs across Europe, and in 2003 he moved to Denizlispor, a club in the south-eastern part of Turkey.

He is of Turkish-Cypriot parentage, which helped a little when he made the move overseas, and he would go on to enjoy a successful two and a half years.

“I understood bit of Turkish as my nan and granddad spoke it, but I wasn’t fluent and I had to learn the language properly,” Riza says.

“There was warmth towards me because of my roots, but I found out that, if you’re performing well, it doesn’t matter where you have come from.

“The Turkish league was a top league and I found myself playing against top-class players. There was Anelka, who I was with at Arsenal, at Fenerbahçe, and Rigobert Song, who I played with at West Ham, was at Galatasaray.

“It was just a shame that I had to go abroad to prove that I could mix it on the pitch.”

Due to financial problems at Denizlipor, Riza was transferred to Trabzonspor, in the north-east of the country, in the January transfer window of 2006.

He played under managers such as Senol Gunes, Vahid Halihodzic and Sebastiao Lazaroni but had problems when Ersun Yanal, who had managed the Turkish national side, took over.

“I loved every minute at Trabzonspor, but they are a massive club and it was tough trying to get into the team ahead of players who were worth £10million or £15million,” Riza recalls.

“A new board came in and a new manager in Ersun Yanal, and we were not being paid. We started to receive backdated cheques, which I wasn’t having. I also didn’t get on with Yanal.”

Banned from football

What happened next had a dramatic effect on his career.

Riza walked out on Trabzonspor in February 2008, due to not receiving his wages and was banned from football for six months by the Turkish Football Federation.

He returned home but could not sign for a club due to the ban. The subsequent legal wrangling lasted another six months, meaning he didn’t play for more than a year.

“I got through it, but I am convinced that it damaged my career,” Riza says.

“It was mentally very tough going 12 months without playing. I was 30 at the time and should have been at my peak and probably playing in the Championship and retiring now, at 38.”

In February 2009, he was signed by League Two side Shrewsbury Town but could not play until two months’ later when, after his legal representatives submitted a case to FIFA, a Swiss judge overturned the TFF decision.

However, Riza struggled to find his feet in Shropshire and went on to sign for a number of non-league teams, including Aldershot Town, Histon, Boreham Wood, Chelmsford City and Cheshunt, where he became player-manager.

“Playing at Conference level wore me down to be honest and it became frustrating,” Riza says.

“I ruptured my cruciate playing for Arsenal’s masters team and Cheshunt wanted me to take a pay cut, which I wouldn’t accept, so they got rid of me.”

Orient turmoil

His biggest management challenge was still to come, however.

Riza’s friend, Danny Webb, asked him to train Leyton Orient’s under-16s’ side, and he progressed to become professional development phase lead coach and under-18s manager, before being appointed assistant manager to Webb.

And then, after Webb resigned in March last year, Riza took over a team on the brink of relegation to the National League.

Orient, under the ownership of the controversial Italian Francesco Becchetti, had gone through eight permanent managers in three seasons prior to Riza’s appointment.

The club also faced a winding-up hearing against Becchetti for unpaid taxes.

“It was certainly a chaotic time,” Riza says. “I had seven games until the end of the season and did the best that I could.

“The day I took over the players had not been paid, which caused a problem as a lot of them were at the end of their tether.

“I told them what had happened to me in Turkey and I was trying to keep everyone together.

“Having said that, a lot of people were using what was going on to get themselves out of every little predicament. Some decisions were being made about players or staff and it wasn’t always down to the owner.

“I am not going to defend him, though, because he destroyed the club.”

The east Londoners were relegated and Riza was not kept on after his contract expired.

He applied for the academy manager’s position, but said he did not even receive a phone call about it.

“I still go to Brisbane Road to watch Orient with my son, who is in the youth set-up,” Riza says.

“The fans give me a good welcome, but I wish the club would. Former managers at Orient usually get a ticket and sit in a special section, so it would be nice if that happened to me one day.

“I feel like I have been shunned.”

Future plans

A UEFA A Licence holder, Riza, who lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and three children, is determined to go back into management but is finding it difficult to get back on the ladder.

“I feel it is always the same old managers and coaches who are getting the jobs,” he says.

“I have done all my coaching qualifications through the English FA and just want to be given an opportunity because younger coaches can bring new things on board about how the game should be played.”

He had a spell coaching at Arsenal’s academy but left after he claimed the powers that be would were not happy with him looking for full-time positions while fulfilling a part-time role with the Gunners.

“I was punished, but I had no choice but to try and progress my career,” Riza says.

“Maybe one day I can go back to Arsenal – who knows? It has always been the hard way with me, but it’s made me a stronger person.”

By Simon Yaffe

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